Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Going, going ....

I'm going on vacation tomorrow to visit my parents and my friend Rebecca and probably Megan and my brother Jim and his family -- I'm going to spend a lot of time in the car with my parents. Someone suggested that there was a time when they had to spend a lot of time in the car with me and my brothers, so maybe it all evens out. Anyway, it's going to be a good time, I think. You might say a prayer for me as I drive a rental car tomorrow -- not just for me on the road but for Bob at home trying to figure out what to do about our car that is making awful noises under the hood. We need reliable transportation.

And I've posted my most recent Notes from the Windowsill column: Badge of Distinction.

And if you're in the mood to read some good stuff, visit Dragons, Knights and Angels for Chris Mikesell's first place story in their fiction contest -- The Fortunate Purgatory of Arthur MacArthur. Trust me, you won't see where this one is going. The runner up and honorable mentions are posted, too.

My blogging will probably be very light for the next week or so. Have a nice holiday.

Blog Tour: Waking Lazarus

Any book that starts out "The first time Jude Allman died he was eight years old," promises a thrill ride. By all accounts, Waking Lazarus, the first novel (but by no means the last) by T.L. Hines is that. And what, you ask, is my take on the book? Well, I'll tell you when I get back from vacation. I have looked forward to reading this book for a long time and meant to have it finished before blog tour time, but I've been short of reading time. I did get to read a sneak preview a while back and I liked it -- a lot. (And I have started the book and I still like it -- a lot. I just want to save my evaluation for when I've finished it.)

But don't just take my word for it. Hop on over to the blog tour site and follow the links for more about Waking Lazarus. And then, while you're at it, check out Tony's excellent blog. And, if you want even more about the novel and Tony's path to publication, visit his very cool experiment in non-traditional book publicity -- The Other Side. He's got lots of goodies there and chances to win prizes.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday news and views

My "Confessions" seem to have struck a chord (and not just with women), which is cool, and a little disconcerting. Jules even put a link to the story at The Master's Artist. I never thought I'd see myself on the page between Bertrand and Snyder. And I got an e-mail this morning from a Christian radio host in North Carolina -- Tami Rumfelt at WBFJ.FM -- who wants to use it in a devotion (with appropriate credit, of course). But I'm not complaining.

Thanks to the aforementioned Tami, I found another blog to read: Dave Burchett's "Confessions of a Bad Christian." I browsed a bit today and I'm adding it to my already long list of places to visit regularly. Burchett's written a couple of books I need to find, too: When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring 'em Back Alive. Both seem to be about the damage we do to each other and look pretty interesting.

I read a good interview yesterday on ChristianMusic.com with Michael Card, The Wounded Worshiper. Excellent and thought-provoking. He makes some good points about sorrow and lamenting in Christian life. I think more and more people are rejecting the mistaken notion that the Christian life is always supposed to be happy and easy. It's not. But it can be joyful. There's a difference.

I'm listening to Jeff Healey, Live at Montreaux 1999. The guy can even break a string (on Roadhouse Blues) and carry on. Very cool.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some encouraging words

David O. Taylor, whose Diary of an Arts Pastor is one of my regular stops on the blogosphere, is posting (in parts) a talk he gave recently about The Art of Encouragement: Part 1 and Part 2. This is really good. I know from my own experience how powerful a few words of encouragement can be. More than 10 years ago, while I was in grad school, I met a professor whose name really should have been Barnabas, because he has the gift of encouragement. His real name is John Neibergall. For one thing, it was so neat to study under a Christian professor, but he was also an excellent teacher. I was in his Newspaper Management class and he gave us an opportunity to write some profiles for a project he was working on with the National Newspaper Association. He made it clear our stories would be held to a high standard and wouldn't be used if they didn't measure up. So I did the interviews and wrote my stories (about a weekly newspaper in Minnesota) and waited to see what Mr. Neibergall would say.

