Saturday, 26 February 2011

Scribbling Saturday: The Last Lecture

I recently discovered a book called The Last Lecture. A lot of professors give 'Last Lecture' talks about what they would pass on if this was their last lecture. When Randy Pausch gave his Last Lecture in September 2007, it really was his last, as he had terminal cancer. He chose to give the lecture, not only to pass on what he had learned to others, but as a legacy to his young children.

It became so popular that he wrote it up into a book, where he was able to say more, before he died in July 2008. I found the book very moving, and full of good advice. His lecture was entitled 'Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.' It is all about the joy of living, and the 'blurb' promises it will change your life. Having read the book, I think it just might.

Here are some examples:
Don't Complain, Just Work Harder
Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I've always believed that if you took one-tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you'd be surprised by how well things can work out… Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won't make us happier.

Treat The Disease, Not The Symptom
Years ago, I dated a lovely young woman who was a few thousand dollars in debt. She was completely stressed out about this. Every month, more interest would be added to her debts. To deal with her stress she would go every Tuesday night to a meditation and yoga class… I told her I had nothing against yoga or meditation. But I did think it's always best to try to treat the disease first. Her symptoms were stress and anxiety. Her disease was the money she owed.
"Why don't you get a job on Tuesday nights and skip yoga for a while?" I suggested.
She became a Tuesday-night waitress and soon enough paid off her debts. After that, she could go back to yoga and really breathe easier.

Don't Obsess Over What People Think
I've found that a substantial fraction of many people's days is spent worrying about what others think of them. If nobody ever worried about what was in other people's heads, we'd all be 33 percent more effective in our lives and on our jobs… I used to tell anyone who worked in my research group: "You don't ever have to worry about what I'm thinking. Good or bad, I'll let you know what's in my head."

Be The First Penguin
Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted… Failure is not just acceptable, it's often essential.

This doesn't give a true idea of the book. If you want too see it for yourself, there is a web site here, and you can purchase it on Amazon here.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Thinking Thursday: Retirement

For a change, Thinking Thursday is about something I have to think about.

I saw the company doctor on 1st February and he recommended a meeting to discuss my return to work. I have set my mind on going back to work as a goal to aim for in my stroke recovery. I realise I couldn't work anywhere near full time, but I have been thinking about what I would need and how I would go about working, with my current limitations.

Then today, my boss came to see me with figures for ill-health retirement, which they are prepared to offer me. So I have a life-changing decision to make. Pray for me, and I'll let you know.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Scribbling Saturday: Character Arcs

Being driven by plot as I am, it is difficult to remember that the characters have to progress as well. Characters, must be well-defined and rounded, so that readers can get involved in their story, but the main character(s) have to have their own development, have to go on their own journey. Sometimes I forget that.

So what do you do when the novel is already written, and you don't know whether your characters really have a story arc of their own? 'Intruders' is currently 58 thousand words - that's a lot to pick apart and look for character arcs. Then I had an idea.

I made a spreadsheet! Listen carefully. Column 1: Chapter number. Column 2: Scene number. Column 3: Scene title. Then one column for each character. Then I went quickly through each scene and noted down under the relevant characters what each character did. It only took me a couple of hours while watching TV.

Then, I made a tab for each character and copied columns 1, 2 & 3 and their column to the relevant tab. Having separated the characters, I could go through each tab and delete all the blank scenes (where the character didn't appear). Bingo! Each character's arc. Now I can see where the holes are.

Sometimes they are only minor things, but still important. For example, one crewman is missing from the first part of the story because he is in hospital. I realised after doing the analysis that when he comes back, no one comments. That's odd. So that's what I have to do next.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Thinking Thursday: Man Makes God in his Own Image

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, one of the books tells of an expedition to see God’s last message to his creation. It is carved into the side of a mountain, and the way up to the viewing platform is quite a trek. Eventually our heroes make it, and as they move along the walkway they come round the curve of the mountain and the message comes into view. It says “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

The story makes a great joke, and takes the unexpected turn that readers of Douglas Adams’ books have come to expect. But the sad thing is that the message makes sense to a lot of people.

Modern society has been called the ‘Me’ generation – everything in life is viewed from the selfish perspective. “What can I get out of it?” “How do I feel about it?” So it is quite believable that if there is a God, and if he created everything for us, that he would be sorry if he didn’t quite come up to our expectations. Man is king, and everything must serve him.

What a challenge, then, to communicate to this generation the mightiness of God and the need to serve Him and bow to Him.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 'For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.'

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Scribbling Saturday: Another Draft

So, another draft of my sci-fi novel Flight of the Kestrel 1: Intruders is almost finished. I have moved some episodes around and added some, and I hope the whole thing flows better. It is now over 57,000 words, which is still really too short for a novel. A story can't call itself a novel until it reaches 50,000 words, but my studies recently have told me that 80,000 words is better.

To reach that I will need at least one more good subplot, if not several. Right now I can't think of anything, so it will have to simmer on the back burner until something pops up. You can't add more than a few thousand words with details.

