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Month: February 2015

Stories, Passion, and Students

One of my side jobs that I love the most is tutoring students in writing. I love working with young writers and fanning that flame into something more. And today I was reminded why I love it so much.

About seven in the morning, an essay arrived in my inbox that made me tear up. One of my particularly gifted students wrote about the most powerful relationship in her life, and she chose books. Through the essay, she described how the Harry Potter series drew her into the magical world of reading and how it changed her. She now loves reading and writing because she can experience so much more. Her friendships with fictional characters feels as rich as that with regular people.

I saw so much of myself in that essay. For those of you who are wondering, no, it wasn’t a perfect essay. But it was one of the few times a student poured her heart into an assignment. And it was beautiful. Even though she wants to be a microbiologist when she grows up, her passion and excitement bled through those 500 words. I’ve never been prouder of a student.

Fictional characters have been as near and dear to me as flesh and blood friends. I always loved reading, but the books that pulled me into the fictional world unlike any other were The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. After that, the possibilities of the imagination seemed limitless. There’s something so powerful about a well written book. It doesn’t just tell you a story. It transports you to a new world with characters you come to love and cherish so much.

So to all the writers out there pouring themselves into their stories, thank you. You make our lives richer. And to the readers who are willing to jump into these stories, you make it even more fulfilling.

Cheesecake Baking Day

Really, I should be taking pictures of all this. After all, pictures make stories more interesting, and there’s been some funny situations today. It’s time like this when I am most grateful James and I run our own law firm. It allows me to stay in our home office and handle the paperwork, phone calls, legal writing, and so forth as well as the copywriting business, the tutoring, and fiction writing. But more importantly, it lets me make cheesecakes for the WCCC Valentine’s Day Dinner.

Last year, I made 16 cheesecakes for the event (a few more when you add in the ones that didn’t make it). We’re doing the same four flavors (white chocolate, chocolate truffle, salted caramel, and Lindy) this year, and I’ve got a few more cheesecakes to make because we’ve added a third seating. (And if you’re in the area, sign up! It’s going to be an amazing night. Tiffany is making lasagna, and I’m making cheesecake. Both are from scratch.) This year I’m making at least 20 cheesecakes, maybe 24 if there’s enough ingredients. When the Valentine’s Day dinner weekend completes, we sell the cheesecakes off by the slice.

The wonderful thing though is that I have not had one cheesecake turn out badly this round through. Last year, about five cheesecakes were ruined. Two just didn’t turn out right. One was disfigured, and so we shared it with the youth staff as a sample. And two others turned out to be kitty snacks as all four cats broke into the back porch and chowed down on salted caramel and Lindy cheesecakes. Obviously, I was not a happy pet owner.

But this year the back porch is more secure. The temperature and the atmosphere are perfect for creamy cheesecakes. Plus using the name brand ingredients actually makes a difference. I have always used generic cream cheese because that’s what was most affordable. But this time we went to Sam’s Club to pick up our ingredients. They only sold Philadelphia cream cheese in bulk, and the bulk per pound price was significantly cheaper than the generic brand. I can’t remember how much exactly, but it was at least 40 cents cheaper a pack. Now, of course, I have to measure out and cut off how much cream cheese I need. It isn’t quite as convenient as the ready sealed packets. But it’s worth it for the savings. And oh! The batter is so much smoother. The cheesecakes set up better, and I taste the difference. I did a blind sample with James, and he was able to tell the difference as well.

I suspect that the Lindy cheesecake may have the clearest distinction in flavor because it has such a clean and crisp flavor to begin with. There’s no white chocolate. No caramel. No milk chocolate. No dark chocolate. Just cream cheese, sugar, and some lemon juice. Now, for clarification’s sake, it’s not that cheesecakes made with the generic cream cheese aren’t tasty. But I do think that the name brand has the edge.

