Friday, July 27, 2018

Prodigals & Pharisees


I thought it was a great idea for a song lyric: “Prodigals and Pharisees, equal at the foot of the cross”. Last week, I even suggested to a friend, who is a gifted songwriter, that he should compose it.

He gave me the same kind of benignly polite look that I suspect would be on my face, if our places were reversed and hed suggested I write a book based on one of his flashes of insight.

Still, the idea stuck with me. Not being much of a songwriter, it was probably inevitable that it would turn into a blog post instead.

The idea was sparked by one of Jesus’ pithy stories, found in Luke 18:9–14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

The characters were chosen quite deliberately by Jesus. The Pharisees were the super-religious heroes (at least, in their own eyes), and tax collectors clung by their fingernails to the lowest rung on the societal ladder of the day.

The point of Jesus’ parable is exquisitely clear: only those who recognize their spiritual poverty receive God’s mercy. And let’s not lose sight of where Jesus aimed the parable: at those “who were confident of their own self-righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”

The great irony is that both characters were in equal need of God’s grace and mercy. They stood in the same temple, prayed to the same God, yet only one went home “justified.” The other wrapped himself in a cloak of his own making and wandered off without even realizing his desperate situation.

It’s the same today: you don’t need a membership card or initiation rite to be a Pharisee. It’s an attitude, not an organization. And there are multitudes of ‘prodigals’ who have wandered in some way from their faith, and yet later find themselves wanting to reconnect with God (like the tax collector in the parable).

At the foot of the Cross, pharisees and prodigals are on equal footing, with equal need for forgiveness and mercy. Whenever a church meets, it’s really just another gathering of “Sinners Anonymous.” Some may be further along in their understanding and practice of “living by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16–25), but none of us earned it, never did and still don’t deserve it, and daren’t* take it for granted.

*Real word – Google it.

“The Christian does not believe God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” ~ C.S. Lewis

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Post-Charismatic: A Publishing Journey

The saga of Post-Charismatic is a whirlwind tour of the publishing world and the roller-coaster ups-and-downs associated with it.

There was a lot of discussion in this blog’s early days (circa 2004) about a growing exodus of disillusioned believers from Pentecostal and charismatic churches. Many had once viewed their churches as a valuable source of spiritual vitality — but no longer.

Encouraged/egged-on by several blogging friends, I decided to try my hand at unpacking the why’s behind the growing number of self-identified post-charismatics. A bit of background reading and research, dialogue with some fellow Spirit-filled refugees, and then write a blogging mini-series (five, maybe six posts).

Id barely begun my research when I realized
a few blog posts wouldn’t do the topic justice. Instead, what was tentatively billed as the Post-Charismatic Project would be published as a subsection of my blog — an extremely large subsection, as twenty months of research and writing took shape. I jokingly referred to it as “the mother of all research papers.”

Even before its release, several people suggested I look into getting the content published in book form. I did my best to shop the proposal around but received zero response. (Note: possibly because my query letters sucked.)

So I went ahead with my initial plan and designed a website-within-a-blog.

In hindsight, I have no idea what inspired this banner art.
The website went public in early 2006 and word spread quickly around the blogosphere. Brent Toderash from Subversive Influence (who also provided invaluable critiques of the early drafts) created an online forum where readers could interact on the issues raised by the Project. To say the forum was inundated with lively conversation would be a classic understatement. Hundreds of comments spanning multiple threads — with a surprising minimum of trolls.
I had to pinch myself when I first saw this.
The publishing angle took an unexpected turn later that year. An email arrived from jolly olde England, offering to publish the Post-Charismatic Project in book form. At first, I thought it was the digital equivalent of a prank phone call. Just in case, I contacted the publishing house in question and inquired whether or not a certain name was associated with the company.

“You mean our senior acquisitions editor?” the polite British woman asked over the phone. “Id take an email from him very seriously, if I were you.”
And then it hit me. I’ve been discovered. They want to publish the Post-Charismatic Project!

A whirlwind of contract signing and untangling governmental red tape between a Canadian writer and a British publishing house ensued. I quickly found myself knee-deep in the process of editors scouring through my manuscript, suggesting additions, deletions, areas where the material could be tightened up, and so on. It was a fun learning curve.

Eventually, I was treated to the odd sensation which accompanies the first glimpse of the proposed cover art. Initially, I wasn’t a huge fan of either design, to be honest (especially all the question marks), but that’s part of the publication swirl. You don’t have control over what the publisher decides. And they’re the experts, so you need to trust their instincts.

In the end, they chose the second cover design, which was the better of the two in my limited opinion. Except to note that, as a guitarist, the idea of wearing a suit while playing makes my skin crawl (don’t tell B.B. King).
Post-Charismatic? was officially released in the UK on the first day of April, 2008. (April Fool’s Day = publication day ... It’s okay, go ahead and laugh. I did.)

And then another unexpected twist ...

Post-Charismatic? was available in bookstores all over the UK, garnering press attention and positive reviews. Emails and hand-written letters from readers across the Pond started showing up in my digital and analog mailboxes, including one from a university professor who used the book in one of his classes. 