Not only did I get a good grade on the project, but he wanted to use my stories in the Showcase of Excellence (the project with NNA). But what mattered the most to me was what he told me when he returned my stories to me with the good news. He told me he had been a little skeptical about what I could do with the assignment since I had very limited journalism experience -- he had nothing really to go on. But he was very pleased with the job I had done and said he might be interested in hiring me as a graduate assistant at a later time. (I did get to work for him that summer, and later got to edit future issues of the Showcase of Excellence.) I think I floated for several days on that encouragement. It really boosted my confidence in my ability to tackle a writing assignment and produce something worth reading.

My experience with Mr. Neibergall was not unusual -- many of his students can tell similar stories. And I believe his words had a lasting effect on me because it reinforced for me how important encouragement can be. Have you been encouraged by someone? Have you been an encouragement? You may never know what kind of difference it can make in a person's life.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Always read your comments ...

Because sometimes they know something you don't. In the comments from my post about getting paid by DKA, Chris congratulated me on having a story at Infuze, too. I hadn't seen it yet, so I checked and sure enough, a little humorous piece I sent in a few weeks ago was up. Yay! So go read Confessions of a Christian Mom and, I hope, laugh.

Monday, June 19, 2006

"We are one in the Spirit ..."

The body of Christ is a wonderfully diverse entity. I was reminded of this Saturday at a Christian music festival in my town. They called it the Little Festival on the Prairie and it had a very hippie flavor. The organizer is a young man who comes to our church now and the main set of performers is touring together this summer.

But back to Saturday in the park. Clay Center hasn't seen anything like this in -- well maybe ever. The music tended toward folk and rock, but there was country singer and hip-hop act. The performers included a fellow with the longest dreads I've ever seen on a white guy. There was a drum circle. There were long, free-form praise jams. There was an older guy with the tour who reminded a bit of Jerry Garcia.

But what was cool -- at least to me -- was that all the very normal conventional townsfolk listening and all the hippie freaks on stage (and I mean that in a nice way) were brothers and sisters in Christ. We worshiped together, we rejoiced together at the testimonies of lives changed by God's grace, we prayed together for this town. It was beautiful. Little kids and old folks and everyone in between seemed to enjoy it.

It's easy to be suspicious of people who are different, especially when all you rely on are first impressions. You have to spend time with people to see how much you have in common. I hope that two very different groups of people left the park Saturday evening with a sense of their common bond in Christ. I know I did.

Writing news

Something nice happened this weekend that has never happened before: I got paid for a short story. Though I was not a winner in the Dragon, Knights and Angels contest, the editor contacted me the week the winners were announced and said they wanted to use my story. So I said yes and filled out the contract and sent it in and Saturday they returned my copy of the contract with a check -- not a large check, I'll admit, but a check nonetheless. So sometime in the future The Man Who Kept a Dragon in the Basement will appear at Dragons, Knights and Angels. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Are we asking the wrong questions?

Are we asking the wrong questions? Let me back up. Lately my reading and learning has been pointing me toward the idea that I've been going about the Christian walk all wrong. I hear people asking hard questions about faith -- about the Bible and about how God answers (and doesn't answer) prayer, among other questions. And while I feel pretty certain about my faith, I don't have any answers. I'm pretty comfortable with uncertainty -- I don't have to know all the answers or have all the inconsistencies resolved to be confident that God knows what he's doing and I need to just let him be God. Because, after all, where was I when the foundations of the earth were laid? But this approach is also pretty lazy, intellectually and spiritually. And it's not real helpful when talking to people aren't comfortable with uncertainty.

Two things I've been learning in the last few weeks suggest a way of dealing with this dilemma.
Much of what Eugene Peterson is saying in Eat this Book points toward reading God's word formationally. Too much of the time we read for information, or to back up our own pet theological concepts. But Peterson argues that the point of reading the Bible -- and it's been the point of reading the Bible through all the centuries of the church -- is to find out what God is doing and come into alignment with that, instead of trying to get God to line up with what we're doing. So if we read the Bible so we can come into a fuller relationship with God, if we understand the Bible as a coherent narrative, then it should have a profound affect on the kinds of questions we're asking.

