Monday, May 2, 2016

Home Noise (#Poetry Monday*)

There is a droning. The fans
wag their heads slowly,
blowing hot air around,
pretending to be as cool
as the AC is.

There is a giggling. The children
laughing, innocent, childish,
running, lacing the yards
together, a stitching
of pure glee.

There is a burring. The mowers
eating neighborhood lawns
making all grass equal, each
at a slightly different pitch,
gas-fueled harmonies.

There is a rumbling. The trash
cans being rolled to the street
making artificial thunder on
a cloudless cool night, the
early moon keeping watch.

There is a humming. The houses
at night, filled with just the
right people, vibrating quietly
with joy, satiated on love,
and yielding to sleep.





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* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here. As the weather warms -- and it will warm -- the windows are opened more, allowing the sounds of the neighborhood to reach our awareness. What are some familiar or favorite sounds you hear in your neighborhood? Are they sometimes not so friendly? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

Putting Murphy down: 10 tips for successful presentations & workshops

Giving a presentation -- talk, workshop, seminar -- can be daunting. But it doesn’t need to be a disaster. Unlike a recent memorably bad workshop session I sat in on.

The presenter came into the room cold, discovered nothing was set up correctly, didn’t have all the  technology that was needed, and was Mac-ready but was offered only PC tools.

The presenter essentially had an emotional breakdown while others, including participants, tried to fix things. Only four people stayed while the problems were being addressed.

Even after the workshop finally got underway, nothing worked well. And then it became painfully clear that the presenter was expecting a different audience.

Witnessing the meltdown of this hapless presenter brought to mind a few essential tips that can point you toward presentation and workshop success.

Heed these ten tips to ensure a successful and positively memorable workshop:
  1. Room: Check your room at least an hour before your session. Make sure it’s configured the way you want it to be and that you have everything you need.
     
  2. Equipment: Know your equipment and how to use it. If you aren’t bringing your own laptop and projector, then make sure you learn how to use what’s provided. Or, make sure there’s a convention staff-person in the room who knows. Especially avoid letting a member of the audience try to jump in and help -- they seldom know anymore about the technology than you do and will just be a distraction.
     
  3. Technology: Be prepared for total tech failure. Be ready to -- gasp! -- carry on analog. Don’t be dependent on the technology. Have paper handouts, a flip board with markers, or some other back-up materials at the ready.
     
  4. Content: Have a clue about your audience. Don’t assume you know who will be there. If you’re presenting at a conference of professionals, don’t think just because the conference welcomes student attendees that the bulk of your audience will be college kids. Pay attention to who shows up and adjust to your audience.
     
  5. Flexibility: Be Mac and PC agnostic. Be prepared to have to use either. This goes back to point number 2. If you’re aren’t bringing your own equipment and you prepared on a Mac, there’s a good chance your room will be PC-centric. Carry your files on a thumb drive that can be accessed by any computer.
     
  6. Accuracy: Read all the pre-event documentation about you and your presentation. Just because you provided a description doesn’t mean it wasn’t edited or embellished or even inadvertently swapped with another presenter. Be sure what you intend to present is what your audience is expecting. Inform, correct, and adjust as needed to clear up any confusion.
     
  7. Awareness: Avoid leaning on the equipment while presenting. That laptop may not be as secure as you think it is. While you’re talking and facing the audience, the screen behind you may be out of focus because you’ve bumped something unawares. Pay attention.
     
  8. Professionalism: Let it go. If something isn’t working the way you expected, stop fiddling with it. Move on. Again, be prepared to go analog. Keep the focus on your presentation and keep going as if nothing is wrong.
     
  9. Time: If you say there’s going to be a Q/A period, manage the presentation to make sure you actually leave time for questions! And end the session at the time it is scheduled to end, even if you started late. You’re not the only show in town; there are other workshops starting right after yours. People need to move to other locations and the next speaker needs to set up the room.
     
  10. Prepare: Rehearse! Make sure you can actually get through the 30 or 50 slides you’ve prepared in the hour allotted for your workshop, and leave time for a Q/A. Ten slides are probably more than enough for an hour.
Keep in mind that Murphy's law -- Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong -- is alive and well and ready to wreak havoc with your workshop or presentation.

Don’t let it infect yours! Get inoculated! The antidote to disaster is thorough preparation, contingency planning, and professional savvy.

Follow these ten tips and you will be a presenting and workshopping star!





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What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you as a presenter? How did you handle it? What’s the worst workshop you’ve ever been in? What went wrong? Did the presenter ever recover? Are there any additional tips you can think of? Please share your advice and experiences in the comments!

