EMBRACING SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIPS ACROSS RELIGIOUS LINES
July 25th, 2019
In this series of blogs, I am summarizing my journey from evangelical Christian faith to involvement in interfaith relations (spiritual friendships).
#3 From 9/11 to Trump
One of the first victims of 9/11 was "tolerance." The U.S. has prided itself on being a tolerant society, one that guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Unfortunately, the weakness of "tolerance" was exposed on 9/11 and in the years following. Perhaps, we shouldn't have been surprised. We tolerate a headache or a screaming infant on a flight.
Tolerating another person has always been a step away from ignoring that person. After 9/11, we couldn't ignore Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, but because Americans didn't understand the difference between jihadists and Muslims, the entire American Muslim population became a target for our fear and rage.
A recent promotional ad for the US Marines describes Marines as those who run toward a crisis, not away from one. As a professor of religious studies, I felt the same urgency to run toward the crisis of Islamophobia and expose it as a form of ignorance and prejudice. I needed to help my students and community understand that violence in the name of religion isn't a trend limited to extreme Islamism. In 2004, I began to offer a course on religious violence, a disease that can be found within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism.
I've offered this course every year since 2004. Through our readings, films, and guest speakers, my students and I understood that violence in the name of religion flourishes in the "soil" of humiliation, alienation, and poverty. If those factors can be lessened, so will violence in the name of religion.
But my students recognized that lessening these factors is an overwhelming task, and, not surprisingly, some of my students confessed to feeling hopeless.
I realized I needed to talk with those whose voices hadn't been heard and who could offer a different approach to the problem of religious violence. In 2006, I contacted my literary agent and shared my plan to interview monks and nuns around the U.S. regarding how we as Americans and Christians might better respond to religious violence. My agent's first reaction was that she didn't think people, now five years past 9/11, wanted to return to that tragedy. A day later, however, she called back, telling me that after a conversation with her grown son-who said "that's a book I want to read"-she'd changed her mind.
Throughout 2007, I conducted interviews from monks, nuns, and others, but it wasn't until early 2011 that I completed the deeper and necessary task of considering how those interviews changed my thinking about religious terrorism, the war on terror, and the big issue of forgiveness. I was grateful that Thomas Nelson Publishers accepted the book-Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World- and worked with me to have it ready for release on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Peace Be with You was well-received by readers and critics. It received a starred review by Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and was listed as one of the Ten Best Books of 2011 in the category of spiritual living by Library Journal.
Critical acclaim is wonderful, but nothing matched the response to the book I received from a Muslim friend. Her comment was, "This is the book my father wanted to read before he died." That response opened my eyes to a fact I hadn't considered: American Muslims were waiting for their Christian friends and neighbors to respond to 9/11 as not just a military or political issue, but as a spiritual one. Did our belief in Jesus and His message mean anything?
That insight opened me to the power of interfaith dialogue and friendships to counter religious extremism. Even as President Obama's second term was winding down and Donald Trump was gaining support with his xenophobic message, I knew I had another journey to take-one that would ask me not only to study "spiritual friendships" across religious lines but to enter those friendships myself.
Next Blog: Trump, a new book, and a new hope.
Second Blog on Religious Diversity - "Understanding Religions from the Inside"
June 18th, 2019
When I offer one of my talks on interfaith friendships, I'm often asked how someone from a conservative Christian background became committed to establishing spiritual friendships across religious lines. I began to share my story in the last blog and am continuing it in future blogs, in the hope that my experience will inspire others to be open to interfaith experiences.
If you haven't read the last blog, please do so before reading this one. In that blog, I share how I moved slowly from a revivalist tradition of evangelical thought to a budding interest in other religions, especially Islam. In this second blog in the series, I continue my story, remembering the friendships and experiences that led me to try to understand other religions "from the inside."
Summertime, When the Living Isn't Always Easy
In 1978, following doctoral studies in Europe and three years working as an adolescent counselor in a Chicagoland psychiatric hospital, I came to Franklin, Indiana, to serve as chaplain at Franklin College.
My family and I arrived to take up the new position in late May of that year, which gave us the summer to acclimate to life in south-central Indiana. While there were conferences occurring at the college over the summer, in which I often took part, there were few students taking summer school courses.
There was, however, a cadre of students from Africa and Bangladesh who couldn't afford to return home for the summer months. Because my family lived in college housing near the college dorms, it wasn't long before we became friends with these students, most of them Muslim. Some of the first names our 1½ year-old son learned to say were Muhammad, Mahmood, and Faisal.
As we became friends, I slowly became aware that the students from Africa and Bangladesh experienced occasional racial and religious intolerance in the community. I say "slowly" because I didn't learn about this treatment initially from these students, but from officials at the college. That was a red flag particularly for me as the college chaplain, for I considered all students of the college to be in my "parish."
That summer was the first time I realized the wide gulf existing between desiring to change my community and being able to effect those changes. While that was a discouraging realization, in the process I learned something from the students from Bangladesh that has stayed with me. What they wanted from me was not some magical power to transform the local community. Rather, what they needed was my family's continued friendship. Nearly 35 years later, this insight would blossom in what became the "spiritual friendship movement," which I'll describe in a later blog.
A "Green" Professor Learns the Importance of Listening
In my third year at the college, I transitioned from the chaplaincy to full-time teaching in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the College. In that new role, one of the first challenges I faced was a course entitled Living Religions West, a survey of the history and beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
My academic focus being Biblical studies, I knew this course would stretch me. Yet, I wasn't prepared for how much the course would change me. As I began to plan the course, what I was certain of was what I wouldn't do-I wouldn't teach about Judaism and Islam from a Christian perspective. That is, I wouldn't focus on how Jewish and Muslim beliefs and practices were different from Christian beliefs and practices, and I certainly wouldn't present Judaism and Islam as somehow flawed compared to Christianity.
Instead, I would try to teach each religion "from inside," encouraging students to understand how Jewish and Muslim beliefs and practices offer lives of meaning for followers even as Christian beliefs and practices offer the same to its followers.
That commitment meant that we as a class would have to do more than read chapters in textbooks. We would have to leave the safety of the classroom and meet Jews and Muslims on their turf and on their own terms. We would need to listen attentively to the stories of others, not to critique the stories, but to enter into them.
That led to a field trip that has shaped my life from that day to the present. Our destination was the Islamic Center in Plainfield, Indiana, an hour away from the College. While the tour of the facilities and the mosque was enlightening, the highlight of the visit was a question-and-answer session with an American convert to Islam.
In the encounter, we were in the presence of an "evangelical Muslim," someone with the same zeal as a Christian evangelist. Speaking passionately and candidly, he gave his "testimony," the story of his journey from a Christian upbringing to his conversion to Islam. My students, all Christians, sat in stunned silence.
That silence ended when we were returning to the College. I was driving the van, and students in the back were firing questions at me, wanting me to counter everything the convert said. Surfacing in my students' comments was the belief that if Christianity is the "right" religion, then all others must be "wrong."
In response, I remember us talking about how Christianity and Islam share many ideas (the oneness of God, the role of prophets, the importance of Jesus, a similar ethical code, and the similar understanding of a final judgment), but differ in interpreting those ideas. That didn't seem to satisfy my students, and it took some effort to redirect the conversation to the issue of meaning. What meaning had this ex-Christian found in Islam that so changed his life?
What I didn't tell my students was that the encounter at the Islamic Center affected me. I was brought back to my friendships with the Muslim students from Bangladesh, and I realized that what I needed more than reading about other religions was meeting followers of these other religions and listening empathetically to how their faith experiences led them to lives of meaning.
Those early years at Franklin College, both with the students from Bangladesh and the encounter at the Islamic Center, planted the seeds that wouldn't mature until the shock and sorrow of 9/11.
Next blog: 9/11, the Age of Terror, and the Collapse of Tolerance
Waking Up to Religious Diversity
May 16th, 2019
Part One: From Revival Meetings to Muhammad Ali
As someone who grew up in an evangelical family and who graduated from Wheaton College, Billy Graham's alma mater, I have been asked how I could end up so committed to interfaith dialogue. Like all life journeys, my journey hasn't been an easy one, and it is a journey that has taken place in stages. My journey, however, is one that I am convinced has been God's will for my life.
In the conservative Christian home I was raised in, I was taught that no other religion besides Christianity was valid. I was also taught that, over the centuries, most Christian denominations strayed from the truth. As evangelists who came to my church every year would put it, most people who called themselves Christians needed to experience "revival."
Throughout my youth, I lived within a Christian bubble - my friends at school coming almost exclusively from other Christian denominations. I remember only two Jewish students in my graduating class, but I will always remember Stephen's attitude about being Jewish. "I can either be ashamed of being Jewish or be proud. I choose to be proud." That impressed me.
By attending Wheaton College, perhaps the foremost evangelical college in the U.S., I remained in that religious bubble. What I knew about Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism came solely from history or geography classes.
Consequently, the bubble I lived within stayed intact until two figures began to be prominent in the news. One was Malcolm X, whose fiery message both frightened and impressed me. While I knew that many people contrasted Malcolm X with Martin Luther King, Jr., labelling Malcolm as violent and King as non-violent, I found in both men a similar power and courage.
The other figure who burst my bubble was Muhammad Ali. Perhaps because fighting was discouraged in my family, I was attracted to boxing as something taboo. I loved to watch Ali, as I'd never seen such a graceful style in the ring.
But what most impressed me about Ali was his habit of praying before his fights. The crowds would be screaming, yet Ali would stand in perfect stillness in the corner of the ring to raise his arms in prayer.
That was when something clicked for me. Prayer was an important part of my family's spirituality, and prayer was obviously an important part of Ali's life. The bubble that I'd lived within during my growing-up years burst, and what replaced it was the beginning of a bridge. In a way I couldn't explain at the time and knew better than to try to explain to those in my church, Muhammad Ali and I were linked, and what linked us was prayer.
It is not always big events that change the direction of our lives. Seeing Ali pray in the corner of the ring was a small moment in my life, and at the time, it changed little of how I saw the world.
In looking back, however, I recognize that small moments such as these-hearing the power in Malcolm's voice and seeing Ali pray in the corner of the ring-changed the direction of my life by just a few degrees. In fact, at the time, I noticed no change in my life at all.
But when the direction of a person's journey changes by even the slightest degree, that person's life will end up at a new destination.
That is what happened to me. Ali was just the beginning.
ARE YOU A WRITING ATHLETE?
April 16th, 2019
How Important Is Imagination and Research in Writing Non-Fiction?
A common misperception is that fiction is based on the author's imagination while non-fiction is based on the author's research. The truth is that imagination and research are involved in both fiction and non-fiction. I could set the third mystery in my Christopher Worthy/Father Fortis series, Let These Bones Live Again in Venice, Italy, only because I'd visited that city at least fifteen times. Even with frequent visits, during the writing of the novel I had to consult maps and books that revealed the unique history and geology of this city of islands. More than once, my research led me to change details of the mystery for the sake of accuracy.
If research is important for fiction, imagination is just as vital to non-fiction. For example, what should be presented first, second, third, etc. in a non-fiction work? Or, because more research will be conducted than will end up in the book, a writer has to decide what to leave out and what to retain. Research may be the building blocks of non-fiction, but imagination is needed to decide what blocks to use and how those building blocks will be placed to produce a captivating read.
My first non-fiction work, Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World, is an interview-based book, sharing conversations I had with over forty monks, nuns, and retreat leaders across the country. Very early in the process, I asked a monastery abbot whom I'd interviewed if the book should contain only the interviews or include how the interviews were changing me. He suggested the latter, which led me to rethink the structure of the project. In the end, I decided not to present my interviews in a "I asked/the monk or nun answered" format. Instead, I presented the interviews as lessons I learned from wise teachers on my journey as a spiritual pilgrim. Presenting the material in that way was an act of imagination.
There are numerous other ways that imagination contributes to a successful non-fiction book. In interview-based books like Peace Be with You, the author/interviewer has to decide what questions to ask and then-and this is the harder part-to decide if the interviewee's responses necessitate staying with the script or head off in a new direction.
