Friday, August 26, 2005

JK: What Works

Recently, I heard a radio interview with the man who holds the record for throwing the most consecutive basketball free throws. He’s made over 1000 in a row. The interviewer asked him if he visualized that basket, imagined the ball swooshing through the net or hitting the backboard?

The successful man said no, he didn’t focus on the outcome, he just “I just do what works and the result takes care of itself.” What worked for him was placing his feet in the right position; putting his hands on the ball in a certain way; releasing the ball as he always did. He never thought of the goal.

I love this metaphor for the writing life. What works for me may not be what works for you but as writers, we’re challenged to find what works, what gives us joy in the process while leaving the outcome or completed goal to Someone else.

A devotional study begins my day, reading words of Frederick Buechner or currently, Liz Duckworth. Time spent in the Psalms soothes and as with all poetry, the Psalmist’s words remind me of God’s faithfulness in the music of words. A prayer I cut years ago from Writer’s Digest is taped to my computer. I read it each morning, appreciating poet Barry Longyear’s line that “if material success should come my way/remind me to than you.”

An Anne Lamott quote sits at the top of my computer. “You don’t have time for that.” It’s a reminder that I waste time obsessing over whether my editors will pull their hair out or whether a reader will even read this story. Life is short. We writers by faith have no time to squander our treasures.

One final ritual is to answer three questions taken from the book structuring the Novel. (1) Why am I telling this story? I call this the elevator sentence where I have one floor to describe my work before an inquisitive person steps off on her floor. (2) What’s my attitude about this story, what do I feel deeply about? (3) What’s my purpose? How do I hope a reader will be changed? When I begin to struggle and look to the goal too much, I look up and re-read my one sentences answers. I remember what works. That keeps me writing to the end.

The French have a word, métier that means “finding work to which one is best suited, work that the world needs doing.” As Christian writers, we’ve found worthy work.

When I finish a book, I’m always surprised that the answers to those three story questions often change. The Old Norse word raedon which give us to read means “to unveil a mystery,” and it suggests that the reader unveils something about themselves in the process of reading. Even when the piece I’ve written never finds a home where others can see it, I still experience success, still know I’ve shot the ball through the basket because I’ve done what worked.
I hope today you find what works for you.

Jane Kirkpatrick author of A Land of Sheltered Promise

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

AD: How to Brew a Christian Cup of Coffee

A group of Christian writers were recently trying to define the term, “Christian novel.” I suggested it might mean any novel written by a Christian who takes his or her faith seriously. I went on to suggest we could define almost anything else in the same way. A cup of coffee, for example, if made by a Christian who was striving to “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,” would therefore be a “Christian cup of coffee.” (Colossians 3:23) One of the authors replied, “But Athol, isn't there a distinction between the inherent quality of the coffee (which can't possibly be Christian or non-Christian in and of itself) and the way in which it's made or consumed, which would mean that the action is what is truly Christian or not?”
It’s an interesting question.

I agree there is a distinction between a cup of coffee’s "inherent quality" and "the way in which it's made or consumed." But while some might see that as a point of difference between a cup of coffee and a work of art, I think it applies in exactly the same way to both.

There's an old joke: A scientist insists we have progressed to the point where science could create Adam and Eve. God takes him up on it, and the two of them agree to a competition to see which of them can whip up a man and woman fastest. At the starting gun, the man looks around and says, "Wait a minute, I need some soil and a rib," and God replies, "Create your own."

The point is that everything we do is a rearrangement of God's original creation. We take beans and water and "create" a beverage. We take ink and paper and "create" a book. In both cases the raw materials required all come from God, and that includes our creative instinct.
Jesus, as "the craftsman at God's side" has imbued everything created with a certain "Jesus-ness" that cannot be denied. This is what theologians call “common grace,” which is described in the apostle Paul’s statement, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Rom 1:20)

Surely "what has been made" includes both coffee beans and water. So by Paul's estimation a cup of coffee can indeed speak of God's eternal power and divine nature, and isn't that the most that we can ask from any novel?

But while the cup of coffee and the book can be looked at simply as objects reflecting the quality of God, with faith added in they can also be looked at as attempts to honor God through emulation. The primary difference between those two ways of looking is not a matter of the content of the cup or page, rather, it is in the mindset of the person doing the “creating”. Which is just a different way of saying again that I believe everything a Christian does or makes is (or should be), a Christ-like or “Christian” thing by definition.