May this never happen to you!


 Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Brief Review: Help for the newbie & refreshment for the seasoned faithful

Whenever we’ve been on the search for a new church, which is a task we never take lightly, there are a myriad challenges to overcome. Every Sunday with each visit to a new church there are many questions that need answering.

Which door is the “right” one to enter? Once inside, where is the sanctuary? Are there any seats reserved for parents with small children we need to avoid? If communion is being served, is it brought to us or do we have to go up front or to another location? And, most importantly, Is coffee available, and if so, where are the restrooms?

It makes little difference if the church is small or mega, these questions and more confront us newbies. The ability to get them answered quickly can impact our decision to return for a second visit or not.

(Tip: More and better signage is always a good thing.)

As someone who has always been a churchgoer, navigating the newness of an unfamiliar church is probably a little easier than it is for someone who seldom or never attends church.

Even more challenging is navigating the Faith by a fresh, new Believer.

Doctrine, dogma, and doxology can be daunting.

And then there’s that big, giant book to deal with. The Bible! Trying to sort through and grasp all the history, metaphor, poetry, prophecy, and more can be downright overwhelming for a new convert.

Instead of letting them flounder into discouragement and out the church door, there’s help at hand!

The new book, Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story (Zondervan) by Michael Horton, is a great resource for the fledgling faithful.

Horton adeptly covers the essentials of orthodox Christian doctrine, and then provides a sweeping yet compact survey of the entire story line of the Bible.

Scot McNight, quoted on the back cover of the book, sums it up nicely saying, “[This is a] book fit for a new generation the way John Stott’s Basic Christianity was for his generation.”

Horton, without being boring or overwhelming, offers a brief history of theology, touches on key heresies to avoid, and deftly ties everything together in a concluding chapter aptly titled, “Tying it all together.”

From creation to the end times, from Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection, from salvation to sanctification, from accepting Christ to knowing God’s will to living in the Spirit, Horton covers all this and more in a very readable and accessible manner.

Well, mostly. As with any Christian who writes, doing so while not falling into insider lingo is difficult. Horton often presumes the reader will understand his references when, for someone new to the faith and unfamiliar with even the best known stories from the Bible, this may not be the case.

For example, at one point he writes, “God tolerates things as they are not because he is unjust, but because he is merciful and using this era to bring in his guests for the wedding feast of the Son and his bride.” If you are not familiar with Matthew 22 and all that the passage points to, this sentence won’t make a lot of sense without additional explanation.

Also, Horton is Reformed in his theology so the book has hints of that influence. However, he has done an excellent job of tamping down this bias which means those who lean Arminian should not shy away from using the book. What’s essential is that all he covers is presented from a thoroughly biblical perspective.

Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story is an excellent resource for the new believer’s class or any small group study.

For seasoned believers, it’s a great way to refresh on the essentials and renew awe at all that God offers to His children.

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NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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Are there other books you would recommend to new believers? What are they? Other than the Bible, what book have you found to be most helpful for deepening your faith? Please share your thoughts in the comments!



Why, yes, you can still join this effort and be a a Patron of the Arts, a Benefactor of the Creative, a Supporter of the Literati. Please, by all means, click here to join the team!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Prince: Not my life’s soundtrack. Not even close. But it is still well with my soul.

The world has turned purple, the color of Prince. Everyone is humming snippets of “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret”, and “1999.”

By now, even if you were completely unfamiliar with Prince, these tunes have probably been earworms for at least part of your recent days.

There have been a spate, so it seems, of celebrity deaths. Doris Roberts (aka Raymond’s mom, 90), Chyna (Joan Marie Laurer, 45) who was a WWF retiree, Michelle McNamara (writer and wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, 36), and, of course, Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson, 57).

Of these, Roberts death was probably the most impactful for me, I loved her in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I have to be honest and say that I knew little of Chyna and less of McNamara. The latter two, both dying very young and very suddenly. All three tragic, yet overshadowed by the passing of Prince.

On social media and in “person on the street” TV interviews, most are lamenting the loss of Prince, who they credit with having provided them with the “soundtrack of their lives.”

But this is not true for all.

All music is not created holy

Sarah McCammon, a writer for NPR, and I share similar upbringing. Explaining her lack of sadness over Prince’s death, she writes,
“[It’s] because I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the Midwest in the 1980s and ‘90s, with pop culture kept carefully at arm’s length. We were told — at my charismatic church where the faithful ‘spoke in tongues’ and believed in miracles, and at my strict Christian school where girls wore skirts below the knees every day — that rock nroll was ‘the devils music.’”
While I share an affinity for the Christian musicians McCammon enjoyed — Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Kim Boyce — I was at least aware of Prince, David Bowie, and many others. You could say my taste in music ran and runs very eclectic.

