The Other Way to Speak for God

 

A few weeks ago, we all took in the passing of Fred Phelps and none of us quite knew the proper way to respond. Phelps was a hate-filled whisp with a keen knack for projecting a large shadow. We all wrestled with his passing because we felt guilt over the relief and– Lord forgive us–maybe joy he wouldn’t be around to inflict his brand of hate any longer. Theologies degrees weren’t needed to know that Phelps’s “God Hates __________”websites and pickets didn’t originate at one of Heaven’s zip codes.

Its fairly simple to sniff out those who don’t speak for God. Prophets are like prison wardens. Aspiring to hold the job disqualifies you from it. Self-importance is a strong musk. When we pick up its scent on someone its second nature to work our way to the door. And we move twice as fast when that person happens to be holding a Bible.

This past week I attended a conference for writers. Between sessions I walked the exhibit hall and came across a table filled with stacks of books warning about some impending doom or other. I picked up a booked and studied the harsh cover art. The copy of the back cover explained how the author solved the riddle of prophesy just in time to warn America of its impending judgment. A bee-hived woman with Buddy Holly glass sitting at the opposite side of the table asked if I was curious and if I had any questions. Yes and yes, I thought. I wondered how much money the author and invested in his paranoia and hatred to get these books self-published.

Instead, I politely lied , said I was good, and scanned the room for the nearest exit.

God didn’t speak to my heart in the exhibit hall, but I heard echos of his voice at several points during the week.

God whispered to me during Shannon Polson‘s workshop “Memoir as Lament.” Shannon shared tips on structuring a spiritual memoir, but she also invited us into her experience of losing her father and step-mother in a horrific bear attack. She admitted the process of writing the memoir was terrifying as she was forced to reexamine her faith, a faith she wasn’t sure could hold up under the scrutiny of her grief and doubt. God spoke to me in Leslie Leyland Fields‘s workshop, “Writing Toward Reconciliation” as she cautioned us that our own attempts at forgiveness would be imperfect and wobbly, but even so they still reflected God’s nature. Anne Lammott gave a nod to her condition as a sober alcoholic, acknowledged the circus of voices in her head, and then admonished the audience to take up radical self-care while expecting us to do the work of life and writing anyhow.

I heard God’s voice in all three of these sessions, but neither Shannon, Leslie, or Anne postured themselves as God’s spokesperson. None of the presumed to be a prophet or a Bible expert. Not one of them reeked of self-importance. But each person had suffered well. Each person had gone through some type of Hell and managed to pull the pieces of their lives back into something beautiful. Each imitated God’s capacity to redeem beauty from ashes. They quietly did this work– at times with clenched teeth and tears blinding their eyes– bearing witness that God cares and is in the business of restoring his hurting children.

God told Jeremiah, “If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become my spokesperson” (Jeremiah 15:19).

I’m beginning to suspect the people who God speaks through don’t even know it. I’m wondering if God chooses to speak to people who are preoccupied with the burden of extracting a precious narrative out of the meaninglessness of a personal tragedy and pain that had left them broken and robbed of meaning. I suspect the people God speaks through are too busy calling out order from Chaos, that they don’t realize they give silent witness to a God who makes all things new.

Maybe “speaking for God” looks like this: We bring out brokenness to God and invite him to use it as the stuff of creation. We agree to co-create with him, like a young child “helps” his father on work under the hood of the car. And somewhere along the line, our lives begin to resembling a genesis that only a loving Creator could  have brought into being.

Adversity’s Backhanded Way of Transporting Us to Paradise

“Challenges are given us to transform, to make of the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”– Borges, from “Blindness.”*

Anytime a person picks up that knot we call “The Problem of Evil” and tries t0 untangle it, even by a turn or two, she quickly remembers the “Big Problem”:God is complicit in our pain. We all share the universe with an ever- loving, God Almighty, one with more smarts than all the wonks at Google. This God could have prevented the evil our hero faces, but didn’t. He certainly didn’t prevent the pain I’ve experienced this past year. I’m betting you’ve got your own grievances with your maker as well.

Now, if you’re a theology or philosophy student, tugging at this ball of contradictions is a fine way to pass a Friday night in the dorms. However, for those who have suffered deeply and lost jobs, children, parents, marriages, or innocence, this unholy knot is a source of horror. We’re the ones who’ve blooded our knuckles, pulling on the ropes until we felt the stakes: What if God isn’t as good or as loving or as strong as our Sunday School Teachers told us?

Not only did God not prevent our suffering, he didn’t prove his worthiness, once and for all, by pulling the sword off his hip and cutting the knot in two. God didn’t have the decency to dedicate one Bible verse to justify why he allows his children to marinate in all this brokenness.

God doesn’t defend himself as he tells his story. Continue Reading…

God Meets Us Where Our Fears Are

By Marsyas, from unknown original source. (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was once of the mind that grief fixates on the past. That she always looks over its shoulder at lost yesterdays.

