Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Managing...Or Tolerating...Change

As former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith, once said, "Ain't nothin' as over as Christmas." Although we may argue the semantics--the spirit should live in our heart year-round, for instance--there's little doubt that by the time the wrapping paper has completely filled the trash-bin, the batteries on the new toys have been drained, the turkey has been consumed, and the sun sets on the evening of Christmas day, for practical purposes the holiday is over in most of our minds. I hope yours was great.

Next up, of course, is New Year's. Here in Texas, that means eating black-eyed peas for good luck, watching football games, and making New Year's resolutions. Now resolutions are sort of like plastic pieces in a children's toy: they may work for a while, but you know they're going to get broken. The idea behind resolutions is making a positive change in your life. Exercise more, eat less, read good books, increase your involvement with church, spend more time with family. These changes are good and some of us may even be able to carry them through.

There are other changes that aren't particularly optional. Learning to write "2007" on your checks and correspondence, for example. But whether the changes are voluntary or not, we're going to be faced with change, and the changing of the calendar just brings it home to us. This is the time of year when I go back to this devotional I wrote a couple of years ago, print it out, and keep it on my desk. Maybe you'll find it helpful as well.

Best wishes for a blessed 2007. See you on the other side of the celebration.

Ephesians 4:5 His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into His own family by bringing us to Himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave Him great pleasure. (NLT)

My family says I "don't do change well." Maybe that's true, but there's so much of it nowadays, it's hard not to rail against it. My bank has had three different names in the past decade. If I decide I want a small coffee, I have to order a "tall," because that's the small one now. Familiar programs have given way to "reality TV." Even my favorite Mexican restaurant has changed the recipe for their salsa. Sometimes I just want to scream and stamp my foot. Doesn't anything stay the same?

Happily, for the Christian, there remains a very big constant, something to hang your hat on, an anchor, a rock. We are the product of God, our sovereign Creator, who allows us to be blood brothers of his Son, Jesus. Because of this relationship, I don't scream as much about day to day frustrations. Instead, I try to reflect to others the unchanging good news that shapes my life. I hope it shapes yours, too.

Father, when we are frustrated by things beyond our control and distracted by unexpected or unwanted changes, help us to look toward You for patience, forbearance, and increasing faith. Amen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas: What To Say?

"Do we go to your parents' house or mine?" "Where did you put the extra string of Christmas lights?" "Which stuffing recipe are you going to use?" "What would you like for Christmas?" "Where is my Christmas tie?" "Why doesn't this sweater fit anymore?"

Have these become the sounds of Christmas at your house? I hope not. As the blessed day sneaks up on us, I've wondered what to say to those of you who read my random jottings from time to time. What can I say that's new and inspirational? Finally, it dawned on me...I don't have to find something new. Better to stick with something written about 2700 years ago by the prophet, Isaiah. The words bring as much hope now as they did then. May it be ever so.

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned....For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

May you have God's peace in your heart, not just as you celebrate Christ's birthday, but every day in the year to come. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Remembering The King

We just received a CD from my daughter and son-in-law with 385 photos from their wedding. I hadn't planned any further postings about the event, but this one has been rolling around in my head since the wedding, and the photo here just brought it to the fore once more. When Ann and Benny called us last Christmas to tell us he'd proposed, we learned that they were going to be married in Nevada, where they both live. I recall asking them for two stipulations: marriage to be performed by a minister, and "no Elvises in the ceremony."

The wedding was beautiful. The setting was a lovely garden at sunset, the trees lit by hundreds of twinkling lights. In keeping with the Las Vegas location, in front of the chapel there was a replica of the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign that stands at the city limit. It was ringed by dozens of bulbs, lit by floodlights, and said, "Welcome to Fabulous Ann and Benny's Wedding."

Not only was the ceremony performed by a minister, the minister was Bud Lovell, retiring soon as Music Minister at Dallas' Cliff Temple Baptist Church. He's known Ann since she was a pre-schooler, has been a family friend for all that time, and it was wonderful to have him and his wife, Elaine, there for the event. And there on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Bud performed the most touching Christian ceremony of marriage I'd ever experienced. It was truly a time of worship, as well as celebration.

