Monday, February 28, 2011

my friend connie cavanaugh

Blog Interview for Following God One Yes at a Time

Connie Cavanaugh’s latest book, Following God One Yes at a Time, has just been released by Harvest House Publishers. This book tells you how -- one simple, immediate, possible yes at a time – to do what Jesus commanded when He said, “Follow Me.” This is “following God for dummies”; it is a simple way for ordinary Christians to follow Christ through the maze of our complicated lives.

Q: You begin by saying “God has a dream for every believer.” Could you explain that?

God does have a dream for every believer. In fact He has many overlapping, interlocking dreams for us: some big, some small; some lifelong, some seasonal; some manageable, some seemingly impossible. When His dream looks like a mountain we can’t climb, because we lack faith in ourselves and in Him, we think:
∑ This dream is too big; I don’t have what it takes.
∑ The process looks so complicated; I don’t even know where to start.
∑ The finish line is so far away; I don’t think I can go the distance.
∑ I’ve tried before and dropped out; I must be all out of chances.
∑ Is this God speaking or my own wishful thinking?
∑ People like me don’t get to do these things; I’m not worthy of this.

Q: Are these the barriers you refer to in the book’s subtitle Overcoming the Six Barriers that hold you back?

Yes, the biggest barriers to following God are internal, not external. It’s not situations, circumstances, tragedies, crises or even physical limitations but it’s things like fear, guilt, pride, shame, comparison, and doubt that hold us back from pursuing the dreams God has for us. Following God one yes at a time is about how God breaks down His impossible dream into manageable steps and once we begin to follow Him in faith, because He loves us, He sends us proofs that we’re on the right track.

Q: God sends us “proofs” when we follow Him? What do you mean by that?

Even though we talk about a God who is alive and personal, all Christians occasionally feel like He is remote and invisible. Once God gets us to say yes to His dream and begin following Him, He knows that we’re going to be battling doubts and fears so He sends us proofs that we heard Him correctly and we’re on the right track. These proofs are little assurances that we pick up in a number of ways – through our daily Bible reading or hear in a sermon or through music or circumstance or pretty much anything that God chooses to use. He’s not limited in the ways He communicates with us. These “proofs” are His way of encouraging us not to lose heart but to keep following.

Q: Where can people find this book?
You can buy Following God One Yes at a Time at most Christian booksellers and online bookstores. If your local bookstore does not carry it, they can order it for you.

Monday, February 21, 2011

holy quotes 12/chesterton

A room without books is like a body without a soul.

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.

If I had only one sermon to preach it would be a sermon against pride.

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.

Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, British writer and follower of Christ

Friday, February 18, 2011


The other day I blogged about how important focus and finishing projects were, not only to writers, but all of us. Let me add today a third critical ingredient - sticking to it or perseverance.

I am not exaggerating when I say I've met many fine writers who were beginners just like I was many years ago. We shared stories, shared writing classes and writers groups, shared dreams of getting published and interacting with a reading audience.

Few of them are writing or publishing today, decades later.

Why not? Were their stories no good? Actually, a number of them had fine story ideas. Were their writing skills poor? Quite the opposite, most of them had exceptional writing skills and exceptional talent. Were they unable to stay on task and get stories and books finished? No, they completed their projects, they got their stories down on paper with beginnings, middles, and ends.

So what happened?

They gave up.

They got tired of submitting manuscripts that were rejected, weary of looking for literary agents to represent them, exhausted hoping some editor, some place, somewhere would recognize they could write well and give them a break.

Finally, one day, they packed it in and rarely, if ever, wrote creatively again.

Am I am where I am as a writer today because I was more talented or skilled or creative than them? No. Many of them had extraordinary writing abilities. Perhaps more doors opened for me more quickly? Not at all - I have had just as many disappointments and rejected manuscripts and failed promises from publishing houses as anyone else, maybe more, because I knocked on so many doors hoping for a breakthrough. Perhaps I had more blessings from God than they did in the area of writing? Well, I have had my blessings all right, I thank God, but I have been handed plenty of struggles too, at least four or five for every open door and every solid publishing opportunity. Nothing has come easy, nothing was handed to me - nothing. I fought and prayed and struggled for every inch of my publishing history.

The difference between me and the others is I never gave up. Call it stubborn, call it tenacious, or call me obstinate and crazy and thick-skinned, I simply put my head down and plowed ahead. No, I wasn't always cheerful and I wasn't always positive something good would happen and I wasn't always sure God was in it, but I kept going anyway.