The second thing I'm chewing over is a broadcast I watched at church of Larry Crabb teaching about prayer. (Our church subscribes to a service that provides access to a large variety of Christian simulcasts and video presentations. So the members of the women's ministry leadership team decided to watch this session about prayer to see if it was something we wanted to use later.) This was excellent teaching -- some of the best teaching about prayer I've heard in a long time. Dr. Crabb talked about the issues he's struggled with in prayer and shared a bit of his journey to a fuller understanding. His main point (and I'm simplifying here) revolved around the idea that we need to be praying to align ourselves with God, instead of trying to get God to align himself with us. Which is not to say that God doesn't answer prayer, but we must first be in relationship with God.

See a theme developing here? (God doesn't always have to hit me over the head with a brick, but sometimes it helps.) I think that instead of asking why God didn't give me what I want, or why he healed that person but not this other person, or why he acted one way in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament -- instead of always asking God to explain himself -- I need to be asking how I can be more in line with his will, how I can participate in what he's doing in the world.

One of my favorite books is The Left Hand of Darkness -- which I'm sure you'll point out is not a Christian book. Still, it contains a lot of truth. One of the plot points of the book is that practitioners of a certain mystical religion seem able to predict the future with remarkable accuracy. It's an arduous process, though, and not one to be undertaken lightly or for casual reasons. At one point, the narrator points out to one of these practitioners that they have a skill that would be highly desirable -- it could be worth millions to the right people. And the practitioner replies something like "Don't you get it? We've perfected the art of foretelling to prove the utter uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

Sometimes I think we're like that -- we want to know the answers to all the wrong questions, instead of the only one that is answerable -- we can know God.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Nursery songs rock

OK, this is pretty darn hilarious: Mono and ME2. Megan sent me the link. I'll never think of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes the same way again.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tuesday news and views

When I wrote my post about happy endings last night and posted it this morning, I had not yet seen Mark Bertrand's excellent essay at Novel Journey. He talks about some things in The Perpatetic Novel that I've only begun to wrestle with, and I'm not nearly so articulate. This is worth bookmarking and printing out and studying for a long time.

Chris had an exciting Monday. Not only did he get a role in Brandilyn Collins' Kanner Lake blog (to go with her new series of novels), he published another story at Flashing in the Gutters. Good work!

I, on the other hand, did not have an exciting Monday. But in a couple of weeks I'm going to see Rebecca, which will be fun and possibly exciting (or at least as exciting as two middle-aged women hanging out together and talking can be).

Happy endings ... or not

I've been thinking about the issue of happy endings. I have nothing against happy endings -- in fact I'm a sucker for a happy ending. Look at my list of favorite movies and there's nary an ambiguous ending in the lot. (The list includes Tootsie -- I love Jessica Lange asking Dustin Hoffman if she can wear his little yellow outfit ; While You Were Sleeping -- my goodness she's wearing a wedding dress at the end!; The Goodbye Girl -- nothing pluckier than Marsha Mason hugging a guitar in the rain; and About a Boy -- that whole island chains bit gets me every time.)

But I'm comfortable with a fair degree of ambiguity -- especially when it comes to fiction. One of my favorite novels is The Left Hand of Darkness, which has a most bittersweet ending. But it's satisfying all the same. In The Lord of the Rings victory is won, but at a price. The joy at the end is mingled with tears.

Sometimes the stories I write have happy endings. But not all of them. I've written a story recently (it's called April Showers) that has the most downer of an ending I've ever done. It's dark enough that my mother was disappointed in it; my critique buddies have mostly been silent on the subject, which tends to worry me (though, to be fair, it's long enough that they probably haven't had time to mess with it yet). I don't know if it's any good or just a bunch of derivative, depressing dreck.

And if it's really no good, I can deal with that. I know it needs work, which I'm willing to do. I wanted to write a story where everything wasn't wrapped up all pretty at the end. I wanted to let my main character live with the consequences of his actions. I didn't give him an easy out, no miracles or life-changing epiphanies. Maybe I should have left the door open a little wider for hope to shine in. But he doesn't really believe in hope yet, so I don't know where it would have come from. So maybe I accomplished what I set out to do.

When I was a kid in Sunday School, I always knew the answer. And I know the answer now -- at least the ultimate answer. But if I write a character who doesn't yet understand that the answer to the questions he's asking -- can I be forgiven? is there redemption? -- is Jesus, how can I jump in and force the answer into the story? This is a guy who won't be preached to. There has to be some internal consistency; I don't agree with everything he does, but he is who he is and I'm trying to keep my manipulative paws off him.