So today has been good. Four cheesecakes are done. A fifth is in the oven. I also came up with a solution for the extra batter in the bowl. I learned the hard way that mixing two batter sets really doesn’t blend as well. Flavors work just fine, but it creates a gumpier batter. And for a nice romantic dinner, we want to avoid that look. But I can’t bring myself to waste it. So what I decided to do was make mini cheesecakes in muffin tins. I made about a dozen from the leftovers from today alone. They aren’t as pretty as the full cheesecakes, and I need to tweak the baking time. They’re more of a pain to make too, but it’s worth it to avoid wasting the delicious batter.

I’m debating staying up later tonight to finish off a few more cheesecakes. The weather changes again tomorrow, and I have no idea how well it’s going to work tomorrow. Still…I’ll need to sleep sometime. As far as writing going, I haven’t gotten as much done today as I would like. I’m still working on the tax paperwork, invoicing, and a couple legal briefs. Fortunately, there was no copywriting today and only one essay to grade. As far as the fiction writing, I’m wrapping up another chapter for Ragnarok Undone. I also finished putting together some more sections for Little Scapegoat. Slain Expectations got a little more. So it’s a bit shy from what I would like, coming in just over 6,000 new words for my fiction platform projects. And I probably should clean the kitchen again before I go to bed. If only sleep wasn’t necessary.

Fifty Shades of What Christians Won’t Do

In case you haven’t heard, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is coming out, and it’s got all kinds of people hot and bothered. The Christian response has been particularly interesting. Most of the time, it’s focused on why Christians should not participate in the viewing or the reading of this type of story. What’s troubling though is that the discussion often starts off or later incorporates a litany of the common things Christians don’t do as proof that Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the only thing they won’t partake in:

  • don’t swear
  • don’t drink
  • don’t do drugs
  • don’t dance
  • don’t smoke
  • don’t watch bad movies
  • don’t read bad books
  • don’t go clubbing
  • don’t do…other things

The list doesn’t always include all these things. Sometimes it includes others or has these more narrowly tailored. Setting aside the fact that not even all of these things are sins, the list creates a deep problem in my opinion. The emphasis focuses on what we as Christians are not doing or should not be doing. And boy, isn’t that a wonderful testimony?

Not What We’re to Be Known For

After all, that’s what Jesus said we would be known for. “They will know you are Christians by the big long lists of all the things you indignantly say you will not do.” Actually, He said “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”

Now does this mean that there’s no biblical basis for discussing the things we should not partake in? Not at all. It’s important to challenge one another to holier living, and accountability is good. But our focus should not only be on the things that we do not do, and our reputation most certainly should not be on the things that we don’t do.  Holiness likewise is not simply what we do not do even though it is a part.

Often times, the focus on the things that we do not do is because we know from Romans 12:2 that we are to “not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world.” And 1 Thessalonians 4:7 tells us “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” We act as if holy living is what is achieved through cutting things out and denying ourselves. That’s reflected in the spiritual discipline of fasting, which does indeed have great value.

Knowing a Tree By Its Fruit

However, Jesus tells us in Matthew 7: 15 – 20 that we will “know a tree by its fruit.” But here’s an odd thing about fruit. We tell what a tree is by what it does produce. We pick apples from an apple tree, and it is an apple tree, not a not orange tree. James 2:14 – 26 tells us that faith without deeds is worthless. In fact, James says, “I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Again, this goes back to the things that we do as Christians, not the things that we don’t do.

When we think of Jesus, we think of the actions that He took. The fact that He did not sin is obviously a part of that, but more importantly, we talk about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave again. He healed the lame and the blind. He gave the dead life again. He taught people. He fed them. He cast out demons. He defeated satan.

When we think of Paul, we think of the actions he took. The miles he traveled to reach the cities. The demons he cast out. The people he healed. The letters he wrote. The suffering he endured.

Most of the notable men and women I can think of in history made a difference in the things that they did do or attempted to do rather than just the things they did not do. Some like Daniel do draw close to a narrower distinction. The fasting from meats and wines as well as the refusal to pray to Darius are both points when Daniel was known for what he did not do. But as in the case of Darius’s requirement that all pray to him, Daniel was known for his great wisdom, his consistent prayer, and faithful stewardship through three rulers’ spans. He took action. He didn’t just say, “oh, I don’t pray to mere men” and then go back about his tasks. He went on to take positive action that demonstrated his faith.

