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Decide What To Do With The Time

This famous quote from Tolkien has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of a week. It squeezed out of my mouth in Sunday’s sermon, perhaps the last sermon for a while as we all hunker down for COVID-19 contingencies. It is one of the better sentiments on crisis one can internalize.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

First an observation completely applicable to my thoughts. In the novel, this line comes very early as Gandalf is letting Frodo in on the history and darkness of the ring. The line helps set us up as the reader for the peril that is to come, and for Gandalf’s philosophy in how to handle it. By contrast, in the movie version, this conversation is moved deeper into the film, in the Mines of Moria.

I love the movies but one complaint I have is Hobbits should all be fatter

This matters a bit. The movie has these words when the trouble of the times is fully on them, after the Council of Elrond, after Weathertop, and after they are trapped inside the dark mine. We know the story will get darker yet, but from Frodo’s perspective, in the movie, he probably thinks it is already as horrible as it can get. Getting these words in the middle of it is one thing.

But Tolkien wrote them at the beginning. When Frodo is still in The Shire, around his fire, with clean clothes and a full belly. In the novel, Frodo’s words are about trying to avoid difficult times altogether, in which Gandalf basically says, ‘Hard times can’t be avoided’ In the movie, Frodo’s words are about ‘I wish I wasn’t in this horrible time.’ to which Gandalf essentially says, “we all do.”

The highlighted page from my copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Why am I thinking so much about this exchange? Because we are in the beginning of some very difficult times. Gandalf is telling us we can’t do a thing about the fact we live in these times, and pining away for the past–even if that past was only two months ago–doesn’t help. We have to choose, decide, how we’re going to react and behave right now. And to answer that, there are three options.

  1. We can live in denial. “There is no threat,” or “It is all hyped up and overreaction,” or perhaps, “I’m young so it will not bother me.”
  2. We can panic and live in fear. These are the emotions which are producing bare grocery store shelves and people talking about the end of the world.
  3. We can choose to be true to our calling in Christ and fulfill the great commandment.

As you might imagine, I encourage you to reject denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of bad ideas. I also think we need to not feed the panic and fear. So how do we fulfilling our caring in Christ? How do we rise above it and decide the noble, highest use of the time we’ve been given?

It starts with perspective. The Lord put you on the planet to love people, which means to be a helper. You can help the entire world by practicing social distancing, follow the recommendations of health officials, and staying home.

But that is not the only help. I encourage you all to be proactive. Reach out to your neighbors and friends and make certain they are okay. You probably have vulnerable people near you — older people, those with chronic immune illnesses, COPD, and other respiratory issues — and these people shouldn’t be anywhere near a grocery store or in the population right now. So you can help. Make sure they know you’re available to go to the store for them, deliver meds from the pharmacy, or just to call and say hi.

It also helps everyone when you stay calm. Calmness comes from remembering two things. One, this is not the first crisis we’ve had. We are being asked to stay home and watch Netflix, our grandparents were asked to leave home and fight the Nazis. See the difference? The second thing it helps to remember is none of this was a surprise to God. He knew it was coming, and he has prepared you–indeed if I may — he has chosen you for this time. This is your time to shine; so do it. And do it well.

It will also help if you smile. Say encouraging words. Be playful. Give thanks. Worship the Lord. Love.

It is when times are tough that our true character emerges and our actual core values take center stage. I believe we are a noble people, and I believe the Lord is working right now to show us how to live better and behave better by loving each other.

But these aren’t my only thoughts. Time is subject here from Tolkien’s novel. Literally, not figuratively, literally many of us have been given time. Time at home. Make the most of it. Play games with your family. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Paint the deck. Increase your exercise routine. How about read a book — I happen to know some great books by this Greening guy . . .

Get creative. Paint a picture. Write a poem.

Clean the house. Mop the floors. Call your mom/dad/brother and talk.

Read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament. Study the words of Jesus. Pray more. Pray different.