Very, very few things have happened quickly in my writing or in my life or in my Christian faith. Most things that have been good things have happened because I kept, somehow, believing, and I kept, somehow, forging ahead.

Don't quit the important things, don't let go of the things you were called to, don't stop because a thousand doors have shut you out.

Stick. Persevere. Keep praying, keep hoping, keep trying. If you can't do it with a glad heart do it anyway, do it because you believe in what you're doing. Never mind looking for fancy feelings or fancy words to encourage you or exceptional signs from God that will give you a boost. Sometimes God intervenes in big ways to keep you motivated - more on that in another blog - but most of the time you have to move forward on faith, and if you can't do that, you won't move forward at all.

There is love and grace for you if you drop out. And there is love and grace for you if you persevere. And there is love and grace for you if you succeed. Regardless of what occurs or what you do, there will be a tomorrow and other opportunities of various kinds, other ways and means of living your life out wonderfully and gloriously on this earth.

But if you want certain things to happen, if they matter to you enough, you have to stick. And if you write because writing and publishing matter to you enough and you want to have your stories and books in print, you have to stick. And if you want to see the hand of God in your life more clearly and obviously, you have to stick.

Kierkegaard called it "a long obedience in the same direction".

In this quick and easy world of so-called overnight success and instant gratification and no-effort attainments and accomplishments this long obedience to God, and the things of God and the things God puts it in you to do and be, is the one thing that is still most worthwhile and the one thing that can grant you the most satisfaction, depth, understanding, richness, and life.

Keep a good grip on it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

holy quotes 11

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the darkness fall."

“You can only come to the morning through the shadows.”

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

“It is the job that is never started that takes longest to finish.”

“I do not love the bright sword for it's sharpness, nor the arrow for it's swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

“He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”

"I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge.”

JRR Tolkien, follower of Christ, Oxford don, writer (1892-1973)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

holy quotes 10

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never tasted victory or defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (1858-1919)

billy graham's prayer

Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem. We have abused power and called it politics. We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment. Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Amen

Friday, February 11, 2011

finishing the things that matter

Whenever I speak to writers' groups I always mention a couple of things: 1) focus and 2) completion. Although I was in theater for quite a while I can't recall so much loss of focus as seems to occur with writers - after all, the show must go on and you have to be ready for the opening curtain, like it or not. A writer without a deadline can be, well, an Amish buggy without a horse, a Harley without an engine, a vintage Stearman biplane without a prop. Sure, some do okay without a date for completion, but others simply meander through their words and imagination until their drive to get a book written peters out. Or is lost in a maze of distractions from bill payments to family crises to social networking.

When you decide to have a writing day you'd better have it. If you go out beforehand to run errands you're doomed. You run into people, this happens, that happens, so that by the time you sit at your desk to create you find most of your writing energy has dissipated and all your good intentions to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard have gone with the wind (to use a literary allusion).

A friend mentioned that Stephen King, the writer of horror fiction, once expressed something of the same frustration with writers' abilities to find new and extraordinary ways to keep themselves from facing blank paper (or computer screens). Especially once they began to wax eloquent about inspiration and the mysteries of the creative process and how they could not be nailed down to a schedule like other pedestrian pursuits - which usually meant they would not get anything done because God had not divinely breathed a story into them. Enough, he cried. Writing is a job like anything else. Put in your eight hours at the desk, ignore phone calls and distractions outside of nuclear detonations and pandemics (and ignore them too because there's nothing you can do about those things anyway).

Yes, writing is work, not a beach on Maui. It really can be a hard job pulling good ideas and plots and characters out of yourself hour after hour. Quit pretending the divine hasn't spoken. Plenty will happen once you start working and the juices start to flow. Not much will happen until then. Get to work.

The focus happens because you will to not do anything else until you've put in four to six to eight hours or more at your writing. When you take it seriously as a real job, real work, and yes, really important. Until then, the slightest thing can take you away from the task at hand. But if you permitted yourself the same loss of focus and concentration at another job you'd be fired or, if you were flying a 75 million dollar F-35 fighter jet, probably lose your life.

Yes, creation is wonderful and beautiful and holy and mysterious and all that. It is also, like the birth of a child, a great deal of pain and blood and struggle. It's that struggle the writer often shies away from - it can go right to their core and exhaust them. But there's no other way to do it well.

Focus and completion. Every writer has great ideas that never make it into print simply because the work ethic and discipline isn't there to write the ideas and stories down. Writing is seen, perhaps, by themselves and their friends as a hobby, a luxury, a recreation, but not work like office work or management or building bridges or teaching high school students. It's something you do after the important things are done. But this is the wrong attitude. Writing and art and story and creation are critical to our culture and to the planet. Stories, our own stories and the ones we take into us from books, TV, and film, are what drive us. Without a vision the people perish. Writing and stories are not excess baggage or optional or froth. They are a big deal, a huge deal, and it takes hard work to produce them. And guess what? They are just as important or more important than anything else in heaven or earth.

So, if you write, get to it. Enough of having half-finished books clutter your computer desktop, little Word icons that promise much but, when double clicked, offer nothing but chapters that were never completed. Finish something! I don't care if it's 10 pages or 5 pages or a hundred pages - finish something! If creators lived the rest of their lives the way they often fritter time and energy away at writing projects that never get completed they wouldn't have a life. If writing - or painting or acting or dance - or prayer or reading or cultivating relationships - or cleaning a home or preparing a meal or raising a child - if it matters to you enough then treat it as something that matters to you enough. Concentrate. Screen out anything but the most necessary distractions. Put your best into it. Put your all into it. Make up your mind you're not going to be messing around with the same ideas or dreams a year from now. You will write the story by March 15th. You will phone that person to have a serious coffee. You will type the letter to an estranged friend. You will spend the night or morning in prayer on April 7th. You will bring your child to the park on Monday. Take seriously the things that seriously matter. Make plans. Deadlines. And follow through. Once you do this it gives you an enormous feeling of satisfaction and progress. There is nothing like bringing plans to fruition and completion.

So many writers are clogged up with things that never got done, stories that never got told, books in their head that never got past the halfway mark - or 10% mark. It ends up jamming their thoughts and energies and depleting them - just as it would in the rest of their lives if nothing ever got done or completed. But get a few writing projects in print, get a few stories created and finished, and you are talking about a different person. Completion makes them stronger for the next writing task and the process of completing a story makes them a better writer for the next story a well.

Which is true about the rest of life as well. The person who dreams about prayer and what it might accomplish in their souls and the souls of others, but who never dedicates time to doing it, never feels stronger or learns to pray in a way they know is real. The person who dreams about taking the special trip to Italy, but who never focuses on putting the money and time aside will never go, the experience will always remain something in their head, but never anything they can touch.

I'm talking to writers, but obviously to myself and to all of us. We're all creators, aren't we, in different ways? Or we can be. What's necessary is to realize how significant creation is. Once we do that, once we take it as seriously as anything else, and deliberately put the time and effort into it, things happen, ideas take on physical and spiritual shape, dreams morph into the tangible. It's not that hard really.

On the other hand, creation really is hard. Story writing really is hard. But it changes worlds. So get intense and get on with it.

It's quite a life when you bring things full circle.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

brother lawrence's prayer

This is the prayer attributed to Brother Lawrence, a Christian monastic who labored in the kitchen of a medieval monastery - you can imagine what that looked like a thousand years ago! He seeks to have a relationship with God not relegated to "holy" times or "quiet" times or "church" times, but all the time, through all the thicks and thins, all of a day's ups and downs, times when you feel spiritual and times when you don't. May it encourage you today to have a relationship with Christ that knows no boundaries or time limits or special frames of mind.

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I've no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.


the woodcutter (for barbara)


The woodshed could hold eleven cords of split and stacked wood and it was empty. Aaron scarcely noticed it as he strode, propelled by fury, into the retreat centre. It was not an impressive shed. He glimpsed a sagging roof and some crooked beams. The retreat center, on the other hand, was solid and sure, boards and brick and stone and large windows that brought mountains and light and sky indoors. Aaron stormed through the front entrance.

The retreat director sat in a chair bigger than he was, eyes obscured by glasses spattered with sunlight. Aaron thought he looked like a ferret but opened up to him anyway. He ranted and raved about his church which had fired him, his elders that had abused him, his wife and children who had left him, his friends who had ignored him, his God who had abandoned him. The director said nothing. Once, in the middle of the tirade, he opened a drawer in his desk and, without taking his eyes off Aaron, plucked a Scotch mint from a bag and popped it into his mouth. After about sixty-five minutes, Aaron stopped, hands and face burning, hunting for a better word, a stronger phrase, an accusation more fierce.

“Have you ever chopped wood?” the director asked.

They gave Aaron a maul, an ax, a chainsaw. And eleven cords of wood in fifteen foot lengths. Simmering with adrenaline, he told the director he would saw the wood in one day and have the lot of it split within a week. He put in two hours before dark that first afternoon. It was early December. The sun set before five. The snow and grass were blistered with small, angry woodchips. They flew from him in swarms. But at five it was too dark to work, even for a man who was reckless. There was a great deal more to saw.

During supper he sat at a long wooden table with three staff members and another pastor named Skiff, who asked Aaron how long he would be at the retreat centre.

“One or two weeks,” replied Aaron, jabbing at his grilled chicken. “Just enough time to get my head together and make plans to take another church. How about you?”

Skiff shrugged. “Another month maybe.”

“Then what? Do you have another church lined up?”

“Oh, no. I’ve pastored twenty years and that’s enough for me. I’ll go into business. Insurance.”

“But. What about your call?”

Skiff smiled and shook his head.

After an hour of communal prayer and Scripture reading the next morning, Aaron assaulted the woodpile with the chainsaw once more, chips snarling up from his fists. After lunch was free time.

“Read. Think. Hike. We can talk. You can work on the wood again tomorrow morning,” the director suggested.

“No,” cut in Aaron. “I have to finish the wood. I only have a couple of weeks.”

Stars sprinkled the backs of his hands when he was done. They were calling him for supper, ringing a steel bar. He set down the chainsaw. He had trouble flexing his fingers and his hands shook. The smell of gasoline rose from his skin and his clothing. Tomorrow, he thought, it is just the logs and the ax. My bone and muscle and will against years and years, centuries of wood. Myself against the Maker of Trees.

The maul was heavy, almost three times the weight of the ax, and his first blows the next morning glanced off the logs erratically. But he was determined to use the maul on the larger logs so he kept at it until his swinging became more sure. As the solid hits grew in number and the logs split with cracks like gunfire, a peace settled over him.

It did not last. With the rhythmic work an iron door in his mind swung open and faces burst upon his imagination, conversations, rooms, pulpits, meetings, angry sentences, words of fire, memory after memory scraping him, cutting around and around so that he struck at the logs with a sudden explosion of rage, blasting through stout rounds with a single heft of the maul. The first day of chopping ended with a snowfall that seemed to scald his forehead and cheeks. He came to the table swollen with pain.

“How goes the battle?” asked Skiff.

“I must have been out of my mind to say I’d ever go back,” spat Aaron. “Whipped like Jesus. Crucified like Jesus. By your friends. By Christians.”

He sat at the window in his room, his light out. The snow had stopped and torn-up clouds hurried over and under a half-moon. The mountain range had taken on a pristine whiteness and the moon was strong enough to give it a sharp, full, three-dimensional effect, almost as if the peaks were pulsing and throbbing, rising and floating, reminding Aaron of the luminous blacklight posters of the Sixties.

“You create so much beauty out there,” Aaron prayed. “Why can’t you do it with the human heart?”

The more rhythmically he swung the maul, the more the memories boiled up from the stew of wound and bleeding and betrayal. He tried to concentrate on how his blows landed. He learned to look for the faint crack in the top of the log and strike that squarely. The best feeling he could produce in himself came when a log split cleanly and fell away neatly from the cutting stump. The satisfaction of that hummed through his blood and his bones and even his mind paused to swallow it in, as if it were a morsel of lush scenery.

But not every log split cleanly. Sometimes his blows were off-center. Sometimes the maul blade sank into the round with a thud and apparently effected no change whatsoever. Sometimes he had to pull and pull and pry the maul loose. He learned to be wary of the logs lumpy with knots. He could strike and strike at some of these and get nowhere. Wedges would be used but frequently the wedges got stuck and it cost him more energy to drive the wedges out or through. He would pant and sweat even though it was fifteen below. The moments came when he wanted to quit. But he couldn’t leave wedges in logs or blades embedded in thick, wet wood. He thought of the retreat director sucking his white Scotch mints. I’ll be finished in a week, he’d told him. Yet he had to complete this before he left. Grunting, he yanked or beat the maul out of the knot-twisted logs.

“Some of you are hardly worth it!” he shouted.

It was important to finish each log, no matter what. It was a great victory to finally split the hardest ones in two. But there were clearly some which sapped all Aaron’s strength and still remained truculent. Not many. A few. It was hard to take, but Aaron learned to recognize these logs after a few blows and would toss them aside and never approach them again. They took too much and rewarded him with very little. When stacking came, they would go into the shed whole. A long, slow burn for somebody one winter’s night two years ahead. Someone holding the broken windows of faith in hands and shirt pockets, the fragments pricking and stabbing. Maybe a whole log would help. But to burn well, it would need a split piece too, dried by mountain wind. Maybe in the flame the hurting man, the dying woman would find God once more. Aaron had already burned other people’s anger and pain in the wood they’d left behind. He hadn’t seen much of God yet but at least his flesh had been warmed. Who were the others who had cut the wood two or three years before? Had that been a dry winter or an especially cold and snowfull one? He imagined them battling the woodpile in blizzards, cheeks and ears whitening from frostbite. Now he burned their efforts. In the month of December, the burning of this split wood in his room was the only act that seemed holy to him, a sacrifice that mattered to God, the souls of others an incense drifting up to him. Who would burn his struggles, send flames over his spirit, toss the wood he cut out of his heart into the stove and then pull out a novel, or maybe even a Bible to read? Who would his wood heal?

The woodshed took on enormous proportions when he set up his first stack of split wood. The stack cringed there, dwarfish and inconsequential - it blew down Christmas Day when a chinook gushed through the mountain passes. There was a day of rain and snow and then a high pressure system slashed out of the Arctic, so that Aaron woke to a glistening marrow-red sunrise of forty below.

It took him an hour to restack the wood, which at least had been under cover and was dry. The rest, heaped about the woodshed, split or whole, was frozen together. He whacked at it with the back end of the maul head to loosen it up, his gloves ripping as he jerked the wood from its ice cradles. When the day ended his fingers were bleeding. This went on all through January. Freezing rain, followed by ice, followed by snow, followed by subzero cold. He broke the maul handle trying to force a log from a mass of wood all iced over. He had to use the smaller ax to split. The wood broke apart quickly because it was so cold. But what the maul had done in one blow took the ax three.

“I’ll need a few more weeks yet,” Aaron told the retreat director.

The director sat, hands folded in his thin lap, and nodded, sucking at a Scotch mint.

“I thought you’d be at your new church by now,” smiled Skiff at the supper table.

“It’s taking longer to do the wood,” shrugged Aaron. “Snow. Ice. I need more time.”

“What does it matter? Let someone else do it.”

Other people came and went, on weekend retreats or day retreats. Pastors. Church members. No one Aaron knew. Some would laugh too much for him. Some would hover over fires and tables and shoulders like grey storms. Some were just taking a break. Some were hanging on for dear life. A few talked with Aaron. Sam was leaving the pastorate to go into accounting. John was returning to the military. Ben had had enough and was driving a taxi. Krystal was going into management with a big oil firm. Jerry sat with Aaron at the huge fireplace in the main lodge. The room was dark and the light flashed and flashed on their faces and bodies.

“What can I do?” The man stared into a sparking log. “I used to imagine Jesus huddled over fires like this with James and Matthew and Philip. What if they’d stopped? The heart killings came to them. But they rose from the dead. What if they’d put out the fire in the dark and gone home?”

Aaron clawed and chopped at the wood to free it from ice and snow. Then, his gloved hands slippery and shining, he would balance the logs on the stump and swing, silver spraying his face as the wood broke. Exhausted, he would end a day with an hour or two of stacking. When darkness poured over the mountains and over his eyes, the shed still looked large and empty. Eleven cords of wood. How much did he have cut and stacked now? Two or three, if he was lucky?

The days came when he didn’t want to do it anymore. He’d had enough. The adrenaline had been scorched from his body weeks ago. Now he felt tired. Alone. But it was the sort of tired that does not let you rest. And he knew if he did not go to the woodpile he would not be able to seize the bone weariness that would give him sleep. He forced himself into the rich royal blue of sky and the clear cold that traced the pattern of his spine. Chop. Cut. He had thought he would dream of the wood but he never did. His dreams were full of color and movement. No memories. No anger. No axes. No woodchips. Awake, he sat at the stove in his room and watched the stars fall gently. Wood from other tortured souls burned.

Weight melted from his body. His hair fell over his ears. Dirt worked under his skin and nails, water blisters broke and his palms thickened and yellowed. There was no one to care whether or not he grew a beard, so he let it come. Glancing into a mirror, he allowed himself a lopsided smile - he was perfect for a series of sermons on the Old Testament prophets.

February was a mercy. Yes, that was the only word that meant something. Dry and warm, chinook after chinook pulling golden fire over the foothills and forests. The wood loosened in the heat. He no longer had to break it out of its rock face of ice. Crack. Crack. The rounds split neatly, long grain exposed like a fine stone crystal. Scent rose through his being. He would chew the pale splinters for the flavour, sensing he was feeding on years as well as on minerals, on fresh resin in old trees nurtured by wind and frost and fast glittering meltwater.

He grew wearier. Sometime after Valentine’s Day he was sure the shed was half-full. But it had taken him so long to get there he despaired of ever finishing the job. Well, other things had never been finished in his life. The wood could be left too. He could walk away and be a free man anytime he liked. He’d done enough. His wife had written him a letter. What was he thinking, she wanted to know. Should they continue the separation? Should they divorce? His denomination sent a curt typewritten letter - If he divorced he could no longer serve with them as a pastor. Would he like some counseling? His pension stood at forty thousand dollars.

“Everything in me is tired,” he told Skiff. “But if I don’t chop, I can’t sleep.”

“I’ve been praying for you.”

“Thanks, Skiff.”

“It’s the terror that has to go, Aaron. I pray God will melt the ice that locks you in.”

The ax flew, a shining head painted red. At five o’clock it was still light. At six the sun remained well above the horizon. March blustered over his head - snow flurries, some rain, some cold, but more light, more warmth, slowly, the earth turning, the sun drawing near, spring advancing like a green-speared army of deep intent.

Aaron pulled an old Bible down from the bookshelf above his woodstove. How long since he had read King James? It was like delving into Hamlet or Macbeth. He chiseled away at the Psalms and the gospel of Luke. He lay back on his bed, someone’s wood work burning, the light snapping jaws on the ceiling, or no, was it David leaping in front of the ark?

“God,” he would breathe in the dark, “Oh God, Oh Father.”

Skiff met him at breakfast. “Some of us are doing a prayer walk each day to get ready for Easter. Would you like to join us?”

Aaron shook his head. “It’s good of you. But Easter is where the trees and the fallen wood are. I have to be there.”

Another stack went up, skimming the ceiling. Perhaps it was possible. The ax plunged into smaller logs now. Shorn, pieces dropped left and right from the stump. Carefully, he would build up the wood walls within the shed, as if erecting a stone wall without mortar. He had learned how to shore up the ends by laying the wood in alternate patterns. Wood stacked in December and January took on the color of honey. Greener wood was dark and stained. Round and split, small and large, knotted and smooth, clean split or ragged, the wood rose up from the ground, filling the shed.

He was no longer tired. Perhaps it could be done. If he stuck it out. He stood back frequently to look at the woodshed and its swelling substance. There is a beauty to this, how the wood fits together, he thought. Yet surely it was random. But how the symmetry then, the wholeness, the completeness? Out of January and the killing winter dark, how this?

April. He took Easter communion at the shed, sitting amidst the tall wood as if in a cathedral. He chewed the bread carefully. Drained the ceramic cup. Took a splinter of fresh birch and placed it between his teeth. Jesus and wood. Carpentry and killing. Tables, chairs, and crosses. Wood fire and light in all darkness.

Forgive me, he wrote his wife and children.

Forgive us, she responded.

Yes, yes, he penned in the light of another’s cross.

Let us love one another, he wrote the church. Even if I never preach to you again. Let us love one another.

Yes, responded the church.

May I have another chance? he wrote the denomination. May I be as one who serves? May I try to live the evangel somewhere? May I learn to shepherd and lay down my life for the sheep? May I try again to be like Jesus and not hide the wounds?

But the denomination did not respond.

“The wood is praise,” Aaron told Skiff.

They sat on a bench drenched in mountains and crystal clear sunlight. Skiff smiled, gnawing on an O Henry bar.

“Perhaps it’s time to go out then,” Skiff said.

Aaron shook his head. “I must complete it.”

“Let another take on that joy.”

“It won’t mean anything to them, just to cap off my work. Let them have their own vocation. Then it will mean something.”

“A cathedral was not built in one lifetime. Not by one man.”

“Some of this is second growth forest. Others planted it. Others cut it and drove the logs here. But it’s my task to split and build. All of it. This is what I give to God. It is all of my days. Years from now, at night, in terror, cold and alone, a man or a woman will carry the wood to their room and they will pray by its light, cry by its flame, hear God in the cracking of the poplar and birch, hope again after a week, a month, a hundred nights. It is what I have to give them. I can never know them. But we are going to Jerusalem together.”

Skiff nodded. “I ought not keep you from your worship any longer then.”

“Are you still going into insurance?”

“Sure. Insurance against evil. I’m staying with the Lord, Aaron. His walking. His campfires. His parables. His cross. And the resurrection of the dead - I’ve always wanted to find out how that fish tasted he grilled on the beach. When the morning finally comes, I’ll be with him for breakfast.”

And you could say the ax sang to God in the flash of its swing. That Aaron praised God as the wood rose to heaven. That he would not stop until it had been done and every log, every stick had found its niche in the house of God he fashioned within the eleven cord shed. That it sounded so crazy to him to think and act this way over a pile of wood. And it was so crazy. It must have been Jesus smearing dark mud and God’s spit over his eyes, fully blinding him and telling him to wash off the blindness in the pool of Siloam.

Mare’s tails shot out crimson, snapping with the coming of the light. Aaron stood looking at the cords of wood, reluctant to leave, having replaced a final piece of maple which had fallen with several dozen others during the night. The ax was propped against the stump. For another, he thought. Then he turned to go into the main lodge and the retreat director was behind him.

“That’s all,” said Aaron. “I can leave this morning. I’m meeting my wife for coffee in town.”

The director nodded. Blood light glistened over his glasses as the sun slipped up the mountain slopes. A warm wind puffed out his plaid shirt from his scarecrow frame.

Aaron looked back at the shed. “It has to be like the wood, doesn’t it? Bit by bit, cutting, stacking, ice, snow, another stack, another stack, some days ready to fly like a swallow, others just wanting to fall to your death. The splinters dig into your skin, the cold, the doubt rips at your mind. You try to pray, you try to worship, and you add another piece, and nothing is happening, you look and you look for God, and surely nothing can be happening. Jesus presses on to Golgotha. Paul presses on to Rome. Somehow we learn that God is most true when the dark is most real. All I did was swing an ax. I became a free man. Just one day after stacking another piece of a thousand pieces. I became the cathedral. It’s your whole life and maybe you’ll recognize it. Maybe another generation will see the cathedral.”

Now it was morning. The director had his hands in his pockets. But one arm reached up and around Aaron’s shoulders and a surprising strength pressed Aaron into the director’s skin and bone and life and the scent of garlic and earth, for the director worked in the greenhouse during the winter and in the garden during the summer. And there was the scent of Scotch mint. The director propelled Aaron toward the lodge as a cloud moved and the morning star, not yet obscured by the common day, lit up like a match head over the white mountains.

“Come and have breakfast,” the director said.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

a funny thing happened on the way to the pulitzer


When I first began writing stories at the age of eight or nine they were exclusively genre pieces. That was because I had an audience of one – my mother – and mom’s favorite TV show at the time was a legal drama called Perry Mason. So, tailoring my story to my market, I wrote Perry Mason stories on 5x3 index cards, stapled them together along with front and back covers and an author’s bio, and distributed free advance copies to my mother. This was on the understanding I could use her endorsements on the covers of my future books. The setup worked for years as I graduated to sea stories and adventure stories and historical fiction.

In my 20s I was heavily influenced by the poetry of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Langston Hughes who filled my writing with simile, metaphor, and lyricism. American writers like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Chaim Potok also left their mark. I eschewed genre pieces and decided literary fiction was the way to go. Masterpieces like The Old Man and the Sea, Go Down Moses, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Chosen were buried inside me, waiting to be discovered by my imagination and brought to the light of day. No other kind of writing was so important, no other kind of fiction mattered as much. Along these lines I began to publish my first short stories and novels and received some recognition from the august literary circles where many felt as I did. The difference was clear – art like that of Norman Rockwell or Ronald Bateman paled in comparison to the works of Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci just as the stories of genre writers faded in the light of tales written by true literary masters.

Over time, I discovered that contemporary literary fiction is simply genre writing under a fancier name. Certain conventions must be observed: any expression of positive religious experience is frowned upon as are happy endings, happy characters, innocence, and bliss. Negative spiritual experience, tragic endings, dysfunctional characters, innocence lost, as well as agony and despair are welcome and praised as high art. I once complained that literary fiction had to be noir sur noir, black on black, to succeed, even though the same people who honored that approach mocked the “white on white” approach of the “feel good” genre writers. Nevertheless I persisted, trying to make a difference as a Christian writer in the turbulent realm of literary fiction.

Exactly two years ago I decided to write a genre piece for the first time since I’d been a boy. I’m not even sure now why I suddenly decided to do so – I think there was a challenge involved from someone who wanted to see if I could do it and do it well. It couldn’t be just any old genre piece, you see, it had to be a really good genre piece. So I set my literary fiction aside for several months and went to work. It was supposed to be a lark, a joke, a bit of whimsy, but as the story unfolded I took both plot and character development more and more seriously. Then, shock of shocks, it wasn’t a joke anymore: I was writing a story and I cared about it and the people caught up within it and I wanted to write the genre piece as well as I possibly could. One evening I realized I was enjoying myself and truly looking forward to my sessions with Word software and my Mac and my “genre specific” imagination. When I finished and passed the book on to my agent I felt a rush of loneliness – I missed the characters I’d created for the story, I hated to break off the relationship. Wouldn’t I ever be able to tell any of their stories again? It was like I’d lost living, breathing persons who had spent time in my kitchen, sat beside me at church, and gone on long walks along with me and my dogs.

I returned to my pastoral ministry and my literary fiction. A year later, in 2010, the book was picked up by a publishing house for release in 2012. I was gratified. So I still had the ability to write a decent genre piece! Well, that was wonderful, but I had to focus on doing the writing that really mattered, producing a book worthy of the Booker or the Nobel or even the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But then, just a few months ago, in October or November of 2010, an idea for another genre piece popped into my head. Except I didn’t call it a genre piece – I called it a story, a book, a novel. It was the real thing and it was insistent. Writers know what I’m talking about. It was one of those tales that bursts into your life and imagination and quite literally demands to be told. So I spent four months telling “the story that had to be told” and loving every minute of it. Really loving every minute of it. I wasn’t sitting in the garret agonizing over a finely tuned piece of literary fiction that resembled Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I was sitting by a fire and spinning a yarn. I felt like a Christian Louis L’Amour and it was a terrific experience.

Until I submitted the completed manuscript to my agent and then I felt that rush of loneliness I’d felt two years before when I’d handed over my first genre piece. I even felt a mild depression – would I never be able to talk about the lives of my new set of characters again? Wouldn’t someone let me do a series? Was I saying goodbye to these people forever? I realized these “genre piece characters” had become very real and very dear to me and that I was unwilling to let them go. Then I decided the only way to snap out of it was to do the obvious – keep writing. Not a genre piece even though others would considered it a genre piece. I would write a story, a good, decent, as big and beautiful as life story.

Which is what I’m doing now. Writing my third genre piece that I do not think of as a genre piece, but as another tale locked inside me that has to be let out and told as well as I can. In fact, I plan to write another couple after this one before the year is out. Hey, what’s going on, you ask? What happened to your passion for writing literary fiction? Well, I’m still doing that too. I spent most of 2010 writing a novel that is going to be published in another few weeks. Except I don’t think of it as a ”literary fiction piece” anymore. Like the book I just finished and the one I’m embarking on right now, it’s a story, and I tried to write that story a well as I could with all the fire and force and light within me, and I thanked God for it when I was done.

What writing pieces I no longer call “genre specific pieces for the industry” did for me was set me free and I mean that. I was totally at liberty to write about love and God and Jesus and prayer and spirituality and forgiveness and good old-fashioned adventure and romance without any fear of censure or disapproval or being warned I wasn’t producing “true art”. I’ve been having the time of my life, yet I’ve still been working hard at writing well and telling a story well. I’m a storyteller again like I was when I was a child and I’m writing my stories for my audience of one or a hundred and I’m writing my stories for Christ. How can it get any better than that? I have a million stories in me all waiting to get out and I intend to do what I can to let them walk and talk and breathe and praise God in the lives they live in readers’ hearts and minds and souls.

They say you can’t go home again. But you can.

I have.

Friday, February 04, 2011

holy quotes 9

It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)