Not Really a Sign of a Christian

So all of this to say, if the only thing you are known for is the fact that you do not do things like smoke or drink or read erotica, then you have a very weak testimony. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Christian to have that list. There’s a lot of old ladies at the nursing home I visit who are atheists or agnostics, and they can top your list with all the things they won’t do. Some won’t even play cards. And it’s incredibly hard to talk to any of those ladies because no matter what you say, you know you’re probably doing something wrong and will get a browbeating and a lecture before you’re done.

Being a Christian and living a pure and holy life is about far more than not doing something, and, frankly, it may involve smoking or drinking. That’s another discussion entirely though. In Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as being “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” All of these traits can be demonstrated through positive actions. In fact, many of them can only be demonstrated in the positive, meaning that they are not demonstrated by someone not doing something. Someone who is kind and loving isn’t just someone who is not nasty or not cruel. Someone who is not nasty or not cruel is generally just nice. Kind goes beyond that. A nice person might express condolences if you fall on the ground and perhaps may even help you up. But a kind person might make sure you are all right, help you get cleaned up, call for help, and so forth. Nice is neutral. “Into the Woods” describes it best with the phrase “you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

The Wrong Focus

So to those who do not want to partake in something because you believe that it’s sinful, that’s fine. You are responsible for your conscience, and you are certainly not obligated to participate in actions you consider sinful. But you need to be cautious if you are most vocal about the things you do not do and never show or reveal what you actually do. Christians are often criticized for having long, long lists of “thou shall nots” and serving the “cosmic kill joy.” But when Christ came, He gave us new life.  In John 10:10, Jesus says that He came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”

The risk in making the focus so much on what we don’t do is that it reaffirms the notion to most non Christians that Christians are out to spoil their fun. When we list out the things that we won’t do, we miss the amazing things that God has done and the incredible freedom that He has brought us. And saying “I won’t watch this media because it corrupts my mind” may seem like a good opportunity to witness about how holy you are, but it’s more likely to have the same effect as fake salt or fake sugar. Sure, it tastes sort of right, but it doesn’t have any of the benefits. In fact, it may actually have a host of other problems that it tracks right in with it.

Of course, let’s face it. Being known for anything positive takes so much work than being known for inaction and denial. It really isn’t that hard to keep saying no and no and no and no. I know because I’ve been there. It may be that refusing to participate in certain types of media really isn’t the best place to stake your claim and say “I don’t do this because I’m a Christian.” I’ve worked with non Christians who had no problem saying, “ahh, no, I just don’t like country western music” or “I’m not really that fond of death metal.” They don’t add a spiritual component to it, and they are known generally for other things that they do do. In fact, most of my non Christian friends never really gave those statements a second glance.  The ones whom they ridiculed were the Christians who would list of all the things that they would refuse to do and yet never once offer an alternative. In fact, those Christians tended to only talk about the things one should not do with the occasional gushing over an Amish romance or a new Christian film.

An Intriguing Friend

The most godly men and women in my life are men and women who are known for the actions that they take. They probably don’t do a lot of the things on the list, but the rich lives that they live are such that they would never be known just for what they didn’t do. One stunning example of this was a vivacious godly woman I knew in Virginia Beach. She was always such a joy to be around. The life just flowed from her. One time when I was at the library, a fellow patron asked her if she had read Fifty Shades of Grey. She shrugged and said, “No. But you know a fantastic book I just read?” It was so effortless and the conversation continued. It shifted into other topics soon.

Now something cool that happened with this dear friend of mine is that later that same patron asked her whether she chose not to read Fifty Shades for spiritual or religious reasons. And she gave a beautiful articulate answer. But the patron was the one who initiated that discussion and she was actually curious to hear that explanation and receptive to what my friend had to say. My friend didn’t sit there on a somber pedestal saying with all the life of a funeral procession, “I do not partake in such worldly pursuits.”