This past year taught me better.

I’m no longer grieving my past, what was or might have been. If a genie knocked on my door and invited me into the yesterday of my choice, I’d shoo him back to the mason jar from whence he came. I didn’t choose or welcome this path I’m on, but I see God’s hand in it. The negatives of God’s mercies feel like a wicked backhand some days, but I’m better for the sting.

Instead, I find myself grieving tomorrow and all its uncertainty. There’s no point to this, I know. God allotted me a twenty-four hour sized plot of anxiety to subdue and cultivate. Meanwhile, I keep looking over the future-fence to untamed tomorrows. Maybe future-oriented grief is anxiety in disguise. Perhaps it’s feeling defeat prematurely, when I haven’t even stepped into the ring yet.

Tomorrow is none of my business, I tell myself. But bumper sticker-sized wisdom never did much for me. It’s this truth but not particularly helpful, at least not for me. Continue Reading…

They Teach You a Secret Handshake as You Leave Hell

Whenever someone is fortunate enough to be pardoned from Hell, the demon working the front lobby teaches that rare individual a secret handshake. Least that’s what the stranger in the diner said.

The stranger sat at my table uninvited and spilt coffee over my half-read newspaper and launched into his story before I could cuss him out.

He claimed to have been in a heavy equipment accident just yesterday. Brain injury would explain volumes.  But the dozer bucket just didn’t ring his bell, he claimed, it killed him dead.

My money’s on a sharp but non-lethal rap to the head.  But I had time to kill until the missus returned from shopping, so I let him ramble.

Shortly after dying, he was ushered into Hell and was processed for an Eternity of suffering. A short hour later, an embarrassed minion politely explained that there had been a clerical error and that Hell wasn’t authorized admit him just yet. The demon explained to the shaken patron that he could collect his personal affects at the lobby on his way out.

By the time the man reached the lobby he collected himself and was more relieved than scared and struck up a friendly conversation with the demon wearing the shabby suit behind the desk.

“Whada day. My own personal hell”, the man said as he scratched his name next to several “X’s.”

“You think a hell, on any scale, is ever really personal?” the Demon asked.

“Come again?”

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud. Continue Reading…

The Woman Who Sparred with Jesus and Won

A free lance writing project re-introduced to me into an incredible woman in the Bible who, I’m embarrassed to admit, I overlooked up until now. Matthew captured her story in his Gospel and although he didn’t record her name, the story of her tenacity lives on.

She was Canaanite. Centuries ago, her people suffered great losses when a young Israelite general by the name of Joshua led his people into their land. Some of her ancestors managed to cling to the earth like weeds and survived the onslaught, but her particular forebears were pushed northward and lived in the district surrounding the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon, in the region of Syro-Phoenicia. Ironically, during Israel’s Golden Age, Jewish communities sprung up along the trade routes in the same region. Ancient enemies co-existed peacefully, although the prejudice and hatred along religious and nationalistic lines was palpable.

Grief walked into the Canaanite woman’s house, unannounced and unwelcome, when her daughter became afflicted by a demon. Her whole world convulsed. Continue Reading…

How to Get My Last Book Free and How to Love a Writer

Hey all, my publisher, David C. Cook, is giving away my latest book, Divine Intention, for free for the next twenty four hours. That’s right, its free on every major online retailer: BN.com, Amazon.com, Ibooks, Google Play, and even Kobo– for our Canadian friends. Hope you scoot on over and grab it today.

If you get to this post late, no fears: The book will be on sale, starting tomorrow. $2.99 for the next month. Personally, I think you should download the book for free and buy yourself a latte.

Thanks for your support.

Speaking of which, here’s how you can support your favorite small time authors:

1) When deal like this come up, help spread the word. Authors, by their very nature, are often introverted. We feel down right obnoxious when we find ourselves constantly plugging our own work. Like that guy who keeps calling your house to invite you to that Tupperware Party. Do they still make that stuff and have parties? It’s good to be a guy and not know these things.

2) Write a review of the book on Amazon. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter if its a good review or a bad review. A review means the book caused someone to have a reaction. The worst thing that can be said about a book is that it didn’t move a reader one way or the other. I’ve tossed a few books across the room in anger, this before I got an e-reader. Hated the book, but at least it was worded well enough to get a rise out of me. That’s good.

3) There is no three. We’re a simple folk. And we appreciate the support.

Hidden Identity

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.” –John the Baptist

John 1:22

“And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” — Jesus, speaking about John the Baptist

Matthew 11:14

John the Baptist. Image from freebibleimages.com

I’ve never caught this contradiction before. The waning pages of the Old Testament contained a prophesy about a messenger who would come in the spirit of Elijah, the great prophet, to prepare God’s people for their long awaited Messiah. In Jesus days, God honoring folk weren’t just waiting for the coming of their Messiah, they were also waiting for this second Elijah, who’d be the indicator that things were about to go down.