So when this draft is finished, what am I going to do next? Start the next draft, of course. The last edit was an overview edit, looking for holes and overall structure problems. Now I need to knuckle down and read it through, seeking to improve the writing. And, of course, look for that new subplot.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Thinking Thursday: The Best Bits

In much of our lives we cannot control what happens to us. But we can control our reaction, how we deal with what happens. A motivational speaker called Skip Ross, when people said they were 'under the weather' meaning not feeling very good, used to say "What are you doing under the weather? You should take charge!" He also used to say, talking about the climate, "Declare yourself independent of the weather." Don't let grey skies or a bit of rain disrupt your plans.

I have noticed that how I deal with life is greatly affected by my mood. The 'last straw' is only breaking point because I am already stretched very thin. In itself it might be something minor, it becomes hard to deal with on top of other things. So the lesson in this is not to let things pile up, and to deal with each thing calmly. It also helps if I think ahead and make contingency plans, and also let others help me.

Here is a challenging saying:
This time, like all times, is a very good one, if only we know what to do with it. [Anon]

Paul promised that God would bring good out of every circumstance (Romans 8:28). Sometimes the good is hard to find, but what a difference it makes to look at whatever happens and look for the good in it. There was a book and a film about a girl called Pollyanna, who had been taught by her missionary parents to look for the good in every situation. She never failed to find it. When a missionary aid parcel contained, not the doll she wished for, but crutches, she decided the good thing was that she could be grateful that she didn't need them.

Nine months ago I had a stroke. I have written previously how God was very near to me when it happened. The experience of his love carried me through the early days especially, but I still had to face the future disabled and not knowing how much I would recover. But looking back over those nine months and, like Pollyanna, looking for the good in them, I was surprised by how much I found:

* I was struggling with new duties in work and praying for a way out.
* We were able to claim on insurance policies which put us on a much stronger footing financially.
* I am now entitled to benefits which offset my loss of pay.
* I had time to think about a historical biography I was writing and completely revise it, and it is now under consideration by two publishers.
* I wrote a flood of poetry, which blessed me and may bless others in future.
* I had the time I had long craved to read the scriptures.
* I was able to attend the Ladies Fellowship at church, which meets in the afternoon, when I used to be at work. This was a great blessing to me.
* I found a determination and persistence I didn't have before.
* I had the chance to reassess my priorities and goals.
* I had the chance to find out just how kind friends and neighbours can be, and how wonderful my kids are.
* My husband's love found a new means of expression.

I am sure there are more. Do I wish I could have gained and grown without having a stroke? Of course I do, but some things you can't get any easier way. You can't refine silver and gold without putting it in the fire.

Here is something you can try to begin changing your attitude to life: I keep a special kind of diary. Keeping a diary can be time consuming and sometimes boring, but at the end of each day I write, "The best thing that that happened today was …" Sometimes it was such a bad day that the best thing was going to bed at the end of it, but there is usually something good, however small. At the end of each month I summarise the best bits, and summarise the months at the end of the year.

Try keeping a 'best things' diary, and you will be looking for the good bits as you go about each day, and keeping your spirits up.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Thinking Thursday: What does the Christian Church have to offer?

A lot has been said and written about reaching the members of Christian cults for Jesus. Organisations like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs). There is a lot of advice available on how to reach them with the gospel. But we also need to talk about the importance of not just getting someone out of a cult, but into the kingdom.

In light of this, I want to consider: What does the Christian Church have to offer a cult member, like a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness? The glib, spiritual answer is the true gospel, salvation, a personal relationship with God, assurance, and so on. But what about in everyday life? What do we have to offer them physically, socially and emotionally?

It is very easy to operate only on a spiritual level and think that making a commitment to Jesus will make everything right. But what happens when you compare “Pie in the sky when you die” with “Cake on a plate while you wait”? People respond more to what they can see and relate to now than to promises about a distant future. Peter said “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15). Many of us are prepared, but nobody asks the question.

I find myself convicted by this too. How often does anyone notice that I’m different because I’m a Christian?

What do people see when they come to church? This applies to everyone, but those coming from a Christian counterfeit background have some pretty good things to compare us to. The Mormon Church puts great emphasis on families and social events. There are organisations for members of all ages, dinners, dances, picnics, and festivals for drama, dance, speech and sport. There is always something going on and lots of ways to get to know people. They are experts at ‘friendship evangelism’. Because they offer a ‘calling’ to a large number of members - even if it is to collect the hymn books - everyone feels important and needed. There are opportunities for many members to give talks and presentations, which develops their confidence, and Sunday School classes for adults, which increases their knowledge and understanding of their faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses attend 5 church meetings a week, where they study their publications, learn more about their faith, and practice their doorstep approaches. The importance of spreading the gospel round the doors is continually emphasised, and everyone is encouraged to take part. Because they are marginalised, they draw close together to support one another against what they see to be persecution.

