What’s It Worth?

There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t ask ourselves to make value judgements on any number of things. Do I go to a coffee shop and purchase a cup of morning eye opener, or do I brew at home and carry a travel tumbler with me out the door? What about a big purchase such as a house or a car? Is a fixer-upper good enough, or shouldHe who waters - fall pic we look for something new and unlikely to need repairs? Behind almost every financial decision is an underlying series of questions we must answer. The question can be asked in any number of ways: Can we afford it? Can we afford not to do it? What’s the benefit? Does the benefit outweigh the cost? Is it necessary? Is it frivolous? Is the timing right? What will be my likely ROI (return on investment)?

To say the least these are tough questions. Recently, Joyce and I attended the annual ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) conference. This was our first year to be a member of ACFW, or any other writing group, so we had to wrestle through all the above questions before we came to the decision, “Yes, we’re going to bite the proverbial bullet and go.”

This brings us back around to the original question that’s suggested in the title of this blog, “Was it worth it?” In our case I would say a resounding “yes.” We saved our money for months and committed to spend four days and nights at the conference. Everything about the conference proved to be first class—the accommodations, the food, the speakers, the worship, the keynote speakers and especially the people who attended. I was pleasantly surprised, and frankly somewhat amazed, at how unselfish the people were with their time and talent. The general attitude of those who had “made it” with their writing was, “How can I help you become the best writer you can be?” That way of thinking refreshed our souls, put a smile on our faces and a little pep in our step. It encouraged us both to discover first hand we are not alone in our quest of following the Lord into the creative realm of writing.

I believe one of the main lessons I came away with from this conference was the importance of connecting with others. As Christians, we have all seen the importance of connecting with like-minded believers in a group setting. We are not to live as ‘lone ranger’ Christians, but live connected and in relationship with others for the express purpose of encouraging and helping one another. I believe I saw clearly last weekend the importance of applying that mindset to my daily life—whatever career or setting that entails. Just as I have done for many years by discipling ‘younger’ Christians, I am determining to look for ways I can help and encourage others as I travel this road of being an author.

How have you been encouraged and refreshed lately? Have you been given the opportunity to help or encourage recently? (Did you recognize the opportunity when it stared you in the face?) How have you connected with others? I would enjoy hearing from you…

 

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I Love Lucy …

Lucy

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

That was probably the most famous and often repeated line in the old I Love Lucy TV show. (I’m sure I just lost most of my readers under the age of fifty). Anyway, it was spoken by the character Ricky Ricardo when his irrepressible wife Lucy would once again be up to her red hair in some self-inflicted conundrum.

As I bang this out on my keyboard I feel much like Lucy—“I got some ‘splainin’ to do.” I can hear people ask, “Where have you been? What happened to your blogs? Why are your books no longer for sale on Amazon and other sites? Did you die and I missed the obituary?”

I’ll not answer the last question. As for the others, I’ll bring you up to speed and the answer is quite simple. My writing wasn’t good enough for publication. Before you think this is me sinking into the morass of self-deprecation, let me explain. Five years ago I was bitten by the writing bug. I left my good paying job and bunkered in my home to crank out my first novel, THE KEY. While at it, I wrote two more books, THEY SOW THE WIND and SEASON OF JUSTICE. My wife joined me in premature retirement and became my editor and publisher. There was only one problem. We both knew virtually nothing about the art and skill of writing. Needless to say, we both went back to work when the bank account went on life support.

After five years I finally wised up and had a professional editor take a look at my work. “OUCH!” Besides her honest assessment, she did me another huge favor by sending me a list of books on writing that would help me learn the craft.

 

Of all the mistakes I made in trying to become an author, two stand out. First, I was woefully undereducated in the skills required for writing fiction novels. Admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is sometimes the hardest first step. Second, I thought I could do it on my own. To remedy this major blunder Joyce and I have joined a national writers group, American Christian Fiction Writers. We are attending the local writers group and will attend the ACFW national convention later this month. As a result of these associations, I now have other authors who will review the books and give suggestions for improvement. We also are having professional editors review the re-write of THE KEY, and eventually all the works I write for publication. No more Lone Ranger. (Another dated TV reference.)

I Love Lucy was such a funny show because she always leaped before she looked. But the reality of that show was a full staff of writers and editors poured skill and knowledge and inspiration into every storyline and word. Lucy had the pretty face and the skills as an actress, but there was a full staff of people behind her.

I’m pretty jazzed these days about the connections I’m making in the writing world and looking forward to all God has for me in that world. So… I have a question for you. Is there something in your life you need help with? It probably isn’t writing a novel, but I’ll wager there’s something you’ve been trying to do that someone with a little more education, or skill, or training could help you with. Why not ask? Otherwise you may end up like me and Lucy— with a lot of “splainin’” to do.