Enter John the Baptist, making a splash, wearing his camel hair suit. Locust wings caught between his teeth. He had been a member of the Qumran Society, a quirky band of religious separatists who lived in the moral safety of the arid wilderness, while preaching judgment on the morally lapse folk living in the big city. John, apparently, was fifteen degrees more odd than his peers, and broke off to gather his own band of followers to sing his own arrangement of “People Get Ready.”

And the masses responded to John’s message, even though he stood the rite of baptism on his head. Baptism, itself,was a recent religious innovation Pharisees used to bring Gentile converts into the fold. John took it a step further and insisted Jews also participate. John leveled the playing field– everyone comes to God the same way, Chosen People or not. Continue Reading…

Throwing the Characters Down A(nother) Flight of Stairs

Last month my wife gave me an amazing gift, one that any writer would covet. She read my manuscript. Writers know this is a huge investment of time that concludes with her being willing to offer the critique and weather whatever insecure and defensive responses I happened to muster.  Years ago, I read an article that advised against expecting your family to read your work if you want to be a happy writer. I’m not sure I’ve ever asked her to read anything I’ve written before, but this MS was perhaps the most personal thing I’ve put on paper.

Waiting her to finish the novel was excruciating. She was mostly tight-lipped until she finished. She offered an “it’s good”, a long list of typos, and her assessment the ending didn’t work. Not at all.

Amy has earned the right to be heard when it comes to story structure. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve watched a television show and she guesses the ending and then offers a superior plot to what an entire conference room of Hollywood writers could offer. Who was I to think I’d fare any better?

The gift of her complaint with the book is that I had my two central characters make a tragic moral compromise, but only made one of them desperate enough to sell his soul. His girl friend is a willing accomplice to his plot, but up to this point, all of her experiences and morals would lead the reader to expect better of her. Her corruption wasn’t believable.

 

The problem was that I’d only thrown one character down the proverbial flight of stairs. That’s not completely true. Isis, the character in question, has a backstory filled with family dysfunction. But that was long ago, and those experienced shaped her to be vehemently opposed to what I need her to do to complete story.

The solution is for me to open the novel up and construct a long flight of stairs to toss both characters down. So disregard my earlier post about getting ready for Query Shark.

More immediate work lies ahead of me.

 

The Impossible Expectations of Parenting

This week I facilitated a learning experience with about thirty rowdy moms. The topic was dealing with the expectations of motherhood, which is perhaps a silly and even irresponsible topic for me to tackle, being a man. I choose to talk as little as possible and give the room freedom to provide the wisdom. This is always a good idea when teaching, but essential when you are uniquely unqualified to be the expert.

So I asked the women to list all the expectations that society, media, faith and family place on the office of motherhood. A massive list erupted:

  •  Coach
  • Nurse
  • Doctor
  • Mind Reader
  • Cleaner
  • Cook
  • Nutritionist
  • Disciplinarian
  • Cheerleader
  • Psychologist
  • Psychiatrist (Really? What are you ladies prescribing?)
  • Home repair
  • Waste Management
  • Have to look good doing it
  • Have to look happy doing it
  • Leader
  • Financial Director
  • Bank
  • Taxi
  • Tutor
  • Confidant
  • Bible teacher

The list was at least a dozen items longer. I pointed out we could complete the exercise for “wife” and “employee” if we had time, an observation that momentarily cast heaviness over the room. Continue Reading…

Trophies are Found Along the Path, Not at the Finish Line

A few weeks ago I ran the Tough Mudder adventure challenge. I found myself wrestling with an odd and inconvenient thought throughout the race: “Will finishing the course feel emotionally gratifying?” Stressing over how I’d feel finishing the race seemed odd, when I had more pressing things to be anxious about: Electrocution or cramping up, for starters. But I knew I was in good shape, so subconsciously must have known I had the luxury of entertaining my nuttier side (No worries: I support the local economy and see a therapist.)  I remembered other big accomplishments from the past and the let down I felt in their aftermath. I wanted to know if the culmination of eight months of training would make me happy. Crazy, I know. At least I had the occasional obstacle to distract my thinking.

Sure enough, at the end of the race, I staggered across the finish line, seconds after being electrocuted and scanned my emotional dashboard. I felt hot, tired, annoyed, and satisfied. But, no, I did not feel especially joyful. No crowds congratulated us. No theme to Rocky. Our team high-fived each other and staggered to the open air showers, where 12,000 weary athletes exchanged modesty for the opportunity to get the mud off our bodies.

The big emotional trophy wasn’t at the finish line. We didn’t hoist joy above our heads like the Stanley Cup. That’s not to say there wasn’t any emotional payoff. I just looked for it the wrong place.  Continue Reading…

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