The very first record I owned, and still have, is a Christmas album with the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen. In our little church, bluegrass was the anchoring style for the song service.

But when I wasn’t buying books with my hoarded lunch money and allowance, I was buying the latest 45s.

I could sing along to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” “Summer in the City,” “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Brand New Key.”

Beyond the top 40, I was also into Henry Mancini, Tim Hardin, Percy Faith, Arlo Guthrie, Rod McKuen, Horst Jankowski, Astrud Gilberto, Joni Mitchell, with a dash of Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart.

I relished classical music (E. Power Biggs rules!) as well as musicals (South Pacific, Camelot, etc.). And let’s not overlook Tennessee Ernie Ford, Mahalia Jackson, and George Beverly Shea (who recently died at 104).

Just because hallelujah’s in the lyrics doesn’t mean it’s a holy tune

Still, again like McCammon, I’m not that shaken by the loss of Prince. I appreciate his talent but am not a fan.

As far as looking to someone I’d label as the supplier of my life’s soundtrack, no one artist would fit that bill. Even favorites like Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Band, or Leonard Cohen don’t come close.

There are many songs with evocative messages, that when I hear them or sing them, both happy and sad emotions well up.

One of these is Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song that has religious overtones but is not at all Christian, not in the least. I’m always both amused and saddened when Christians tout it as a quasi-worship song.

This past Sunday, one of the hymns we sang was “It Is Well with My Soul.” This one gets me every time.

When times are tough, there are anthems to lift the soul

The lyricist, Horatio Spafford, wrote the hymn in the 1870s after the loss of his fortune and the deaths of his five children. After so much disaster, still he was able to declare:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know or say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
I love the hymn and love singing it, but get choked up nearly every time. As much as any song I can think of, this one has been a personal anthem of sorts.

My sister and I used to sing duets in church. In the mid-80s, I was living in northwestern Ohio and going through a divorce. At the time I was carless and nearly homeless.

My parents came and got me and took me back home to Indiana for a few days. There, at our little church on 18th and E., during the Sunday service, my sister and I sang this song as a “special.”

I can still see my parents watching us with love, pride, and pain, all mixed together. The pain was empathetic.

The next time my sister and I sang this song together was in 1992 at my father’s funeral. We had a hard time, but got through it for Mom.

And the final time I sang it as a solo was eight years later at my mother’s funeral. My sister decided it was too much for her so I went it alone. It wasn’t easy. I’ve not done a solo since.

Each time I hear the song, these three events flood my memory. Any time I bump up against life’s inevitable pointy hard places, the words of the hymn lift my heart.

Life needs more than a catchy tune with a beat you can dance to

“Raspberry Beret” and “1999” are catchy tunes. They’re fun to listen to and hum along with. But they are not soul-affirming in any holy sense. Not in the least.

Even “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which is an almost-hymn that uplifts and sends chills down the spine, still doesn’t match the power and depth of meaning inherent in “It Is Well with My Soul” and other great hymns.

Prince was a creative guy, no doubt about it. But his music does not help me or anyone achieve the chief end of man, the purpose of our divine creation.

What is the chief end of man, you ask? Simple. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

For me, regardless of who is lost from this world, whether a noted celebrity I admire or a close relative I love dearly, when life hurts, I can turn my eyes upon Jesus and sing...
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

        It is well with my soul,
        It is well, it is well with my soul.


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Were you a fan of Prince? If so, what did you like about his music? Who are some of your other favorite artists or songs? Do you have a favorite hymn? Why is it so meaningful?

How important, in general, is music to your life? Do you have a life soundtrack? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

And in the meantime, enjoy the hymn and sing along (the lyrics are below)!


Lyrics: It Is Well with My Soul

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain:
    It is well, (it is well),
    With my soul, (with my soul)
    It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!


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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Turn or burn: Hell hath no fury...for those who are redeemed. But for everyone else? Well...

“You go to H - E - Double Hockey Sticks!”

As a kid, shouting this epithet when we were angry with a playmate was about the most evil thing we could imagine. And if one of our parents ever heard us, ears were boxed and bottoms were swatted.

It was not an epithet to use lightly or often. We all knew what hell was and we had no desire to go there.

Cartoons and comics tended to trivialize hell with depictions of demons as horned and tailed munchkins prodding sinners through flame-dotted caves. But we knew better.