There’s another way to think about this, and at first it may seem to contradict everything I just said, but it really doesn’t. If we say with Paul that all created things have an "inherent quality" of "Jesus-ness" by virtue of being a reflection of their creator, then we cannot really create a "Christian" cup of coffee after all, and neither can we create a "Christian" novel. The most we can do is keep things "Christian," by defending them from the profanity of mediocrity. So in a very literal way, we do not really create "Christian" things (because we have no soil or ribs). Instead, we rescue things from the corruption of a fallen world. We can see this in perhaps the most common Greek word translated as “obey” in the New Testament, tereo, which literally means to guard, detain or withhold. (Strong’s) So for Christians, striving for excellence in everything we do can be a loving act of obedience to God, and who are we to say our Father values a great story more highly than a perfect cup of French Roast?

Athol Dickson
Author of The Gospel According to Moses - What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus. and of River Rising, a novel available in January, 2006.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

AD: Love and Evil, Part Two

The fact that we must often choose the lesser of two evils is a powerful argument for the doctrine of original sin. If sin is merely a matter of the choices that we make, why are we so often faced with nothing but evil choices? This can only be explained by the idea that evil exists outside of and independent of our choices.

In my last post I mentioned that this presents a loving God with a difficult choice of his own: either He may remove evil as an option and with it, remove all human free will, or else He may allow us choose evil for the sake of the continued existence of free will. After all, in a world where only goodness exists to be chosen, no real choice exists at all. Continuing with the case presented earlier by my reader, this means even child abuse must be allowed by a loving God, because the other option—equal justice for all—would require that neither of them remain free to sin, which would be even worse.

This leaves the Christian with at least two conclusions we can put to practical use. One calls us to meet injustice with faith. The other calls us to meet it with mercy.

First, as beings fully immersed in the stream of time, ours is an inaccurate perspective. A man working thirty years at one station on an assembly line may become so focused on his particular task that he forgets his true job is to help hundreds of others to build a car. He knows it in his head, but in his heart he believes he’s in the bumper attachment business. If he thinks with his heart alone, he may view interference with his bumpers as an unforgivable offense, even if it ultimately results in a better vehicle. Similarly, we Christians know intellectually that God loves us all, that He has a plan to return perfect justice to all creation, that He can be trusted to implement His plan in a way most consistent with His loving nature, and we are only workers on one tiny portion of God master plan as it passes by us in the stream of time. What appears to us as undiluted evil with no possibility of redemption is in fact still a part of God’s plan, which He is using for ultimate good. But when the horror of this fallen world hits home in a personal or particularly horrific way, our hearts tempt us to wave all that aside and insist on justice here and now, at our little station on God’s grace assembly line. It is then that faith steps in to remind us of the little that we know: Even the most horrific evil must be allowed until God’s redemptive plan is complete, because without it goodness as a moral choice would be meaningless. We suffer for a reason: so our “joy may be complete.”

Second, if we consider the fact that "all have sinned and fallen short" in light of God's state of being outside of time (see the last post), and if we remember that all sin is not merely a question of choices here and now, but is actually the result of an inherited condition that causes us to choose to sin (remember the abuser who was a victim and his victim who will be an abuser), then we see that no particular good or evil act is ever quite as clear or simple as we would like to think. This is a compelling argument for the cultivation of mercy in the midst of justice. The survival of civilization depends upon our restraint and punishment of those who are most wholly given over to evil, but in the midst of imposing earthly justice Christians above all others should never forget that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Athol Dickson
Author of The Gospel According to Moses - What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

AD: Love and Evil, Part One

I explored the question of why a loving God would allow a holocaust in my most recent book, The Gospel according to Moses. In a nutshell the idea is that God allows human evil to continue because he wants us to remain free to choose goodness, and unless evil exists as an alternative choice to good, we would not really have any choice at all, and so we would not really be free. Although God never condones our evil choices, He allows them for the sake of our freedom because He loves us.

A reader recently sent me a note about that, asking me to respond to the question, "How can God stand by when total evil is directed toward infants, causing them to suffer and die?" She offered a horrific example of the worst that man can do: the sexual abuse of an infant. The mind staggers at such an example, however such things do occur, and they must somehow be reconciled with the idea that God is love, unless we are prepared to abandon the notion of a God who loved the world enough to (somehow) die to save it.