The same moment of decision occurs in non-fiction that is based on research, not interviews. It is the nature of doing research that the writer/researcher will likely uncover something unexpected. In that moment, the writer/researcher is faced with a momentous choice: Will following the new development be, in the end, a dead-end and waste of valuable time or the key turning point that leads to a much richer book? That decision will be based as much on imagination as on what is uncovered.
Fiction and Non-Fiction. How different are they? Both novels and non-fiction have to capture the interest of readers immediately, sustain that interest over the entire project, and then bring the work to a satisfying conclusion. Novels are based on research as much as imagination. Similarly, non-fiction might be based on research, but imagination makes that research come alive.
Writing Non-Fiction That Engages Readers
March 19th, 2019
There is no doubt that writing fiction, be it a short story or a novel, offers a great deal of pleasure to the writer. Just as it can be fun and even exciting to read a work of fiction that offers a surprising shift in the plot, it is fun and exciting to be the writer who creates that moment.
Can non-fiction offer the same rewards? The answer is yes, as long as you are writing about something that offers a sense of discovery for both the writer and the reader.
In this blog, let's unpack what is meant by "a sense of discovery." First of all, writing non-fiction demands a considerable amount of research. Even when someone is writing a memoir, the writer will want to consult diaries and perhaps have conversations with close friends and associates. Research becomes even more essential if one chooses to write about a contemporary or past event or issue.
That raises the second requirement for writing non-fiction. The topic must pique the interest of readers. Writing a book about Babe Ruth will attract more attention than writing a book about Stuffy McInnes, one of Ruth's teammates when Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox. Unless readers are avid fans of baseball history or descendants of McInnes, their interest isn't likely to be piqued. Of course, the appeal changes if McInnes went on to run for President and won (no, McInnes didn't run for President).
This doesn't mean that only an exciting event or person is worth writing about. Readers are also interested when a book addresses a question that they're curious about. In 2006, after teaching a course on religion and violence for several years, I didn't believe I could not be the only one interested in how monks and nuns responded to 9/11 and the "war on terror."
I presented the concept to my literary agent whose first reaction was that she thought people no longer wanted to read about 9/11. The next day, my agent called back and told me that she'd asked her grown son, who is more religious than she, and his comment was "that's a book I'd like to read."
I was thankful when a major publisher agreed with that assessment and, after I conducted interviews with monks and nuns across the country, published Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World (Thomas Nelson Publishers). The book earned a starred review from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and was selected by Library Journal as one of the top ten books of 2011 in the category of Spiritual Living. That book continues to be my top seller.
The reactions of my literary agent and her son were both correct. Not everyone was interested in knowing how monks and nuns responded to religious terrorism, but many people were. If the question, however, was of interest only to me, the book wouldn't have found a publisher.
One way to determine if a topic you're interested in will be of interest to others is to run the idea by friends who will give you a candid answer. The decision to pursue a topic is still yours to make, but if no one expresses interest in your idea, take that feedback seriously.
If you are still committed to the issue, you might ask your friends, "what would make you interested in this topic?" Alternatively, you can file the idea away. Perhaps, in time, you will think of a new angle on the topic, or maybe events will change, and the topic will become suddenly important. I recommend not throwing away any writing idea. You never know . . .
NEXT BLOG: USING INTERVIEWS TO WRITE ENGAGING NON-FICTION
ARE YOU A WRITING ATHLETE? Part 6: FICTION: TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT-PAYING ATTENTION TO
February 6th, 2019
Whether a writer is working on a short story, novel, or a series of novels, the writer must pay attention to "character development." Along with a gripping plot, intriguing characters-characters that readers want to spend time with, want to understand, and, yes, want to be surprised by-are what make a work of fiction "work."
In contrast, most readers have stopped reading a short story or novel because something just doesn't ring true about the characters. The good news is that there are some basic tips to creating intriguing and believable characters.
Respect the Guardrail on the Left!
Let's compare a work of fiction to driving on a curvy mountainous road. You want the journey for readers to be exhilarating while at the same time not sending them over the cliff on either side. The "cliff" here is anything that leads readers to give up on the story and quit reading. The writer's goal is for readers, at the end of the short story, novel, or series, to think, "Now that was an enjoyable ride."
To achieve that outcome for readers, writers need to respect two pieces of advice, two "guardrails," that relate to the portrayal of characters. The first guardrail -let's think of it as the guardrail on the left of the road-is to give your characters permission to change. If characters are static, never changing, always acting the same way or saying the same things, readers will likely find such characters boring because they are so predictable. A familiar way of describing such characters is that they are "wooden."
In contrast, readers enjoy being with characters who aren't stuck, who are affected, for good or bad, by their experiences. Instead of being wooden, effective and engaging characters are vibrant.
Respect the Guardrail on the Right!
Writers must be aware of the opposite danger in character development, that being when a character acts too much "out of character." Readers want to feel that they understand characters and can trust characters not to do or say something wildly different from how they acted or spoke before. The key phrase here is "wildly different." Yes, we want to give our characters permission to change, but not (to return to the analogy of the curvy road) permission to careen all over the road. Following the acts and antics of wildly changing characters is just too exhausting for most readers.
Achieving Balance Isn't Rocket Science!
It may seem that our curvy road has become a narrow tightrope. If too little change in characters and too much change in characters can both lead to disaster, how do we find the right balance?
One way to think about character development is to remember what we like and do not like in our friendships. Friendships falter and might end if a friend says or does the same things over and over again. The clue here is what goes through our mind when we're getting ready to spend time with that friend. If we predict how our time and our conversation with this friend will go, and we're right in that prediction, that's a good sign our friend is stuck.
Friendships can also falter or end if a friend is "all over the place." That is, the friend acts so unpredictably from one experience to another that we end up thinking, "I don't really know this person, and I'm not sure she understands herself." The same clue applies here. If, when we are getting ready to be with this friend, the only thing we can predict is that the experience will be chaotic, we're likely to find the friendship exhausting or maybe even frightening.
What we want in our characters is what most of us want in our friends. In being with our friends, we want to feel that they are growing, able to change, yet we also want to feel that we're with persons we've gotten to know before.
IN A NUTSHELL
As we are writing fiction and constructing characters, it is best from time to time to ask our characters the same question we ask good friends-"what's new?" Just as with friends, we want our character to respond with "here's something that's new for me." Beware the character and friend who always responds with "nothing's new" or "everything's new!"
ARE YOU A WRITING ATHLETE Part 5: Creating Characters that Engage Readers
December 26th, 2018
In Part 5 in this series, we will focus on this issue: Engaging readers by giving our characters problems.
In a writing seminar I participated in many years ago, the instructor offered the following advice: if a fiction writer wants to "hook" the interest of readers, the writer must give her characters major problems and present those problems early in the novel or short story.
If I had reflected on novels, short stories, and films that had "hooked" me, I wouldn't have been so surprised by the writing instructor's statement. My preferred reading material-mysteries-usually provides a corpse or at least a puzzling crime right out of the gate. Although I am not partial to romances, I suspect that they too begin with a character or two having relationship problems of one sort or another.
I think the reason I, and probably many other beginning writers, missed the need to give our characters problems early in our stories is that having problems is not what any of us wants in our own lives. When problems come into my life, I rarely welcome them. Rather, I believe I'm typical in describing a "good day" as one when I'm not faced with a major problem.
But oddly, for fiction to be engaging, the story must begin with something we don't wish for in our own lives: a major problem or two. Why a major problem? Consider which of the following scenarios presented on page one of a novel is more likely to hook your interest:
The first scenario isn't an effective opening for a novel because a shoelace that comes untied is hardly a crisis. It's "small potatoes," a problem easily remedied. Losing key documents for a murder trial-now that grabs our attention and will likely set off an "oh-oh, that's not good" in our minds as readers. But few readers will find their hearts racing to read that the lawyer has to stop to tie his shoelace. However, if, when bending down to tie the shoelace, the lawyer hears a gunshot and sees a bullet ricochet a few inches away from her, well, now our hearts are racing.
- In entering a courtroom for trial, a lawyer has to stop to retie a shoelace.
- In entering a courtroom for trial, a lawyer discovers that key documents for a murder case in her briefcase are missing.
There is a second reason why the problem presented early in a novel should be a major one. Not only does the problem engage the emotions of readers immediately (who of us hasn't misplaced or lost something important in our lives?), but a major problem tips readers off to what the rest of the story will be about.
For a murder mystery, a corpse presented at the beginning of the novel promises that by the end the murder, the murderer's method, and the murderer's motive, will be revealed. For a romance, a character frustrated in love in the first pages promises, despite ups and downs along the way, that love will likely be found by the novel's end.
Thinking deeper about why our characters need problems: Unless we are talking about a personal diary, the goal of writing is to "hook" readers, not solely please ourselves. Think about it this way: as writers, we often love our characters. After all, we've spent weeks, months, or maybe even years with them. But readers are meeting our beloved characters for the first time on page one. We have to give our readers a reason to care about the characters immediately.
As writers, we can't think that if readers will just be patient they will, by page fifty or seventy-five, love our characters as much as we do. As we mentioned in an earlier blog, don't give your readers a reason to put down your book, because they might never pick it up again! In other words, writers have to give readers on page one a reason to read pages two until the end. When we give our characters a major problem or two early, readers are more likely to ask "I wonder how this is going to work out." When that happens, readers are hooked.
The reason for this is simple. As human beings, we are "problem-solving animals." I learned this quickly in my college teaching career. If I shared a problem with students along with the right answer to the problem, they would at best write the answer down in their notes. But that wasn't a particularly high-energy moment in the class. But if I gave students the problem itself and asked them to propose a solution, they were more energized and engaged.
And that's true for all of us. For some, a crossword puzzle presents a problem that provides hours of enjoyment. For others, a jigsaw puzzle does the same. And for others, a TV mystery, whether that's presented in a Law and Order episode or a Dateline program, hooks them immediately.
So, there's a bit of irony here. I may wish this day or this week would be problem-free for me, but for entertainment, I want to problem-solve-as long as it's someone else's problem.
Suggested Activity: If you have started a novel or short story, evaluate page one of your story. If you didn't present a problem, rewrite the page in light of what your story is about. If you haven't started a novel or short story but want to try, write down the following about a character you are creating: Name, physical and emotional description, and a major problem your character is facing.
A. Next Blog: For our next blog on fiction (later ones will focus on non-fiction writing), we will think about character development in a different way. Titled, "Letting Our Characters Develop Without Breaking through the Guardrails," the next blog will provide guidelines that help us make our characters three-dimensional.
HAVE A HAPPY WRITING NEW YEAR!
December 3rd, 2018
What kind of stories do you enjoy the most? Are they comedy, romance, thrillers, or suspense? Over the span of human history, I wager that the stories humans have most enjoyed are stories of redemption.
The word redemption itself is an ancient one. Originally, redemption meant the freeing of a slave. Think of the powerful story of Joseph in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. In our day, with that form of slavery thankfully no longer existing, we use the term redemption to describe the rescuing of someone from a misdirected life.
We love stories where people are offered a chance and take that opportunity to radically change the path they're on. Movies like A Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, and Dead Man Walking leave many of us with a lump in our throats and reaching for tissues.
But telling a good redemption story is tricky. Redemption stories run the risk of falling into sentimentality. When a redemption story is too sentimental, many readers and movie goers turn away, feeling manipulated. Life isn't a Hallmark movie, after all.
But when redemption is portrayed with sensitivity instead of sentimentality, we readers and movie goers can be genuinely moved.
For me, the best redemption stories are those based on fact, not fiction. And one of the best redemption stories I know began not too far from here in Indiana.
Those of us of a certain age remember Ryan White, the Kokomo boy who contracted AIDS by transfusion back in the mid-eighties and who became the first poster child for AIDS awareness.
Ryan White's story is one of bravery and forgiveness. Out of fear of the new epidemic of AIDS, other parents of children in Ryan's school and even people in the White family's church shunned Ryan. Tires of the family car were slashed; a bullet was shot through their home window. The White family responded with kindness and compassion, Ryan famously saying that people should be forgiven for their ignorance about AIDS.
