Monthly Archives: September 2011

NananananananaNANO! …wrimo.

So. I write.

This year will be my third swing at Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month. Any writers out there? Any writers who don’t know what Nanowrimo is? Well, listen up. Nanowrimo (hereafter known as nano, ’cause I get sick of typing “Nanowrimo”) is one of the best things that’s happened in the world of writing since … I dunno, the dawn of time?

Hyperbole – it’s THE. BEST. THING. EVER!!!

Anyway, nano is awesome. The idea is simple: writers across the world commit to writing an entire 50,000-word novel between November 1 and 30. This has been happening since 1999. Some writers roll their eyes at the exercise, claiming a novel can’t be written in thirty days. I beg to differ. What those writers mean is that a good novel can’t be written in thirty days.

But that’s cool, man. Make it good later.
This is about forcing oneself to sit that hiney in a chair and tap-tap-tap away until your fingers hurt. In order to write a novel in a month, a writer needs to put down 1,667 words each day. Now, that’s easy to do once. Doing it thirty times in a row is another experience altogether. It’s a serious exercise of butt-in-chair, regardless of whether or not the writing feels “inspired” today. Edit the darn thing later. Learn focus now.

Personally, I’ve been involved since 2009. That’s when I gave it my first go, writing a “novel” I referred to more often as a “testimony,” but which is known in the biz as more of a “memoir.” I sort of dug up some of my old demons and made them cringe in the sunlight of my blank page. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna make you read it. But that year I “won!” Wooo! Cue confetti and dorky little celebration dance!

Then in May 2010 I had a baby. Which meant in November 2010, I had a six month old. Which meant I didn’t win nano’10. Sadface. I tried, though – really hard, in fact – and I blame my failure just as much on my still-pretty-brand-spankin’-new motherhood as on the fact that I was trying true fiction. Quite frankly, in the context of an exercise in slap-it-on-the-page-as-fast-as-possible, memoir is easier – I already knew what was going to happen! But in 2010 I tried to genuinely write a novel, and I did it with a screaming infant in my care, and I am not ashamed that I didn’t meet my goal.

So. Nano’11 is just a month away, now.

Over the summer, I sat down and wrote a character, who I knew nothing about. I built her from the ground up, sans story, and every once in a while, over the last several months, I’ve taken a seat and gotten to know her a little bit better. I intend to spend November getting to know her better – 1,667 words at a time. Do you think maybe there’s a story in there?

Her name is Stacie. Do you want to meet her? Here she is, remembering a day she spent with her in-and-out father, Vince, when she was eight years old.

“Let’s paint, Girlie,” Vince said – that was his favorite nickname for me, ‘Girlie,’ and my favorite, too. I was eight now, and he had been home for a few days.

I’d been dreading this, though. Last time Vince came home, he sat me down and taught me to paint. Just beginner’s stuff, of course, he’d said, but then he blew me away with all the tricks he knew. There were hundreds of strokes and techniques and methods and brushes. I didn’t understand how a person could keep them all straight, let alone master them. He was patient, though, as I fumbled with the paper, attempting to create something. Anything. I didn’t succeed, but I wrote down a few tips. I wanted to remember, so that I could practice after he left.

I did practice, too. A lot. And hard. It was invigorating: I’d take an utterly blank sheet of paper, perfect but boring, and splash it with one firm, beautiful streak of color. And that one streak, no matter what color or shape, would animate me as much as the paper. Confidence, eagerness, joy would shoot through me.

But something else followed, something that proved to be as inevitable as the initial rush: confusion. My barns were lopsided. My people’s eyes were the wrong size. My trees looked like they were made of plastic. I fought long and hard with the tools Vince had provided me, and I wanted to be a painter, so bad. I just didn’t have the gift.

One day I took a painting of a kitten to Mama. She oohed and ahhed over it like I was Rembrandt. But that was exactly the problem. She laid it on so thick because she didn’t think it was any good, and she didn’t want me to know.

I put my painting supplies in a box and left it in my closet behind my shoes. Soon enough Vince would come home and I’d have to return it all.

And that’s why, when he wanted to paint, I couldn’t bring myself to smile. I slipped off my chair without a word and followed him into the yard (“Landscape is inspiring,” he’d explained before), where he had set up two easels and two blank canvases.

