What C.S. Lewis Taught Me about Rap Music

Last night I read a great article by C. S. Lewis, “On Science Fiction.” I learned a little bit about science fiction but even more about humility.

“It is very dangerous to write about a [genre] you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel.”

LecraeRehabI was thinking about that statement as a Lecrea song came on the radio. I started to inwardly criticize his lack of lyrical subtlety, but then I understood Lewis’ point: I hate rap music, so I’m wholly incapable of telling you if Lecrea is a good rapper. I don’t know the good from the bad.

 

Then I heard my younger-self say “Good rap music? There is no such thing!” And therein lies the real arrogance of critiquing a genre that you don’t like: It’s almost always driven by the belief that you are a better person for not liking it. It’s easy for me to think that I like lyrical subtlety because subtlety is better, more refined. And hence I am more refined.

Lewis was an authority on literature and literary criticism, so if anyone could claim that his tastes were “right” he could. But he didn’t and that demonstrates a humility that I want. It also demonstrates a kind of self-forgetfulness which in turn allowed him to enjoy or dislike something without caring whether or not it was fashionable. Sounds rather freeing to me!

 

Does this get you thinking about how you treat genres you dislike? Like me, do you find yourself confusing your personal tastes with good tastes?

(Please forgive the repost – I’m playing with the title!)

 

And So It Begins…(And So Does the Fear)

This morning at 10:00 am we pulled our heavy-laden Sienna mini-van out of Skagit Valley for the last time in a long time.

Last night, at our going away party, several people praised our “courage” and “faith.” At the time, I shrugged it off because it didn’t feel like faith, just going on an adventure we believe God has called us to. But now, as reality sets in, the worry begins. How will my family handle this nomadic life? Will I make enough money? Will I get more speaking tours?

It is far easier to have faith about a distant event than a current reality.

Yet I know that God is faithful. He did not lead us this far to abandon us. Now is when the real work of faith begins, when we put our feet to it.

So pray for us. We are enjoying the trip, but we need your prayers. We are grateful for your partnership.

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

Josh

How My Lack of Platform Helped Me Get Published

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.

Red ink equals love

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 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. Now, almost a year and half later, my book is on the shelves and now I’m doing the hard work of promoting it.

My point here 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?

Our Upcoming “Great Adventure”

When I first talked to my publisher about Radically Normal, I asked him how it might do. He first warned me that most books don’t sell that many copies, but said, “With God’s help, this book has the potential to do really, really well.”

Of course everyone wants to be successful, but for Marilyn and I, this is far bigger than winning the book writer’s version of the lottery. We believe that millions of Christians live under the fear that they can’t please God in their regular, everyday life, and that God is going to use this message to set them free.

After a lot of prayer, we believe God is calling us to “bet the farm” – put our house up for sale and prepare for a year-long trip around the U.S., speaking at churches, schools, and bookstores. Our hope is to build a grassroots excitement that spreads into something much bigger. As crazy (dare I say “radical”?) as this plan sounds, it feels like God is leading us into a great adventure.

Can God use a fortune cookie for confirmation?

 

Now I want to ask you – do you want to be a part of this adventure? I can’t promise that all this will make Radically Normal into a bestseller, but it just might. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could say “I helped!”?

Our biggest need isn’t financial but places to speak, sell the book, and stay. Think through some of the connections you have – do you know of some organization that may really enjoy Radically Normal? If you can connect me with them I’ll take care of the rest. And if they invite me to speak, I’d love to send you an autographed copy, thanking you for your part in this adventure.

We hope to arrive at our first stop (Portland, OR) the first week of October, so time is of the essence. If you have any ideas, please contact me at me@joshkelley.ink. Thank you for your prayers and support!

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

Josh

Sometimes It’s Good to Use a Little Crack

I once read that Amazon’s Author Central is like crack for authors. In case you’re not familiar with it, Author Central tracks your book’s sales and ranking. It’s updated every hour, which means you can return for a fresh hit every 60 minutes.

Author Central

One hit will send you soaring higher than a kite (“I’m at #45,354 and heading up – #1, here I come!) and the next will drive you to the depths of despair (“Now I’m #230,211 I’m utterly worthless.”) You know you shouldn’t keep checking it, but you can’t help yourself.

I know better but keep returning for my hit, muttering “Time for my crack” as I click the well-worn link on my favorites bar. Last night’s hit had me sulking but this morning’s put me in a better mood. Tracking my sales becomes an obsession that affects me far too much.

But unlike real crack, Author Central can have a positive benefit: It regularly reminds me that I need to take an active role in marketing my book. Ignoring my sales can lead to apathy, which is death to promotion, as Amanda Luedeke points out in this great little post.

But understand, promotion isn’t about sales for me, but getting an important message out. I believe that millions of Christians feel guilty because they don’t think they’re radical enough and I hope my message can free them. But first they have to find my book. So somehow I have to find the balance between caring too much and too little. If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.

What about you – have you ever struggled to find the balance between apathy and obsession? How can we care deeply about anything (from politics to theology) without making it our identity?

What a Night!

Thank you to everyone who came out and helped us celebrate the release of Radically Normal and also to those who supported us from afar with the online launch. We had an absolute blast hanging out with all of you.

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I have amazing friends. That was one of the big takeaways from Friday’s launch party. I’m especially grateful to friends and family like the McCool’s, Ellis’, Strong’s, TenBrink’s, and Kelley’s for baking cookies, making coffee, selling books, taking pictures, and cleaning up. And a huge thanks to Nate and Heather Baker for basically running the show.

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The weirdest part of the night was signing books. Umm, are you sure you want my illegible scribbles in your nice, new book? But it was also the best part because I got to spend some individual time with so many friends.

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A lot of people have been asking what’s next for our family, especially with my church closing recently (you can read more about that here). Long story short, we think God is calling us to do a year-long book tour across America, speaking and seeing the sights.

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Please be praying for God’s direction and let me know if you have some contacts at a church or ministry that might be interested in having me speak.

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

Josh

Sometimes Things Don’t Work the Way You Planned

It’s kind of ironic, really. When I started writing Radically Normal, I was a bi-vocational pastor at The Gathering, working a second job at Starbucks. My big dream was to quit Starbucks, go back to fulltime pastoring, and get my book published.

Fast forward a couple of years and now my book has been published, but my church has closed and I’m back at Starbucks. I don’t know if I should take it as confirmation of God’s plan or simply his sense of humor, but I received my “author’s copy” of Radically Normal the same day as my first shift at Starbucks.

So what happened in those two years? There wasn’t a scandal; while far from perfect, I led this church with complete integrity. Rather, we went through many trials which slowly wore the church down. Even though the ones who remained were incredibly dedicated (and I’m proud to have served alongside them), there just weren’t enough of us.

The Gathering Christian ChurchWhy didn’t God give me what I wanted? Why didn’t he rebuild my church? There were so many bright moments in the last year, I really thought he would. As it happened, I didn’t even get one day being the “pastor/author” I had dreamed of being – the day I got my author’s copy was also day after my church closed.

I loved The Gathering. I so desperately wanted my daughters to grow up in that church. I wanted to perform weddings for the kids that used to run around the basement after church. This closing was not my plan, yet I’m starting to understand how it was his.

Until all this happened, I’d kind of forgotten that being a pastor wasn’t my first calling. Even as a teenager, I believed I’d be an author someday. And the first time I said with conviction “when I grow up I want to be…”, I said I wanted to be a Christian speaker and teacher. It’s strange to see God bringing me back to that path without any striving on my part. [Note: Rereading this post a year later, I recognize I was suffering from pretty severe burnout when I wrote it – now I can once again see God’s pastoral call on me. See my post “Divine Deception” for a bit of a follow up .]

So what is next for my family? In addition to working at Starbucks again, I’m devoting my energy to this new role of “author/speaker.” I’m preparing for Radically Normal’s release, starting another book, and looking for speaking opportunities. We also think God may be calling us to a new adventure: Traveling around the U.S. and Canada in an RV on an extended book tour! More details to follow.

So even with all the disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, I know that God is good. My best always falls short of his best. That’s just the way he is.

A Night at a Homeless Shelter

As I walked up to the homeless shelter, carrying a backpack with the essentials, I fought two battles – one with fear and one with pride. I wonder if that is how everyone feels when they ask for night’s stay or if it ever becomes routine.

Compared with everyone else at Friendship House, I didn’t really have anything to complain about. My overnight visit was completely by choice. Tomorrow I’d go back to my warm bed, full pantry, and loving family. My visit wasn’t prompted by desperation but because, as a board member for Friendship House, I wanted to observe our shelter from the inside.

Why was I battling fear? It wasn’t for my safety – our shelter is very safe and well run. I was simply scared of the unknown. What would it be like to spend the night with a bunch of homeless guys? And why was I battling pride? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t anyone driving past mistaking me for one of “them.” Little did I know that that the next 24 hours would completely challenge my notions of “us” and “them.”

The Face of Homelessness

Obviously, I didn’t want to reveal my position as a board member, so when (after a moment’s hesitation) I knocked on the front door, the residents assumed I was just some guy who needed a place to stay. Only the executive director and house manager, Katie,* were in on the secret. Katie invited me into her office and walked me through the intake process everyone goes through.

“Why do you need to stay at Friendship House?” she asked with a wink. Katie said that question reveals quite a bit about the visitors.

“Let’s say I just need a place for the night because I am heading to Seattle in the morning,” I said. “Is that a common reason?”

“Very,” she said. “Because we are on the I-5 corridor, many people stop here on the way to somewhere else.”

“Describe for me the average Friendship House resident,” I asked.

Katie responded by telling me stories of past and present residents.

Do you have a mental picture of the average homeless person? I know I did, but I quickly realized that there is no typical “face” of homelessness. Some are hard working people who’ve fallen on hard times. Some are lazy and want to milk the system. Some are victims of their own sin; some are the victims of other people’s sin. Some are mentally or physically disabled. Some are very capable – one of our residents had been a lawyer until a drug addiction destroyed his life.

Katie shared several success stories. One former resident got an entry-level job at the local newspaper and worked her way up into management. Since then, she has become the new executive director of Friendship House. Katie also shared some heartbreaking stories – just that morning they had to ask a well-loved resident to leave because he had started drinking again. I envied Katie’s ability to maintain her hope and humor in face of constant disappointments.

Grace and a Change of Clothes

After our meeting, Katie handed me off to Pete for my orientation to the rules and routines of the house. Pete was a house assistant, one of the veteran residents who help keep things running smoothly. A young man named Tim, barely 18 years old, was also receiving his orientation. The rules were vaguely reminiscent of my Bible college days – no drugs or alcohol, no pornography, and no sleeping with the residents at the women’s house. Another rule (which we should have had at college) required daily showers and wearing clean clothes.

“What if I don’t have any other clothes?” Tim asked. All he had was the clothes on his back and his cell phone.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find some for you in the clothing bank,” Pete said. He said it without a hint of surprise, as if not owning a change of clothes was the most normal thing in the world. I wondered why that impressed me so much. Probably because I live in a world where you are judged by what you have and what you do. At Friendship House, people were just people. It didn’t matter why you were there or what you had, you were accepted.

C. S. Lewis once described the church as a field hospital where the less wounded care for the more wounded. I watched his words played out over the next 24 hours. These guys didn’t have any pretence about having their act together or being better than anyone else. I guess that’s harder to do when you are at a homeless shelter.

Us vs. Them

During my visit, I realized that all of our residents accepted each other because they had one thing in common: They were all deeply broken people. Yet Jesus loves each of them immeasurably. In other words, they are just like you and me.

Sure, our brokenness may be more socially acceptable than that of the local panhandler, but we are all broken and sinful nonetheless. We may not struggle with chemical dependency, but our self-dependency is even more spiritually dangerous. We may not be trying to manipulate the system, but maybe we manipulate family members instead. We don’t smell of body odor, but our spiritual pride smells even worse to God.

Don’t misunderstand me – you may very well be more socially responsible and emotionally healthy than most Friendship House residents. But you and I need God’s grace just as desperately as every one of them. In fact, the most important lesson I learned that night was that there is no “them,” only “us.” The woman using food stamps and the man with the cardboard sign are not “them.” They are us. Not because “there but for the grace of God go I,” but because we are already there and our only hope is God’s grace.

 

*All names have been changed.

The World’s Greatest Carnie

I recently read a fascinating book called Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artist. (Fair discloser: This is not even remotely a Christian book. Read at your own risk.) As freshmen, Peter and Jackie set up a crooked casino and cheated their classmates out of $1,200. By the time they graduated, they were conning people a lot of money out of a lot of money at their traveling carnival.

The title, Eyeing the Flash, refers to the prizes (the “flash”) designed to attract the “marks” (victims). The flash was either a cheap imitation not worth the cost of the game or else impossible to win because the game had been rigged.

Reading the book, I came to a conclusion: Satan is the worlds’ greatest carnie. He started by tricking Adam and Eve out of the Garden and continues to trick us into:

…trading intimacy with our wife for photoshopped, two-dimensional pictures.

…trading contentment for maxed-out credit cards.

…trading 10 soul-nourishing minutes with God for 3 mind-numbing hours of TV.

How does he do it? By getting us to look at the short-term thrill instead of the long-term cost. As my pastor, Larry Wersen, liked to say:

 “Sin will take you further than you want to go, keep you there longer than you want to stay, and cost you more that you want to pay.”

So what is our best defense? Keeping our eyes on the real prize and what sin really costs us.

Rusty carnivalImagine that you are taking your family to Disneyland. You’ve saved your money for an amazing day at The Happiest Place on Earth. But between you and the entrance lies the seediest carnival you’ve ever seen – crooked carnies, hot dogs recycled from last week, and a rust-covered Tilt-A-Whirl.

As you walk through the midway, the carnies are calling out, trying to drag you over for a “free try.” The moment you listen to them, you are done:

“…my objective was to bring the mark swiftly and tantalizingly close to winning the game, to the point where greed made him short of breath, made it difficult for him to swallow, and he’d find himself wagering the vacation fund to win a portable radio by playing a game he barely understood and hadn’t heard of until I’d waved him over and offered a free try…” (Peter Fenton, Eyeing the Flash)

What should you do? Keep your eyes straight ahead. Focus on the real joy before you, not all the cheap imitations calling out your name.

As we walk through this life, we are so easily waylaid by the glitter and flash. Keep looking ahead. Listen to your Father as he says, “Don’t look at that, it’s not what you want. Keep going. The real prize is ahead.”

 

Patience Like a Mountain

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)

Does patience feel more like a “have to” or “get to” of following Christ?

Yesterday I was talking to an old friend about challenge of showing God’s love to the employees at his restaurant and keeping his cool as the stress level rose. That got us talking about patience. He said the key to patience was lowering one’s expectations. At first I nodded in agreement, but then thought better of it.

I recently preached on the fruit of the Spirit and for the first time saw a connection between the third and fourth fruit, peace and patience. The Biblical idea of peace (shalom in Hebrew) is much deeper than “no fighting”; it means that God has defeated the chaos and restored order and well-being. Peace means “it is well with my soul.”

Seeing peace side-by-side with patience made me wonder if maybe peace is the key to patience.

The world is filled with things that will try to steal your peace, your shalom: slow drivers in the fast lane, spending an hour on hold with your insurance, or dealing with painfully slow employees. But patience says to the world, “I have peace in my soul and you cannot steal it. You may have some, if you like, but you cannot take it from me.”

Patience - Mount_Rainier_over_TacomaSaid another way, patience is like a great mountain towering above the fray, unmoved by the great storms that swirl around it. It is solid and secure within and without.

I told my friend that there is nothing wrong with appropriate expectations. He should have high expectations for his employees. The key to patience is holding them to those expectations without allowing their failures to steal his peace.

The more I see patience as holding onto God’s peace and not allowing the frustrations of life to steal it, the less it seems like an obligation the more it feels like a gift. What do you think?