My son-in-law is a well-known and respected lighting designer and director, and the MGM Grand Hotel is among his clients. The folks there asked his permission to surprise Ann at the reception, and he took his first leap of faith as a husband by saying "yes." (Benny, if you're wise, you'll enjoy this victory but don't do too many things without asking your wife--this is the voice of experience!) But she was surprised and delighted when an Elvis impersonator serenaded her. Even old Dad enjoyed it, and I'm sure everyone else did, as well.

But after looking at the pictures, I had to meditate about the two Kings who were represented at the ceremony. There was Elvis, "the King," dead for many years, whose memory is kept alive primarily through old movies, old records and impersonators. Then there was Jesus, King of Kings, still alive and working in our world, and a central part of that ceremony that took place in Las Vegas that evening. It was fun to have "the King" at the reception. I'm glad, though, that the King of Kings was the centerpiece of the affair.

Go and celebrate His birth, and remember that His story and God's plan didn't end in that feed trough in the barn in Bethlehem, surrounded by animals and farm hands. It ended in triumph, and it continues today.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Imitating Real Life or Lazy Writing?

I've just wasted several days reading Nelson DeMille's latest book, Wild Fire. I've read his work before, and it always held my interest. Aside from the fact that this book has a "sagging beginning" (as opposed to the dreaded "sagging middle") and is peppered with dull scenes that typify the kind of writing that Randy Ingermanson calls "look how much research I did," I was struck by the amount of bad language in it. I must admit that in the beginning I did as I generally do--skipped past it. After all, the protagonist is a New York City detective, his wife is an FBI agent, and the circumstances that law enforcement officers find themselves dealing with day after day undoubtedly trigger strong language. But as the book went on (and on, and on, and on) it seemed to me that DeMille just continued to pepper the dialogue a bit too liberally, like a kid showing off. And I eventually began to wonder if, as he's become more and more successful as an author, maybe he hasn't gotten a bit lazy. Don't hold your reader's attention with sharp dialogue and fast-paced scenes, just throw in some words guaranteed to shock and move on.

I'll admit that I finished the book, for several reasons. First, I paid for it and I'm too cheap not to read it. Secondly, I wanted to see how the premise (which is pretty good) played out. And last of all, I wanted to be able to write a review on (which I did), to warn others about what I'd noticed.

It's true that some writers of Christian fiction are more successful than others at crafting a spellbinding book, but there are a number of them out there who can hold their own with the "secular" crowd. If I start naming names, I'll leave somebody out, but if you are at all familiar with the genre you probably know. If not, log on to Charis Connection for a while and you'll see some names whose writing you can trust.

Well, time to climb down off the soapbox and get back to my own writing--which does not contain any bad words, unless you count VISA and Mastercard, both of which make me shiver about this time of year.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Recent Interview Posted

My fellow Texan, Christian fiction author Lena Nelson Dooley, has been kind enough to post an interview with me on her blog. I've included the address as a clickable link at the end of this posting. You might find the interview interesting reading, and if you add a comment you'll be eligible to receive a copy of The Tender Scar that Lena will be giving away. Interestingly enough, she liked the copy I sent her well enough that I told her to keep it, and I'll send another autographed copy to the winner that she picks.

That brings up an interesting point. My book was written with a specific audience in mind: someone who had suffered the loss of a spouse or another loved one. But a number of people who have not experienced such a loss have read it and told me that they couldn't put it down--they read my journal entries that introduce each chapter and found themselves caught up in my journey. I never figured that The Tender Scar would reach that audience, but I'm glad that it does. It just extends the ministry of the book, a ministry I didn't seek but am doing my best to further.

As I've said before about my "new career" in Christian writing and speaking: God is doing great things. I just have to be careful not to get in His way.

To read the interview, go to Lena's blog. And thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Letters, and emails, and text messages...oh, my!

I've had to write a few letters recently. Not the old-fashioned handwritten stuff, mind you. A modern letter: sit down and type something on the computer, print it out, run an envelope through the printer, stuff the letter in, apply a stamp, take it to the mailbox. That kind of letter. And it dawns on me that I've become lazy about written communication.

