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Monday, November 21, 2011

no hard truths, please, we're Christians

What is missing in Christian writing is the dark side of the moon, the Psalm 88 stuff. Everyone has gone through some of the same losses & disappointments and it is so beneficial for us to identify with those who admit to the struggles and sufferings. It would do the Church a world - a heaven! - of good to embrace this. But even though the Bible is that real - look at Saul's tragedy - look at some of the grotesque kings and queens in the OT and NT (Herod in the New, Jezebel and Ahab in the Old) and the hurt they inflicted on others - Christians, it seems, are not that real. At least, not when it comes to the fiction they wish to purchase (nonfiction seems to fair better with this sort of life honesty). What a shame. Can't you see how a writer could help us by telling stories where people are hurt in churches, disappointed when God doesn’t answer certain prayers in the way they expect, are lonely and afraid even when they are believers? Hard times don’t go away just because we have faith – no matter what some preachers and Christian movies try to tell us. I think we do the Church an injustice by not being as honest about life as the Bible is – and gives us the liberty and affirmation to be as well. But, alas, we stick to Psalm 23 & 150 and ignore 88 - it cripples us.


Which points out to me that the problem with Christ's Church today is not a need for more dogma and purer doctrine - the need is for more empathy, more compassion, and more reality - all of which are in short supply. If we could be as real as the Bible we could discuss our hard times in light of all the people who had hard times in the Bible, including and especially those who never experienced instant healing, or easy resolution to inner and outer conflicts, or answers to prayers that made sense to them.

My first novel, Mizzly Fitch, has as a main character a gnarly old fisherman who feels his life is a battle between himself and God. The seekers and the secular crowd loved it but much of the Christian crowd didn't know what to do with it, even though it's full of Christness. The book was taught in Canadian high schools for about 20 years (published in 88). To show how God is in this stuff if we give him a chance, a teacher at a college that wasn't a Christian school told me how many students had started to read the Bible for the first time after reading the novel. It actually crossed all kinds of boundaries and I even have a heartfelt letter from a Jewish woman who bought it from a bookstore in New Jersey. It's still in print so I imagine it may come up some day in the next few years in an interview - in which case I'll talk about its place in my writing of other gentler and more upbeat stories. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Or should we cut Psalm 88 and Job out of the Bible along with quite a few other painful and difficult sections?

It drives me crazy - I feel like we've shrink wrapped God and his gospel and that many millions who would believe don't - due simply to our narrow-mindedness about writing and speaking about the hardships in Christians’ lives – in all people’s lives! – that aren’t resolved by a quick prayer or a 30 minute sermon or a five minute quiet time from Our Daily Bread or The Upper Room.

Pretending we do not have these struggles helps no one – the lost or the found. For those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth. If the truth is diminished by pretense, how real are we before God and how real is our worship? How can a pretend gospel redeem people from real darkness?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

long strong smooth strokes

SO . . . have you ever wound up with too much to do but you still had to do all of it?

I am in a position now where I need to write 3-4 books a year of varying lengths and of different genre types. One in the bunch may be nonfiction, the others will be fiction. Of the fiction titles, one may be literary fiction, the others will be popular fiction, usually historical fiction at this point.

It's one of those times where I am trying to create momentum so I'm doing all that I can the best way I know how. People have asked me, Well, how can you do all that and do it well?

I would not wish to write four books a year forever. But if contracts and opportunities come your way you're crazy not to seize them and try to make something happen. So you discipline yourself, focus, know when to take breaks, and above all else, make sure you enjoy yourself. Especially the final one. If you don't do that you won't last long as a n artist or writer - or anything else.

An image I keep in my head may help you when you have similar extraordinary demands on your time. I see myself as a long distance swimmer.

I might be doing laps. I might be swimming the English Channel or the Hoover Dam (do they let you swim that Dam?) but whatever I'm doing it's not a fast crawl - it's not a one minute race - it's the long, strong, smooth strokes of the long distance swimmer.

You just keep going. One stroke at a time. Measure your pace. Know when to come up for air. OK, now and then you may need to put on a burst of speed - but if you still have a long way to go you can't do that for long or you won't have the juice to go the distance. The best plan is the long, strong, smooth strokes. It's amazing how far you get when you do that and stick to it.

For instance, ten days ago I realized I wasn't getting very far with a manuscript. I was even avoiding the writing. How was I going to rejuvenate my interest in the work again and, coupled with that, actually get somewhere in time for the deadline?

I decided to focus and instead of doing 1500 words a day - a very slow pace - chose to up that to 3000. Day by day I swam the Channel between France and England. I doubled the distance I expected of myself on a daily swim and refused to do less. Of course there were interruptions and minor crises - I'm in real life, not a movie about a professional swimmer in the English Channel that is over in 2 hours. But interruptions or not, I got back in the writing water and began to swim again. And again.

Now, with those days behind me, I am one chapter shy of ten. Which means I'm one-third of the way through the book. A week ago I was hanging back from the work. Now I'm ready to go on Monday morning the 21st. A week ago I'd almost lost interest. Now I'm looking forward to the work - I want to write the next set of chapters. Since these are short devotional chapters 1500-2000 or 2500 words = one chapter. So 7-10 days from now I expect to be at chapter 15 or 16, maybe even 17 - halfway through the book. Not by a sudden flurry of over-the-top activity. Just by a sudden focus and very deliberate discipline on my part.

I still am a father to my son and daughter and help with homework or other issues. I still am a husband to my wife, talk things over with her, and help with the chores - cooking, cleaning, dealing with the weekly garbage, doing the laundry, hauling out the vacuum. I still walk my Alaskan Malamutes twice a day. I even take showers and eat.

But since I am now writing full-time I know I have a certain amount of distance to cover each day. When I cover it I feel that I am going to succeed and pull the book off. The more I feel that, the more interested I am in the book and the more excited I am about writing it and completing it. Sometimes when you don't get far enough in a reasonable amount of time you feel like the project isn't going to succeed and maybe it isn't worth investing your time in. You lose interest and eventually drop out and toss the whole thing. When you keep on top of it though, even if it's a long haul, you stay interested and focused and keen about what you're doing. You finish it. You win. You feel great.

And you know you can accomplish something else which may also require those long, strong, steady, smooth strokes of the long distance swimmer - or writer - or mother - or pastor - or lawyer - or nurse - or teacher - or student. . .

. . . or believer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

virginia city

This is a blog I've sent over from the AmishReader.com website. It's a work of popular fiction I've cooked up and I think you'll enjoy it. The book is available for pre-order and will be ready for purchase very soon. Enjoy!


Virginia City

Virginia City used to be the capital of Montana in the territory’s gold rush days. About midway through 1875 Helena became the capital in its place. From a roaring boomtown Virginia City became a ghost town in a few decades later once the gold had played out.

Put yourself in the Montana Territory of 1875. The Civil War’s been over for only ten years.The James-Younger Gang is on the rampage. So is John Wesley Hardin. General James Armstrong Custer is still alive – The Battle of the Little Bighorn won’t take place until June 25th at about three o’clock in the afternoon. Wyatt Earp is still alive too and so are all his brothers. Dodge City is bursting at the seams. The President of the United States is not a Bush or a Barack – it’s a Grant, the Union war hero. The Old West is at its peak.

Suppose you’ve taken in a boy and a girl who are the survivors of a massacre. Suppose the outlaws who perpetrated the massacre are looking for the boy and girl because they’re sure the kids saw their faces and can identify them to the law. Suppose you feel responsible for keeping the boy and girl alive but no one else feels they can help you do that, even the marshal, and you’re advised to get the pair out of Montana and all the way back east to Pennsylvania. Suppose you’re a young single woman who’s trying to pull this off and the only one who will help you is a young single rancher who likes you well enough to risk his neck. Suppose the four of you decide to make a run for it with the gang hard on your heels?

What happens next???

A lot.

To find out exactly what plan to pick up a copy of the book I call Virginia City (for short) that will be available from your favorite bookstore or online dealer very soon. Published by Barbour its full title is A Bride’s Flight From Virginia City, Montana. I think you’ll like it and have a great time saving the kids and getting away from the bad guys.

But what, you may ask, does this have to do with the Amish (since this is an Amish blog)?

Well, they are running all the way to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – that’s one clue. And the young single woman has a past buried in Lancaster County she swore she’d never return to – that’s another clue. And the boy and girl know Pennsylvania Dutch as well as English – there’s your third clue.

It’s a wild and exciting ride. I hope you decide to get in on it. And ja, some new Amish friends will be waiting to help you when you get off the train at Bird-in-Hand in Lancaster County.

We pray you get that far.

Friday, November 11, 2011

sequel to white birds of morning

I have many writing projects going on but I made sure I found time to begin the sequel to The White Birds of Morning this past week. Unnamed so far, it is the third book in the series that began with the award-winning Zo and covers the years in the story between 1943 and 1945. I have an excerpt for you here BUT, as it is carrying on from the story in White Birds, it does contain spoilers, so you may not want to look at it until you've read White Birds through. (Yes, people tell me White Birds is long, but so is the Bible, and many of them have read that. You read long books the same way you read the Bible or short books - a chapter at a time! Thanks, by the way, to those who have finished White Birds and sent their notes of appreciation.)






The Hour of Darkness
COMPLINE
1943 - 1945












† † †
I carried her through the snow. In all that time on the train she had scarcely stiffened. They tried to convince me to leave her at the station in Vinnytsia but I was determined to go on. We came to a stop two hundred kilometres east of Lviv. There was a village. We were in Galicia so I climbed off the train with her in my arms. The snow was coming down so thickly her body was white in a few minutes. I kept wiping it off her face. I wanted to see her eyes. I had not closed them. There was no loss of colour. They were clear.

I headed through the snowdrifts towards the woods. I did not know that thousands of Jews had been shot under the trees. When I found out later it did not matter. She would have been proud to be buried among them. I could see there had been digging so I realized there had been executions and burials. I found a hole that was half-filled with snow and ice but nothing and no one else. She settled into it very easily. I was worried about the wolves so I spent some time prying up rocks from under the snow and frozen dirt and placing them one by one over her body until I was satisfied she was safe.

By then my fingers were raw and bleeding. I welcomed the sensation. I was grateful I could bury her with some pain and some blood. I think there was a prayer too. A good atheist’s prayer for a saint. Yes. I did that.

† † †

I am here on behalf of the Vatican because, quite frankly, Brother Nahum, your testimony is riddled with inconsistencies – I think I may call them that.

If the Holy Father feels that is so why – why didn’t the archbishop come?

He is a cardinal now. Much too busy to fly to America in order to iron out a few wrinkles.

So he sends a woman.

A sister in Christ.
What order?

Your sister is set to be beatified next month by the Holy Father. I am only here for a day. You can look up my order on your search engine after I’m gone.

Sister Afanasii.

Yes.

Russian.

Yes.

Russian Orthodox?

Yes. Can’t you tell by my robe and my klobuk – my head covering?

A Russian Orthodox nun. And you sit there – you sit there and tell me you are sent by the Vatican?
There is no record of what happened between the end of December 1943 and the summer of 1946 when you suddenly appear in Canada.

There is nothing to talk about. The German war machine broke apart. Berlin fell. Eventually I was repatriated and I returned to North America.

Even though you had served with the SS?

I served – with the armored units. Not death squads.

There is no record of you having served with the SS tank corps, the Panzerwaffen, as you claim. But there is something about an interview on a Nazi newsreel. That ought to have been enough to keep you out of Canada. Some would consider a pro-Nazi interview an act of treason. There is also information about you serving with the 14th Waffen SS, the Galician Division, although the file is incomplete. I am surprised you were not detained or arrested on suspicion of war crimes.

I committed no crimes.

What about the monastery at Pidkamin? In March of 1944?

The Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes ruled that the 14th Waffen SS should not be indicted as a group. Charges of war crimes against the Division have never been substantiated.

You appear well versed on this, brother.

It comes to my mind that there are no monastic orders within the Orthodox Church. You must be what they call a Schema. But not a Great Schema.

What makes you think I am not a Great Schema?

You are too young. And you are not dead. It seems to me that the very old and the dead are the ones who achieve that level of spiritual honour.

Perhaps I am older than you think.


Your head covering would be different if you were a Great Schema. And I see by your face you are not above 40 – am I not right?

There are other problems with your testimony. Sometimes little things: survivors report the music playing during the village of Mir’s destruction by the Red Army was the opera Boris Godunov, not Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Beethoven is how I remember it.

There are greater issues than this. You say your sister Zoya shot and killed enemy soldiers. Even the wounded. All other witnesses deny this, including those closest to her who survived the war. You say Zoya and the young woman, Zhanna Yeva, whom you buried east of Lviv, often quarreled – others, all others, tell us they adored one another and were almost always in agreement.

An old man’s memory is often sharper than that of the young.


They are all old now as well as you. Perhaps your sister did not want you to make something of the miracles of healing attributed to her. Perhaps she made you swear an oath to alter her story to prevent anything like beatification or canonization from taking place.

Do you think she was that humble, Sister Afanasii?

Not according to your version of events. But if she asked you to change everything, how would we know? You did slip up once. You said she thrust your hand into a candle and made you promise never to talk about the healings that took place during the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

I think that was a false memory. The archbishop – the cardinal – had me talking for long stretches. I began to imagine things, conjure up events that never transpired.

Yes?

My mind was wheeling round and around. And they were recording all that sacred music at the same time as the cardinal and I met. It was hardly possible to think clearly.

You mention Ukrainian partisans you say were Jewish. But our investigation reveals they were a mix of Arabs and Jews. All killed in 1948. Not fighting each other. As a group they supported the formation of a Palestinian state and also an Israeli state. Arabs killed the Arabs among them and Jews killed the Jews.

I did not know. I did not know what happened.

Eyewitnesses deny Zoya was ever married. Ever had a lover. Ever bore a child.

A perpetual virgin.

Yes.

I have eyes. I too witnessed. She was my sister. I have no legend or mythology to promote.

So you’re sticking to your story.

I am only telling you the truth. I was there. She had a boy. He still lives.

I want to return to your time with the 14th Waffen SS and the alleged war crimes.

No.

Did you serve with them? Were you at the Battle of Brody?

The Vatican sends a pitbull – but why? Why are you here? Rome has all the information it needs. At least half-a-dozen miracles have been documented, haven’t they? You do not believe the things I tell you. They are not convenient for the sainthood you are trying to weave into existence. So why come again? And again and again? What do you want? There is nothing else you need.

We need to know what happened in 1944 and 1945. If someone came up with evidence that compromised Zoya’s beatification it could be awkward. I would rather we knew about it first. Before the devil’s advocate got a hold of it.

There is nothing from those two years that will place the Holy Father in an awkward position.

Let me be the judge of that.

There is no point to this harassment. Let me die in peace.

But you are not at peace. Are you?