You and I can’t get out of the time we live in nor can we change it. What we can do, is our time well. This, right now, is the time we’ve been given. What are you going to do with yours?

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A Reading Crisis

You can blame my friend John Duncan for this literary existential crisis. Recently he gifted me with a wonderful little book called The Reading Life. It is a compilation of some of C.S. Lewis’ written words about reading. The book is not very long. I started it Friday night and finished it this (Monday) morning all in the midst of a very hectic weekend. I recognized many of the passages from Surprised by Joy or any of the other numerous Lewis works in my library.

But there was a bit I’d never seen before, and it was titled “How To Know If You Are A True Reader”. Lewis lists four qualities of true readers.

  1. Loves to re-read books.
  2. Highly values reading as an activity (rather than as entertainment of last resort).
  3. Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.
  4. Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

I have always, since my earliest memories, loved to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of pages — the older and moldier the better, and the discovery with each turn of the page. I would consider myself a true reader.

It breaks my heart into a million pieces that Lewis probably would not. Let me explain by working backward on his list. I recall very much what I have read, whether literature, novels, sci-fi, or dense theology. There are powerful life-changing books in my past, and hopefully in my future. Among these are novels, self-help books, professional development books, and short stories. I love to read and would rather do that than just about anything else.

But I don’t re-read books. Other than the Bible, which I have read continuously since I was seven years old, I have only read one other book more than once and that is Hamlet. I often read Hamlet during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. But I’ve never re-read book just to re-read it. Mrs. Greenbean does — I believe she has read, for example, the Harry Potter series at least four times. Maybe more.

But not me. My philosophy has always been there are so many books I’ve never read before that I need to just move forward. In contrast, Lewis argues good books, great books, get better with subsequent readings as the mind picks up more. I see his point, because I have certainly re-watched movies and television shows over and over again, each time with fresh enjoyment. I’ve just never thought of books in the same way.

Maybe I need to evaluate this. As I think on it, were I to re-read — where would I start? I made a list of ten, but I cheat a little.

  1. The War of the Worlds — the first novel I ever read. Lewis talks about reading books you read as a child when you are an adult. This would be a great place to start. Speaking of that . . .
  2. Gentle Ben — I loved that book so much. As a boy it sent me into a legitimate frontier motif in my reading tastes.
  3. The Dark Tower series — Probably the best series ever compiled. I remember reading it and discovering how it changed the way I thought and spoke.
  4. The Lord of the Rings — Maybe the best written document in the English language other than the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Fathers and Sons — An somewhat obscure Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev. I read it in college and I remember it made me weep. I don’t really remember the plot, but I remember it made me weep. Russian literature does that.
  6. Quiet — This is one of my ‘life-changing’ books. I wish I’d read it when I was a kid. Now that I am full enmeshed in pastoral ministry again, maybe I need to revisit the wisdom about being an introvert in an extrovert world.
  7. The Bible Jesus Read — For my money this was the paradigm for writing a reflective book on the Jesus way of living.
  8. Assassination Vacation — I listened to this on audiobook once. I think I’d like to read it in print.
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Texarkana. That is all that needs to be said.
  10. Celebration of Discipline — I remember how much this book altered me. Maybe reading it again would be a double-blessing.

I’m not saying I will re-read these books, but if I decided to engage in the practice, I would start with. these.

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Book Review : Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill

Some books you read because you need to.

Ronan Farrow’s Catch And Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators was for me, one of those books you just need to read. It is a very adult book with lots of foul words and graphic language wrapped around disturbing material. Farrow includes a warning that it might trigger some people who have been hurt. The warning is justified. I have never been sexually abused or harassed yet there were times I had to put it down and walk away for a day or two.

I’d like to address the book in two different aspects rather than one of my more usual formats (good, bad, and ugly or what I liked and what I didn’t like). The first aspect I’d like to take is the topic at hand. The second is the book as a written endeavor.

As to the topic, Catch And Kill is an important work because it highlights the criminal activities of powerful people who use their wealth and power to intimidate or silence their victims. What I found particularly disturbing was the complicit nature of law enforcement, particularly prosecutors. I was not aware the law was that bendable — that money and attorneys could essentially shut down a viable investigation into rape or assault by simply lawyering up or using the media to start a smear campaign, victim shaming, job insecurity, and various other power trips including blackmail. It is disgusting.

Farrow’s book also teaches us an important lesson: Power is not political. If you think only Republicans are guilty of sexual crimes or only Democrats cover things up, then you fail to realize the extent of the issue. This is not a political issue, this is an abuse issue. Farrow makes certain that we know Harvey Weinstein, the central figure for most of this book, was a huge supporter of Democratic causes and especially of the Clintons and he spells out how Weinstein used his leverage with Hillary Clinton to try to silence him. But he also reminds us the same media group that helped Weinstein cover-up stories and buy people off did the same work for Donald Trump. And Republican governors and Democratic media personalities all used the same processes.

This is true in the media, as Farrow points out, and in politics.

It is also true in your hometown.

It may be true in your family, as it was for Farrow.

It might also be true in your church, as many of us have seen first hand.

It could be true in your school.

It also happens in many workplaces.

Until we refuse to be silent about it any longer it will continue. Today as I write this blog post, Epstein and Prince Andrew are in the news. Epstein’s death feels very suspicious to me (after reading Farrow’s book, it makes you think anything might have happened) and Prince Andrew is demonstrating typical behavior of these kinds of abusers. And next week there will be more, and that is a tragedy because for every famous situation we hear about, there are untold numbers of victims forced into silent submission by those who have leverage and power.

This issue has always been near to me because of all the women whom I love that have been hurt, abused, raped, molested, and harassed by men who have never been brought to justice. I will not mention their names nor attempt to tell their stories. Their stories belong to them.

It is also personal to me because of the situation I found myself in, which I wrote about in the epilogue to my first novel, when a trusted colleague in ministry was arrested and clearly guilty of one of the most vile things I can possibly fathom. It is so vile I don’t even want to discuss it here.

So this issue is personal, and because of that I am thankful for this book for any attention it might call our collective society to give no tolerance to abusers or those who protect them.

So that is the first thing I wanted to talk about — the topic.

The second part of this is about the book. It is uneven in its narrative. Farrow seems to jump around quite a bit, which perhaps would be okay but then he throws in a large number of names that were hard for me to remember. At times I wished he’d had a Dramatis Personae at the beginning for quick reference. I’m certain these people are all clear in his mind, but to me it at times turned into a book in which the characters were Weinstein, Farrow, Lawyer in this chapter, NBC executive in this chapter, inept private investigator in this chapter, and someone dancing in the ballet studio across from his apartment.

What he did a good job on was highlighting the victims, both the famous ones we’ve all heard of like Rose McGowan and those we’ve never heard about like Brooke Nevils. There is a part of me that wishes the book would have been more a canvasing of the victims and their own individual stories. However, that is not the book we got. What we got instead was a book about Ronan Farrow. Make no mistake, he is the star of the book. At times he portrays himself as a hard working investigative journalist. Other times, the victim of such dangerous espionage he has to move into a safe house. Then he is also the martyr for the cause, the little guy going up against the machine. He also wants us to feel sorry for his beleaguered bi-coastal love life AND the physical toll it took on his body.

But its hard to read his words and not think of him at times as a whiney snob who can’t believe the bad guys didn’t just roll over and give up. Just when you begin to think of him as a work-a-day guy like the rest of us he so casually tells us he’s getting advice from Tom Brokaw, hanging out with Gwen Stefani, or was singing songs with Rose McGowan and talking about music. And then BOOM! he tells us about the time Rachel Maddow made him cry.

It’s kinda of surreal and I think Farrow believes this helps the book, particularly his own pain. It is impossible to untangle the story of Weinstein, Lauer, and other perps without an awareness of Woody Allen and Farrow’s sister Dylan. In the outside chance you wanted to, Farrow won’t let you. He keeps dragging himself back to the center of the narrative. For me this is not helpful, and this is not to minimize his own pain or Dylans — heavens no — and I hope there is justice and healing there someday for them all. It is that in this book, as a work on its own, it was a distraction.

In the book there are winners and losers. Farrow is a winner, and he is the hero. So too is The New Yorker Magazine and David Remnick, who published the original and subsequent articles. Oddly, the spies are winners too, because they ‘came to their senses’ and turned it around.

The losers are easy to spot–Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Tom Brokaw, and NBC News in general. I mean, the big loser seems to be NBC. What a horrible, horrible culture.

If there is a hope in the book, it is the truth eventually comes out. We can certainly pray that way.

 

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Learning To Write: ACFW 2019

Greenbean has been taking notes this weekend at the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference in San Antonio because he wants to be a better writer.

I’ve published four books, and each one makes me a better writer. I still have a lot to learn. The last two days have highlighted how much I have yet to learn. But before I touch on that, here are some hot takes from the ACFW:

  1. The people who run this thing are wonderful, kind, hard working and inspiring. I really do appreciate how much they do to help all of us neurotic paranoids.
  2. Being around people who are like me is wonderful. Seriously, writers are a different breed of human and we all get each other without explanation. People who see me all the time in the real world don’t realize just how much I work to ‘hide’ that weirdness.
  3. The most unused public room at ACFW is the men’s room. It is not an exaggeration to say there are nine women to every man. If you’d like proof, here is a picture of last nights dinner table.

IMG_0776
Guess which one is me?

 

The keynote speaker this year is Frank Peretti — who many of you will recognize as the rockstar Christian author of This Present Darkness and The Oath. My favorite book of his is The Wounded Spirit. I’ve never seen him in person before and was very surprise by how much he reminded me of Doc Brown from Back To The Future. For reals. If he’d said “Great Scott” just once I’d would have lost it.

Peretti is speaking to us as the ‘wise old man’ and here is what he shared today.

  1. Keep a long term perspective.
  2. Always be honest.
  3. Be a real man. (Greenbean’s note: he didn’t make application for women, but I assume he could find a “be an authentic person” motif here with a little work.)
  4. Trust God.
  5. Failure is better than regret.
  6. Do not build your life around dreams and goals, because those will change.

He said a lot more, but this was the gist. I really appreciated it because he was right. So many of us have great big ambitions, but what it boils down to is faithfully answering the call of God in our lives to be people of faith. And most of us are not called to be rockstar writers or even signed and contracted authors. Most of us will simply continue to tell the stories which inhabit our soul whether anyone is reading them or not.

I’ve attended four workshops and two panel discussions. The workshops have been very helpful. Here is the ‘plot-skeleton’ I drew today in a session with super-duper successful writer Angela Hunt. In my hands, the plot skeleton looks like a plot-monster.

img_0784.jpg

Last night there were panels. Those were less encouraging. The basic message I got from each one is that my kind of fiction is not what anyone is looking like. The hot topics now are World War I and Vietnam Era historical fiction, contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and suspense/romance. To a person, every time speculative fiction/fantasy/science fiction are mention the door is slammed. That doesn’t bode well for poor Pastor Butch Gregory or my WIP about St. Carl of Mars. IMG_0793.jpgI have two appointments tomorrow with literary agents, but my expectations are guarded. As Peretti said, I am trusting The Lord with a long perspective and will keep writing.

BONUS INFO: The hotel is on the Riverwalk and I had supper at the Hard Rock Cafe. If anyone is interested, their plant-based “Impossible Burger” was delicious. The fries were too salty and the Arnold Palmer I drank was not properly mixed but still refreshing.