But for reasons unknown, the release on this side of the Atlantic was delayed for over a year. My inbox was flooded with requests from American and Canadian readers who wanted copies, but there was nothing I could do. Their only option was to order a copy through Amazon UK.

As I later learned, an American publishing house had bought out the British company, and their rules for publication were different. Things became clearer when I phoned the American company directly.

Do you have a radio or television presence, Robby? You don’t? Well, are you a known commodity on the conference speaking circuit? I see ... Are you a mega-church pastor? No? Long pause. I guess we’re done here.”

The British publisher seems to believe in my writing.

They don’t know what they’re doing. We downsized them.

In short, their sales department had decided that I didn’t qualify to be published. Since legally-binding documents had been signed, they were contractually obligated to the first print run. But that was as far as they would (grudgingly) go.

Zero promotion. Non-existent publicity. No buzz. Another year passed before Post-Charismatic? was available on Amazon USA.

For a writer, this was understandably frustrating and not a little deflating. The three-year print run came and went, and the muffled thud you may have heard was the apparent end of my writing career.

But after the print run ended, I continued to receive private inquiries about the book’s availability. Self-described fan-boy Luke Geraty, who would later invite me to join the writing team at Think Theology, planted the idea of an ebook version. And I realized I had another option: the wild frontier of self-publishing.

It took almost half a year of wrangling with the American company to obtain an official “author rights reversal” (despite this being clearly delineated in my contract). They also waived their right of first refusal for my next book, because their sales department considered me perpetually unpublishable.

The important piece is this: with an author rights reversal, I regained creative and legal control over my work.

The latest version of Post-Charismatic is a proper second edition: updated, edited (yet again, ruthlessly), complete with the new framing story of a fictional Charismatics Anonymous meeting to introduce and conclude the book.
The learning curve to create both print and ebook formats was steep, but having artistic control of my work was well worth it.

I had no idea how this publishing journey would unfold when I began researching for “a few blog posts” back in 2004. But it’s been a challenging, satisfying, and ultimately empowering education.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Satan Sends an Emoji

In the Olden Days, Satan would phone church people and personally congratulate them when they took on tasks normally reserved for him. “You’re doing one helluva job. Keep up the good work!”

Life is busier and more complicated these days, and so, wanting to keep up with the times and technology, the Devil is now sending diabolically clever emoji’s to signal his approval.

The task at hand, as always, is two-fold:
(A) Demoralize church leaders to the point where they quit.

(B) Failing that, surround said leaders with enough toxicity that they can only survive by building walls of protection around themselves.
For example: in the Olden Days, a well-timed phone call — preferably during Sunday lunch — which interrupts a leader’s family time with a barrage of criticism. Meal-time ruined; leader’s motives, gifts, and passion called into question; spouse & children witness the carnage, which in turn (dis)colors their view of church. Perfect!

The caller hangs up, tingling with a rush of self-righteous adrenaline — “I really gave them a piece of my mind held them accountable.”

And Satan sends an emoji.

For those eager not to miss out on the bandwagon, there are many ways to earn these congratulatory dopamine-enhancers (far more satisfying than a mere “like” or “retweet.”) Here’s a partial list:
  • A Declaration Of Defamation shows up in a leader’s mail slot in the church office, from that most-prolific of all letter-writers: “Anonymous.”
  • The recurring line-up of the usual suspects outside the pastor’s office, eager to grind their Axe of Agenda because the pastor has (in their opinion) somehow failed them God in a recent sermon.
  • The young worship leader — after investing hours and hours in practice, prayer, and rehearsals — is informed that numerous people plan to boycott worship because they don’t like (a) the volume, (b) the drums, (c) the songs, or (d) (fill in pet musical peeve here).
  • Or the equally disemboweling dagger: “You’re not anointed” or “you’re leading from ‘the flesh’ and not from the Spirit” (because these people can discern a worship leader’s heart and motives, just like God can).
  • The prickly email sent from a parishioner with a laundry list of complaints spiritual concerns, speaking “on behalf of a lot of people” (to give their criticism added weight).
  • Those who delight in spreading gossip under the guise of ‘concern’: “You know, a lot of people are saying [blank] about you behind your back—I just thought you should know.”
  • The grumpy person in the lobby—arms crossed, brow furrowed—compelled by All That Is Holy to accuse the leader of being aloof, unapproachable, or “looking defensive” (while remaining blissfully unaware of the irony).
This is only a partial list. With time, effort, and a little creativity, the possibilities and permutations are simply endless. The Enemy appreciates the additional help. Be diligent, and don’t ever take your foot off the gas pedal.

And Satan sends an emoji.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ministry DNA – One Shot

“Whatever you hook em with, you gotta feed em.”

George Mercado taught me many crucial lessons in ministry during our six years together. One of his pithy proverbs that summed up an important ministry value was the above saying.

“Spiritual DNA” — the foundational building blocks of ministry — comprises the all-important first steps in launching a new ministry initiative.