“You bought real canvases?” I asked. “But aren’t those expensive?”

“Only the best for you, Girlie,” he said. “Have you been practicing?”

I nodded dumbly.

“Well, let’s paint something together, then.”

“I – but –”

His head crooked to one side.

“I practiced, Vince, I really did, and I really like it. But I’m just – I’m no good.”

“Oh, jeez,” he said, “you’re worried you’re not good enough for me? Me? Why, I’m just a silly old coot what dun’t know nuthin’.” He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue, and I giggled despite myself. “Really, Stace, not being sure of yourself is a dumb reason not to do something. Give it a shot.”

“I’ll ruin the canvas,” I muttered, “and it was expensive.”

“Baby Girl,” he said, leaning down in front of me. “If you stuck a wad of chocolate pudding in your mouth and then gave that canvas a good lick” – I laughed again – “and that was all the art you did, it’d still be worth it to me. I bought it because I want to see what you’ll do with it.”

I tried not to, but even so I smiled.

“What should I paint?”

He smirked with an idea. “Paint a picture of me. I’d love to see how you see me.”

So I did. The first stroke was exciting, as always, and when the insecurity hit, I ignored it the best I could. I forced myself to just keep painting, reminding myself what he’d said – it’d still be worth it.

I didn’t need him to model for me. I had his face memorized. And as I painted I found something else that was exciting: color. Vince had skin like leather, his eyes were as green as a jungle frog and his hair was three different shades of red. I painted these colors true – somehow, it was easy. At the end, his eyes were different heights and one side of his face was bigger than the other – but the colors were true. That was the first time I ever painted a picture worth keeping. And he did.

Are you doing nano? What kind of project do you have in mind?

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Letter from a Valley

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

A couple of years ago, I read this verse and thought to myself, “I want to be able to face a trial that really, genuinely hurts – one that I can’t get sympathy for or brag about enduring. I want to experience a trial that makes me beg for mercy. And I want to be able to count it all joy.” Well, God hears us, friends. Please pray for me.

I once heard a pastor say that the beginning of a Christian’s life is usually pretty sporadic. As humans, our tendency is to have arbitrary, intense highs and lows based on circumstances and our own weak resolves in the face of those circumstances. You turn to Jesus, and your morale skyrockets for a while and you wonder how it’s possible that anything ever got you down. But then after a few months you realize sin still has a hold on you and you have to fight it, and you’re overcome with your own weakness, and your morale plummets. But (because you were genuinely called by Christ) you focus and pray and do battle with your sin, and – cue the applause! – you have your first victory. And so on. Kind of like …

But God gives us strength, and focus, over time. Eventually, you learn to accept and maybe even appreciate times when you’re not on a spiritual high. (A friend of mine and I recently discovered something interesting – I call these times “gray,” while she calls them “dry.” They’re the same thing, though.)

So this pastor I was listening to pointed out that, with time, hopefully, your spiritual morale starts to look a little more like …

Right now, I’m probably closer to the second image, but I’m falling a lot faster than climbing. At this very moment, I’m smack at the bottom of a pretty hard fall, and I’ve got a long climb ahead of me. But it’s reassuring at least to remember that this is normal. It hurts, but it’s not permanent.

This image is helping me. Here’s another:

This man is working very, very hard to get somewhere. He can’t see, with his eyes, where he’s going, but he knows that the world isn’t all desert. So he takes a step. And another step. And then another. And so on.

Each step is really, really, really hard. Each step feels impossible until it’s done. And the thing is, once he’s taken this impossible step, he doesn’t get to rest and have a lemonade. No one pats him on the back for it. There’s no fanfare and no applause and no pride. Because, instead, it’s time to take another step. Which feels impossible, until he’s done it.

Once this man has climbed over a dune – which feels impossible until it’s done – he sees another dune. He doesn’t get to rest and have a lemonade …

Don’t worry. I’m not going to repeat the entire spiel. The point is, each small victory is only part of a larger victory, which is only a part of another victory, until you win the final victory. But in the meantime, it pretty much all looks the same.

It’s tempting to sit down and have a rest. But (this much I know from painful experience) once he sits, man oh man, getting back up is hard. When he sits down, he runs the risk of never getting back up.

