Monday, October 29, 2012

Moving In With The Outreach

We held out as long as we could.
This is truth
We challenged our foe. We braved conditions, kept persevering, and kept fighting. In the end we had to capitulate.

Idaho weather won.

Our Outreach Saga has managed to meet in the park since we started the first weekend in June. Every Sunday we showed up at the park. Those of you who know Idaho's climate realize this is a minor miracle. Since it has snowed in Idaho in June before (not just the mountains either), I am fairly shocked and pleasantly surprised! We had a couple of windy days, the occasional cold day, but we never had to move our cancel for the weather.

Until now.

This weekend we finally moved indoors. Ironically the weather wasn't too bad and we could have stayed out one more time. Daylight Savings ends next week though, so it seemed time to pack it inside.

This will change our dynamics. We have had people come and go with the freedom of the open park. We always eat together and then spend some time in worship, Bible study, and discussion. A majority ate and left. That was okay. We never wanted to hold them hostage to something in order to get a meal.  I've been of the mindset that they will stay when they are ready to hear what we have to say.

Yesterday actually went well. None of us had any idea of what to expect. We are blessed to be meeting at a counseling center less than two blocks from the park, but we didn't know if people would trudge down a little farther, if convenience was a big issue.

We had a good turnout. Some kids came and were fed and had a safe place to hang out for two hours. Many adults came for a meal. We didn't have many stay for our Bible discussion, but we got to minister specifically to those who did.

This adventure has been mind-blowing for all of us involved. At the start of the year I would have never imagined doing an outreach like it. Now I can't imagine what I would be doing otherwise.

If you've been following this, please pray for us as we transition into the winter and being indoors. We will have more of a challenge engaging the kids/keeping them busy. Our sense is that winter will allow some more in-reach, whereas the summer in the park lent itself to outreach and a wider net.

Who knows? This has been an unpredictable journey so far. Why start predicting now?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CSFF Tour Day 3 - The Spirit Well

In Which The End Game Becomes Visible, If Only For A Moment.

The CSFF Tour is wrapping up our feature of The Spirit Well, the third book in the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead.

This mind-bending series is a fascinating mash-up of quantum physics, historical mystery, and pre-Starbucks coffee culture with an Indiana Jones twist. Lawhead is a gifted writer and this ambitious five book set challenges his readers with a forth and back approach as the characters wind through multiple dimensions stretching from Macau to ancient Egypt to modern day London and even the Stone Age.

This is all well and good, but if this is the Christian Sci-Fi and Fantasy tour, where is the Christian part?

There have been praying monks and characters who mention God, but there is also a mysterious well with resurrection-like power and the pesky dimension-hopping that seems to contradict things we know. Why is this series published by a Christian publishing house?

The Spirit Well gives us our first substantial insight into the spiritual underpinnings of the series on pages 304-305. Cassandra Clarke is a young paleontologist who was swept up by this dimensional traveling to 1930's Damascus and has met up with two strange people from the Zetetic Society. She is being asked to join this group in their quest to encourage the "transformation of the universe." The society members are afraid that reaching a special landmark called the Omega Point will be thwarted by the enemies of good unless the Society can succeed.

The skeptical scientist points out a fallacy at this:
"So," concluded Cass, "Almighty God is not strong enough alone to bring about His purpose for the universe. He needs you and your society to make it happen; otherwise it has all been for nothing. Is that what you're saying?"
That isn't the end of it. Cassandra voices a reasonable doubt at what she's being told. Still, her experience of traveling through time and space has changed her paradigm already. The beauty of what has happened so far in the Bright Empires series is brought out by the elderly Mrs. Peelstick in response:
"...God has always worked through the small, the insignificant, the powerless - it seems to be sewn into the very fabric of the universe...
...Over and over again, we see that when anyone willingly gives whatever resources they have to Him - whether it is nothing more than five smooth stones gathered from a dry streambed or five little loaves of bread and two dried sprats - then God's greater purpose can proceed...
...And one poor, wandering country preacher - homeless, penniless, friendless, and despised by all but a handful of no-account fishermen and a few women - gave himself so fully to God that the combined might of the two most powerful forces in his world - the Roman empire and the religious authorities - could not stop him."
One simple speech, expertly seated in the mid-point of the series, anchors this tale in the ways of the Almighty God. Stephen Lawhead has been writing at a high level for many years. He didn't reveal the spiritual underpinnings right away. The wait made it more poignant when it finally came. Patience is a powerful weapon for the author.

We may want to rush to make it known that our work points to Jesus. I think it is better when it is placed in the proper context. After 2.75 of the series, we finally see the glow of the Light of the world. It is not dwelled upon. The characters move on. But the wait is worth it. The impact left me with a highly satisfied feeling, seeing an image in the tapestry pop out after it was just out of view the whole time.

Sure, the dimensional aspect is not in our usual understanding - but this is speculative fiction after all.

There's something to perseverance, both in writing and in reading. Lawhead stated he's waited 15 years to write this book, and just now feels he can do it justice. I'm thankful that an enjoyable yarn has such a careful craftsman at the helm.

Does this book sound interesting to you? Leave your thoughts below. Be sure to check out the other blogs posting. Becky Miller keeps a list of the posts for you.

We'll see you next month. Unless one of us stumbles upon an active ley line first...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

CSFF Tour Day 2 - The Spirit Well

In Which The Blogger Brings It All Home In Style.

Welcome back to the CSFF Tour of Stephen Lawhead's latest book in his Bright Empires series, The Spirit Well.

Yesterday I did a quick overview of the first two books in the series, but if I was really walking in the spirit of this series, I might well do things out of order.

Why is that?

The whole series focuses on the idea of the multiverse (called in the books the Omniverse) - an infinite number of alternate dimensions out there. Imagine a world where the Nazis invaded North America, or one where the wheel wasn't invented. The characters in this series don't go in the past per se, they jump to different dimensions. In the first book a ley traveler stops the Great London Fire in the 1600s by waking the baker who inadvertantly started it.

With that as a background, shall we begin?

A detailed synopsis is impossible without giving away fun things from the first two books. The main protagonist Kit is stranded in Stone Age times, which doesn't seem to bother him all that much. His girlfriend Mina is busy mastering ley traveling and avoiding the machinations of the ruthless Lord Burleigh. A new character, paleontologist Cassandra Clarke, goes from a modern-day dig in the Arizona desert to 1930's Damascus and becomes a popular woman with a group that looks to play an important role in the rest of the series.

The centerpiece of the books are the Skin Map, the tattooed skin of one Arthur Flinders-Petrie. This gentleman was the leading expert in ley travel and kept a unique code on his chest to help him navagate the complicated waters. The Spirit Well delves into the unpleasant business of how Arthur became separated from his map, while other characters both fair and foul seek the Skin Map for their own purposes.

Lawhead has attempted a complicated story, a tale only a master at his craft could accomplish. Thankfully, the author is such a master. The book gives a handy list of important characters followed by a short recap of the events so far. He then introduces the new character Cassandra to be his launch point into book 3.

One must pay attention and hang on tight, as the book does not proceed in a truly linear fashion. If you're dealing with the multiverse, why should you? It weaves back and forth through many characters and locales in pushing the plot forward (for the most part). For readers of the series, there are points that explain questions from the first two books, which just whets the appetite for more.

There is action and excitement at times, but other moments are chances to admire Lawhead's gift for bringing the reader into the varied settings. He is a world traveler and excellent researcher, so the details are expressive and inviting. I want to visit Damascus after reading the book (though perhaps not right now).

The story winds its journey like a lazy river. There are moments of rapids and white water, other times with beautiful scenery to enjoy, and occasions where it seems to wind back on itself. Still, the tale flows toward an ending that looks to be a revelation.

I really enjoyed the first book, but felt the second book had a slight letdown. The Spirit Well wins deeper affection from me. I am frustrated that I'll be waiting another two years for the final resolution, but the Bright Empires journey is quite worth it.

So this is one man's opinion. Becky Miller keeps a list of all of the tour participants, and there is more information there. Jim Armstrong picked up the book fresh without reading the others, and shares his thoughts on a complicated book viewed with new eyes.

I'll be talking more about the faith element of the book tomorrow - this is a Christian tour after all. How can a book of multiple dimensions be considered Christian fiction?

Oh, I did receive a free copy in exchange for a fair review - nothing else.

Monday, October 22, 2012

CSFF Tour Day 1 - The Spirit Well

In Which We Jump Back To Move Ahead.

Welcome to the October 2012 CSFF Tour, featuring the best Christian Sci-fi and Fantasy reads available.

This month is a treat because we get to feature one of the greatest speculative fiction writers out there: Stephen Lawhead. His prolific work has been published and re-released and he keeps on stretching his boundaries and using new concepts to fuel his latest work, the Bright Empires series and the third in the five volume tale, The Spirit Well.

The enjoyable part of following a series on the tour is getting to read each one and not losing track of them. The difficulty becomes remembering all that happens and writing about it coherently, but I shall persevere and attept to set the record straight.

In the first book, The Skin Map, a rather ordinary Brit named Kit Livingstone got an unexpected visit from an older chap - who happened to be his great-grandfather. The man was quite spry for someone who should be dead.

It turns out that Kit's family has the ability to travel via ley lines, special energy forces that were marked by primitive populations through mounds, lines, and other features that have long baffled modern research. These portals open to alternate dimensions, into the very Omniverse. Pretty handy overall.

The Skin Map introduces the quest for, you guessed it, the skin map, a series of tattoos on the skin of the most prolific ley traveler that could show the way to the fabled Spirit Well. Kit chases it and his girlfriend Mina (whom he accidentally lost while ley leaping, but ended up landing on her feet anyway). As any good quest should, he has a villian after him in the form of the evil Lord Burleigh, who has a group of thugs called Burley men trailing the hapless Kit.

In the second book The Bone House the adventure continues as Kit escapes death thanks to his resourceful Mina, the man behind the Skin Map (literally) plots the rescue of his beloved wife, and more is revealed about the origin of Lord Burleigh. Through twists and turns in time and space, we end up with Kit at the very edge of the mysterious Spirit Well.

Thus begins book three, which continues the tale. And this blog will continue to discuss tomorrow. If you're waiting for more, please check out my fellow travelers below as we explore the labyrinthine Skin Map and see if we can do better than Kit. Or you can check out my prior posts on The Skin Map and The Bone House to get more in-depth on the previous books.

Jim Armstrong
 Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jeremy Harder

Monday, October 15, 2012

Kings & Queens

For today's Mission Monday, I have brain cramps from a long weekend. However, music is powerful and this video and the lyrics explain the heart of the Father and a missional outlook better than I can.

Courtesy of the newly reformed Audio Adrenaline with the spectacular Kevin Max on vocals, this song instantly became my new favorite of the year. Please check it out. I love the purple and the association with royalty as a thread through the video.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Blog Or Not To Blog

I love a rollicking dialogue on the web.

Last week Rachelle Garnder posted about the need  for authors to have a platform, the hot topic of 2012. The first commenter was none other than James Scott Bell, author and writing teacher and a man on the forefront of the churning waters of the changing publishing seas.

He opined that writers should focus on writing to build their quality, publishing short stories and books. He suggested that blogging was the biggest time-suck for authors, especially unpublished ones. The return on blogging was perhaps there in 2007, but not in 2012.

Another well-known writing blogger, Jody Hedlund, answered with a post on this issue. She took a more measured approach to blogging, relating side benefits that can come from blogging: networking with other writers, finding a voice, and learning about the industry. She couldn't point to her blog being a major reason behind her success, but felt it did play a role.

The irony of this discussion being played out on blogs is not lost on me.

Bell answered back on Jody's blog, conceding that there are ancillary reasons for keeping up a blog. He held to his main point about a blog being a poor option in creaing a platform. He noted that Rachelle and Jody have created strong platforms through their blogs, but that is a rare position to create a new blog that really puts someone's name out there.

I'd have to agree with Jim. I've been blogging since 2006. The advice at the time was to start blogging and build a base that would end up following you into publishing.

Well, I've been pretty consistent through the years. I wish I could say I've created a large tribe that would spread my message hither and yon. Alas, that's not the case. I did have Anne Rice comment on a blog post once. Whoo-hoo!

So if I was only doing this to build a platform, it hasn't played out very well.

The thing is, I also agree with Jody. Blogging has done a lot for me even if it isn't counted by numbers.

Through blogging I've been introduced to several people online that have continued to encourage and challenge me in my writing life. It has kept me disciplined in writing regularly, even when my fiction writing sat idle for a couple of months at a time. I've reviewed a lot of books through here, so it has fed my reading habit. I would suggest it helped open some other doors, like writing a column for the local paper.

I've seen some friends develop a platform through their blogs. Mike Duran started around the same time. He's managed to build a healthy community of commenters that make it an intelligent site to follow. Becky Miller is a go-to person in the realm of Christian speculative fiction since she works tirelessly to promote it. Jordyn Redwood found a niche by answering medical questions on her blog, which plays into her primary job as an ER nurse and her medical suspense. These folks have managed to build something special.

But the common thread here is that I've interacted with each of them through the years because I have a blog.

If I were talking to a brand new writer, I probably would point them to Jim's advice about putting their effort into fiction that they can start to get out there. I've been doing this too long to quit, although I've tried to do a two posts a week schedule this year to stay consistant but not as pressured as when I tried to do 3-4 a week.

Most of my opinions are similar to the comment threads of the blog posts by Rachelle and Jody. If you're interested in the discussion, check those out.

As someone who has done the blogging thing for a while, I couldn't resist throwing out my experience. If I had to do it over again, I wish I had spent a little less time blogging and more time on writing, but I don't think I'd say I wouldn't blog at all.

What say you? What value does blogging have for a fiction author over other writers or professionals? Do you lean toward Jim or Jody?

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Just Church

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.  

The words of the prophet Micah are spoken in churches all over the world. Believers love this simple declarations of what Jesus asks of His people.  

Christians try hard to walk humbly with the Lord. We strive to show mercy to people. However, we often ignore or struggle with the clause of "acting justly." Especially for Western Christians, the command for justice is flat-out missed or simply misunderstood.  

There is a new move of the Spirit, awakening His people to the need to provide justice for those who cannot speak up for themselves, to proclaim freedom to the captives, to minister to the widow and orphan. It is a slow burn, but it is exciting to see the embers leaping into flame in various places of the body.

 A new spark is being provided by the new book The Just Church by Jim Martin of the organization International Justice Mission (IJM).

IJM has been fighting for justice for many years now and is one of the leading organizations battling injustices like forced labor, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of women and children, and modern-day slavery in all its forms.  

Jim Martin has been working with them after transitioning out of the pastoral role in his church, becoming a church liason with IJM. This experience made him especially qualified to write The Just Church.  

This book is a challenge to the body of Christ to reclaim the lost aspect of Micah 6:8 and to actively act justly in the world. There are other books that try to awaken Christians to the need of justice and to expose the problems of modern slavery and other forms of bondage towards vulnerable peoples that is easy to overlook in our daily lives. The Just Church is a book that takes the church on journey to forming a viable justice ministry to compliment evangelism and mercy ministry.  

The book is laid out in three sections. The first section establishes a theory that faith doesn't really grow without significant risk and suggests that justice ministry is a needed part of the church and can help develop a healthier discipleship in His people. The second section takes the reader through a practical journey on establishing a justice ministry in the local church. It isn't a step by step approach, allowing for the individual characteristics of any body guide the process. The last part of the book is a series of appendices with Scriptures on justice, resources for following through, and study materials. Each chapter ends with a QR code that can be scanned by a smart phone or tablet, leading to a video with Jim summarizing each chapter's main point.  

It is well-written with an easy conversational style. Jim lays out the challenges inherit in this type of ministry and doesn't sugar-coat it. It won't be easy. But he recognizes the hope that is out there for people if Christians will rise up and stand in this gap, so the book is infused with this balance of challenge and hope.  

Any critiques are minor. The videos are a very nice multimedia touch in this day and age - but I'm a fast reader so I'd rather not slow down and watch a movie. Those who like this feature will be pleased. Also, sometimes the book seems too much like a selling tool for IJM. I realize Jim works with them and is most familiar with their work, but there are other fine organizations out there doing similar work as well. This isn't a big issue, and I support IJM financially myself.  

Overall I am thrilled to have had a chance to read this book and see the new horizons coming in the fight against injustice. The need is starting to become known in the western Church. The Just Church takes the movement to the next step and provides a practical tool to those churches looking into how they can join in the justice ministry sphere. It isn't for special groups like IJM or others listed on my links on my blog. The Bible speaks very clearly about God's love of justice and it is every Christian's responsibility to see the threefold thrust of Micah 6:8 walked out in the world today.  

I'm thankful to Jim Martin and IJM for their work. I did receive a preview copy for promotional purposes, without any expectation of a positive review. My endorsement is heartfelt. The Just Church is a powerful tool in the battle against modern injustice. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Ol' Conference Round-Up

Back to real life.

That's the reality as I sit at my computer and type out another blog post. But during four days in September, reality seemed different - like an alternate dimension. It was a place where one could discuss romance, murder, angels, dragons, superheroes, slaves, plucky Amish girls, and the occasional odd character.

That was the 2012 American Christian Fiction Writers Conference in Dallas.

It was my first conference. With 700 attendees it seemed daunting at times to this new author with a baby-fresh manuscript clutched in his trembling hands (it was more a leg that trembled, but that's for another time). Facebook makes it seem we're all friends, but even though I recognized many people thanks to social media, I didn't really know anyone there.

Thankfully that changed.

The great thing about this conference is that it is rooted in the Christian part of its name. There are worship times, devotions, a prayer room, and most importantly there are Christians. It seems obvious, but the people there demonstrated Christ-like behavior in welcoming everyone. From the first-timers orientation to sitting at a meal with total strangers and leaving as friends at the end, people usually gave a lot of grace to each other. There was always an easy way to do introductions if you were stuck: Where are you from and what do you write?

The emcee, Brandilyn Collins, did a great job making people feel engaged in the meals and main sessions. She let us all know that it was okay to argue with your characters because we had the whole hotel floor to ourselves, without any Normals around to wonder what is wrong with you. We were advised to not plot murders in the elevator or main lobby, but otherwise you were with people who got you. People who understood your imagination, your fascination with stories, and the need to go hide as an introvert every so often.

I've seen other conference attendees post their take-away points from Dallas, and writers are nothing if not imitators. What are things that struck me?

1. There are a lot of people with similar dreams. Seven hundred might not seem like a lot, but to gather that many like-minded folks to focus on writing was way cool. As a writer I'm not alone in my aspirations. Many others are walking a similar path, treading behind people who are ahead in the journey but are willing to give back. One great point is all the effort made by volunteers to staff workshops, mentoring visits, and just giving to the newbie writers walking around awestruck.

2. There are lot of different people in the ACFW... but there could be a lot more diversity too. There is a wide variety of writers there, but the majority wrote women's fiction, Amish or historical fiction, or romance. Nothing wrong with that - I'll read any of those if they're well written (disclaimer: I haven't read an Amish novel, not because I haven't found a well-written one, I just haven't looked). There's obviously a huge market for those books. The ACFW started as the American Christian Romance Writers after all.

The guys were outnumbered 80% to 20% probably, but men who had been in the past said this was a huge difference to prior conferences when the males could fill 1-2 tables. We held our own though ;). There were even fewer minorities. The speculative fiction writers would glom on to each other for support. Horror? Yeah, I didn't meet anyone who wrote that (maybe Mike Duran counts).

I'm not saying this to criticize the ACFW. It is an organization representative of its market - the people who frequent Christian bookstores. In other words, white middle-class evangelicals. The larger problem is that those churches don't always reach out of their demographic, but that's a much larger issue. I hope the ACFW can be a champion for diversity in the stories they tell to nudge the evangelical camp toward a larger acceptance.

3. I really need to write speculative fiction. Not for great sales numbers, but for the cool company. My book is suspense. I felt more kinship with the spec fic crowd. Everything I love to read or watch is led by spec fic, so I am surprised I don't have inspiration to write it. Maybe someday.

4. There's a lot to learn. I've been in intense programs before. A physician assistant program is like drinking from a fire hose. The writing program isn't that overwhelming. Still, applying technical information in an artistic way is crossing the left brain with the right brain. That creates eddies in brain waves. I want to take what I gleaned and polish my novel up as much as I can. It all can't go into it though. There was too much to use it all. I have to make choices.

I don't like these kind of choices.

5. ACFW is working very hard. The conference was a huge success. I can't imagine pulling together all of the logistics for this. There were leaders and there were a ton of volunteers helping things come off. There were a couple of little snafus. Probably more behind the scenes got missed than most people would see but on the outside it came off great. I know the timing was right for me to go this year. I wish I had gone earlier though.

I met online friends such as John Otte and Mike Duran and enjoyed getting to know them personally. I made new friends like Morgan Busse and Joe Courtemanche that made the weekend enjoyable and thought-provoking. And I got double-crossed in a mean game of Fiasco.

I'm ready for next year in Indianapolis.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Justice Awareness

Computer problems are not conducive to blogging.

With that out of the way, I wanted to quickly point out a couple of resources for people interested in justice issues and fighting things like human trafficking.

Half The Sky is a two part documentary on the plight of women worldwide, as there are so many instances of oppression on women throughout the world. The documentary shows things like rescuing girls from brothels, providing learning opportunities, and exposing the issues that affect so many women in the world. It is airing on PBS tonight and tomorrow night. It looks to be a powerful way to show the needs of fighting for women without rights or opportunity. Like the title implies, half of the population is treated less than human and is discriminated against in too many ways, especially in the Two-Thirds World.

Next week is the launch of the book The Just Church written by Jim Martin of International Justice Mission. I'm reading it to help promote the launch and it is challenging so far. I'm planning to have a review of it next week.

Two quick items to let people know about. These are major things in the world today. I believe they are very close to God's heart, even if Half The Sky is a "secular" production.