Ryan White's story is both heartwarming and tragic, but the redemption part didn't come into play until Elton John became aware of Ryan White's case. Elton and Ryan became close friends, with Elton being at Ryan's bedside as he was dying. What Elton John revealed later was that he was heavily into drugs and alcohol at the time. He credits the bravery and the faith of Ryan White and his family with changing his life and saving him from being destroyed by addiction.
That's a powerful story of redemption, but the story doesn't end there. Fast forward nearly twenty-five years, and Elton John, in a reflective mood, remembered the rocker from the seventies and eighties, Leon Russell, who had been so kind and supportive when he was just starting. Recalling his great debt to the singer-songwriter, Elton John wondered if Leon Russell was still alive. Not only did Elton John find Leon Russell, but the two began to collaborate, a partnership that produced a terrific album and even some tour dates together.
In 2011, Elton John inducted Leon Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Where's the redemption part in this story? That was revealed in Leon Russell's acceptance speech at the ceremony, when he credits Elton John with finding him in the ditch of life and pulling him out. In the background of that moment, still viewable on YouTube, we can see Elton John join Leon Russell in tears.
That's the great power of redemption stories. Yes, such stories move us, but they also plant the seeds of redemption and change in others who hear about them. I doubt that Ryan White and his family ever heard of Leon Russell, yet Leon Russell's redemption would likely not have happened without them.
And who knows? The story might not be over. Think of all those who have read about Elton John and Ryan White's friendship as related in Elton John's autobiography. Think of all those who heard Leon Russell's acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he described the ditch he'd been rescued from. And think of those who are reading this article.
Redemption is like a wonderful virus that spreads from one person to another. May we all catch that virus.
ARE YOU A WRITING ATHLETE?
October 22nd, 2018
(These first blogs in the series pertain to writing fiction. Non-fiction writing projects will be the focus of later blogs)
Part Four: Two Suggestions for Keeping Readers Engaged
Many years ago, I participated in a writing workshop where the instructor gave our group of aspiring authors two bits of wisdom.
One, modern readers are looking for any excuse to put their books down and turn on the TV or open the Internet. Don't let the momentum of your story flag.
And two, to create characters (even villains) who keep readers' attention, take your character to dinner.
Don't let the momentum of your story flag.
Let's start with the first of the two guidelines. Yes, unfortunately it is true that the patience of modern readers is less than in the past. In the 18th, 19th, and much of the 20th century (until the radio was invented), there were few alternatives on a long winter's night to reading, and novels were the most entertaining option.
But today, with smartphones seemingly attached to our bodies, we can't assume that those capable of reading will spend much time doing so. A boring paragraph might be enough for modern readers to close the book and turn to one of their devices. And once that book is put down, it may never be picked up again.
My workshop instructor invited us to analyze page one of our stories. She pointed out that If we don't capture the attention of our readers on page one, many won't bother to read on to page two. She then suggested turning to pages 10, 25, 50, 100, etc. of our manuscripts and ask a similar question: "What happens on these pages to keep the interest of your readers?" In other words, composing long florid pages of scenery and intricate descriptions of the background relations between characters may be satisfying to write, but they likely won't keep the attention of modern readers. Put another way, while setting the scene and describing the traits of characters in a modern novel are still essential tasks for the writer, the key is to write "crisply."
Getting to Know Your Characters (Take Your Characters to Dinner)
Creating believable characters is about using our imagination. Try these exercises that are designed to stretch your imagination. One, think of a friend or two whom you enjoy being with but who also surprises you with what they say or do. These surprises don't have to be outrageous or overly frequent but just enough to keep your attention. Make a list of adjectives that describe such a person or describe how you feel in her presence (e.g., the person can be described as "quirky," or her comments often make you laugh).
Two, think of friends or acquaintances who seem to change little over time, those who can bring on a yawn when you're with them. Perhaps your attention wanders because these people tend to talk about the same things over and over again. Make another list of adjectives that describes the way these people make you feel and how they manage to trap people into listening to them.
Three, think of friends whom you've known for a while and have slowly grown over time. Perhaps they became better listeners or became more confident. Write descriptors of these people in the various stages of their development. For example, a person might begin as "timid" and then move onto "frustrated," "willing to take risks," and finally to "confrontational." Now imagine how you'd describe the person's timidity (or frustration, etc.) without using the word timid. What mannerisms (volume of speech, eye contact, body language) would reveal these changes? This is the "show, don't tell" advice often given to writers.
Four, think of friends or acquaintances who have met with tragedies or setbacks in their lives. How did they look, how did they talk, and how did they first respond to the crisis? How did they look talk, and respond the day after the tragedy, the week after, the month after, the year after? How did the crisis change them, if it did? Now try this challenge. Instead of saying, "the person was tearful," write a description of a person in tears (think gestures and mannerisms such as eye contact, tone of voice, evidence of withdrawal). Again, this is showing rather than telling.
These short exercises all make a common point: creating believable and engaging characters is based on observing people in our own lives. We are surrounded by the models for the characters we'll create.
Here are some tips:
One, the characters we create, while being based on people we've known or are presently observing, shouldn't be exact copies of people we know. That will only make your friends and acquaintances angry. Ironically, creating a character who is a dead ringer for someone we know tends not to be as "real" as a character who is also based on your imagination. The believable characters we create will be a composite of one person's trait, traits we observed in others, and our imaginative development of those traits.
Two, a novel in which the characters are all of one type won't be believable or readable. Imagine all the characters of a story being quirky or funny. That would make the dialogue unrealistic. How many times have you read a novel in which you thought, "People don't talk this way."?" Just as is true in the people we know, so the characters we create should be varied. Even the boring and staid character who doesn't seem to change can appear in our stories, if for no other reason than to serve as a comparison to other characters. But a story in which all the characters are boring and staid would be, well, boring.
Three, one way to have a better sense of your characters is to follow the advice of another writing instructor I studied with who suggested "taking your characters to dinner." And she meant this literally! She described going to a restaurant alone, with only paper and pen. She advised imagining one of your characters sitting across from you at the table. What would the character be wearing? What is his hair style? Does she wear make-up and, if so, what is the most notable evidence of this? What would he order off the menu-a steak or something vegetarian? What would she talk about? Would he focus on you or does he look around at other patrons? Does she fidget with her hands or her glass of water? What would he gossip about? How would he behave during silences? Would she prefer to split the bill, offer to pay for both meals, or wait for you to pay? (Obviously, there is no end to this exercise. I would sometimes play a similar game during faculty meetings at the college where I taught. As the meeting progressed, I'd pay attention to my colleagues: their mannerisms, wardrobe choices, how they handled disagreements, if they were comfortable with conflict, and if, in tense moments or debate, they used humor.)
The main point of this section on creating characters is simple: the more observant we are of people around us, the more traits and descriptions we can draw upon when we create our characters. It is only when we "know" our characters as we know our friends that we can make them believable to readers.
In our next blog (also on creating believable characters), we will discuss the following:
Why It's Important to Give Your Characters Problems
Letting Our Characters Develop Without "Breaking through the Guardrails"
My Debt to Libraries
September 25th, 2018
I think it was Voltaire who wrote that entering a library always humbled him. Since I was a boy, entering a library has given me a different feeling-excitement. Perhaps if I'd thought more about it, I would have felt intimidated by all the knowledge stored on the shelves. But as a boy, I felt a sense of adventure whenever I visited our town's Carnegie Library. It didn't matter to me if the adventure was fictional or factual in the books I read.
In grade school, I remember being particularly attracted to a series of biographies for young readers. The covers were all a light orange, and the illustrations were all black silhouettes. I think I read the entire series. But whether that is true or not, the most important lesson I learned from the series is that a person will likely have to struggle to attain a meaningful life. But such a life is the only one worth pursuing. That was true whether I was reading a biography of Galileo, Lincoln, Madame Curie, or Helen Keller.
In middle school and high school, I dove into historical fiction. Two books that I remember fondly are Thomas B. Costain's The Silver Chalice and Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The first is set in the 1st century of the Christian era, the second in early 19th century France. Both books were thick and weighty. But that didn't bother me. When I opened those pages, I was transported from my northern Illinois hometown, where life seemed so predictable, to the Roman Empire or a dungeon on a Mediterranean island. Now that was exciting.
In my youth, the economic realities of my family meant that traveling overseas wasn't a possibility. But that little tan library card in my wallet made it possible for me, using my imagination, to travel all over the world and jump back and forth in time. Later, in my adult life, when travel became a possibility, I had no difficulty deciding where I wanted to visit. I traveled to see some of the places I'd read about, and when I did, I felt that I wasn't seeing those places for the first time but rather revisiting them.
When I look in my wallet, I know that I can get by without much that I store there. Money and credit cards are important, but I have lived happily with little money and without a credit card. But my library card? No, I can't live happily without that. I feel a chill when I think how under different circumstances I might have grown up unable to read or be far from a library. That would have been a life with little wonder and adventure, a life confined to just the present moment in which I was living.
I have no doubt that my love affair with books and libraries led me to become a writer. Given that books were a kind of passport inviting me to travel and encounter new people and cultures from far and near, I began to wonder if I might be able to offer that same experience for others. When I started to write, I was surprised that I wasn't intimidated by the prospect. The blank page didn't frighten me or frustrate me; instead, I remembered that every book I'd ever read began with a blank page.
Were my first attempts at writing worth much? No, but I felt a thrill just to be trying. And the more I wrote, the more words and phrases seemed to magically come to mind. What was the source of that magic? I'm sure it was all the books I'd read from kindergarten onward. It was like every word I'd ever read had been deposited in some language bank account, and when I began writing my own books, I could withdraw from that account.
One of my proudest moments as a writer came in 2011, when Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World (Thomas Nelson) was selected by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2011 in the category of Spiritual Living. Nothing pleased me more than knowing that, because of this endorsement, my first book would be in libraries across the country.
Now, as I continue to write both fiction and non-fiction, I feel I am giving back to libraries a small portion of what they have given me over a lifetime.
Are You A Writing Athlete?
September 4th, 2018
Part Three: Contending with the "Muddled Middle"
When I'm invited to do a book reading and signing, I always begin by asking how many in the audience have started writing a book or short story. I am amazed at the large number of hands that go up. One of my hopes in sharing my story of writing-failing to get published, writing some more, failing again to get published, continuing to write, and then being published-is to encourage writers in the audience to persevere.
An obstacle that writers frequently encounter and that often lead them to give up on their writing projects is dealing with a "muddled middle." While I don't have a proven cure for the muddled middle issue, I'm happy to share some observations and experiences that I've had with this issue.
I've heard many writers confess that they have a great beginning and great ending in mind for a story or novel but struggle with the middle. In writing seminars that I have participated in (I encourage those interested in writing to take full advantage of these seminars), the problem of the "muddled middle" seems to always arise.
Picture a hike in the mountains, a hike that starts on one peak and ends on another. In the middle is not another peak but a valley. That is, hikers must go down into the valley before they can rise to the next summit. Similarly, in short stories or novels, a plot that is all summits and no valleys would be as boring to read as it would be unrealistic.
So, the first thing to keep in mind is that we spend most of our lives in the valley. We love the peaks, the unexpected developments in our life stories, but we always return to the valley. A great scriptural example of this is the New Testament story of Jesus' transfiguration. The disciples Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to a mountain top where they have a breakthrough experience-a true high point in their lives. What does Peter want to do? He wants to stay on the mountain top. Jesus, however, reminds the group that the journey continues down in the valley.
As with life, fiction must include the valleys, the middle places where the writer and reader process the meaning of what came before in the story and anticipate what will follow. So the real problem is not the middle, but when the middle is more a swamp than a valley.
I hope what I write next will surprise you. Most "middles" in stories aren't as bad as the writer thinks. That is, it's normal for a middle to have less energy or punch as the beginning or the ending. But that change of energy can be an important and necessary development in the story. Not every valley is a swamp. A swamp occurs when the energy in the middle peters out completely, when momentum stops.
It's worth repeating that a writer shouldn't label every valley a swamp. Valleys in stories are important. A great deal happens in the middles, the valleys. Firstly, coming into a valley from a summit gives the writer and reader a chance to process what happened on that summit. The summit of our lives and stories are often exciting, but the meaning of that high point isn't fully realized until we reflect on it afterwards. That reflection occurs in the valley.