And, of course, people were always declaring they were going to have or had a “hell of a good time.”

Every time I heard this I thought, “Buddy, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” In fact, I still think that.

Hell is no party and there’s nothing about it that’s cute or humorous.

Yet, the exact nature of hell and how long its torments will be endured are not entirely settled.

So, we need excellent books such as Four Views on Hell (Zondervan).

Civil discourse on a hot topic

There was a time when I had no idea there was more than one way to consider hell: It was hot and you would burn forever without burning up. Something kind of like the burning bush, on fire but not consumed.

While that’s the traditional view, it’s not the only view of hell that can be garnered from a careful reading of the Bible.

In Four Views on Hell, four thoughtful theologian/writers present their differing views very cogently and reasonably, all well-grounded in Scripture. And they each take turns rebutting one another. With civility and respect.

(Wow! What a concept! Agreeing to disagree and doing so with civility and respect!)

As with a few other areas of doctrine, the idea of hell is not clearly delineated in the Bible. There are some good hints, but at no point does the Bible state definitively, exactly, and comprehensively what hell will and won’t be like.

It’s akin to the differing views on other biblical hot buttons. A strong case can be made for each of four main views of Revelation (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist, Idealist). Or the end times (Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, Amillennialism). Or even the two primary Christian theological traditions (Calvinism and Amrinianism).

In fact, one of my former pastors, a brilliant man and a staunch advocate of expository preaching through one book of the Bible at a time, explained how he approached dealing with Calvinism and Amrinianism. He stated simply, “Whatever view the Bible passage supports is what I preach.” I can’t argue with that.

So it is for me. While I tend to lean more heavily toward one or another view on various aspects of faith, doctrine, and theology, I can still see the validity of the points others make.  Especially when they’re supported by Scripture.

Yes, on the core essentials I’m solid. But unlike some, on the finer points, I have no problem remaining open to differing ideas, understanding that mystery is sometimes the better place to land.

Pick a hell, any hell

The four views presented are eternal conscious torment (Denny Burk), terminal punishment (John G. Stackhouse, Jr.), universalism (Robin A. Parry), and purgatory (Jerry L. Walls).

Eternal conscious torment is the traditional, most widely held view. In a nutshell, it’s the once in hell, always in hell idea. Those who reject God, refuse Christ’s salvation, and journey though life down the broad way of easy street will end in this hell. The torment will be painful, eternal, never-ending.

Terminal punishment, also referred to as annihilationism, says hell still awaits the unrepentant sinners. However, while painful and punishing, the experience will not last forever. Instead, this view believes that at some point the soul is burnt up and then is no more. Gone without a trace. Poof!

Universalism, on the other hand, goes to the opposite extreme. Again, there’s still some experience of hell for those who say no to God in their lifetimes. But, through a process of purification, some way somehow, eventually, everyone at some point after death will say yes to God and be redeemed. In other words, all (meaning truly all mankind) will be saved. This is probably the most controversial position.

Finally, there’s the oddity of purgatory. It’s odd because it’s not really a form of hell so much as a form of limbo that eventually leads to heaven. In other words, those who go in are partially but not quite sanctified, endure some sort of final processing (postmortem sanctification), and then are graduated to heaven. There is no exit to hell.

These summaries are heavily simplified as opposed to each of the cogent, reasonable, grounded-in-the-Bible views presented.

Even the treatment of universalism, in the words of the editor, Preston M. Sprinkle, “has brought what is often assumed to be a heretical view in the arena of biblical exegesis and theology.”

While I still hold to the traditional view, each of the authors challenged my thinking in positive ways. This is definitely a worthwhile read.

The Counterpoint Series

This is only one of several titles in the Counterpoint Series published by Zondervan. Several of the other titles also present differing views on topics such as the book of Revelation, sanctification, eternal security, the Apostle Paul, and much more.

As with this book on hell, each title offers a fair and balanced look at the topics. Each author presents their specific view followed by the brief rebuttals of each of the other authors.

The books lean a little toward the academic but are very accessible to the layman. You won’t need a seminary degree to read, understand, and appreciate the books.

While it’s conceivable that these books could be used in a small group, in my opinion they are better suited to individual study. If used in a group, I recommend it be lead by a mature and knowledgeable person with clear ground rules established regarding respectful discourse.

Agreeing to disagree with civility

As Sprinkle states in his conclusion to the book, “none of the four authors deny the existence of hell.” Likewise, all four most probably can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and with minor exceptions, many other historic creeds and confessions of the church.

Regardless of their specific views on hell, none deny the need for the transformative grace of God given through the blood of Christ and worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. None are heretics.

Despite differences of opinion on finer points of theology, as do these four authors, we can stand in unity on the essentials, exhibit the tolerant and holy love of Christ, and agree to disagree without doing harm to one another or the Gospel.

This book and others like it should serve as examples for maintaining practical unity within the tension of disagreement.

As for hell, no matter what exactly it turns out to be like, I’m absolutely certain it’s not a place I have any interest in visiting. Nor should you.

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NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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The motto of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) is “In Essentials, Unity. In Non-Essentials, Liberty. In All Things, Charity. Truth in Love.” Can you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Do you believe in hell? Why or why not? What do you think hell will be like? How have you come to form your view of hell? By reading the Bible? Through how hell is portrayed via the popular media (books, movies, comics, etc.)? Are you concerned that you might end up in hell? Why or why not? Do you believe that it’s essential to hold only one view of hell? What single view of hell do you believe is the correct one? Why? Do you believe those who hold a different view of hell are still Christians? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Monday, April 18, 2016

Between prose & poetry: New Castle musings | Allen (#Poetry Monday*)

My cousin and I used to walk to school instead of taking the bus.
It was our small rebellion against something.
Mostly, we did it only when the weather was good.
But not always. We walked in snow, too.
We were big boys in junior high, so, on the cusp of manhood,
we asserted ourselves, eschewing the bus, doing what we wanted.
We walked to school.
On the way there in the morning and then on the way back in the afternoons,
we talked about girls and God and growing up.
The three great mysteries of our lives.
We complained about our parents, our teachers, our boredoms.
We kicked rocks or cans, whatever was there in our path.
Sometimes, we stopped at the little store near his house and got
gum, soda, or some other treat. We’d egg on the owner to
gross us out by sucking the raw innards out the end of an egg.
He’d do it, too, always happy to entertain the kids,
slopping the yellow egg innards around in his open and toothless mouth.
Sometimes he sold us cigarettes we said were for our parents.
He knew our parents didn’t smoke. Neither did we but
we tried. Menthol was best. We lit up in Baker Park, hiding
but not really hidden behind some big rocks that are no longer there.
Turning green, we wondered what the attraction was.
Then, after enough tries, we knew.
Some years ago on a visit to my hometown, I strode alone
from the house I grew up in, across the park to where my
cousin lived, and then downtown where the old junior high used to be.
What once seemed a great distance wasn’t at all.
I missed having my cousin with me, and wanted to tell him what
it was like to walk alone, now, as an adult, still mystified by growing up,
girls, and God. Dying younger, he had walked on beyond me, ahead of me,
solving the greatest of those three mysteries. I miss him.




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* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here. As I grow older, more and more people in my life fall out of it, succumbing to death. Some, while always a painful loss, are not totally surprising. Age always yields to death. But when someone is younger and suddenly no more, that’s a different experience. So it was with my cousin Allen. And others since. How about you? Who have you lost “too early” that you miss? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I put the graphic and poetry quote at the bottom to preserve the line length of the poem. You may need to open your browser to the full width of your screen to ensure there are no line breaks.

Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com

Friday, April 8, 2016

Booklovers (#FlashFictionFriday*)

Originally posted November 21, 2014;
reposted here just because it’s a good story.


“Description is a bunch of crap. Waste of time,” the short, large-framed, rumpled man spoke disparagingly as he manhandled the stack of marked-down-to-a-dollar novels.

“I want something that tells the story straight with none of that fancy schmancy elaboration. You know, no dream sequences, no flashbacks, no mood setting narratives. Just give me the damn story already. And action. Lots of action. All the rest is just a waste of words. Not to mention ink and paper.”

No one was standing near him in the warm, musty-smelling second-hand bookstore. He was talking to the dust motes, or maybe to invisible elves watching over him from the tops of the bookcases.

“Hmmm. This one looks interesting. I like the cover. The title is catchy. Yep.” He headed to the counter with his prize gripped in his thick-fingered left hand as he dug in his pocket with his right hand, grabbing a wad of crumpled, damp bills. He tossed them on the counter next to his book and went back in for the coins.

“That’ll be $3.17, sir.” The female clerk spoke with confidence and a smile, looking straight into his eyes. She was an inch taller than him with a smattering of pale freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose and dusting the tops of her cheeks. Her hair was a natural reddish brown and her smile was genuine and charming.

He stared at her for a moment, eyes receding into his head as he calculated what was happening, then spoke with a gruff hoarseness, “The sign says all those books are only a dollar!”

The clerk continued grinning pleasantly as she glanced back at the book and the price tag adhering to the cover which illustrated in violent graphics the general plot arc of the story. Something on the cover made her blush as she replied, “I’m sorry sir, but another customer must have put this in the dollar stack by mistake. This one is $2.99, plus the tax of course.”
She spoke with a lovely lilt, her tone not condescending and only slightly apologetic. It was soothing and sweet. He was entranced, disarmed.

“Well, okay, I guess,” the words falling from his mouth like half-chewed food as he counted out the exact change from his sloppy cache of money.

The clerk picked the bills and change off the counter, sorted everything neatly into the cash register, closed it, bagged his book with his receipt, and handed it to him nearly singing, he thought, “Sorry about that, sir. Here you go. Have a nice day and come again!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he growled and grumbled as he shuffled toward the door. “You have a good day yerself, missy.”

He stepped outside into the cool early-winter air grasping his treasure in one hand as he closed his coat with the other. It was a windy and snow-streaked day. “Time to go home,” he spoke spewing steam, speaking to the wind, the snow, the day, the elves. “And meet these new friends.”


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* It’s flash fiction Friday! (To learn more about FFF, click here and scroll down.) 
Flash fiction is nothing more or less than a very, very short short story. This one is 500 words. What do you think? Know anyone like this guy? Who are the new friends he is planning to meet? What is the story really about? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
BTW: The story was inspired during a visit to a Half Price Bookstore in Cleveland, a store I miss here in the Philly-area. Am wishing they will soon open a store here. (Hint! Hint!)
Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The elements of clear writing: Helping the medicine go down

Originally posted February 2, 2012;
reposted here with minor edits.



In one of the closing episodes of the series “Monk,” Adrian Monk, who is a brilliant detective with OCD, has been poisoned. As a result, he’s been given medication in the form of a capsule that contains red, yellow, and blue grains.

Adrian opens the capsule and empties the contents onto a clean cloth, then using a knife he sorts them into three groups. He takes his medicine, one color at a time.

Good writing, in a nutshell, is clear, concise, complete, and – this is important – clever. Good writing gets your message delivered. Period.

A challenge to being clear is making the complex uncomplicated. This is especially challenging when a memo, article, or speech needs to address several elements among which are many possible connections and inter-relations.

While breaking pills apart isn’t a good way to take your medicine – there’s a reason the grains are inside a capsule – this is actually a good example of how to make something complex more easily graspable.

Break it down to make it clear

Most messages are made up of several elements. The most common are who, what, where, why, when, and how. Outlining your message before you begin writing it so you can get a clear handle on the various elements and their connections is a good way to break them out for your own purposes.

Use whatever method works best for you. Perhaps writing individual elements on 3x5 cards and tacking them to your bulletin board or mapping your message on a white board works best for you.

Essentially, you’re breaking apart the capsule and separating the colors. This allows you to see through to the heart of your message.

Keep to the essentials to make it concise

Weigh the elements and determine what the true essentials of your message are. In the capsule analogy, there are three colors. Within these color groups are several grains which can represent the finer details.

Determine the primary “color groups” or overarching themes of your message. Within these groups, list the “grains” or details, and then sift them down to the essentials. Eliminate items that are actually superfluous and combine those that are similar.

Structure the essential elements of your message in a logical progression. Present them in a way that shows how they build on one another.

Wrap it all in context to make it complete

In the pill analogy, the capsule holding the grains is the context. Context ties up loose ends and holds the message together.

In a change message, context will explain where you are, where you’re going, and why this needs to happen. Often change messages are merely announcements of what’s going to be new with no rationale as to why this is happening, and worse, with no clear statement of what’s being changed from. Without including context, change messages are met with resistance.

In a re-branding message, context provides the historical connection. It acknowledges the value of the past, connects the past to the present, and then points to the future.

Context and background provide the foundation on which you can build your message.

Write it well to make it clever


Now that you’re ready to put it all together, write it to resonate and connect with your audience. Avoid ambiguity and jargon, but use language and sentence structure that emulates the way your audience thinks and talks.

Incorporate relevant analogies that echo their worldview and experience. Help your audience see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and smell the message through relevant language and idiom.

Don’t be afraid to toss in a touch of humor. But be sure it’s humor that won’t offend or confuse. Keep it simple.

If you know your audience well, your writing ear will be tuned into their frequency and your message will come together just right.

Make it pretty to make it sweet

Once you’ve crafted the message, work with a designer to add graphics, photos, and other elements to make your message even more clear. Formatting will also have a big impact on the clarity of your message.

Break apart the paragraphs, add subheads, and use other touches (sparingly) to help your reader follow the path of your message’s logic.

But a caution regarding graphics and formatting: Pretty colors can never fix a poorly written message. Back to the pill analogy, if the grains in the capsule are the right colors but the wrong medicine, the patient’s going to be in big trouble once it’s swallowed.

But good design can be the sugar that helps the medicine of a well-crafted message get delivered, making a positive difference just as the doctor ordered.



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Do you hate writing? Love writing? Do you think the suggestions in this post helpful? Why or why not? Do you have other tips for improving writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mistake by the lake

I grew up in a Christian home. At church, there were regularly sermons about possessing the mind of Christ. How God graciously gives wisdom to those who asked. That the Holy Spirit nudges us toward good behavior.

Not really understanding their significance as a child, I collected these truths like a kid might gather stuff in his pockets. Over time, as I bumped up against life, they became more real and practical.

I began to realize that what many referred to as “gut feel” was, for the Christian, often a divine prodding that should be heeded.

I also learned that in life and faith, truths tend to move from good ideas to practical realities in the midst of challenges.

More than successes, mistakes tend to turn mere information into wisdom.

Sometimes these lessons stuck. Sometimes not. Sometimes re-education was required.

For a few years, we lived in the “mistake on the lake” aka Cleveland, Ohio. In the middle of last year we moved to my wife’s hometown in Pennsylvania. The move brought us nearer to her family and allows us to help her recently widowed father.

So far, I don’t believe the move was a mistake. If it is, then it will be revealed in time.

Some decisions, when errant, reveal their wrong-headedness immediately. Others, at the time they’re made and acted upon, seem solid. Rational. Prudent.

But then you wake up a few days, weeks, or months later, the proverbial light bulb flashing on brightly, and you slap your forehead exclaiming like Homer Simpson, “Doh!”

You realize you’ve made a mistake, what the American Heritage Dictionary ungraciously defines as, “An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness.”

I really hate when that happens.

And it happened in a big way a few months before we moved.

Having thought about our move for a couple of years, we knew we needed to downsize our stuff. It’s not like we owned a lot, but the basement of the house we rented had built up its accumulation of odds and ends.

A fair amount were the detritus of time that I had dragged across state lines, move after move. Their primary value were the memories I attached to them.

In my basement office I had files of all manner of papers, clippings, receipts, memos, old writings in various drafts, letters, and more.

Finally, one day, I decided to tackle all of it and clear out as much as was reasonable. I had only put it off since some needed to be shredded.

It was no problem for the first couple of hours, but then it got boring. Shredding is time consuming and monotonous.

My back began to ache from bending, lifting, and sorting. And there were books upstairs that needed reading and a comfortable recliner for doing just that.

I looked at what I had already trashed and what was left and hastily decided to just toss the remainder without sorting or shredding it.

I dumped several files worth of papers into a large black bag, hauled it out to the recycle bin by the driveway, and that was that.

That was, until this nagging sensation pressed ever so gently against my awareness.

Perhaps I’d tossed papers with sensitive info on them that should have been shredded. Perhaps mixed in the mess were a couple of very important keepsakes. Perhaps I should really retrieve the bag and thoroughly sort it.

I swatted down the nagging over several days until the trash was collected and the papers were gone. For good.

Weeks later I was talking with someone about a letter of praise I had received from a notable Christian personage many years before. Later I decided to look for the letter, having a pretty good idea where it was.

Yep, you guessed it.

As I went through the files where I thought I had placed the letter, it slowly dawned on me that it was in the files I had hastily dumped. I was heart sick. Especially as I realized there were other items I wanted to keep that also had been tossed.

Gah!

I had made a horrible mistake. Actually, I had made a series of mistakes.

Proverbs 14:29 in the CEB says, “Patience leads to abundant understanding, but impatience leads to stupid mistakes.” In my case, emphasis on stupid.

I’ve always been one to mull, to take time, to tell others to just settle down and be patient. To be methodical. Yet, when it came to the simple task of clearing out my files, I failed to heed my own wisdom.

I became impatient. I rushed to finish up and rationalized a short cut.

But more, I ignored that nagging sensation. That nudge of conscience. That still small voice of godly wisdom. And I did it with impunity over a period of days.

But, ultimately, the cost was realized and is realized each time I recall more items that were in the batch of papers I failed to cull.

Fortunately nothing earth shattering was lost. I didn’t toss out the family savings hidden in a mattress as some have. There was no priceless jewelry accidentally donated to the thrift store. No rare antique.

What is lost are items that held value to only me.

I can never show that letter to anyone as proof. Which yields another lesson I continue to learn each time it comes to mind.

The letter itself is meaningless. What’s important is the character in me that was recognized by another that drew out the writing of the letter, a letter of recognition and encouragement.

I know what I did, what I accomplished, and need no letter to remind me. God knows, too.

My mistake has taught me -- is teaching me -- that my full trust and sense of worth must rest in God and God alone. What I do, who I am, it’s all to be for His glory. And often for His eyes only.

In the end, I lost nothing by my mistake, but gained wisdom.


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Related reading:


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Have you ever done something similar to what I did? What other mistakes have you made that, while painful, taught a valuable lesson? Have you ever repeated a mistake, having failed to learn from it the first time? Share your thoughts and insights in the comments!  Oh, and by the way, Cleveland is a wonderful, vibrant place, no mistake about it!


* I came across this article after writing this post. Kismet!

 Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

We are all little publishers! : A Code of Ethics For Christians Posting On Social Media

If you’re on social media, you are a publisher. Oh yes you are!

Every time you post a comment or share a link, you are publishing content.

Being active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other platform is not radically different from publishing a magazine or newsletter.

Seriously. Just think about it.

Your subscribers and readers are your “friends” and “followers.” For some, the information you provide is taken very seriously.

At the least, everything you post is a reflection of who you are, how you think, and a promotion for the ideas you are sharing.

How seriously others take your posts is tied to who you are. If you’re viewed as a trusted source, then what you post (aka publish) is seen as true and valuable. Something to be taken to heart.

Hopefully, this gives you pause.

During a recent webinar I participated in, the presenter, Marshall Shelley, vice president of Christianity Today, made a statement to the effect, “I'm struck by how much we [Christians] believe in truth but how little we sometimes practice honesty.”

The statement was made, in part, in reference to the kinds of “stories” and “memes” posted in social media and shared via email. These often aren’t very true.

But Shelley broadened this out to include all publishing.

The audience for the webinar was members of the Evangelical Press Association. Shelley pointed to EPA’s Code of Ethics as he challenged us as writers and editors to exercise care in what we share.

There’s some good stuff in this Code. Go take a look.

From the full Code, I’ve gleaned and distilled the following seven points that I want to propose as a Code of Ethics For Christians Posting On Social Media:
  1. Christians who post on social media should care about advancing the work and witness of Jesus Christ and the Church.
     
  2. Christians who post on social media should care about helping all people understand their world in light of biblical truth.
     
  3. Christians who post on social media should exhibit trustworthiness, fair play, and civility in what they share, avoiding even the appearance of defamation or slander.
     
  4. Christians who post on social media must make rigorous efforts at accuracy and copyright acknowledgement

  5. Christians who post on social media should be wary of the temptations posed by the medium’s immediacy and should exercise restraint in passing along questionable information and use care in checking facts and sources.
     
  6. When substantive mistakes are made, whatever their origin, Christians who post on social media will publish a correction or clarification at the earliest opportunity, and delete the erroneous post.
     
  7. The foremost responsibility of Christians who post on social media is faithfulness to the will of God as expressed in the Bible and to the articulation of the truth.
The bottom line is that when we post something on social media we need to exhibit truth and practice honesty.

Something that’s just a little bit true is a lie. At minimum it’s misleading and inappropriate to post.

Posting or sharing comments, links, and memes that are insulting, inaccurate, mean, or untoward is simply wrong.

Christ calls us to be better. To be like Him.

Making this concept practical, Paul warns us to “put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth [as in, don’t' be a potty-mouth or a potty-poster]. Do not lie...” (Colossians 3:8-9, HCSB).

And then he encourages us to “be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to avoid fighting, and to be kind, always showing gentleness to all people” (Titus 3:2, HCSB).

I’ve said it before but I’m going to say it again, before you post that next comment or meme, stop and ask yourself is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer is not a resounding yes to each question, don’t post it. Just don’t.

After all, in a sense, you are what you post.

So, based on your Facebook or other posts, what are you?


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Additional reading:



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Have you posted something that later you realized was inaccurate or mean? Did you go back and delete it? If not, why not? Have you ever been offended by someone else’s post? Did you let them know? If not, why not? If yes, how did they respond? Is something that’s a little untrue okay to post if it’s funny? Why or why not? Please share your opinions in the comments!

 Click here to read a sample chapter (PDF) from my forthcoming novel, “The Hungering Dark: Awakening.” To learn more about the book, go to TheHungeringDarkStory.com