As it happens, I believe the example she selected lends itself particularly well to this problem, because we know almost all child abuse occurs at the hands of people who were themselves abused as children. That in itself is a pretty good indication that original sin is true. Evil such as this does not spring from nowhere, and it is not a simple matter of people making bad choices. (Does anyone really believe one could be in complete control of one’s right mind one moment, and freely choose to fantasize about molesting children the next, without some compelling force at work?)

The self-replicating pattern of child abuse also hints at another point we should remember. As the creator of time, God sees all events in a continuum stretching backward and forward, which is all "now" to Him. This means God sees the abuser not only as a man in the grip of evil now, but simultaneously God sees the abuser as a child, also being abused right now (although for the abuser it happened thirty years ago). Similarly, God sees the baby in the reader’s scenario not only as a victim of abuse now, but also as an adult who is passing that abuse on to other children right now (although for the baby it will happen thirty years in the future). If God sees everything as "now," and if abused children grow up to be abusers, then whose free will should God suspend in this scenario, the man’s or the baby’s?

Of course our hearts demand protection for the child, and rightfully so. But the full answer is that both the man and child are ultimately the same in terms of original sin, so in order to exercise “equal justice for all” by removing the man’s free will, God must also remove the child’s. That said, if the child could express a preference, one assumes he would choose life as a survivor of abuse over life as a zombie. So we see that even in this, one of the most horrific examples of human evil one can imagine, still it is the lesser of two painful options faced by a loving God to let the evil continue.

This idea has at least two practical applications for the Christian. I’ll discuss them tomorrow.

Athol Dickson
Author of The Gospel According to Moses - What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus.

Friday, August 12, 2005

DR: What Makes a Home and Family

We moved to a new house recently—well, new to us anyway. It’s a four-year-old house in a beautiful development—a nicer, bigger house than I ever dared to dream of living in. Because, you see, I chose to spend the first twenty-five years of my adult life as a stay-at-home mom. That meant many sacrifices, most of them financial. It’s a tradeoff I’d repeat a thousand times over.

I’ve never had one regret about those years spent living in a small rental house. I found it a fun challenge to make it a cozy home for my husband and our children. But I’ll tell you the truth—four kids in a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath duplex with a shared yard isn’t always a picnic.

As the kids went off to college one by one, we were able to spread out a little and eventually our little duplex started feeling quite adequate.And then our kids started bringing friends home from college, and one friend was extra special and our daughter married him. Suddenly that duplex felt like a shoebox when everybody was home to visit. Now, a few years later, our first grandbaby is on the way and there was just no way to fit everybody in. And then God blessed us beyond belief with this house. Almost new, designed for entertaining, and amazingly, in our price range.We made the move and went to work putting the touches on this house that would make it home.

Most of the material possessions we treasure came with us. But one thing we couldn’t bring. The wall where we stood our children to measure their growth. All four of them were basketball players, so height was a thing to be prized and recorded often by their coach dad. The wall shows clearly the date when our oldest son shot past Mom’s five-foot-eight mark, and then Dad’s five-foot-ten. That wall bragged about the year our youngest son grew three inches in one summer. There were marks three feet from the floor where the tip-top of our tagalong baby’s head reached—marks lovingly recorded by her proud big sister, balancing a ruler atop the toddler’s head. There were marks near the floor for our black cat Frosty. (Do you measure a cat standing or sitting. Is his height from foot to shoulder, or foot to head?) All those roughly sketched pencil lines and occasionally accompanying commentary told a happy story. But some stories are history, and they can’t easily be brought with us to the future.

All the kids were home this past weekend. Our oldest son flew from Seattle to attend his ten-year high school reunion. His brother drove in from Iowa to see him, and his sister (carrying our due-December-grandbaby) and her husband made a nine-hour drive from Missouri. It was the first time our older kids had seen our new house and we had fun showing it off. The house performed admirably, even through a cookout for twenty-plus extended family members.

I relished sitting in church with my family Sunday. We took up almost an entire row! Then Sunday afternoon, one-by-one, they all left to travel back to the homes they’ve established. I was sad to see them go, but happy that they’ve each made a good life and have their own special homes and loved ones to go to.

I realized when the kids left that as hard as it was to leave behind the memories our little duplex held, especially the tangible memento of our see-how-I’ve-grown wall, it is not walls or windows or even heirlooms that make a home. It’s the people who live inside. And it doesn’t matter if we’re together in a cardboard box or mansion on a hill, as long as we’re together. When I woke up this morning our new house seemed more like a home because the people I cherish have graced it with new memories. God willing, there are plenty more to come.

Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters.