Archive for June, 2014

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The Secret Signature of the Soul

June 26, 2014
This man's insights blow my mind and put things into words that I never thought could be expressed.

This man’s insights blow my mind and put things into words that I never thought could be expressed.

Any time I start to write a post and have to find a quote from C.S. Lewis, I end up spending forever browsing quotes from him online, because they are all so good.

This quote completely hijacked my blogging attempts for today, and made me start a whole new post about it:

“You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for”. We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all…

All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever…”

– C.S. Lewis

This.  Doesn’t this resonate with you too?

Perhaps this “secret signature” is our Lord Himself, His indelible mark (and pull) on our souls, that “God-shaped vacuum” Blaise Pascal spoke of in the human soul, that can be filled with nothing but God.  Or perhaps this signature is the purpose for which He made us, the “place” He is preparing for us in His Father’s house.  That would explain how each of us are chasing something different, sometimes similar, but always as unique as our individual fingerprints.

How amazing to think that God knows this call in our hearts, this longing, and He will fulfill it.  We may not be able to describe it to anyone else fully, but He can answer that call because He formed us this way, and is continuing to form us to follow that subtle strain of music that only we can hear.

 “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.” ― C.S. Lewis

We all want to belong.  Is there any person who has not, at some time, felt out of place, or wished they fit in better?  God designed us to fit.  His creation was a beautiful image, a reflection of His glory, and when mankind fell into sin it was as if we all fell apart into a billion jigsaw pieces.  Now we float around, painfully aware that we have knobs on some sides, and holes on others, and we just aren’t sure if we will ever find where those knobs are supposed to go, or anything to fill those holes.  Turn us over and you will see little flecks of the big picture, but you may not know where it fits.  In eternity God will put us all back into place, filling our gaps, giving us purpose, showing us how we fit to display the perfect picture He made.  Even now He is doing that, in His church!  Also, once in a great while, he brings together two pieces who discover that, inexplicably, they fit right together.  And those are what we call kindred spirits.

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When do you hear that “call” loudest?  When do you feel, somehow, that, “I was made for this?”

Picture of C.S. Lewis taken from NNDB.com.
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On Teaching VBS – or – Going Outside My Comfort Zone

June 19, 2014
The VBS theme for this year is space.  So here, have some space loveliness!

The church’s VBS theme for this year is space and the universe. So here, have some universe!

I signed up to teach at VBS this year.

Well, kind of.

I looked at the signup sheet, and was feeling daring that day.  I thought, “Hey, I’ll step outside my comfort zone and just do this.”

I put my name down for the 3rd grade – with a question mark next to it.  I wanted to be able to shift around, of course, if a better, more experienced teacher came along!  I still wasn’t sure I was up for the task.

A couple weeks went by.  On Easter Sunday a friend approached me at the church breakfast.  He said, “I see you’re teaching third grade class at VBS!”

“Yes,” I said, “I think so.”

“No, you are,” he informed me with a teasing grin.  “I erased your question mark.  I initialed it to make it official.”

Well then.  I guess I’m all in!  This is good for me, I thought.  It’ll stretch me, and allow me to practice this “gift of teaching” that I supposedly have, according to spiritual gift tests I’ve taken.

This Tuesday was the VBS planning meeting when all the teachers get together to discuss the curriculum and schedule.  And I spaced it (haha…get it?…space?).  I completely forgot the meeting was happening at all.  My next-door neighbor (a fellow church member) appeared on my doorstep later that day, with a stack of materials she had been given to pass on to me.

It was a rather large stack.

I picked up the teacher’s manual and it only took a few pages of skimming for me to freak out.  This was so involved.  And confusing.  There was so much stuff I had to teach.  And the curriculum suggested I should act a part during the lesson??

This is when I realized that if my comfort zone is planet Earth, teaching a group of children is probably somewhere on Pluto.

Panic set in and I regretted writing down anything except for that question mark.  “Gift of teaching”??  Why was I so cocky as to think I could do this job?!

Sharing the gospel is hard for me to do simply with my kids – let alone a whole group of children not my own.  I was sure these third-graders were going to stare at me like I was a freak, and nothing I would say would speak to them.  Worst of all, what if I slipped into hypocrisy in my efforts to be a good teacher, and became that condescending adult preaching Kid Friendly Jesus?  As a teacher I felt like I was somehow representative of all adult Christians, and making a bad impression might jade all the children in regards to me, to Jesus, to all believers, maybe to adulthood in general.  Most of all I was afraid of marring the message by my stiff or awkward presentation.

Kneaded

I think sometimes God works on our hearts the way my sister might work with a stiff dough when she bakes bread for her market stand.  She has to knead it for awhile, until it becomes soft and pliable.  And then it has to sit and rise in a warm spot.  You know that bread is done rising when you can poke it and the indentation will remain in the dough.

We are all little balls of bread dough.  Some breads take an hour to rise, but others take days and are worked on in cycles.  God has to knead us, let us rise until His fingerprints are visible, roll us out, knead us again, let us rise – over and over until we are ready for the oven, A.K.A., death, when we are transformed to be like His glorious body (and His body is often symbolized by bread…funny how that works).

For several hours, God kneaded my heart, working out all the stiff little anxieties I had about teaching.

I saw that I was putting my faith (or rather, my lack of faith) in my own efforts, which I was sure would be puny.  I wasn’t trusting His power at work in me, and I wasn’t trusting that He has it all in His hands.

Also, if I’m grown-up enough to not care so much what other adults think of me, why do kids scare me?  They shouldn’t.  Children are smart and perceptive, but they are also more open and forgiving with adults and their flaws.

I also realized, hey, the theme is space.  I love space!  I love contemplating the expanse of the universe, and the glory of the stars, and the constellations, and unexplored planets, and how it all sings His praise.  I love how the universe draws our eyes up in awe and worship.  This hits my geeky sweet spot like no other VBS theme I’ve ever encountered!  It deals with God’s designs visible in creation, and deep questions about human nature.  In a word, it’s just the sort of theme that I personally gravitate toward when I am trying to express the glory of God and His salvation.  This is why I write science-fiction, to capture that glory and put it in front of people in book form.

Once I realized that, it was as if God had poked my nicely-kneaded doughy-ness and said, “Hey, you know, I did put this job together for you.”

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that I won’t have moments of anxiety again as VBS comes around (but it really helped that my neighbor was willing to come over and talk over the curriculum with me today!  Phew, I don’t have to do any acting!).  However, remembering these things reminds me that I can leave the fruit of my efforts in His hands, and trust Him to open young hearts to listen, and my awkward mouth to speak truth.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
Whose voice is not heard.
Psalm 19:1-3

Do these questions at the end of my post ever engage you?  Nobody seems to answer them.  I can stop doing them if no one is interested.  Just checking to see if you’re paying attention!  😉

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You Know You’re (Really) a Grown-Up When…

June 12, 2014
IMG_6796 - Version 2

Back on my 19th birthday. It wasn’t that long ago, but I was such a kid!

I have graduated high school, gotten married, had children, bought a car, and passed drinking age.  All those things notwithstanding, I feel like this past year or two was when I really claimed my adulthood, for the first time.

Sure, I still have an inner child and I hope she will never go away!…but this is the year where I stopped being a shy, passive, self-conscious girl and accepted my rightful place as a grown-up woman in the grown-up world.

I didn’t see it coming because it took so many forms.

It could have been different for you, but I have found that in my personal experience…

You Know You’re (Really) a Grown-Up When…

You have a voice.  I no longer live under the impression that I couldn’t say anything worth hearing.  I can see that God has given me freedom – and a call! – to use my voice for His glory.  In some social situations I am still quiet, but generally I’m not afraid to speak up and use my voice, or to share my written thoughts with others.

You know your life is primarily work.  It took me several years of marriage and kids to realize that I still treated my duties like the chores I had as a kid – “If I do these three things I can be done for the day!”  By now I know that work rightly consumes the majority of my day, and play is what I do when my work is done.

You’ve realized that it’s not just you – all people are afraid of each other.  It’s not unreasonable.  After all, we are dealing with fellow immortals who we might spend all eternity with, in heaven or hell.  Though only God has always existed, He created us in His image, including eternality.  Free-thinking, independent, judgment-making, outside-our-control immortals are a scary thing to talk and interact with every day!  But we are also only human.  Everyone makes bad first impressions sometimes, offends others, says stupid things, and kicks themselves later over their mistakes.  But we humans are all afraid of each others’ outward facades!  And for what?  I know now that I am just as “scary” as the next person, in their eyes…and they are probably just as insecure, broken, and altogether human as me.  Others need my patience, understanding, and graciousness just as much as I crave theirs.  They aren’t stronger or less in need of grace!  And the love of Christ can overcome all fear of man.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

You are a free agent.  I am under God and various human authorities in different spheres: my husband, my church leaders, the government, etc.  But I do not need a direct command or a stamp of approval to have the confidence for every little thing I do.  I’m a grown-up!

You find joy in being genuine.  I’m learning and growing, but also take joy in being myself and expressing who I am as a new creation in Christ.  This is me!  I can express my God-created new being, while abhorring and rejecting the old me of sin wherever I find her.  I’m less fixated on looking put-together and more eager to share my inner self.

You encounter times when people simply don’t appreciate your efforts on their behalf, and WHATEVS.  If I’m helping, being a good friend, showing affection, and other things for the appreciation I get, my life will be miserable indeed because the universe does not, in fact, revolve around me.  I have recognized the freedom of living for God and not for man’s gratitude or pats on the back.

You know you’re part of the problem.  I’m just as sinful, annoying, misled, confused, and mistaken as any other person that might bother me.  If I think I have a spiritual or moral high ground over others, it’s a sure sign I’m sinking under the weight of my own swollen ego.

You form your opinions (mostly) independently.  My parents did a lot of things right, but I don’t merely do things the way they did them because that’s how I was raised.  I research, study, think, pray, and may or may not do the same thing in the end.  I don’t simply take one pastor’s word for it because I trust and love their ministry.  I seek out other opinions, even those in complete opposition.  I’m not content to be a sheep.  In the end, the course of action I take won’t be because so-and-so said it, but because I feel like it’s in accordance with God’s Word and what He would have me do and believe.  (Of course my husband’s thoughts are involved too…we are one flesh, after all!)

In short, I stand on my own feet, in my own right, looking adults in the face instead of looking at my shoes.  I am a grown-up.  I am no longer waiting for the world to say, “Come on in.” I’ve taken the jump!  I may be last into the pool, and maybe the water is cold, but I’m not afraid to get wet, and I’m not afraid to make some waves that will flash and shine with the light of Christ reflected in me by His grace.

Of course, “grown-up” is a relative term.  There’s always this.  😉

If you’ve gotten to that point – when did you realize you had really grown up?

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Three Great Story Crafting Tips

June 5, 2014

The funny thing about writing fiction is that the more you know about making your stories good, the harder it gets to write them!

Here are some of the best writing tips I have learned and implemented recently, along with the great resources where I found them.  These have really revitalized my writing habits and brainstorming abilities!  I hope some of them might benefit you as they have me.

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This is probably the most epic picture ever taken of my sister and me (though not characteristic of our relationship at all!).

1.  The antagonist is everything.

Every story needs an antagonist.  If no one provides opposition to the main character, they will get what they want with no struggle – and hence, there won’t be a real story.

People hear the word “antagonist” and automatically think “the villain”, but the antagonist is not always an evil villain.  The antagonist is whoever is most opposing the protagonist in his/her goals!  They can, in fact, be a very good character who simply stands between the protagonist and what they want most.

I thought my book’s problem was that it lacked a “big baddie”.  It’s never had one.  After lots of fruitless brainstorming and playing with very contrived concepts, I finally realized that of all dangerous people and dangerous things in this story, the primary antagonist is the main character’s beloved younger sister, his fellow protagonist.

What?!  How?

It’s because the protagonist’s goal is to protect his sister at all costs…and she keeps putting herself in danger, darnit!  All the threats and dangers in the story – the snarky girl station guard with the robotic arm, government officials who wipe the sister’s memory, the evil army of invading aliens, the overly anxious auntie – they are only side-antagonists that also threaten to take his sister away from him in one way or another.  But she herself is the primary antagonist, and it was right in front of me all along.  Now I can really take this story’s plot arc and make it strong!

Chances are if you can’t identify or create the antagonist for your story (which is something you need to do, no excuses!), you might simply be looking at the wrong people.  What is your protagonist’s main goal, and who is getting in the way the most?  If no one’s getting in the way, who can you put in the way?

Definitely see Kristen Lamb’s blog for this post and many others on this subject of antagonists.

2.  What your protagonist wants is probably not what he/she needs.

” …we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.” – Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley

If a character doesn’t have a powerful goal…again, no story.  People prancing aimlessly through life are not interesting to read about.  So “find your character’s greatest want” is one of those rules guidelines writers are regularly given.  It’s always a great moment for me when I figure out what a character wants, because sometimes I have to get to know them for awhile before I can see their deepest desires.  But I learned this week that usually what the character wants most is a band-aid on their real problem, which is a soul problem, a lie they believe about the world or themselves.

(See K.M. Weiland’s character arc series for more on want vs. need, and the Lie a character believes, and otherwise amazing tips on character arcs.  Excellent, excellent stuff.  The link goes to the last post in the series, so scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the list of all the series parts.)

You could say most characters have an idol.  Their goal is to get or keep that idol (which may, in many cases, be a legitimate need or a good thing, like surviving – or in my book’s case, protecting one’s sister from harm).  But by the end of the story, whether their goal is achieved or not, the idol should be torn down.  They should have exchanged the lie for a truth, and that is a compelling and strong journey of character development.

I once read that a Christian can identify an idol in their life easily.  It’s whatever thing you can look at and say, “If I don’t get that, I will die.”  Only God should stand in that spot!

In the past I’ve been prone to thinking my characters are so godly that they truly do want God most of all!  What else could they want so badly?  …And that’s where I fail, because my characters end up A.) unrealistically lacking in flaws and therefore probably not even human, and B.) boring, because they have no tangible goals, so readers have no reason to root for them to win.

Goals aren’t all bad.  I’m using the word “idol” mostly as an illustration.  Your character must want something desperately, but what he wants is probably not what he actually needs, just as our idols are flimsy patches over the gaping hole in our hearts that should be filled by God.  By the end of any story with a happy ending, the protagonist’s real need should be filled regardless of whether he achieves his perceived need on top of that.

And on the topic of “If I don’t get that, I will die…”

3.  The stakes MUST BE DEATH!

What will happen if your protagonist does NOT achieve his or her goal?  If nothing in particular will happen except a little disappointment and then life goes back to normal…you’re doing it wrong (and so have I, many times).

In order for readers to care about your protagonist, death must be the consequence if the goal is not achieved.  And I’m not talking about stabbed-through-the-heart physical death exclusively.  Maybe they’ll die on the inside, psychologically – or maybe the consequence will be professional death, the destruction of their career.

Once the plot gets rolling, the protagonist must never get the same normal life back again.  That ship has sailed.  Either he returns to that normal world changed by his development from lie to truth, or he dies – physically, psychologically, or professionally, or in more than one of those ways.

Obviously my book revolves around a war in another universe, so death is a literal threat to both protagonists.  But as for my protagonist’s goal of protecting his sister, psychological death is also on the line for him because losing her will prove him inept in his responsibility to take care of her.  As the last remaining member of his family, she means everything to him, and he must not lose her even though everything in his life is dragging her away.  Ahhh, the stakes are high, exactly as they should be!

This tip about the three kinds of death is something I learned a few month ago from the book Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell.  That is seriously one of the best how-to writing books I’ve ever read – go get it!

I have to add that I found ALL of these resources through the direct or indirect recommendation of my author friend Kessie!  While you’re getting Conflict and Suspense you should check out her book too, because it’s awesome and I love it muchly.  😀

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What is the best tip you know about crafting a good story?