Sometimes, this is Christianity: just plodding along, even though it hurts. The world’s not all desert, though:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2 

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God’s Champions: the Staines family

If we don’t forgive men of the wrong that they do, then how can we be forgiven?

Graham and Gladys Staines met as missionaries: they were both from Australia, but worked together at the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home in Orissa, India. There’s something romantic about the lack of romance in their story. Both of them had given their lives over to the Lord, without intention of marrying, and it was through that work that they met. They married in 1984. God blessed them with children – Esther in 1985, Phillip in 1988, and Timothy in 1992. The family lived and worked in Orissa without incident for many years. Then, in 1999, Graham and both boys were brutally murdered.

It was January 23, 1999, just after midnight. Graham and his sons were four hours away from home, in a village called Monoharpur, sleeping in the back of their Jeep. A mob encircled the car, poured petrol on it, and lit it on fire. The Staineses tried to get out of the vehicle, but the mob of over 100 religious radicals kept them inside. Onlookers tried to rush in to help, but were held back, too. Graham, Phillip, and Timothy were burned to death, and the mob dispersed. Witnesses reported that the charred bodies were locked in a last embrace.

The religious extremist group Bajrang Dal was immediately implicated, and several witnesses claimed a man named Dara Singh was the ringleader. Many people were arrested with ties to the murders, but Singh avoided capture for a year.

Gladys and Esther responded in a way that no one of this world could ever expect or understand: immediate, total, and public forgiveness. This is what Gladys said within two days of her husband’s and sons’ murders:

I am terribly upset, but not angry. My husband loved Jesus Christ who has taught us to forgive our enemies.

Gladys had a choice before her, in the wake of the tragedy. She had a daughter to care for and family who could support them in Australia. But she never considered returning. “I never felt scared, only overwhelmed,” she said.  And there was work to be done in Orissa.

Gladys and Esther at the funeral.

Following the murders, most of Gladys’ time was invested in the leprosy home she’d always worked at. At other times, she worked to organize the founding of a local ten-bed clinic, which even included a maternity ward. She also set her sights, in the long run, on achieving Graham’s dream: to open a full general hospital. The Graham Staines Memorial Hospital opened in 2004.

In January 2000, Dara Singh walked brazenly into a trap set by Orissa police. He insisted that he’d decided to turn himself over. He also claimed that he hadn’t intended for Graham to be killed – only “taught a lesson” – and that he didn’t know the boys were in the Jeep.

A long, bureaucratic trial ensued, which was deferred again and again. Singh went on a hunger strike, which postponed proceedings further. Finally, in September 2003, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Throughout the ordeal – the murders, and the media attention and trial that followed – Gladys continually affirmed forgiveness. Pressured to speak out about the political or governmental issues, she remained steadfastly silent. “I have decided not to answer any political question,” she said. Her message was always and only forgiveness.

And we, as her brothers and sisters in Christ, can, at least in part, understand how she does it.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 
Philippians 4:13 

BBC: January 25, 1999; January 27, 1999; February 1, 2000; September 22, 2003; May 18, 2005.
Rediff.com
Voice of the Martyrs: Hearts of Fire.  

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Our Act in the Cosmic Story

Maybe you’ll furrow your brow at this, or maybe you’ll understand. Either way, here goes. In the back of my mind, not really seriously, I have always sort of pitied the people of the Old Testament. They had so little to go on, you know? How could they trust in their salvation without knowing the story of Christ? How could they have such passion for God when they didn’t know how he would save them? How did they know that He didn’t desire the blood of bulls?

I know this attitude isn’t right – I’ve always known that – it’s just a prejudice in the back of my mind that, for the most part, I’ve always ignored. [Aside: let’s ignore the whole issue of God dwelling among them in named prophets and through visions that may or may not exist today. I don’t intend for this blog post to run that long. Maybe another time.]

I picture the Bible as a story, a great big long epic story (and just so you know, all the other great big long epic stories ever written or experienced …


    

… are just sidenotes within the great big long epic story of the Bible).

It’s easy to think of the Bible as a collection of stories …

    

… And while it is that, I really believe there is an elegance, a completeness, to the single story of existence, from the beginning to the end. The Cosmic Story.