People (who don't write much) say you can make your characters do what you want them to do, but that's not entirely true. I have these characters I've thought of and I've given them a setting and a certain amount of personal history. Then I turn them loose to interact with each other and respond to incidents and crimes. They have to be consistent with themselves. There's a certain amount of me in there, but hopefully I'm far below the surface and out of sight. So I can't manipulate the story to wrap up in a tidier way.

I intend to write more stories about this character, to give him a chance at redemption. (I'm really not a nihilist. Maybe I'm a little warped, but I'm a pretty nice person overall.) But it has to be at the right time, under the right circumstances so it's believable. It can't be because I've just gotten too uncomfortable with messy endings.

I guess the point I'm meandering around to is that this world is imperfect. If I want to write honest stories, that imperfect world is going to show up. There is hope -- but we live in a state of "already, but not yet." The Word has been spoken, but not all hear it. I believe that the light of God's grace will shine brightly in the darkness, but that means I have to show both dark and light in my stories. I don't do it very well yet.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Which saint am I?

This is how I started out my work week -- taking another wacky quiz. (Thanks Megan) By the way, if you're wondering who Julian is, here's the Wikipedia article.

Which Saint Are You?

You are Julian of Norwich! It's all about God, to you. You're convinced that the world has a happy ending. Everyone else is convinced that you're a closet hippie, but you love them anyway.
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

| Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reading notes -- honest stories

I've been reading a couple of good books this week: Deliver Us from Evelyn, by Chris Well, and Eat This Book, by Eugene Peterson. I know, pretty big contrast there, but I have eclectic tastes.

I enjoyed Evelyn -- it's a pretty snappy story, with some good plot twists. I really enjoy seeing how some of the characters from Forgiving Solomon Long are developing. Chris does a good job of making Charlie Pasch and and Tom Griggs distinctive characters that engage the reader's interest. What's more, most of the secondary characters come to life, especially "failed thug Nelson Pistek," and the religious con man with the ever-evolving set of aliases. And the end of the book gives a promise of more to come. I think I would have enjoyed one less subplot to keep track of, but that's a small criticism. I have to recommend this book to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, and not just because I'm part of the "street team." I know Chris is working on the next book in the series, at least tentatively titled Kingdom Come, and I'm already looking forward to it.

My other reading is going slower, but that's OK. Eat This Book isn't designed to be devoured. It's a book to savor, to study, to highlight in many places. Peterson has been immersed in the Word for a long time and his wisdom and experience come through clearly. He has a lot to say about how we "use" the Bible instead of allowing it to form us, and I could quote passage after passage that has so much to teach us. But I want to highlight one passage today. He talks about how the Bible is a narrative -- a long and complete story, not simply a compilation of rules and precepts and information to make us better human beings. He says story brings us into God's word, it allows us to participate with the characters; story can act on our souls. And here's what he said that really jumped out at me, as a Christian and as a writer: "Honest stories respect our freedom; they don't manipulate us, don't force us, don't distract us from life. They bring us into the spacious world in which God creates and saves and blesses." Wow.

I'm still wrestling with this. He links imagination and faith in reading the Bible, which is not something you hear about much these days. But I think he's right. We've been told for too long that our imaginations are somehow wrong, or at least trivial, when in fact they are part of how God created us. An imagination in God's service is an amazing thing. (C.S. Lewis, for example.) The imagination can be misused, as has much of creation, but it can be what God meant it to be: a door to experiencing God in intimate relationship.

And I keep wondering: Am I writing honest stories?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Monday news and views

While I was eagerly looking forward to finding out how I did in the Dragons, Knights and Angels fiction contest, I can't say that I was surprised with the results. The winning story was "The Fortunate Purgatory of Arthur MacArthur" by Chris Mikesell. It's an excellent, and delightfully twisted, story and it'll appear on the DKA Web site June 27. (I got to read it before it was submitted, so I knew what I was up against.) I didn't place, but I'm OK. According to the editors at DKA, they got a lot of good entries and they'll be publishing more of the stories. So I guess I'll see if The Man Who Kept a Dragon in His Basement still has a chance of publication.

It was not an exciting weekend at my house, which was nice. I did score a couple of bargains from the library's book sale table: The Reader's Digest Family Word Finder and an anthology of American literature (19th and 20th century) from Macmillan (not the famed Norton anthology). The Word Finder is a thesaurus kind of book, but with more information; the anthology has lots of good stuff, especially poetry. Oh, and the books cost me a whole 25 cents. Yep, one quarter. I love my library book sale.

Friday, June 02, 2006

It's Friday -- First Friday that is

This is the day about 45 Web sites, My Space pages and what have you are posting the first chapter of Chris Well's new novel, Deliver Us From Evelyn. Now's your chance to read it. And if you like, of course you'll want to buy the book.

Deliver Us From Evelyn
(Harvest House Publishers)
Chris Well

Everyone from the Feds to the mob is scrambling to find the husband of heartless media mogul Evelyn Blake. But no one can decide which is worse—that he is missing, or that she is not ...


Sunday night. April 23.

On his last day of this life, the Right Fair Reverend Missionary Bob Mullins checked the party dip. Just stuck his finger right in there, pulled some glop free, stuck it in his mouth and sucked.

Hmm, good dip.

He wiped his saliva’d finger on his jacket, popped the top off a can of Pringles, shuffled a neat row of curved chips onto a Dixie brand paper platter.


Setting the can down, he stepped back from the secondhand coffee table in the middle of the shag-carpeted office, looked at what his party planning skills had wrought. And he saw that it was good.

He went to the stereo system across the room, selected a CD. Personally, he would have preferred something by the Rolling Stones, maybe Exile on Main Street or Beggars Banquet -- muscular, honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll you can get drunk or stoned to, depending on your mood. He could really go for the bluesy wail of “Tumbling Dice” right now.

But the music library here offered none of that. Besides, his marks -- that is, the members of his “flock” -- held certain expectations regarding what music was appropriate for a prayer meeting. Especially in a small armpit of a town like Belt Falls, Illinois.

(Who names a town “Belt Falls,” anyway?)

The ladies would be here soon. Then Missionary Bob could use his people skills, honed from his years of "ministry," to good effect. Would lead the group in a spontaneous (but carefully planned) evening following “the Lord’s leading” -- some Bible, some hymns, some ministry time. A carefully rehearsed prayer, a combination of wails and pleas, which experience had shown to be a very effective prelude to the passing of the offering plate.

Swept up by the rush of maudlin and spiritual emotion, the ladies would cough up plenty.

“Yea, but there are those who do not have it as comfortably as we do,” he found himself practicing, fiddling with chair placement in the circle, maneuvering pillows on the couch. “Poor children who do not have the food or clothing or shelter such as we take for granted.”

He double-checked the handy photos on the table. The orphanage in Mexico went by a lot of names. It would not do for the Right Fair Reverend Missionary Bob Mullins to get all weepy-eyed over JESUS AMA A LOS NINOS PEQUENOS and then whip out a photo showing a bunch of tiny brown faces smiling under a banner that said CHILDREN OF HER MERCY ORPHANAGE.

Following the fiasco in the last town, he’d played it cool once he got to Belt Falls. (Really, who brings a wagon train across the frontier, breaks ground on a settlement and says, “From henceforth, this shall be known as ‘Belt Falls’”?)

Ever since Andrea -- his partner, his companion, his ray of light -- had got Jesus, she'd stopped helping with the scams. Stopped helping him fleece the flock, so to speak. She laid it on thick enough, It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, and all that.

He tried to smirk it off, tried that face that always brought her around, but it didn’t seem to work anymore. Whatever had got hold of her wasn’t letting go.

Missionary Bob would never admit it to anyone, least of all himself, that the dividing line between success and failure began and ended with Andrea. When she was working with him, the scams worked like butter.

But then she got religion and the whole machine went up in flames.

Not that Missionary Bob got the clue. He kept working his games, town to town, each new gambit failing, each new town harder to crack than the last.

Once he set up shop here in Belt Falls (don’t even get him started about the name of the town), he took his time getting to know the people. He found them to be a small, close-knit community, smugly going to their church services.

Smug, but not that pious -- it did not take much effort to plant sufficient evidence that the only pastor in town was a raving drug user, maybe even a dealer. Not enough evidence to get the man convicted -- even the hick sheriff saw it was a weak case -- but the hapless pastor had to make only one phone call to the wrong deacon asking for bail money before word of his unholy lifestyle rushed through the congregation like wildfire.

In the eyes of God and the law, he was probably an okay guy. But once a congregation chooses to believe the worst, a preacher may as well pack his bags and move on.

Missionary Bob had even heard tell of one particular church, somewhere in the Midwest, where the members had booted the pastor because he'd had the temerity to wear short pants to a church potluck.

Yep, hell -- if it existed -- would be packed to the lips with smug, busybody churchgoers who ran their preacher out of town because he had worn shorts to a church potluck. Or, as in this case, was the victim of circumstantial evidence planted on him by a traveling huckster.

He stood and straightened his dress jacket. Felt a bulge in his left pocket, was surprised to discover a coaster with the face of Jesus on it.

He looked around the office, befuddled. When had he picked this up?

You don’t have to lift anything here, he reminded himself. You’ve pretty much lifted the whole office already.

Missionary Bob, in what used to be the hapless pastor’s office, heard steps echoing from the foyer, somebody clomping up the stairs. My, my, thought the Right Fair Reverend Missionary Bob Mullins, these ladies do need to lose some weight, don’t they? Whoever this was, she was pounding the stairs to wake the devil.

He stopped fidgeting with pillows and stood up straight, getting into character. Thinking of his plan, his mission, remembering the correct accent and speech patterns of a Right Fair Reverend Missionary, an accent as specific and undeniable as the drawl of New Orleans or the wicked blue-blood of Boston.

There was an insistent pounding on the door, a battering, really, if he had stopped to think about it. But he was too wrapped up in the character of a Right Fair Reverend Missionary. He slapped on a toothy grin and opened the door. “Welcome, child, to -- ”

It was a man. A. Large. Man. A grizzled bear towering over him, bloated flannel shirt cascading out of pants where they were almost tucked, tractor cap on his head declaring EAT ROADKILL. The grizzly bear pressed his flannelled beer belly against the Right Fair Reverend Missionary, leaned down from on high and belched, “I’m Darla Mae’s husband.”

The Right Fair Reverent Missionary Bob Mullins broke character and cursed.

The rest of the confrontation was like a dream, a nightmare of slow motion, the bear smacking him, a freight train to the skull, tossing Missionary Bob across the room. Hitting the coffee table as he went down, elbow in the dip. The grizzly roaring, storming in, Missionary Bob on the floor, scrambling backward, away, fleeing in the only direction he could, farther into the room. The angry husband kicking the table over, party snacks flying, dip spattering across the bookcase.

As Missionary Bob kicked to his feet, always moving backward, until the wall stopped his escape, one question kept flashing through his mind: Is this about the fake antique Cross of James or is this about the adultery?

Either way, his back against the wall, this grizzly man bearing down on him, Missionary Bob was out of options. The giant man, his eyes red, had barrel fists clenched and ready to swing, like jackhammers.

There was a noise behind the grizzly, at the open door. “Missionary Bob?”

One of the ladies.

The enraged husband turned at the voice. Missionary Bob took his one and only chance, grabbed the stone head of Moliere, clubbed the grizzly across the side of the head. The man stumbled backward and fell.

Missionary Bob, fueled by anger and fear and blind, stupid adrenalin, kept clubbing, again and again. The man on the floor now, blood streaming from his head. Missionary Bob clubbing him with the bust again and again. On his knees, on top of the man, clubbing him again and again and again.

Finally, adrenalin loosening its grip, Missionary Bob became aware that the man was not moving. Clutching air in hot, painful gasps, he dropped the bust to the carpet.

Felt something wet on the side of his face, wiped it with his sleeve, saw blood smeared on fabric. Not his own blood.

Gasping, wheezing, he looked up and saw the witnesses, ladies pooling in the doorway, staring agape at the Goliath on the floor, downed by the David with his stone.

© 2006 Chris Well

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