Whether intended or not, the focus of what we do not do creates the “holier than thou” persona that so many Christians are known and judged for. Even when it comes from the best of intentions and even if it is hard for you to articulate it, it does not mean that focusing on what you cannot and will not do is a godly witness. In many cases, it may actually be throwing up more barriers between you and the people you work with.

A  Shallow Example

Let’s shift this to a more shallow perspective. I want to lose weight. I know that I have too much fat on my bones even though I’m quite fit. But losing weight is quite difficult and takes a long, long time. Often it’s discouraging, and sometimes I want to give up. The people who make me want to be more like them and who inspire me to strive to live a healthier life are the ones who are joyful and eager to take on life and its challenges. In college, I had one friend who absolutely loved to dance. We danced in the room to Disney, Broadway, and pop songs before we then went out to get a light yogurt with granola. The fit people who take delight in their healthy lifestyles and don’t focus on what they can’t or won’t do are the most contagious.

The ones who sneer or roll their eyes and say, “I don’t eat fast food” do not inspire me to eat healthy. If anything, I have to fight eating a brownie just to spite them.  And even the ones who sigh and say, “I wish I could but I just can’t” don’t really make me want to learn more about their lifestyle. Frankly, they make it sound miserable. So why are we doing that with our faith, the supposedly greatest thing that ever happened to us in our lives?

What Are You Known For?

Again, this is not to say that you cannot say “I don’t care for that” or “This is wrong.” There are times and places for that. But ask yourself what do your coworkers and peers see when they look at you? Is your testimony confined to a list of things you can’t or won’t do? Are you living in the fullness that God has promised? Are you contributing more than you are taking away?  What do you do that positively reflects on your relationship with God? Why should anyone give up a guilty pleasure for a life like yours? What are you showing that makes it even marginally worth it?

As a Christian, you have the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilled life that goes far beyond anything imaginable. You should be one of the most incredible people around, not a stiff, boring, rigid caricature.

So don’t be known for what you don’t do. Be known for what you do. Do it to the glory of God and live.

January 2015 Reflections

As a child, I remember how often it seemed that days dragged on without end. The time between Christmas and birthdays often seemed the longest. But one of the sad things I’ve noticed about growing up is how fast time seems to race except in the worst of times. Emergencies. Car crashes. Funerals. Disappearances. Yet sometimes, even when things are falling apart, times seems to speed along.

January has been a month of surprise after surprise after surprise. Not all of them have been good sadly. The month started off with busted pipes over New Year’s. It was followed up by some family emergencies. The law firm struck some challenging cases and difficult clients. A host of other small things cropped up, most of them making life more difficult or challenging. February marks the beginning of cheesecake making for the Valentine’s Day dinner, a two nighter at the church this time.

A storm is about to strike the Midwest. A big snowstorm with thick flakes of snow and possibly some ice. The atmosphere has already changed significantly, and I can feel the pressure shifting. It makes my head hurt in an odd detached sort of way, my vision wobbles at the edges. Nothing to be concerned about. This happens before most storms.

I wish that time would slow down. Right now, it isn’t moving so fast. The sky is white and grey, and cars streaked with ice and salt stream along the road as people hurry into Wal-Mart and Aldis to pick up bread, milk, and whatever other supplies they need. And now that these moments have slowed and I am paying attention, I realize I am grateful.

There’s a lot to be grateful for. As challenging as the month has been, it is one that has revealed a great deal. I have failed a lot this month. Plans fell apart. Disappointment, depression, frustration. It was quite difficult. But I’m still here. And I am grateful to God and to my family for that.

I am grateful even though I am sometimes overwhelmed. My to do list sometimes feels unending. Not all of the items are bad. I dearly love some of them. Many of them in fact. It’s more of those few items on every to do list that drag everything else down. And sometimes I am just not as good at accepting my own failures as I should be. I intended to finish and publish Mermaid Bride as well as finish up another couple drafts this month. Obviously, I had not planned most of what happened. But I am learning to keep going, to love what I’m doing, and to keep going.

February will be better. I am grateful for the opportunities ahead and for what God has brought me through.

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