Divine Deception

11427290_10153351229973704_4814296511228219245_oAs most of you know, my family and I just returned from our eight-month, 40-state (and 2 province) road trip. Over the next several months, I’m going to post various stories about our adventure, from watching cowboys joust to meeting the pastor of “The Most Bombed Church in America.”

But first, I want to tell you a little more about the trip and how it began with a divine deception.

When we started our planning, I thought it would primarily be a book tour for my recently released book, Radically Normal. Sure, I knew we’d get to see some amazing sights and get a break from the brutal ministry experiences we’d been through, but that was secondary to the business aspect.

And this is where God tricked me. Early in the planning of the trip, the pastor of a church in Oregon invited me to speak at his church. The timing was perfect – he wanted me for the very first Sunday of our trip. Coincidence? I thought not. I was sure that meant I’d have speaking engagements almost every Sunday thereafter.

Not so. It’d be another four months before I spoke at another church. (For the record, my wife had far more realistic expectations.)

I spent the next several month frustrated by the lack of speaking engagements. Try as I might, I was only able to get a handful of small events. I wasn’t just frustrated, I was confused. What had I missed? What was God doing?

About halfway through the trip, relaxing in a hot tub somewhere in central Florida, I thought, “You know, this is really is a nice break from all that we went through over the last four years of ministry.”

Then it dawned on me, this trip wasn’t just about business, it was a much needed sabbatical. After all the pain we’d been through, we needed this trip to be refreshed and recharged. I needed to regain a heart for ministry.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: “I don’t know why it took me so long to see that this trip was also a sabbatical. Yes I do know why; I was too busy being anxious. Isn’t that just like us – to be so busy striving that we can’t see the gift God is giving us?”

In my anxiousness to launch Radically Normal, I wasn’t willing to take the break I really needed. I thought I had too much to do, so God had to trick me into taking a break.

Sometimes God has to trick us because our plans are not his plans.

That is not to say that his plans always involve a hot tub, but they are always best. They always bring the greatest long-term joy and peace.

And so, even as my family has come back home and is living in the midst of even more uncertainty – Where are we going to live? Should I go back to pastoring? – I think I’m in a much better place to relax and enjoy the ride.

How about you: Have you ever tricked your kids into doing what you knew they really wanted? Have you ever felt as if God tricked you like that?

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Writing Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

On our trip across the US, I had the joy and privilege of mentoring several aspiring authors. I’ve come to believe that’s part of my calling, so I’ve decided to begin freelancing as a writer’s coach. Click here if you’d like more info. I’m also going to post writing-related articles in hopes of helping other authors.

HungerGames_Updated_CCCall me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert the background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, without spending a chapter on Katniss’ story or what the Hunger Games are – “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien could begin with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

MinersDist12Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one good one, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader.

The second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see. That is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.” Biography.com

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?

The Adventure of Going Home

As American, I think the points of the compass have a certain “feel” in our collective subconscious. For instance, north means cold and south means warm. What about east and west? East feels like old, established, tradition. West feels like new and adventure.

Traveling the country for eight months has cemented these feelings for me. The further east we went, the older everything got. A sense of tradition and history permeated the air. Driving toward the birthplace of our nation felt strangely like heading Home.

But as we took a left turn at Maine, dropping down to St. Louis then vaguely following Lewis and Clark’s path, I could feel the adventure of heading “out west.” It was easy to imagine its wildness to the early settlers.

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Here is where it gets interesting for me – my family’s actual home is in the west, nearly as far west as one can go in the continental United States. The net effect was that going home felt like an adventure.

In one sense, that’s not surprising. We sold our house when we left and I don’t have a job, so coming home really is an adventure (prayers for guidance are welcome!).

But the sense of homecoming as an adventure has an even deeper meaning. Heaven will be the Great Adventure, not a place to sit around but where we’ll be entrusted with greater challenges than we can now imagine. Yet it will also be our Real Home, where we really belong. It will be our true Sabbath.

Somehow, this westward trip home help me understand heaven as both adventure and rest. Not completely, but enough that I’m more eager for it than ever.

Best TV Interview Yet (or so I’m told)

First, let me say that I realized it’s been too long between blog posts when I couldn’t remember which blogging site I use! My apologies for the infrequent posts.One of the things I’ve learned on this trip is how hard it is to write while on the road.

But we are almost home – one week from Friday!

Anyway, here is the TV interview I told you about. It starts at 17:20.

Heresy Hunter or Heresy Healer? About my recent guest post…

Many of my posts begin as a word picture, such as God becoming a bum,designed to evocatively and memorably describe some truth (such as the Incarnation). The more evocative, the better. I then write the post around that image.

In the case of this post that Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal posted, the image was that of a refugee trying to warm himself with a feces-smeared blanket. My hope was to evocatively associate heresy with filth and my half-done response to derelict of duty.

I wanted to share that with both because it’s fun to give some background and also to encourage you in your writing/speaking/preaching to use evocative images. Don’t waste those powerful images that have sprung to your mind – find a way to milk the most out of them.

The post can be found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2015/february-online-only/heresy-hunter-or-heresy-healer.html

Feel free to read it and comment!

To the glory of God and the joy of the saints!

Josh

How My Lack of Platform Helped Me Get Published

(This post originally appeared on Chip MacGregor’s blog. BTW: If you are interested in learning more about writing and publishing, I strongly encourage you to follow his blog!)

It was every hopeful author’s dream. I had just finished pitching my book idea in front of seven other hopeful authors and (more to the point) an acquisitions editor. As we all stood up to leave, he discreetly handed me his card and said “Let’s talk.” Long story short, I am now a published author.

I have, in fact, shortened the story so much as to be deceptive. When he and I talked at lunch the next day, he didn’t even look at the proposal I had spent three months perfecting. First, he wanted me to address several issues. Six grueling months later, I sent him the revised proposal. To my delight, he loved it. But he wanted me to completely rework my sample chapters, which took another five months. Finally he believed it was ready to be presented to the publication committee.

As you may know, publishers are looking for three things in a proposal: 1) a great concept, 2) great writing, and 3) a great platform. But, as my editor said, they’re willing to over look one of those three if the other two make up for it. I had no platform, so my editor kept pushing me to refine and improve my concept and writing.

There were many points in the process that I wanted to give up. Two years is a long time to spend on three chapters. But because I didn’t have a platform to fall back on, I didn’t have a choice. And now, having seen too many mediocre books from well-known personalities, I’m glad I didn’t have a platform to lean on. I know myself – if I could have gotten away with less effort, I would have.

By the way, I’ve also seen a lot of authors fall back on “I can always self-publish.” I’m NOT saying that self-publishing is necessarily an easy way out. It’s probably the harder path because you’re the only one holding yourself to a higher standard. I’m simply saying that if you view self-publishing as a back-up plan, your quality will likely suffer.

In the end, the publication committee caught my editor’s vision and decided to take a chance on an unknown author. But my point isn’t that anyone can be published if they work hard enough. There are no guarantees (even a great platform isn’t a guarantee). My point is that a lack of platform can be a blessing. It can drive us to write at the highest level we’re capable of. And that should be our goal, shouldn’t it?

What do you think? Is your lack of a platform a blessing or a curse? Is self-publishing an easy way out?

My Visit to the Civil Rights Museum – A MLK Day Post

(This is a repost of an article originally wrote for Progress, Not Perfection)

When I was a college freshman in southern California, I got a job selling overpriced memorabilia at a local mall. I felt like I’d entered a different world – my manager was African American and the assistant manager was gay. I’d grown up in a small, northwest community that was as monochromatic as a slice of Wonder Bread. The two or three African Americans who lived my in town were almost treated like royalty as everyone tripped over themselves to demonstrate they weren’t racist. (How they treated the migrant Mexican workers was another matter.)

I thoroughly enjoyed working for Marsha, not just because it proved I wasn’t racist, but because it was cultural experience. I learned that “ax” meant “ask” and that is was ok to say “Praise Jesus” at just about every occasion. But nothing shocked me as much as when she talked sadly about a friend’s son who had just joined the Los Angeles Police Department. “He seemed like a good Christian, too” Marsha said, speaking of him as a prodigal son.

I was speechless. I had grown up believing “the police are our friends” and that they do not “bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4). At the same time, she was an African American woman from Los Angeles in the era of the Rodney King beating, so I just held my tongue. But I simply couldn’t understand how another law-abiding believer could have such a low view of the police.

My family and I are on a year-long trip around the country and this week we entered the South. Once again, I feel like I’ve entered a different world. The hotel clerk couldn’t believe my daughters had never tasted grits and I’ve occasionally struggled to understand what the locals are saying. But by entering this world, I finally understand Marsha’s world a little better.

Family, editWe recently visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It’s a remarkable museum in many ways, not the least of which being its location. It was built in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The iconic balcony looks just as it did 50 years ago, except for the wreath marking the spot where he was shot.

The museum begins with an exhibit about the early days of slavery followed by a movie that took us up to the end of the Civil War. From there, exhibit after exhibit led us through the creation of Jim Crow laws, the oppression of African Americans, and the struggle for civil rights. I kept thinking, “How could people – Christians – do this to their fellow man?” And then it was in the Selma exhibit that I finally understood Marsha’s world. As I watched the video of state troopers beating peaceful citizens marching across a bridge, I got a taste of her anger and distrust. What is one to do when those sworn to uphold justice are the very ones denying it? How can that trust be rebuilt when injustice still happens today?

So what is my point in sharing all this? Last year, I met an African American young man who was traveling around the country, much like my family is now. He told me that he traveled with a Chihuahua, not just for companionship but to serve as an “ambassador of cuteness” that eased white people’s fear of him. Later, I talked to my daughters about how sad it was that he couldn’t travel without the fear of racism. One of them responded, “But daddy, I thought Martin Luther King fixed all that.”

Josh and Percy, editAs one who has largely been sheltered from the ugly face of racism, I see in myself in my daughters’ naiveté. Until I was able to enter Marsha’s world just a little, I did not understand how much we still live under the shadow of centuries of injustice. The suspicion and distrust between the African American community and the police still exists. As one example, we visited the Civil Rights Museum with an African American gentleman I met in Houston. He explained to us that, even though he is respectably-dressed business man, there is a stretch of road between Texas and Louisiana where he is consistently pulled over for the smallest of reasons.

So I guess this is my point: Regardless how you feel about Ferguson or “I can’t breathe” the one word you cannot use is “simply.” Nothing about race relations in America is simple. It cannot be adequately addressed in sound bites or tweets. Ferguson is not simply about whether or not Michael Brown had his hands up. Civil rights are not simply about marches in the 60’s. Quotas and equal opportunity are not simply “reverse racism.” It is all very complicated and I think I’ll be more cautious in airing my opinion on Facebook until I understand their world a little better. Before I speak, I need to step out of my white, middle-class comfort zone, past the myth that racial issues are long gone, and into their world that is still plagued with inequality. For me, this required taking a trip around the country. I hope you can find a shorter route.