Notice how this can be observed when athletes are interviewed in the immediate wake of a stunning achievement, such as winning an Olympic gold medal. The athlete is gasping for breath as the interviewer sticks a microphone in her face and asks, "How does it feel to have just one a gold medal?" How does the athlete usually respond? She says things like "I don't know yet. I'm not sure how I feel," or "I'm still trying to grasp what just happened." I've never heard an athlete in those circumstances give a profound and comprehensive analysis of her reactions. That can only come later.
The same is true in stories. Scenes of action (which can occur at numerous times in a story, not just the beginning and ending) have to be balanced by scenes of reflection. In the middle of a story, the writer has the chance to share the thoughts of the main character or he or she can use dialogue to reveal the personality and the quirks of the main character as she reflects on what has happened.
And that's the second point about valleys. The valleys in a story offer both writer and reader an excellent opportunity to get to know the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters. Exciting beginnings and endings in stories are often action-oriented scenes. Action-oriented beginnings hook us as readers. Action-oriented endings provide satisfaction for readers. But in the frenzy of action scenes, readers are focused on the challenges that the main characters are contending with, not their inner thoughts
Thirdly, the valley in the story sets up the reader for the next peak, the next potential high point, the next action scene of the story. Is the main character looking forward to the upcoming challenge or is she frightened? If she's frightened, is her fear something the writer wants the reader to share? If she's frightened, how does the main character deal with those fears? In other words, it is in the middles, the valleys, of stories where writers can reveal the full humanity of their characters-the hopes, the fears, the coping mechanisms, the decision-making processes.
- A story needs to have valleys/middles as well as peaks.
- Valleys will have less energy/excitement than peaks on a story.
- Yet, instead of thinking of valleys as having less of something (energy or excitement), think of what they have more of-valleys provide writers and readers opportunities to become acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of characters, as well as how they process what is happening to them.
- Valley scenes can be as fulfilling to write and read as scenes of peak experiences.
- Characters can be heroic in exciting beginnings and endings. Characters become human in the middles.
Are You A Writing Athlete?
August 1st, 2018
Part Two: BEGINNING TO SHAPE THE CLAY
In the first blog in this series, we compared writing to running a marathon with hurdles. Writing is like a marathon in that finishing a project takes time, patience, and perseverance. As is true of a marathon race, there are no shortcuts to producing a quality result.
Writing is also like a high hurdle race. That is, there are moments in the writing process where the writer has to negotiate an obstacle (or pass a milestone). Facing these obstacles can seem daunting. Transcending these obstacles is exhilarating and energizing.
We introduced the first three hurdles in the previous blog. In this blog, we will consider further thoughts on those three hurdles as well as introduce hurdle four.
Hurdle one is the need to read authors we admire, focusing on what those authors do to keep our attention. Do our favorite authors excel in writing clever plots? Do they create characters who seem to live on the page? Do they write dialogue that surprises even as it is believable?
The second hurdle or challenge to master is setting aside some time every day (or almost every day) to put words on paper or on a computer screen. We don't become writers when we are published. We become writers when we write. What we write will likely seem messy at first, but that is the clay we will shape as the process continues.
The third hurdle occurs simultaneously with the second hurdle. The task here is to jot down the ideas as we write that give off a jolt of energy. In fiction, we can refer to these ideas as "scenes." Where do these ideas/scenes come from? Many are born out of our imaginations. Sometimes, an energizing idea or scene will arise out of something we observe in our daily lives or see/read about in the news-a conversation or occurrence (tragic, touching, funny, but memorable) that we realize at the time or sometime afterward would make a great scene in a story.
Work with that idea or scene by letting your imagination "off the leash." Given that first scene, what could happen next? What might have happened just before that scene? Don't stress this, as there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The second idea or scene, and then a third and fourth, will either offer, or fail to offer, another jolt of energy. Here, keep two things in mind. One, don't assume the follow-up scene has to be stupendous and full of fireworks. The follow-up scene, instead, has to seem possible (realistic) to the reader and, at the same time, intriguing.
Two, writing one scene after another is similar to following breadcrumbs on a path. Trust the creative journey, and focus only on one scene leading to the next. That next one will, in turn, lead to a following one.
If a completed book is like an oak tree, these first ideas or scenes are the acorns. Patience is often needed with this stage of the process, as it may take some time for an intriguing scene to produce its follow-up. At other times, the ideas or scenes come rapidly.
The new focus of this blog is the fourth hurdle: realizing that a book is the result of stringing together these energy-giving ideas or scenes. How successfully these scenes are arranged will determine whether a piece of writing falls flat or satisfies both the writer and our readers.
A writing teacher once shared that an author must never forget that many readers are looking for any excuse to stop reading. A flat scene, one that creates a lull, might be just enough to prompt a reader (or a publisher considering your manuscript) to put your book aside and never pick it up again. When we read in reviews "I couldn't put this book down," that's another way of saying the author kept the reader interested from one scene to another.
There are some basic bits of wisdom to keep in mind at this stage, some we might remember learning in English or literature classes in school. One, a story must have a "beginning," "middle," and "ending." That seems basic and obvious, but this truth becomes more challenging when we add to it that a story from beginning to ending has to follow an "arc."
Think of a quarterback throwing a long pass. The ball leaves the quarterback's hand and angles upward. At a certain point in a ball's flight, the ball begins to descend. The flight of the ball from quarterback to receiver forms an arc.
The arc of a football, a basketball from the three-point line, or a home run in baseball follows a perfect arc. In writing, however, the arc is usually "imperfect." To understand this, let's start with the end of the arc, the ending. The ending of a story must be somehow satisfying to the reader. In romantic fiction, the ending will likely involve the main characters achieving an intimate relationship. In mysteries or suspense thrillers, the ending will likely reveal the sleuth solving the case (the mystery). Other kinds of fiction lead to other probable endings, but all will ideally lead the reader to finish the last line of the story and exhale with an "ah" feeling of satisfaction.
Notice in romantic fiction or mysteries/suspense thrillers that this moment of satisfaction, breakthrough, or release doesn't happen at the halfway point. Think of Ravel's Bolero or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, or, one of my favorites, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Each of these pieces of music follows an arc, but in all three pieces, tension builds until the moment of satisfaction or release near the end.
The most satisfying stories, however, resist building the tension in a steady or predictable way. A clever trick in many mysteries/suspense thrillers is for the sleuth to think, at about the halfway point of the novel, that she has found the killer. Tension builds to a false ending-in a sense, a deliberate disappointment or letdown for both the sleuth and the readers. That disappointment or letdown, however, leads to tension rebuilding as the sleuth rethinks her approach to the case.
I don't write romantic novels, but in watching TV shows and movies of this kind, I sense a similar trick is often used. The two main characters of a "love story" may begin a relationship, only at the halfway point to have that relationship fall apart. Yet, at the end, their relationship is recovered, their love stronger for the earlier collapse. The movie An Affair to Remember offers a great example of this.
We can also build tension by teasing readers to think that some unexpected development, at the last moment, will rob them of a satisfying ending. In mysteries/suspense thrillers, the villain might have one last trick up his sleeve. In romantic fiction, some nemesis or event will, right at the end, nearly separate the lovers forever. In both mysteries and romantic fiction, this technique leads the reader to think, or even utter, "no, no, don't let that happen." When the detective then foils that last trick of the villain, or the lovers defeat the final machinations of a jealous competitor, the "ah" feeling of satisfaction is even greater.
That's more than enough to think about for now. In the next blog, we'll discuss two problems many writers experience: writer's block and the problem of having a riveting "beginning" and "ending" but sensing the "middle" is flat or unsatisfying.
ENJOY THE JOURNEY
Are You A Writing Athlete?
June 18th, 2018
Whenever I offer a reading from one of my books, I ask how many in the audience have either started a book or have an idea for a book. I am amazed at the number of hands that fly into the air. It seems that almost everyone who comes to a book reading has the hope that one day she will be offering a reading of her own work.
What then is involved in moving from an idea for a book to seeing it in print? If the writing process from beginning to end can be compared to an athletic event, the events most similar to writing would be to combine the marathon with high hurdles. So, imagine a marathon race with hurdles standing between you, the author, and the finish line. In this first blog in a series on the writing process, the focus will be on the first hurdles - those involved in moving from initial ideas to words on a page.
The first of these hurdles is something you are probably already doing-read books of authors you admire. The more quality writing we read, the more our brains recognize what makes a good sentence, paragraph, and chapter. Reading the works of writers who inspire us can be compared to putting money in the bank. When we move to the next hurdle - putting thoughts on paper -we will unconsciously be using what we've read to help us create sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of our own that "sound right."
The second hurdle is to set aside time each day, even ten minutes, to jot down first ideas for your writing project. Seeing your ideas on paper is important; it is a step of commitment, a necessary pushing against the inner voices that whisper "Get serious; you're not a writer. Who do you think you're kidding?" Almost all of us have those doubting voices. These voices begin with this second hurdle but will resurface throughout the process. But we don't have to give in to them!
This second step in the process is, as one well-known writer describes it, quite messy. That is, what you'll see on paper is not a masterpiece; in fact, it isn't even close to being a book. We don't expect muck to be impressive. But as raw clay can be shaped with later work into something quite beautiful, so can the muck of what you've written on the page. I recommend at this point dealing with the nagging question in your mind "Am I a writer?" by responding, "Yes, I am. The muck in front of me proves I am!"
The third hurdle is to pay attention to which idea or ideas you've jotted down intrigue you or give you a jolt of energy, even a slight jolt. Identifying that idea or those ideas will provide you a starting point. Identifying that idea or those ideas will also help you put aside for the time being the other ideas you've written down.
You now have an idea or maybe two. It will still look quite messy, but you sense there is something of value, some possible treasure within that idea that you want to explore further. Some people can conduct this exploration in their heads before they return to pen and paper or to the computer screen; others need to explore on paper or on screen from the get-go. (I'm the latter). Either way, the important question to ask is not "what do I write down next?" but "where does this first germ of an idea want to lead me?" That is, the idea that gave you that first jolt of energy is living.
Think of your role at this point as the person letting this first idea "off its leash." Where does that idea want to go? Resist the urge to try to see what a book that begins with this idea would look like. Just let the first idea lead you to a second idea, and then a third. I can't emphasize this enough: trust the process. Don't worry if the second idea takes some time to surface. In my experience, if I try to force the next idea, everything becomes immediately lifeless. Go about your regular life and trust that your brain will likely come up with the next step-maybe when you're not consciously thinking about it.
When you do find that your first idea has led to a second idea and then a third idea that gives another jolt of energy, celebrate! You are now someone "hooked" on writing, "hooked" on the question, "I wonder where this idea, these ideas, will take me next?"
NEXT BLOG TOPIC: "BEGINNING TO SHAPE THE CLAY"
Freedom of Speech
April 18th, 2018
I was more saddened than surprised that a Muslim friend knew about a recent Internet posting entitled "Punish a Muslim Day." Someone or some group was promoting a type of game where various actions against Muslims would earn a person points.
On the day after that posting, I had lunch with my friend. He pointed to the baseball cap he was wearing with the phrase "I Love Muhammad" boldly printed on it. Because my friend is a retired firefighter who has remained in good shape, I understood that he wasn't backing away from the challenge.
Every society has to balance the freedom of expression with respect for the community. We see examples in too many parts of the world where freedom of expression is almost non-existent. But in most of those countries, it isn't respect for others that outweighs freedom of expression but rather respect for those in power.
In democratic societies, especially in Europe and the United States, freedom of individual expression carries considerably more weight. The problem for societies like ours is trying to determine when freedom of expression has gone too far. Those who enjoy shouting or posting racist, sexist, homophobic terms, or words defaming another person's religion are fond of hiding behind their right to free expression. For such people, the rule to live by is "if I can think it, I should be able to say it."
It isn't easy to decide when a joke, a movie, a book, or a posting on the Internet has gone "too far." And when the courts try to determine that limit, matters can get quite murky. Nevertheless, societies benefit when respect for others, especially those who are perceived as different, is considered and taught as the norm.