And I pitied the people of the Old Testament, figuring that they only had part of the story. They had the part where the conflict is introduced. They had a hope for resolution. But they didn’t experience that resolution. Poor suckers. We have Jesus! We know the end!

Most stories, especially epic ones, come in three acts. Here’s the Cosmic Story:

Act I. Old Testament. Poor suckers.
Act II. Umm … more Old Testament?
Act III: Jesus!

Wait. That’s not right, is it? How about:

Act I: Old Testament.
Act II: New Testament.
Act III: The Grand Finale. The End. Revelation. Armageddon.

*headdesk*

We don’t have the whole story, either, do we?

In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus feeds the five thousand. Verse 15: Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” The next day, the crowd finds him and a conversation about the bread from Heaven ensues. The Jews want Jesus to perform more miracles and give them all the answers; Jesus maintains that He’s already given them answers, and they’re not listening. Verses 41-45:

So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”

The Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t know the particulars about Jesus’ coming. They were surprised to hear Him saying things like “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (verse 54). And much more than that, they were surprised to see Him willingly go to His death. I think this confusion was pervasive in the crowds Jesus spoke to. But there were two distinct reactions to it:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” … After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (verses 60 and 66)

as opposed to Peter’s glorious declaration of faith,

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (verses 68-9)

What led these people to these standpoints? That’s exactly what Jesus was saying: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” The first people, the ones who denied Him, did so because they couldn’t match Him to what they believed, to everything they’d been doing their whole lives.

The second group of people sat there scratching their heads, but it didn’t even occur to them to leave Jesus. Why? Because, as weird as He sounded, they heard the ring of truth in His words.

Those second-groupers had soft hearts – teachability, humility – and through that soft-heartedness, they had come to know the voice of their Lord. They didn’t trust themselves. They trusted Him. When He spoke, it didn’t matter if what He said sounded weird.

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … The sheep follow him, for they know his voice.

John 10:3-4

Oswald Chambers said:

At the bar of common sense Jesus Christ’s statements may seem mad, but bring them to the bar of faith and you begin to see with awestruck spirit that they are the words of God.

Let’s read our Bibles. Let’s pray. Let’s open our ears and learn His voice.

Because next comes Act III, and I don’t want to be one of those first-groupers that think they’ve got it all figured out, and then be surprised to find I didn’t know His voice as well as I thought.

Which of Jesus’ words do you struggle with? Something in the Bible that confuses you, but that you’ve just decided to trust?

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God’s Champions: Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi is a forty-five year old Pakistani, a wife, a mother of five, and belongs to the only Christian home in her village. Asia (pronounced ah-see-ah) was a farmhand and worked alongside other women, all Muslims, until 2009. When she was asked to fetch water for everyone to share, a few of her coworkers refused to drink it because, since it came from a Christian, it was unclean. A fight erupted and some of the women pressured her to convert to Islam. She refused, saying:

Our Christ sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins…. Our Christ is alive.

Several days later a mob came to her house and beat Asia and her family. The police arrived and broke up the mob, but they also arrested Asia and sentenced her with blasphemy, under accusations made by her coworkers that she had insulted Mohammed. In November 2010 she was convicted and sentenced to death. She and her attorneys immediately appealed.

Human rights organizations have loudly protested the sentence, and the government is hesitant (according to reports) to follow through, but they’re facing extreme pressure from radical Islam. Two Pakistani government officials, Salmaan Taseer (a Muslim) and Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian), called for her release, and were assassinated, in January and March of 2010, respectively. The imam of Asia’s village, wearing a cool, collected expression, made this statement to the BBC:

If the law punishes someone for blasphemy, and that person is pardoned or released, then we will take the law into our own hands.

In Pakistan, death sentences for blasphemy are rare. If Asia’s sentence is carried out, she will be the first woman to be legally executed in Pakistan for blasphemy. But even if she is released, she and her family are in great danger. Her husband Ashiq and her children are on the run and have also received death threats from radical Muslims.

Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian organization founded by Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand in the 60s, is promoting a petition for her release. 230,000 signatures have been gathered since its launch last month. The goal is 1,000,000. SIGN THE PETITION HERE. 

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

Hebrews 13:3

The Huffington Post, November 11, 2010.
CNN, November 23, 2010.
The Washington Post, November 26, 2010.
BBC, December 5, 2010

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