When I was drafted (yes, Virginia, there once was a draft) and sent to serve as a medical officer in the Azores, I was separated from my wife and young son. In the three months it took for me to secure housing for them, I wrote every day--long, handwritten letters. Letters full of news, letters that carried my love for them across the ocean. And they wrote me back. Those were the days when correspondence meant something, because letters were the product of direct effort. Sure, there were business letters, knocked out on an IBM Selectric or even a Royal manual typewriter, but personal letters were handwritten.

Then came the computer, and writing a letter became easier. Type it, hit a few buttons, assemble the finished product. That's when handwritten letters began to go the way of the dinosaur. When email came along, it was great. Open your mail utility, grab an address from your address book, dash off a few words, hit a button. Easy as pie. Use it for personal notes, for business, even (my mother would faint) thank you notes. So easy, and seemingly about as permanent as letters written in the sand of a beach. Only when a few lawsuits and Federal investigations revealed that records of prior emails could be retrieved did some people begin to be more careful about what they committed to the information highway.

Now we have text messaging. My phone is capable of this mode of communication, but it's a painfully slow process for me, and I use it infrequently. I haven't really caught on to the shorthand that converts "My flight arrived on time. I miss you and love you. Let me hear from you," to "Arrvd OK, Luv U, Txt me."

So, other than the inexorable decline of our civilization, is there a point to this diatribe? I think so. Words are important. They're important enough to require thought before they're spoken, or committed to paper, or even typed onto a keyboard and sent forth into the world. As writers, and especially as writers who have a Christian worldview, our words are the currency of our trade. They are a reflection of who we are, as well as what we do. Whether we are writing an article, a short story, a novel, a non-fiction work, or a letter to a loved one, we should strive to make the finished product our best effort.

And that's my last word on the subject.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Paint...or Write...By The Numbers

My wife Kay, whom I call my "second blessing," brought sunshine back into my life after the death of Cynthia, my first wife. I knew that Kay was loving, understanding, and patient, but I didn't know until after we were married that she could paint. I don't mean painting as in "I'm going to paint the house," although she can do that, as well. I mean paint as in "Here's the picture I created from these photos we took on our vacation." She studies and has mastered a number of techniques, but in the end the pictures she creates are her own. No "paint by the numbers" kits for her.

The picture I've posted here is a "paint by the numbers" version of the Mona Lisa. You can see that the general shape has been reproduced, but the master touch of Leonardo da Vinci is missing. It's the talent of the artist that makes the difference.

My friend, Dr. Hugh King, was disappointed when our professional academy decided to "standardize" the lectures at the courses we (and others) taught. The argument was that this way there'd be no variation in what the students were getting. Hugh's reply was, "You can't give somebody the script for 'The Ten Commandments' to read and expect them to be Charlton Heston." In other words, the material may be the same, but the talent of the person involved in the process will make the difference.

What does this have to do with writing? I've just finished reading Elizabeth George's excellent book, Write Away. In it she lists four basic patterns of plotting a novel, plus variations. I was interested to find that my first novel conforms to the pattern of "The Hero's Journey." It also pretty well goes along the lines of Jim Bell's LOCK system, as explained in his classic book, Plot and Structure. But this particular novel was written before I'd read either of these works. Instead, I'd been a voracious reader of good fiction, and I'd apparently subconsciously noted the devices those writers had used. What I did after reading these works, and hearing some very talented writers speak, was to further refine what I'd written, but always trying to keep my own voice and style intact. I didn't just "paint by the numbers."

One of the disturbing things about George's book is that she includes page after page of book excerpts to illustrate styles that she discusses. These are by talented writers whom I could never hope to emulate, and it got sort of depressing reading them. About halfway through the book, I decided just to read the excerpts for enjoyment and appreciation of the talent displayed by the writers. I'll never be a Hemingway, or for that matter, an Elizabeth George. But I can read their work, note devices and styles that might work for me, and then put those into practice using my own voice.

I guess the message here, at least the one I've chosen to believe, is that if I conform to a cookie-cutter style and outline that works for someone else, I'll be like a painter trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa while painting by the numbers. As the late Grady Nutt said in his little book, Being Me, "I am me, and I am good, 'cause God don't make no junk."

You're good, too. Go out and paint your own picture. Follow the guidelines, but don't forget to follow the voice inside you, too. God put it there.