The irony is that while all branches of the military and most corporations in our country punish those in their ranks who can't control language that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or defaming of another's religion, we as a society continue to frame such behavior as a "freedom." And it doesn't help when the President describes those in Charlottesville who were spewing such poison as "good people."
During World War II, the phrase was "loose lips sink ships." In our day, when social media invites everyone to get whatever bothers them off their chests and to hell with the feelings of others, we might ponder how "loose lips sink communities."
The good news is that the answer to this problem has always been close at hand. As long as humans have wondered how to get along with one another, the religions of the world have offered the "golden rule."
In this age of social media, the golden rule might be updated to read: say and post about others only what you wish others would say and post about you.
March 12th, 2018
Are you feeling the ground shift under your feet? Has the last year left you feeling dizzy as American culture and our nation's place in the world has shifted?
In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of the tipping point. I think of a tipping point as the moment when a trend has enough momentum to bring a change that can't be ignored.
An issue can build slowly, reaching a tipping point without much fanfare or awareness. But when the tipping point is reached, the change becomes obvious, whether we are ready for that change or not.
I thought of the tipping point recently as I found Bill Cosby's advice book, Fatherhood, on my shelf. Cosby had been a voice for family values and responsible parenthood until the revelations of his decades-long sexual harassment of women surfaced. But Cosby's indiscretions might have been dismissed as a blip on our society's screen until hundreds of similar and worse stories of harassment and abuse began to appear on a daily basis from within Hollywood, the Olympics, Washington, and particularly the Trump Administration. Looking back now, I now realize Cosby was just the tipping point.
Another tipping point has recently been reached on the world's stage, although many Americans have not noticed the change. This is the tipping point related to climate change. As Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other countries slip beneath the ocean's rising tides, as Greenland and the Arctic regions are thawing at an alarming rate, the world knows it is time to act. Even war-torn Syria recently signed on to the Paris Climate Accord. And just one country that is a signatory to the Paris Climate Accord-the United States- is threatening to withdrawal. That's right. It's the United States under the Trump Administration.
There is further evidence that the tipping point of America's influence in the world has recently been crossed. American presidents used to weigh their words about foreign policy with great care, as they knew that every leader in the world would study those pronouncements carefully and react accordingly. But that is now changing. Leaders in the Middle East have said that they can no longer put faith in American foreign policy, as that policy can shift dizzily with every one of Trump's middle-of-the-night tweets.
Other observers of American culture sense that a third tipping point has been crossed with the school shooting in Florida. For the first time, we have not only the parents of students slain who are grieving and demanding change, but also students in schools across the country who are saying "enough is enough." It seems the entire country has suddenly realized that saying "our thoughts and prayers are with you, grieving parents" is lame and insulting. It is as if the country is waking from a bad dream, the majority of Americans now agreeing that putting the safety of our schools and other public spaces in the hands of the NRA and the gun manufacturers is as insane as it is intolerable.
By definition, tipping points signal changes that won't be reversed. That is, we shouldn't expect women ever again to accept abuse and harassment silently. Similarly, we shouldn't expect the nations of the world to ignore all the evidence and agree with Trump that climate change really isn't a problem.
If tipping points lead to other tipping points, we might ask, what will be the next major change in American culture? For everyone who is troubled by school shootings, harassment and abuse of women, and the ignoring of climate change, the answer is simple. The next tipping point will be the mid-term elections this fall.
SOLVE THE MYSTERY
February 22nd, 2018
For many of us, Goosebumps or the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books were our first introduction to "critical reasoning" or "critical thinking." Of course, this introduction to critical thinking was so subtle that we didn't even realize what was occurring. We just knew that we enjoyed the suspense of the story and the opportunity to sift through the clues to see if we could spot the culprit before the book ended.
We now know that our brains fire up when we are asked to solve a problem. Whether this first happened when we were playing "hide and seek" in the backyard or figuring out "tic-tac-toe," we loved both the suspense and the solving of the game. As we grew older, we preferred more complicated games, which is another way of saying that our brains like higher challenges.
One of the struggles that many college students experience is related to critical reasoning or critical thinking. Too many students come to college with thousands of hours logged in front of a TV or computer screen. Unfortunately, most of the programs they have watched have offered few challenges, and their viewing trains them to be passive rather than active learners.
This issue of student passivity came up in a conversation I had with a student several years ago. My respect for this past student is immense, as he teaches middle school in a southern Indiana town that was devastated - first by closed factories and then by meth and opioid addictions. When this teacher has asked his students about their dreams for adulthood, they have routinely shared that they expect to live in the same town relying on unemployment benefits, just as their parents do.
The more this teacher and I talked, the more we wondered how to motivate passive students to become active dreamers and overcomers. Pep talks are not enough, as these students are surrounded by defeat and numbness every day.
Our conversation led to both of us sharing how much we loved reading mysteries as we grew up. And that was when we realized something important-that whatever confidence we have been able to take into our adult lives was at least partially rooted in reading mysteries and trying to solve the crime before the final chapter. We had both experienced the joy of saying "I knew she/he was the killer!"
Students who have only watched mysteries on TV rather than puzzling about them on their own don't know that joy. And unfortunately, these students, for whom critical thinking is foreign, find college very difficult.
But the good news is that this deficit in critical thinking is reversible. My suggestion for such students is that they read more and that they especially read mysteries. No, reading an Agatha Christie or a Tony Hillerman mystery novel will not make college chemistry or philosophy easier to understand, at least not immediately. But that kind of reading will fire up the problem-solving parts of the brain.
And that is the truly best news: Once students experience that level of "brain joy," they can more readily experience it again in other subjects. And that is a joy that can last a lifetime!
Fictional Clergy Detectives Bring Unique Gifts to Crime Solving
January 22nd, 2018
With the appearance of Grantchester on PBS Masterpiece Mystery, we can enjoy once again a detective series featuring a member of the clergy. Some people may find it strange to believe a priest, rabbi, or minister could be involved in solving crimes, but, upon further thought, this should not puzzle readers. Clergy, after all, routinely listen to people as they share their deepest fears and hopes and as they confess their darkest sins.
Perhaps those who are not part of a religious community are those most likely to see clergy as living in a holier world, bleached of temptation and sin. But any clergy person knows that her or his life is quite often the opposite.
One of the earliest mystery series to feature a clergy person is G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. In these short stories, a Catholic priest, who appears at times to have wool instead of brains in his head, is able to solve complex crimes because he is able to enter the dark minds of the perpetrators. Chesterton has fun with the stereotype of priests by describing Father Brown as having the face of an addled child, which leads to him being regularly overlooked by the police in the stories.
Other writers have also featured clergy as detectives, such as Andrew Greeley's Father Blackie, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife Rose Carroll, James Runcie's Canon Sidney Chambers (Grantchester), and Tony HIllerman's Jim Chee. I am happy to have joined such a club, with my Christopher Worthy/Father Nicholas Fortis series.
Of course, fictional clergy detectives are as different from one another as are other types of sleuths. Father Brown's special gift is his extraordinary use of reason. Father Brown may be a man of faith. He may know the darkness of the human heart. But he usually solves bizarre murders by seeing the logical connection between A, B, and C.
Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee seems to be a standard policeman, but he is also a Navajo shaman in training, which creates a spiritual problem when he comes upon a corpse. Jame Runcie's Sidney Chambers, more apparently in the TV version than the books, is a priest whose career seems always on the verge of imploding under the weight of alcohol and forbidden love.
My own Father Nicholas Fortis has his own problems. Many writers will say that they "met" their characters, rather than invented them, and I suspect that Chesterton, Runcie, and Maxwell felt that about their sleuths, even as I feel the same about Father Nick. In many ways, I don't tell Father Fortis what he should say or do; he seems to tell me.
Father Nick is as overweight as a Sumo wrestler and tends to talk too much, at least in his abbot's eyes. Yes, he may be quite gregarious, but he also hears what people are trying to say beneath their words. And while Father Nick knows that a homicide investigation is over for the police when the killer is caught, he also believes that the end of such a horror comes only when the killer has a chance to confess. That's one of the characteristics of Father Nick that I respect most-he never loses sight of the humanity of the killer.
I look forward with glee to a Muslim imam, a Buddhist monk, and a Sikh Gianni appearing in detective mysteries. You see, all of us who write detective fiction starring clergy are playing a trick on readers. Readers of mysteries are eager to determine who the killer is and why the killer committed that crime. But when the detectives are clergy, the reader has the rich experience of being with rabbis, monks, priests, elders, and ministers on that journey. Yes, the killer is usually caught, but so is the reader, who is caught by new insights into the life of faith.
Christmas is a Season of Light in the Darkest Time of Year
December 7th, 2017
There is something both surprising and fitting about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Of course, no one can be sure of the precise location of Jesus' birth, but this Church has been the site where Christians and others have worshipped the Christmas event for millennia.
What is so fitting about this Church is its entryway, which is so small and narrow that pilgrims and visitors must bow down to enter. The entry was designed this way to prohibit people from riding their horses or donkeys into the Church and thereby desecrating the site. But what is so stunning about this entryway is not its historical past but the psychological and spiritual wisdom of bowing low to meet the Christ child.
Tradition says that Jesus was born in an enclosure for farm animals, perhaps a cave or stall. If so, the entrance to the cave would have also demanded those entering to bow down. It seems as if the Christmas story makes one demand on those of us who want to experience Christmas. That demand is not, it seems, that we buy gifts for those who will buy gifts for us-as if Christmas is a time of trading. Rather, the Christmas story demands we approach the holy day with humility.
Humility can pose a challenge, if not a problem, for us Christians who are blessed to have been born into a first-world country. Most of us, by the world's standards, are rich, even if we don't feel that way. We set up our manger scenes in front of our homes and churches without pondering if Jesus, could he be born in our day, would choose this spot to enter our world.
When we plop the Christmas story in the midst of our bounty as a nation, we forget that all the players in the first Christmas had to make a journey. Christmas didn't come to them; they had to journey to find it. Joseph and Mary must journey to Bethlehem. The shepherds must journey from their fields to the cave. The wise men must journey from the East. For Christians, Jesus journeys from heaven to earth.
The season leading up to Christmas for Christians is called Advent. That's a word quite close to another word-adventure. Christmas calls Christians to get ready for an adventure, to begin a journey to find, in our hearts and through our wallets, where Jesus is being born this year.
The door of the Church in Bethlehem provides us a map for the journey. It is as if the Christmas card sent out by Jesus reads like this: "If you're looking for me this Christmas, you'll find me in a place that makes two demands: that you bow down and that you leave a gift without expecting one in return."
We don't have to look very far. Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands are no longer featured in the news cycle. But these islands remain devastated by the hurricanes that hit them. Many lost everything, and some are literally living in caves and make-do huts.
Others in our country are facing deportation to nations they've never known. They are living in another kind of cave, hiding and waiting for a knock on the door. Still others will struggle this Christmas season because of the opioid addiction of friends and family. That's a very dark cave.
Christmas quite appropriately is a season of light in the darkest time of year. The ancient scriptures promised a time in the future when "those in darkness would see a great light," and Christians see this fulfilled in the Christmas story.
Yes, there is a lot of darkness in our nation and world. But if we bow down to serve those caught in the darkness, we're promised to find a gift waiting for us-a holy child.
Maybe Everybody Has A Book Inside Them
December 7th, 2017
When I do a reading from one of my books, I like to ask the audience this question: "How many of you have a book idea in progress or in mind?" I'm not surprised when about half in the audience raise their hands. Part of what I hope happens after I read from my work is that those who have raised their hands will go home and pick up a pen or begin typing on the computer.
Perhaps you also have a book idea. If so, you might wonder how to start. Forty years of writing still means I'm a beginner with no shortcuts to suggest, but I'm happy to share tips I've read about or discovered that can make writing a more pleasurable and productive experience.
There are great books available for new or experienced writers. My friend Michael gave me a copy of Leonard Elmore's Ten Rules of Writing, which I recommend highly. This book is also fun to read, just like Elmore's fiction.
I would also recommend taking seminars with writing teachers. These seminars can be quite inexpensive, yet full of "ah-ha, so that's how to do it" moments. Most of these teachers are published writers themselves, so they speak from experience.
Of course, the more you write and the more you share your work with others, the more you discover what works and what doesn't. Here are some guidelines that I have found particularly helpful.
So, here's what to do if you've ever written something and thought, "Who am I kidding? I'm not a writer." Look at what you've written and celebrate by saying, "Hey, look at this muddy mess! I must be a real writer!"
- Don't think of writing a novel; think of writing scenes. This guideline is a version of the adage, "A mountain is merely a series of hills." It's easy to become paralyzed if you imagine writing a three-to-four-hundred-page novel. That fear diminishes when you think instead about writing a scene of five to seven pages or even part of a scene. Yes, some very successful writers can write for long stretches, but the most other writers and I write at a sitting is one scene; after that, we take a break to clear our heads.
- Every scene must advance the plot. Think of the scenes making up a novel as a car going sixty miles an hour. What you want to avoid is writing a scene that stops the momentum or slows the pace to a crawl. This doesn't mean that every scene must be filled with action, but it does mean that even scenes that fill in the background must move the story along. A writing instructor offered this great bit of advice: "Don't write a sentence or paragraph that gives your readers permission to stop reading."
- The more you write, the more writing ideas will come. Every writer's work improves with regular practice-even five minutes of writing a day!
- Finally, it was mud first. Hold a favorite book in your hand. Intimidating, isn't it? It's easy to forget that the first draft of that wonderful book was probably not all that impressive. One highly successful writer offered this bit of wisdom: "My first draft is always mud." The second version of your work will be cleaner, as will the third draft and so on. Very likely, the book in your hand has probably gone through thirty, fifty, or even a hundred versions before ending up in print.
(By the way, this blog went through eight versions before you're reading it.)
WHY I WROTE A SECOND MYSTERY
November 2nd, 2017
Writing a mystery is a great challenge, especially for someone who hasn't previously written non-fiction. But I liked that challenge and thoroughly enjoyed the journey of writing Enter by the Narrow Gate. Perhaps the greatest pleasure that I derived from writing that mystery was meeting the characters Christopher Worthy and Father Nicholas Fortis.
I use the word "meeting" rather than "creating" deliberately. As I began to write the first mystery, the two main characters became persons I was getting to know. The more time I spent with them, they more real they became.
It was this sense of "meeting" Christopher Worthy and Father Nick that explains why I chose to write a second, then a third, and now, as I write this, am beginning to write number six in the series. I didn't choose to write a series because the first one was immediately published. I even wrote numbers two and three in the series before Coffeetown Press optioned the series.
The main reason I continued to write the series was that I was curious to find out what my two main characters were up to. Although each book in the series is a separate mystery (in other words, the reader can read the mysteries out of order), I wanted to discover how my two main characters and their relationship were changing.
Because of my interest in character development, I realized that a second mystery posed a new and different challenge. The new challenge involved working within two guidelines. One, I had to allow both characters to grow from mystery number one to two, from two to three, and so on. In other words, I wanted to treat Worthy and Father Nick as I would any friend-each has the right to move on in his life. Two, my two main characters couldn't change so much from mystery to mystery that readers of the series would find the changes implausible.
I loved this new challenge. In many ways, I understood that Father Nick and Christopher Worthy would change for many of the same reasons that we all do-they are growing older and wiser or are experiencing changes in their relationships with others. But in a detective series, the protagonists also change because of their relationship with someone else-the killer they are pursuing.
It is the killer, of course, who drives the action of any mystery or thriller. The reader joins the detective, whether that be Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or Christopher Worthy and Father Fortis, in sifting the clues to find the culprit. And that is the additional challenge of any writer of detective fiction-to create a culprit who is as complex and as human as the detectives who are searching for that person. Perhaps the greatest compliment a reader can give an author of detective fiction is not "this novel kept me on the edge of my seat," but rather "I can see how someone in those circumstances could end up becoming what she or he never imagined becoming-a killer."
Writers of detective fiction enjoy writing in that genre for the same host of reasons that readers prefer that genre. Some like solving complex problems. Others are attracted to seeing good defeat evil, while other readers want to see if they can outwit the detectives in identifying the killer. I am attracted to detective fiction for all those reasons. But what I most enjoy is observing how my detectives must come to know and understand their killers before they can apprehend them.
In the end what makes detective fiction fascinating is what makes life fascinating-the unpredictability of human relationships.
Are We Awake In Our Lives?
October 4th, 2017
The history of humanity is marked by rare individuals who, sometimes suddenly and sometimes over a period of time, wake up to a different way of viewing something that the rest of us take for granted.
When he was a young lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa because he refused to vacate his first-class seat because of the color of his skin. That experience changed Gandhi's entire understanding of his life purpose and changed the lives of millions of people.
Not long afterwards, Rosa Parks refused when ordered to move to the back of the bus. She said later that her feet were tired, but her act incited a revolution.
Five hundred years ago, a brilliant monk and professor, Martin Luther, risked his career and life to nail to the door of his university ninety-five objections to accepted Church teachings of his day. His personal act also incited a revolution.
In all these cases, and those added below, these individuals weren't trying to accomplish anything monumental. Rather, they were simply acting out of a personal need to live more fully in the truth as they understood it. And in every case, their acts infuriated the majority. The phrases "how dare they," and "who do they think they are?" have a long history.
Infuriated people in our country today are uttering these same two phrases, as two highly public persons have risked waking up.
The first is Colin Kaepernick, the now out-of-work quarterback, who, after reading extensively about the African-American experience in our nation's story, decided to kneel at the playing of the national anthem. As black men and women were being shot by law enforcement at an alarming rate, Kaepernick decided that he couldn't in good conscience agree that the United States is the "land of the free." He wasn't intending to set off a firestorm by his act, but rather to live more fully in the truth that he was discovering and observing.
The second individual who has recently woken up is Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel is not out of work, and he is the one person of those mentioned who accepted that his comments would set off a national debate and affect the voting in the US Senate. But his stand was still risky. He knew many would tell him as a comedian to stick with comedy and leave the politics to the experts. But what we now know is that Kimmel had a more accurate and honest understanding of the health care proposal than did the bill's sponsors.
There is a cost to waking up, for no longer siding with the majority. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard understood this nearly two hundred years ago.
"Truth always rests with the minority ... because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion."
Kaepernick has never demanded that anyone join him in kneeling during the national anthem. But what he has done is force everyone to think about the words they sing or refuse to sing.
Similarly, Kimmel has made no demand that everyone think about the health care proposal as he does. What he has demanded is that the truth be told about the bill and that people think seriously about how this bill could affect families with pre-existing conditions.
The point I am making should be obvious-when one person wakes up, others wake up whether they want to or not. Some wake up relieved to do so; others wake up angry. When Luther woke up, Christians in western Europe were forced to wake up to issues that they'd never questioned. When Gandhi woke up, every Indian and every British soldier in India was forced to wake up to what hadn't been questioned about colonialism. And when Rosa Parks woke up, everyone on that bus and all who heard about her refusal began to wake up to the issue of racial discrimination.
Kierkegaard's warning is worth considering in our day. If we sleepwalk through life, going with the majority just to fit in and not cause a stir, we have wasted our human lives.
August 28th, 2017
For a few years, our son lived and worked in Washington, DC. On one visit, we walked to see the two monuments in Washington that mean the most to me: the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
There are clear similarities in the stories of these two national heroes. Both worked for human equality, and both paid for that commitment with their lives. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was fittingly delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
But in the wake of Charlottesville, my memories were of the differences between the two memorials. Lincoln sits on a throne-like chair, a man tired after seeing our country through the Civil War. In contrast, King is portrayed standing, arms folded across his chest, eyes looking ahead. If Lincoln seems to be resting, Martin Luther King stands brooding over our nation's capital and over our country.
Of the two, it was Martin Luther King's spirit that I felt more strongly as I watched the battle in the streets of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps it would be fairer to say, I found King's spirit most absent from the terrible scenes we watched on TV.
King would not have been surprised at the presence of violent white supremacists and Klansmen in the streets of Charlottesville. He'd faced their fury too many times to be shocked. King knew that the original sin of America is racism, and he understood perhaps more than anyone else how difficult this deep-seated sin would be to overcome.
No, the sickening hatred of those offering Nazi salutes and proudly identifying with the Klan was well-known to King. What would have disappointed King about Charlottesville was how his strategy to confront such moral sickness was forgotten that day.
The white supremacists and Klansmen got just what they wanted that day. They were hoping for a violent confrontation with those opposing them, knowing rioting in the streets would bring maximum media coverage. With each blow struck, the anger of the white supremacists and the anger on the other side accelerated until it was white hot (no pun intended). The streets of Charlottesville turned into a mini civil war-just what the supremacists wanted.
What King had learned from Gandhi and put into practice in the long civil rights movement was that resistance is essential, but not all resistance is effective.
Gandhi and King knew that the most effective response to racism is non-violent resistance. Before all his marches, those trained by King knew how to respond to attacks by dogs, water hoses, clubs, and guns. If marchers couldn't pledge a non-violent reaction, they couldn't march with King.
So here is how Charlottesville might have gone if the wisdom of Gandhi and King had been followed that awful day. Imagine the white supremacists marching down the street, clubs and fists ready, but instead of meeting others with clubs and fists, they met hundreds of people sitting down and blocking their way. Some of those sitting would have been praying, others singing, and others sitting in silence, but no one meeting violence with violence.
Imagine then that the white supremacists would have attacked those sitting, hoping for a violent response but hearing only prayers and songs. Bodies would likely have been bloodied, but other protesters would have non-violently taken their place in the street. The police might have arrested some of those sitting down for demonstrating without a permit, but it would have been clear to the police, to those watching around the world, and even to some of the white supremacists which side was exhibiting what Gandhi called "soul force."
White supremacists were emboldened by Charlottesville and look forward to other skirmishes in the streets. Those of us committed to opposing racism must prepare ourselves for what is coming, but we must weigh how best to confront the sickness of racism.
We can either choose to give white supremacists the battle in the streets that they desire, or we can remember the wisdom of Dr. King: an eye for an eye will eventually leave us all blind.
August 9th, 2017
When I came to Franklin College in the late 1970s, I had a wonderful colleague who taught me an important lesson. One day, I shared that I'd spent some of my grade school years up in Springfield, Illinois, and that my years there had given me a lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln. I recalled looking out of my school window to see where Honest Abe first practiced law. I laughingly said that as a youngster I struggled with understanding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but had finally concluded that the Trinity must be God, Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln.
My friend listened quietly, without saying a word, before gently sharing that he'd grown up in South Carolina where Lincoln was remembered as no hero. In fact, when he was a boy, they didn't celebrate Lincoln's birthday.
I was reminded of this difference of perception on a recent trip to visit our son in Atlanta. In a restaurant, I read on the menu that the recipe for one of the house specialties was older than "the Northern Aggression." It took me a moment before I realized that this was one Georgia restaurant's way of referencing the Civil War. How people understand the Civil War still depends somewhat on where they live-North or South.
There have been other times in our nation's more recent history when we have struggled with news vs. fake news, truth vs. alternative facts. During the Vietnam War, our nation was divided on how to view the war-was this conflict a fight to defend democracy, or was the war a quagmire, a tragic waste of lives, both American and Vietnamese? How people answered that question depended a great deal on what news sources they listened to or read at the time.
Currently, we are in another time when our nation, our state, and even our local communities are divided over the issue of truth. For some, Trump hasn't been given a chance as President by the media and liberals. For them, Trump is a qualified person for the most exalted political position in the world, a person who speaks and acts forcefully, even a great world leader. Given the support of the country, his supporters believe, Trump will make America great again.
For others, the truth lies elsewhere. Trump is a dangerous and unstable person, someone whose word cannot be trusted. His relationship with Russia is muddied; what he asks of his children and son-in-law is possibly illegal. To those with this view, Trump's radio-show defenders and far-right Christian supporters are backing a very dangerous horse. For those fearful of what Trump may tweet or decide overnight, the president's only interest is in making Trump great again.
With each side accusing the other of fake news and deliberate distortion, it may seem that the American people have nowhere to turn to find the truth. There is, however, a less-biased source that we all have access to but rarely call upon, and that is the world press.