Not exactly earth-shattering news, I’ll admit, nor is it rocket science, but it’s true. We get one chance — one — to set the culture, ethos, values and “vibe” for a new ministry. It’s extremely difficult to change a culture once it’s established. Hence the need to go slow in order to build well.

And by ministry “vibe”, I simply mean that leaders set the example by demonstrating ministry values and practices. “More is caught than taught,” as they say. Leaders can’t direct from behind; we have to lead the way.

Another saying I’ve used in recent years (not as pithy as George’s, but I’m working on it): “It’s too late to build the foundation if you’re already living on the first floor.”

It’s another way to point out that it’s far wiser – however long it may take – to do the painstaking work of building, communicating, and demonstrating the DNA clearly and repeatedly before launching a new ministry initiative.

Georges nugget of wisdom provides a helpful grid for what kind of ministry DNA will infuse the ministry. “Whatever you hook em with, you gotta feed em.”

If we use entertainment to attract people, we’ll reap people who expect to be entertained.

If we call people to a discipling community, well reap people who are attracted to a discipling community

If we cast a shallow vision, we’ll reap shallow people. As noted above, it’s notoriously difficult — if not impossible — to attract people through entertainment and expect they’ll later morph into spiritually mature believers with servant attitudes.

If we call people back to their first love (Revelation 2:1–5), encourage them to use of their spiritual gifts for the good of others (2 Tim. 1:6–7), and call them to Jesus-style serving (John 13:12–17), we’ll reap a faith community that, while not perfect, will at least be heading in the right direction.

We get one shot — one — to instill the DNA that shapes a new ministry for years to come. Once it’s embedded, it’s bedrock, which can either be an encouraging word or a sobering warning.

George’s proverb should give us all pause. “Whatever you hook em with, you gotta feed em."

Monday, January 22, 2018

Creative Writing's a Beach(ball)

Beachballs and creative writing have a lot in common . You can shove a beachball underwater—out of sight, out of mind—but it will inevitably escape its watery dungeon and shatter the waters surface like a breaching humpback whale.

I wish I’d kept my first rejection letter. Among writers, that’s like framing your first earned dollar bill. But no, the letter threw me  into the throes of a teen-aged writer funk. My writing career was over ... why would I keep the letter?

Hey, I was 13 years old. Puberty is notable for a couple of things: (a) myopic self-absorption and (b) less-than-stellar  thinking skills.

The letter was a gem, too: photocopied crooked on a machine low on ink. I suspect the editor’s signature may have been photocopied, as well. A keep-sake if there ever was one—on so many levels. Alas.

I started high school a year later. Despite the Department of Education’s cruel practice of adding Grade 13 to the mind-numbing purgatory known as high school, there were exactly zero—ZERO—classes offered in creative writing. So, after a dubious attempt at one (1) short story in grade nine, my only notable output during five years of high school was a single haiku:

School really bugs me
My freakin’ English teacher
Makes me write haikus

(My teacher laughed out loud and gave me an A.”)

After high school, I enrolled in a Radio, Television, and Journalism (RTJ) program at college, but not for journalism. I went there with a vague idea of emulating WKRP’s Dr. Johnny Fever, and I had a blast as a DJ on our college radio station. The television courses were fascinating; I enjoyed the  technical director role in the production control room.

The creative writing beachball remained incarcerated in Davy Jones locker—I submitted weekly articles to the college paper only because I had to.

Yet despite my lack of interest and work ethic (compared to my radio & television classes), guess where my best marks kept showing up? I felt like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot beachball! Out, I say!”

Fast forward a couple of years, to a different college in a different province. Without planning to, guess who ends up writing an article or two for the college paper? And the following year, becomes the editor?

You’d think the sight of a neon-colored beachball punching its way to the surface—repeatedly—would qualify as a “sign” of some kind. And yet, after graduation, I managed to submerge the beachball again.

Looking back, it’s both fascinating and a little disturbing to realize how much influence my first rejection letter continued to wreak.

Years later,
the beach ball resurfaced with a big splash when I began blogging. Things went well for the first little while—I was even “discovered” and signed a book-publishing contract. Then the marketing department torpedoed my book, and my blogging audience tapered off shortly after.

That was it. Beach ball malevolently spiked by a lawn dart dropped from orbit.

In hindsight, I should’ve recognized the symmetry between my original rejection letter and this latest set-back. But I was again in a writer-blocked funk. I tossed the deflated beachball into a pile of rotting kelp, to be carried away by the cold and heartless tide.

Fast forward to 2012: Another unexpected beachball ambush explodes to the surface, like a saltwater slap in the face. And this time—despite my fears, insecurities, and that nagging voice in the back of my head—I surrendered. And I’ve been writing ever since.

Your gift may not be creative writing. But if there’s a beachball of creativity/passion that you keep squelching because of (fill in blank as needed), take it from me:

Give up. Surrender. Embrace it. Don’t fight the beach ball. It’s relentless and will not be silenced.

And should I ever find that first rejection letter again ... I'll pin it above my writing desk and use it as a dartboard.

Write on.