He Restores My Soul…

St Cyril & Methodius, Dubina

St Cyril & Methodius, Dubina

Although neither of us complained, our 30th wedding anniversary was less than spectacular, consisting of a meal at a local restaurant squeezed between busy work days. We both sensed we had neglected the importance of the day. To remedy this poor planning Joyce informed me that she intended to spirit me away for an overnight mini-vacation and a more proper recognition of this marital milestone. Off we went to Schulenburg, Texas, a sleepy town, just shy of three thousand souls, kept awake by the noise of  I-10, the main artery pumping cars and trucks from Houston to San Antonio and all points west and east. “Schooltown,” the literal translation from German, is one of those small burgs which grew up along railroad tracks and still has its roots in the ground, both literally and figuratively. Cotton was king at one time, but has been dethroned by cattle and other agricultural endeavors. Our trek began on State Highway 71, one of two frenetic roads linking Austin to Houston. We traveled at a little over 70 mph and shook our heads as cars and pickups passed us like we were a lame horse at the Kentucky Derby. Turning south at La Grange on what was at one time one of the premier roads in Texas, Highway 77, we went from four lane madness to a more reasonable speed on two lanes, with occasional passing lanes to let the crazies blow by. Our slowdown had begun. Upon arrival in Schulenburg we made our way to the Chamber of Commerce located in the old downtown area. And when I say “old,” I mean old. I’m no spring chicken, but everything there predated me. We stopped at the Chamber Office and it seemed time did too, about a hundred years ago. Once inside I traded a $5.00 bill for a brochure entitled “SCHULENBURG: Official Home of the Painted Churches, Historic & Scenic Driving Tour.” It may have been the best $5.00 I ever spent.

After a leisurely, and thoroughly delicious, lunch we began our adventure. We consulted our handy-dandy driving tour map and headed north from town to view the first of three “Painted Churches” we would see that afternoon, saving the fourth for the next day. Instead of trying to describe the architecture and beauty of what we saw, I want to try and tell you what I sensed the Lord spoke to me. Everything He showed me had to do with finding restoration for my soul.

Take the backroads. Here are some of the names of the roads we traveled to get to the various churches: Mensik Road, Piano Bridge Road, High Hill Road and Saint John Road. We drove slowly. Nobody honked. Nobody rode our bumper. We stopped and took photos of fence lines to give us ideas for a jacket cover for an upcoming novel I’ve written. We stopped and looked at the Piano Bridge, a single lane steel bridge erected prior to automobiles. I sang songs to my wife. We kissed at the old bridge. Restoration of our marriage.

St Cyril & Methodius

St Cyril & Methodius

Reverence for worship. All the churches we saw on the tour were truly holy (set apart) places. Even though each one was jaw-dropping beautiful, I was more impressed with their singular purpose. There were no other buildings attached to them, even the bathrooms were in separate buildings outside. I won’t get into a modern theological debate on the people being the “Church” and not the church building; I understand that. What I’m saying is I appreciated how the people who built the churches did so because they desired a separate place for worship. I sensed the presence of God in these churches. Once inside I spoke little, and when I did it was in whispers. Restoration of reverence.

Sacrificial giving. Around 1855 Czech-Moravian immigrants began the settlement of land around Schulenburg. Austrian and German settlers followed. Over the next generation these pioneer families forged a living out of the fallow rolling hills, and even prospered. I tried to put myself in their place. How hard would it be to go to a new country, supply all your family needs for food, clothing and shelter and still produce enough so you could help build a community church that would stand for well over a hundred years? Now try doing it without electricity, running water, cell phones and computers. With each creak of the original hardwood floors I could hear the raspy sound of a worker pull and push a handsaw across a plank of wood. I saw the skill of the hand painted interiors and wondered how many hours it took to accomplish these works of art. Where did the people find the time? I could see in my mind’s eye a frontier couple huddled at a kitchen table going over the books to see what additional gift they could give. Most people who view the “Painted Churches” are overwhelmed by their beauty. I saw the sacrifice. I think I know how those people accomplished so much with so little. Their souls were refreshed through sacrificial giving.

Life revolved around the church. At least three of the churches, and I’m betting the fourth also, had these things in common: an adjacent community center, a nearby school and a cemetery. Within a short walk from each place of worship stood a large building dedicated to community events. Meals, meetings, dances, receptions, and celebrations of events I can only imagine took place, and occasionally still take place, in these cavernous wooden structures. In addition to the kitchens and halls there were covered outdoor areas and beyond the rooflines, massive live oaks stretched out their arms and gave additional shady spots for people to congregate. Most of the churches also had, at one time long past, schools in close proximity. Finally there was a cemetery you couldn’t miss as you approached the various churches. As I think back on the civic halls, the cemeteries and the schools I realized each one, at some time during the day, fell under the shadow of the church. The church was the hub around which these hardworking people lived their lives. Restoration of priorities.

Last month I was going through Psalms 1-30. It just so happened that the 23rd Psalm was next on my list for study, meditation and prayer while in Schulenburg. As I sat in our hotel room sipping morning coffee and pondering the Painted Churches, I came to the conclusion that David knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “He restores my soul…” Psalm 23:3a (NKJ). Aren’t you grateful our God loves us enough to pull us away from the everyday and show us a different way?

 

I Don’t Like Writing Blogs…or…Life Happens…or…No Excuse, Sir!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. Scratch that. It’s been a long, long, long time since my last blog. In fact, it’s been years. The natural questions to ask are, “Why has it been so long? Did you give up on writing? Have you been sick? Were you stuck in a grass hut somewhere on the mission field where you didn’t have internet access? Don’t you understand how imperative it is for an author to communicate regularly using blogs,     e-mails, tweets, skypes and snapchats?”

Frankly, my eyes glaze over when I consider all the ways I am supposed to be communicating. After all, when I was in high school a hand held calculator was called a slide rule. With that background in mind, it’s easier to understand why moving my way around technology is, and probably always will be, a work in progress. It’s lucky for me I was able to transfer the typing skills I learned in aforementioned high school to the computer. Otherwise, I would be entering the world of fiction with a No. 2 pencil and a spiral notebook. But I digress…I still haven’t answered the question of why my blog has fallen into a black hole. Here are my excuses, er, explanations:

I’d rather write stories than blogs. There, I said it. It was a cathartic experience and one that I believe reflects the heart of many writers. The only problem with this excuse/explanation is that it is as foolish as it is truthful.

Since posting my last blog my wife and I have been on a crusade to lower our living costs down to a bare minimum, win the battle against debt and live a much healthier lifestyle. In the last two years we have made a laundry list of changes – We sold our home and now live in a travel trailer we purchased with cash; We moved from the city we were living in to a smaller town; We changed our jobs to ones that give us more free time for writing and publishing; And most recently, we changed our carnivore diet to one that is almost exclusively plant based, whole foods.  (Note to reader: BEWARE OF THIS LIFESTYLE CHANGE, you will lose weight quickly and feel much better. A new wardrobe may be necessary.)

My father was a retired Air Force officer. I can vividly recall from my childhood when my brother and I had committed a breach of protocol he would stand us at attention. We would be grilled with questions related to WHY we had not come home on time, or WHY I had shot a squirrel in the backyard with my trusty single shot .22 rifle, or WHY we had committed some other offense I obviously considered trivial. The only responses permitted were “Yes, Sir,” “No Sir” and “NO EXCUSE, SIR.” It was usually best to use the latter.

As I meditate on the reasons why I haven’t written a blog in such a long time, my thoughts keep returning to my father and the wisdom wrapped in those three words. There may be excuses I can come up with, but I’ll be much better served by shouting out, “NO EXCUSE, SIR” and sitting down for an hour or two and composing. After all, the BUSINESS of writing is just that, a BUSINESS. I must now treat it like one that may well serve us the rest of our lives. We want to be prepared to follow the Lord into whatever He has for us. To help us meet that goal, my wife and I have joined an organization dedicated to helping authors and publishers, the American Christian Fiction Writers. We are looking forward to the annual ACFW conference in September. If any of you reading are ACFW members, I look forward to meeting you and ‘picking your brain’ about this business of being an author.

Stay tuned via Facebook or sign up for the blog. Book 4 of The Peacemakers series is in the final editing stage.Will keep you updated …

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Among the books being offered for FREE in the Smashwords site-wide promotion are The Key, They Sow theWind and Season of Justice

Head on over to the Smashwords site and find your next great read – at a discount!

The Power of a Personal Pronoun

My goodness; that was a lot of “P’s” in the title. Not as many as in “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers,” but plenty to ponder.

“Enough already! What’s the deal with the personal pronoun?”

Glad you asked. For the last several days I’ve been meditating on the first three verses of Psalm 18. It has been a most enjoyable and fruitful time of examining not only what is said, but who said it—our old friend, King David. You remember him, the kid who liked to throw rocks at extra-large bullies? Of course you remember David. He wrote this Psalm the day after God delivered him from his enemies and King Saul. After running for his life for fourteen years David became the one and only king over Israel. Imagine, fourteen years of persecution from a king you loved, respected and wanted to serve. But he repaid your loyalty by trying to kill you with every resource at his disposal. Fourteen years. David had already been given the promotion, but it took that long for it to come to pass. Can you imagine the relief David felt?

This brings us to David and the personal pronoun “my.” Here is what David learned about God during those long, anxious years. Listen as he describes the Lord… “ MY God, MY strength, MY fortress, MY deliverer, MY shield, MY salvation and MY stronghold.”

It is one thing to accurately describe God’s characteristics or attributes. It is something completely different to have experienced these like David did. He ran, quite literally, for his life for almost a decade and a half. Yet, time after time, he escaped the clutches of a king obsessed with his destruction. At each step, David experienced the Lord with a new “MY.” Theoretical became experiential.

Now we are down to the marrow of the bone. God desires so much that we make that jump in our perception of Him from God to MY God, from a source of strength to MY strength, from a place of refuge to MY fortress, and so on. Don’t be deceived, there is a world of difference between proper identification of God and the personalization of Him. Listen to these and hear the difference, “A daughter…MY daughter. A son…MY son. A father…MY father.”

I hope by now you see that David experienced persecution above and beyond what most people ever have to endure. Yet, he came out of that horrific season with a basketful of the personal pronouns “MY.” Remember this one? “The Lord is MY shepherd.”

You and I have the same opportunity every time we experience difficulty, hardship, illness, grief, despair, financial problems, flat tires; you name it. We have an opportunity to move from “God” to “MY God.”

As an aside, this also gives us at least a partial answer to the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to people?” It could well be that He, in His infinite wisdom, wants you to experience Him in such a way that you will add another “MY” to your basket.

Examine your life. Are you in the midst of something that is more than you can handle? If not now, you will be. You and I have a choice during these trying times to say, “MY God is with me.” And after the storm of life passes by, we can say “MY God saw me through.”

I’ll just brush by one final item. It’s not just during the hard times that the Lord wants to move from God to “MY God.” He also wants to become “MY Joy,”  “MY Celebration,” “MY Peace,” and many other “MY’s.”

Yes, there is incredible power in “MY.” Look for opportunities to use it and speak it out. It’s the least we can do for a God that looks at each of us and says, “That’s MY child.”

What’s so funny???

Two nights ago I started reading a new book. Nothing unusual about that, I may be one of the world’s foremost starters. Did you notice I did not say I am a finisher of books? Why is that? And why have I digressed into mindless musings two sentences into a blog?

Back on task… like I was saying, I started a new read. The reviews all but promised wet pants from excessive laughter. It is a fictional account of the life and times of an almost graduated seminarian as he stumbles his way through an internship at a very old, very proud, very large, very affluent, and very prestigious church whose name begins with “First.”

Joyce settled into bed with Mittens, our cat, and I read aloud the first three chapters. Sure enough, it only took a few lines and we were giggling. Both of us have served on staff at churches, so we found we could relate to the characters and situations. And, yes, working with the people that make up a church body (and staff) is a gold mine of humor. The author had the gift of capturing the anecdotes and weaving them into narratives that reminded us of people and places.

The next day I asked myself one of those vexing questions that probably should have been left alone… “Why did I find the stories funny?” Or, put another way, “What makes something or someone funny?” And finally, as a writer I asked, “How can I put down in words things that will make people laugh?”

Now I’m sitting with my hands looking like a church steeple trying to come up with reasons that will answer those questions. I think I’ve painted myself into a corner once again. Oh well…press on.

There can be no doubt that different people find different things funny. Some prefer the broad humor of slapstick, sight gags, and sophomoric jokes. Others enjoy irony, or double-entendres or puns. Situational comedy, people in uncomfortable and often bizarre circumstances, must be a real crowd pleaser—look at how many television shows follow that pattern. Then there is the dark side of insults and gallows humor. (I never enjoyed comedians whose stock in trade was insulting people.)

There can be no doubt that some people have a special gift for humor. My mind immediately races back to college and a fraternity brother…no doubt the class clown in high school. He was a nice looking young man who spoke as if he had a marble in his mouth. Not the whole bag, mind you, just a single marble that caused his East Texas twang to slide out with wet s’s. You always wanted to stand back an extra foot for fear of an unintended shower. With a voice that could be heard a block away, he spun story after damp story. It didn’t matter if they were real or not. They were funny.

Have I reached any conclusions on how to write humor? No, but that won’t keep me from trying.

Last night Joyce and Mittens nestled into bed, ready for a second night of giggles and grins. I read…they slept.  Another lesson learned about humor…it is quickly extinguished by fatigue.