When MSNBC and FoxNews present totally contradictory interpretations of events in Washington, we Americans don't have to throw up our hands and wonder where truth lies. Any American with an internet connection can view within seconds how analysts and everyday people in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Israel, Canada, Mexico London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, Ottawa, Mexico City, Seoul, and elsewhere view events in Washington. To make this task easier, many of the major newspapers from these cities have English editions.
If friends of mine from both the right or the left were to respond to this invitation by replying, "I don't have to read what others in the world think about Trump; I know what I believe," my response would be a simple one: "What are you afraid of learning?"
Climate change, the Syrian civil war, immigration, relations with Russia, and health care-all positons the Trump administration wants to reverse from previous policy. Doesn't it make sense to read and listen to what thoughtful observers from other countries, those with more distance from the fray and less bias, have to say about these issues?
Let's remember that our national symbol is the eagle, the bird with far-ranging sight, not the ostrich that hides its head in the sand.
THE MAGIC OF READING
July 11th, 2017
I scratched my head as I tried to remember where and why I'd picked up a book the size of a cement block. As I opened part two of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, I discovered the book was 672 pages long. Little wonder that the book had only been collecting dust since I bought it.
Nevertheless, something prompted me to blow the dust off and open to the first chapter. I would read the first few pages, I thought, and then re-donate it to a book sale.
But then the magic of reading struck me once again.
Our culture takes literacy, the ability to read, for granted. "Of course," we say, "I can read. Doesn't everyone?" The answer is "no." Illiteracy still plagues many countries in our world, and low-level literacy in our own country means that reading is a painful chore for many.
But, as I said, reading a book is magical. Imagine a machine whereby a person could travel to Rome in the time of Caesar, to the Middle East in the time of Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, or to India in the time of Gandhi. Wouldn't such a device be considered magical? This is the magic of reading-a reader can time travel to any period of the past, to far-off places in our present world, or even to hypothetical futures.
Even as a person living far from the ocean is landlocked, so a person who cannot read or chooses not to read is "time locked." Their understanding of life is restricted to their present location and relationships alone. Because of this, a non-reader has no other culture or time period with which to compare to her own. She is, in reality, stuck in time.
Of course, movies, TV, and the Internet can break through this time-locked state. But nothing so rewards our curiosity and takes us into other worlds as does a book.
That is what Solzhenitsyn's massive book did for me. Until I read this book, I didn't know that so-called work camps existed all over Stalin's Soviet Union, from the suburbs of Moscow to the farthest reaches of Siberia. Until I read this book, I didn't know that one could be sentenced to ten, twenty, or even more years for something as simple as furrowing one's brow while looking at a photo of Lenin or Stalin. Until I read this book, I didn't know that more than twenty-five million people died in these camps.
Solzhenitsyn could tell this story because he was one of those imprisoned. But his book is focused more on the hundreds of others in the camp, most of whom didn't survive.
I'm sure Solzhenitsyn made little money from book sales. If part one of Gulag Archipelago is as long as part two, his combined work is over twelve hundred pages. And the subject matter is bleak. Nevertheless, I couldn't put the book down, after I realized that Solzhenitsyn had done something heroic in confronting the Soviet system. Stalin, like all despots and dictators, counted on his victims being quickly forgotten. Solzhenitsyn didn't let that happen.
The longer I stayed with the book, the more I felt the author challenging me-can you take in all this sorrow? Can you, O reader, imagine how difficult it was to hold on to one's dignity in the face of constant hunger, exhaustion, and death?
I decided to say "yes" to Solzhenitsyn's challenge, but I don't deserve any credit for finishing the book. Solzhenitsyn himself received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but if he were alive, I believe he would say that the medal should go to the nameless ones who suffered in the camps.
Most did not survive the horrendous conditions of the camps, but because of Solzhenitsyn's writing, these twenty-five million souls are as near to us as our public library.
Stalin believed no one would really care about the millions he threw away as garbage. We can prove Stalin and all dictators wrong by one simple act-opening a book.
June 18th, 2017
From my undergraduate days as a political science major, I've found politics a source of both inspiration and amusement. From Eisenhower to the present, however, American politics has never been so laugh-out-loud hysterical as it is currently.
Over the last several weeks, we have been given a full measure of "no, you-gotta-be-kidding" craziness. While it is difficult to mark a starting point for the latest round of Administration pratfalls, I would suggest we look back to what the world press is calling "the shove heard round the world." In this "yes, he really did that category," Trump prepped for a photo with world leaders by shoving the Prime Minister of the tiny nation of Montenegro aside so he could stand front and center. Talk about embodying the Ugly American abroad!
So, let's run down his predecessors from both parties. Would Eisenhower have done this-no; would Kennedy-no; would Johnson-no; would Nixon-no, not even Nixon; would Ford-no; would Carter-surely not; would Reagan-no; would Bush the first-no; would Clinton-no; would Bush the son-no; would Obama-oh, please.
The second hysterical moment of late came when Trump announced withdrawing U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement. No, I agree that isn't funny, but his rationale was a "he said what?" gaff. Trump argued that the climate agreement, signed by every other nation except Nicaragua (the agreement didn't go far enough for them) and Syria, threatened U.S. sovereignty.
I will repeat. Trump said that signing onto the climate control agreement would threaten U.S. sovereignty. If there is any issue in the world that has no connection with national sovereignty, it is climate change. There is no U.S. climate, Canadian climate, German climate, French climate, or even North Korean climate. There is only our common global climate which most first-graders in the world know is systematically changing for the worse.
Does anyone ever travel from the U.S. into Mexico or Canada and say, "Wow, feel that different climate"? Of course not. We feel a difference in temperature, but rising temperatures are happening globally, indications of climate change for the entire planet. There are only two poles for the entire planet, and both are shrinking.
For Trump to say American sovereignty is threatened by the Paris Climate Agreement is to announce clearly that America is withdrawing from the world. Every leader Trump met with on during his first trip abroad, from Pope Francis to Britain's Prime Minister, gave him the same sermon-consider the planet; consider humankind; don't withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. All of those leaders know that the biggest polluter on the planet per capita is the U.S.
But this is not the funniest part of Trump's statement on sovereignty. At precisely the moment when the U.S. is facing the greatest threat to her sovereignty and her democracy in my lifetime, when we are all wondering how much Russia has sabotaged and is sabotaging our way of life, Trump plays the sovereignty card on climate change. I know; "you have to be kidding."
Lest there is a reader who has not been watching the hearings in Washington, who doesn't know who James Comey and Jeff Sessions are, and who thinks I am exaggerating, please study a recent cover of TIME magazine, where the whiteness of the White House is slowing being overtaken by the redness and the onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin. Is the picture clear enough?
All of this leaves Americans from both parties with a common demand of this Administration: Explain, Mr. Trump, how you can argue that the Paris Agreement threatens our nation's sovereignty and at the same time say with a straight face that the Kremlin's illegal activities do not.
Dear Mr. Putin
May 18th, 2017
Dear Mr. Putin,
I know that both of us are busy - you with trying to remake the world in your image, and I with my grading. But I thought I'd drop a note to ask you to please give me my country back.
Democracy is not something you understand and respect, and I admit that democracy can be messy. But that mess is our mess, and we actually like the suspense of wondering whom Americans will elect into office. You definitely ruined the 2016 election for us with all your dirty tricks to get your buddy elected. For the three million more who voted for Hillary than Donald, you were the Grinch who stole our Christmas. You played us, and we're left with a sour taste in our mouths.
But as someone has said, that's all blood under the bridge. Yet, you persist in meddling, which has to stop. At your request, Donald allowed Russian journalists to sit in on his conversation with your ambassador, while American journalists were excluded. In this meeting, your buddy Donald through your ambassador gave you classified intelligence that even some in our own intelligence community were ignorant of. All that makes me wonder which nation's flag was flying that day in the Oval Office.
Look, as one survivor of the Cold War to another, let's not mince words. Your invasion of the Ukraine led to European and American sanctions for this aggression. You blamed former President Obama for this slap in the face, and I am quite sure I understand why.
Obama represented all that you consider weak about democracy. He led the nation even as he took the high ground - all the while racial and personal slurs were uttered against him and his family. Obama sought the advice of allies as he faced one crisis after another in the Middle East. He not only considered what was best for the U.S., but what was best for the world. But I think we both know what really galled you about Obama was his absurd notion that telling the truth is important.
Your concept of leadership, of course, views truth as constructed, rather than respected. In your understanding of the world, the truth is what you say it is. If I listened to you and Donald, I might believe Russia is a great ally in the fight against ISIL, not a nation that is propping up that master of genocide, Assad in Syria. No doubt this cavalier attitude toward truth is something you learned in Stalin 101. With you, Donald is learning from a master. But please understand that most Americans know that a lie, in the end, is just a lie, not an alternative fact.
Of course, you have crossed moral lines that Donald simply can't. Citizens who hold up a protest sign in the streets of Moscow can be carted off to jail. Despite Donald's rage, Americans will continue to resist with massive protests in the streets. Political opponents and journalists critical of your regime are found shot or poisoned, no matter where they live in the world. All Donald can do is fire those with integrity and wish that he could jail journalists.
Finally, please note the era of your pranks against America is coming to a close. We're on to your tricks, and, face it, Donald isn't exactly clever. The day is near when we will flush your unwelcome influence out of our system. But cheer up, Assad will still love you.
The Need To Form Spiritual Friendships With People of Other Faiths
April 18th, 2017
The tragedy of 9/11 changed America and continues to change our country. Even as the imploding towers threw debris in all directions, so Americans responded to the tragedy in very different ways. Predictably, all of us felt fear. For some of us, that fear led to a suspicion of people of other faiths, especially Muslims, but not only them. Mosques, synagogues, and Sikh gudwaras were attacked or vandalized, their members feeling exposed and vulnerable.
For other Americans, the fear felt on 9/11 led to a far different response, an awakening. They realized that the crisis called for a coming together as peoples of different faiths. These Americans realized that if they did not build bridges to one another, then fear would build walls of separation.
The program, "Celebrating Interfaith in the Heartland," to take place at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St. (in Indianapolis, Indiana) at 7 pm on Tuesday, April 25th, honors the organizations and program in central Indiana that are bringing peoples of different faiths together.
A question that I sometimes hear is, "Isn't tolerance enough?" No. We tolerate a headache or a screaming child on an airplane. Tolerance of other faiths is often expressed this way: "You get to be you; I get to be me. Let's leave it at that." No wonder such tolerance wasn't able to withstand the challenge of 9/11. Within minutes of the attacks, tolerance was overcome by suspicion, anger, and hatred.
Other people have taken the challenge of 9/11 to say, "Yes, we need to be more than tolerant. We need to understand one another." Understanding one another is certainly preferable to benign tolerance. Understanding other religions reduces the power of distorted portrayals of other faiths. Understanding other religions is also essential for making constructive foreign-policy decisions, especially regarding the Middle East.
But even understanding isn't the most promising response we can offer to 9/11. Understanding others who are different can be done at a distance, by reading books, watching programs on TV, or attending a lecture. A person seeking understanding of another's religion doesn't have to enter a relationship with a living person of that other faith.
The most promising response to 9/11 is what we will celebrate at St. Luke's United Methodist Church on April 25th, and that response is forming spiritual friendships with those of other faiths. In spiritual friendships, we share our stories, the journey we have taken to know God more fully. In spiritual friendships, we listen to these stories with an open heart, not a debating mind. When we do this, we receive an astonishing gift-we experience the shining presence of God in another's story.
At the April 25th event, leaders of interfaith organizations and programs from central Indiana will share their experiences in establishing and experiencing spiritual friendships. The program will also officially launch Countering Religious Extremism: The Healing Power of Spiritual Friendship, a record of interviews I conducted in America's heartland with those who have been transformed through these friendships.
Building walls of separation or bridges of encouragement-those are the choices facing religions at this critical time in history. If you are interested in bridge building, come join us at St. Luke's United Methodist Church on April 25th.
IS NATO OBSOLETE?
March 1st, 2017
Because I was traveling in Europe in the days before the inauguration, I was able to see the Trump presidency from the European perspective. Clearly, the Trump shockwave that most concerned Europeans was his statement that NATO is obsolete.
This statement did more than puzzle Europeans; it clearly alarmed them. To understand that reaction, we need to remind ourselves what NATO is and stands for. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, began in 1949 as a response to the Soviet takeover of Eastern European countries, including East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Lithuania, and a major part of Eastern Finland.
NATO initially bound Western European Countries, such as Italy, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, and Portugal in an alliance that promised mutual support in the event that any one of them was attacked. In subsequent years, Greece, Turkey, West Germany, and Spain joined. Without a doubt, however, the backbone of the NATO promise was the United States' commitment to NATO, a commitment that meant that any attack on one of those smaller countries would face the might, even the nuclear might, of our country,
In a real sense, NATO created the Cold War, for it froze Soviet aggression in its tracks. Because of NATO, even Berlin, buried deeply in East Germany, was divided into West and East Berlin, with West Berliners enjoying freedoms that those on the other side of the Berlin Wall could only dream about.
After the Soviet Empire collapsed between 1989-91, 12 Eastern European countries, which had been under Russian control in the Cold War era, applied for membership in NATO. Why? Because they wanted to ensure that they would enjoy the democratic freedoms of the West and never again have to face Russian aggression.
Did this nearly unanimous decision by these eastern European countries embarrass Russia? Absolutely. It was like Russia's dance partner for 45 years suddenly told Moscow that she has always hated him and wants nothing to do with him in the future. Ouch.
That is what Europeans find so shocking about Trump's proclamation that NATO is obsolete. Clearly, Trump never heard the alarm bells that sounded across Europe when Putin invaded Crimea in the Ukraine in 2014. Clearly, Trump has never talked with a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Latvian, and, most of all a Ukrainian, who feel that Russia is once again an enemy on their doorsteps.
For these small countries that border Russia, NATO is their only hope of independence. These countries know that Russian troops, to be a threat, don't have to cross their borders, although Putin might do this. These small, Eastern European countries know that to live even in the shadow of Russia is to live in dismal darkness.
So where did Trump get the bizarre idea that NATO is obsolete? There is only one person who knows NATO is far from obsolete but nevertheless wants NATO to disappear. And that person is Vladimir Putin.
If Trump has his way in walking away from NATO, the backbone of that vital organization will be gone. And if Putin even subtly threatens these small nations, such a development would be the biggest betrayal of American promises and values in our history. Such a decision could even mean that the next president would face something no American, Republican or Democrat, wants-a war with Russia to save Europe.
The Hidden Wave That Fooled Us
January 17th, 2017
In an article I wrote during the Republican primaries, I compared Donald Trump to "the last comic standing." I, along with many Democrats and some Republicans, underestimated the man.
I now view Donald Trump not as a comic, but rather as an expert surfer who rode a wave that grew higher the closer we came to the election. The fault of liberals like me was that we concentrated on the bizarre actions and statements of the surfer, when we should have been focused on the rising wave beneath him.
The wave did not start with Donald Trump's candidacy. It began long before, going back at least to the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, our first African-American president. Those of us who loved him and continue to do so noticed, but didn't pay much attention to, the rise in gun sales and the proliferation of hate groups after he took office.
But it is not fair to many who voted for Trump to interpret the wave as solely an upsurge of racism. The wave is more complex than one issue. World events, particularly the civil war in Syria that prompted hundreds of thousands of immigrants to flood into Europe, frightened many Americans. Would they be coming here? Would that lead to terrorism? The wave grew.
Syrian refugees were only one aspect of immigration that worried many Americans. Many white males were confused and bothered by the growing number of Muslims and Hispanics in our country. White, Christian, English-speaking dominance seemed to be slipping away. The wave grew yet higher.
The confusion of many Americans deepened with the rapid change brought by the legalization of same-sex marriages. Those of us who expected a backlash to this sudden openness to alternative lifestyles were surprised at the near silence. Yes, a Kentucky state employee made the news as did our own Governor, but they were quickly vilified and laughed at. But not by all. And the wave grew higher.
In the police shootings involving while police and black victims, many of us on the left saw the issue as one of eradicating bias with police forces. Others saw these events differently as being attacks on the police and an attack on the need for order in our society. When Donald Trump was asked in a debate about police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, his answer centered on the phrase "law and order." This was the very phrase used by Nixon to crack down on blacks in the late 1960s and 1970s and by the apartheid regime in South Africa. "Law and order" is a coded way of saying police will be supported and not questioned about how they keep the peace. Many Americans understood Trump's coded promise, and the wave grew higher.
Even seemingly small events built the wave. The controversy in North Carolina about bathrooms for transgender men and women caused many Americans to ask, "What is our society coming to?" and "Where does this all lead?"
As this wave grew higher and higher, those of us on the left focused too much on the bizarre statements of the man surfing on top. We falsely assumed that with each frightening, racist, sexist, or xenophobic action or comment by Trump, his support would crumble. Those of us who voted for Clinton couldn't believe that rational Americans would entrust the world's largest nuclear arsenal to this bizarre man. We failed to note that more Americans were more concerned about the next U.S. Supreme Court appointee than about nuclear war, increased racism, Trump's infatuation with Putin, or xenophobic promises to build a wall with Mexico.
But there is sobering news for Trump supporters. History is a river that does not flow in reverse. A strong wave going against the current can only temporarily dam a river.
The Broadway sensation of 1966 was the musical "Stop the World: I Want to Get Off." This fear of change is the sentiment that fueled Great Britain's exit from Europe and built Trump's wave of support. But Trump and Vice President Pence will not be able to turn the clock backwards. Mass immigration in the world can only continue. White dominance in our country will continue to decline demographically. The climate will continue to warm despite those who deny the existence of Global Warming. Islam will grow as a religion in our country.
The flow of the river, in the end, will reign supreme. For, as the Buddhists tell us, change is inevitable.
Silence Is Not An Option
December 22nd, 2016
More than one friend has shared with me that they don't feel much like celebrating Christmas this year, given the direction our country seems to be headed. Friends in this country from minority groups-racial, ethnic, or religious-have shared how frightened their children are with the uncertainty about their status or acceptance.
Friends from Europe have shared the fear and dismay that they feel in response to the American election. To them, the U.S. moved overnight from being the cornerstone of stability in the world to being one of the world's great uncertainties. Foreign leaders, strong allies of the U.S. in the past, feel abandoned while some countries have already warned their citizens not to travel to the U.S. because of the upswing of hate groups.
In all of these responses, I hear hopelessness and a sense of "darkness over the land," as the biblical writer expressed it.
In light of this widespread despair, I have been thinking more and more about a comment I first heard in 2007 and have repeatedly heard in the years since. Leaders within Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions, as well as within various spiritual movements, have been predicting a great spiritual awakening that will soon occur in the world.
The first time I heard this prediction, I laughed inwardly. Such a change is what our world needs, but I saw little evidence of such a transformation at the time. And on the surface, it would seem that our next president, who demeaned, labelled, and targeted one group after another in his campaign, makes a mockery of any hope of a spiritual awakening.
But I am now not so sure. In fact, I am thinking that this moving of the human spirit is more likely to occur under Trump than under Clinton. Clinton's victory would have seduced those of us in the center and left of center to sit back and watch as Hillary battled the waves of intolerance, fear, and hatred that had found voice in the election.
But on November 9th, we who voted for Clinton awoke to the reality that we would not have someone in the White House, nor a majority in the Senate and House to do the work for us. The work is now up to us. The good news is that are many signs of new progressive activism since the election.
I think of the school systems that, in the wake of increased harassment of minorities, have acted immediately to remind all students that such behavior will be punished.
I think of the Muslim college student who in the days following the election was blocked from entering her class by a wall of white students. The next day, three hundred fellow students escorted her to her classes.
I think of the increasing number of persons who are wearing a large safety pin prominently on their shirts, blouses, sweaters, or coats. Although this campaign began in Britain after Brexit, many Americans in the aftermath of the election are wearing the pin to make a similar statement: that they are safe persons for minorities.
I think also of all those Americans who have pledged, if any government official tries to make Muslims register in this country, to declare themselves as Muslims as well.
A study of such movements in the past reveals that spiritual growth rarely occurs in times of ease and comfort. Instead, it is times of crisis that stir the human spirit.
Even as Obama's election and reelection spawned racist and hate groups in our country, so Trump's election is bringing to the surface a commitment by millions to stand with those who are labeled or targeted. We will no longer pretend that we don't hear the racist or homophobic joke. We will no longer lower our heads when someone's religion is demeaned. Those who think the election result gives them permission to belittle others should expect to hear from us. And we won't be whispering.
So, let us celebrate this holiday season, and do so by changing the story of Christmas. As those of us who are Christians remember the story of Joseph and Mary, that refugee family from Nazareth that was turned away by the ancient citizens of Bethlehem, we pledge to do the opposite: to leave our lights on and our hearts open to the coming of God in the guise of our neighbors-all of them.
The Surfer and the Wave: Trump's Victory
November 13th, 2016
In an article I wrote during the Republican primaries, I compared Donald Trump to "the last comic standing." I, along with many Democrats and some Republicans, underestimated the man.
I now view Donald Trump not as a comic, but rather as an expert surfer who rode a wave that grew higher the closer we came to the election. The fault of liberals like me was that we concentrated on the bizarre actions and statements of the surfer, when we should have been focused on the rising wave beneath him.
The wave did not start with Donald Trump's candidacy. It began long before, going back at least to the election of Barack Obama, our first African-American president. Those of us who loved him and continue to do so noticed, but didn't pay much attention to, the rise in gun sales and the proliferation of hate groups after he took office.
But it is not fair to many who voted for Trump to interpret the wave as solely an upsurge of racism. The wave is more complex than one issue. World events, particularly the civil war in Syria that brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding into Europe, frightened many Americans. Would they be coming here? Would that lead to terrorism? The wave grew.
Syrian refugees were only one aspect of immigration that worried many Americans. Many white males were confused and bothered by the growing number of Muslims and Hispanics in our country. White, Christian, English-speaking dominance seemed to be slipping away. The wave grew yet higher.
The confusion of many Americans deepened with the rapid change brought by the legalization of same-sex marriages. Those of us who expected a backlash to this sudden openness to alternative lifestyles were surprised at the near silence. Yes, a Kentucky state employee made the news as did our own governor, but they were quickly vilified and laughed at. But not by all. And the wave grew higher.
In the police shootings involving while police and black victims, many of us on the left saw the issue as one of eradicating bias with police forces. Others saw these events differently, as attacks on the police and, in that attack, an attack on the need for order in our society. When Donald Trump was asked in a debate about police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, his answer centered on the phrase "law and order." This was the very phrase used by Nixon to crack down on blacks in the late 60s and 70s and by the apartheid regime in South Africa. "Law and order" is a coded way of saying police will be supported and not questioned about how they keep the peace. Many Americans understood Trump's coded promise, and the wave grew higher.
Even seemingly small events built the wave. The controversy in North Carolina about bathrooms for transgender men and women caused many Americans to ask, "What is our society coming to?" and "Where does this all lead?"
As this wave grew higher and higher, those of us on the left focused too much on the bizarre statements of the man surfing on top. We falsely assumed that with each frightening, racist, sexist, or xenophobic action or comment by Trump, his support would crumble. Those of us who voted for Clinton couldn't believe that rational Americans would entrust the world's largest nuclear arsenal to this bizarre man. We failed to note that more Americans were more concerned about the next Supreme Court appointee than about nuclear war, increased racism, Trump's infatuation with Putin, or xenophobic promises to build a wall with Mexico.
But there is sobering news for Trump supporters. History is a river that does not flow in reverse. A strong wave going against the current can only temporarily dam a river.
The Broadway sensation of 1966 was the musical "Stop the World: I Want to Get Off." This fear if change is the sentiment that fueled Great Britain's exit from Europe and built Trump's wave of support. But Trump and Pence will not be able to turn the clock backwards. Mass immigration in the world can only continue. White dominance in our country will continue to decline demographically. The climate will continue to warm despite those who deny it. Islam will grow as a religion in our country.
The flow of the river, in the end, will reign supreme, for, as the Buddhists tell us, change is inevitable.
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