Then, one day, someone realises that what they have given their life to is not the true gospel after all. They have been deceived, and if they want to come into the truth, they have to give up not just false beliefs, but their friends and their whole lifestyle. They look to the Christians to replace that, and because we have the ‘truth’ they expect it to be better than what they had before. What do they find?

A few years ago I was in the difficult position of having left one church and not yet settled on a new one. But it gave me the opportunity to visit churches as an outsider. I deliberately did not introduce myself or make the first move. I walked in, sat by myself, and waited to see what happened. Praise God, I never went home without someone making me feel welcome. But there is more to it than that. It is a sobering exercise to go to a style of Christian church that you are unfamiliar with and see how you cope when you don’t know what to do in the service.

If you have ever changed churches within the Christian spectrum you will know it takes time to adjust. The new church does things differently, maybe has different priorities. Hardest of all are the unwritten rules - “The way we do things here”. You can unsuspectingly fall foul of all sorts of conventions and taboos.

I remember one church where the minister got up one Sunday morning after a lively hymn and told the congregation that he didn’t want them to clap because he thought it detracted from the spiritual atmosphere. In prayer meetings, some churches encourage everyone to join in the prayers by saying “Yes, Lord!”, “Amen!” and other affirmative phrases while someone is praying. In other places this is considered as interrupting and irreverent. Unlike the principles of salvation, no-one can sit you down and explain the rules, because most people don’t think of them that way, or even at all. They have just absorbed them instinctively in order to fit in. And you can feel very uncomfortable until you do the same.

Now add to that the baggage that ex-cult members bring with them. Most cults teach wrong things about what Christians believe, so they will be confused. They will get their previous beliefs mixed up with their new ones, and not always be able to see why some of them were wrong. I remember one lady who came out of the Mormon Church and went on an Alpha course. She caused so much disruption asking questions the leaders could not answer and bringing up things that no-one had ever thought of, that they eventually asked her not to attend again. It may have saved confusion for the other people on the course, and saved embarrassment for the leaders, but she just felt rejected and lost.

Because they are new Christians, they are not able to serve in any teaching role, like Sunday School, and there may not be many other opportunities to serve. Suddenly, they are useless. They have left behind all their friends and all the organisations they used to go to. Suddenly, they don’t know anyone and have nowhere to go. Their lives, once so rich and full, are now empty. Sunday may be wonderful, but the week is long from one Sunday to another. When I left the Mormon Church I had recently been president of the women’s group and was frequently in the pulpit preaching. I joined a church that had no women’s group and didn’t allow women to preach.

Another difficulty is that, sadly, there are many Christian Churches today that are struggling with internal problems. Members gossip, criticise, and get into cliques. How can they recommend the gospel to others? Other churches are good places to be, but have no evangelism. Someone once said that the church is the only organisation formed principally for the benefit of non members.

Many churches do have a program for evangelism, but no follow-through. Teaching someone the gospel and bringing them to the point where they make a commitment is not enough. Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples are not converts. Discipling takes time and effort. Converts need to be befriended, taught, nurtured, and made to feel needed and important.

Years ago I spent time with Premmies and Moonies, and what drew me to both these groups was their love and care for one another. I truly felt they would do anything for me and would share their last meal.

Well, enough of being negative. I hope that as you have thought about your church you have been able to tick off the things they do right. But maybe not. Consider what your church will do with people who come to them, seeking the truth, or answers to life’s questions, or maybe having already made a step of faith. Will you say “welcome” and then expect them to fit in? Let me make some suggestions:

  • Have ‘Welcomers’ on the door, or nearby, who can watch out for new people and make them feel welcome. This is a delicate task, for they must not be ‘pushy’, just friendly. It is sometimes nice to have someone to sit with you and help you to feel at ease in a strange place - even if you are a long-standing Christian!
  • Have an introductory course which new people can attend, led by those who are skilled at explaining the gospel and relating to people.
  • Have a ‘Christian Living’ course for new Christians or those who want to get back to basics. Lots of people never get further than their initial commitment - they don’t know what to do next. The course can include explanations of ‘the way we do things here’ as well as guidance on prayer, worship, Bible study, and service. It is also useful to ask every new member to attend, no matter how long they have been a Christian - it means they get to consider what the church believes and how they do things and make sure they will fit in.
  • Have a team of people willing to fellowship newcomers. This works for friendship evangelism as well as for helping new people to feel part of the church. This does not require great skills, just a willingness to chat on the phone, go for coffee, help with chores/babysitting/shopping. Any serious questions can be referred to those skilled in apologetics or counselling - which brings me to my next point..
  • All members should be encouraged to understand the basics of the faith and be able to explain it and defend it. But there should be those who are better able to answer the ‘thorny’ questions or the ‘difficult customers’. There also needs to be a counselling resource - if not in the church, then outside it - where those with deep needs can find help.
  • House groups or special interest groups are a good way to introduce new people to some members they can get to know better. This will make them feel at home sooner. They should also be a forum for growth for all members.

It is all very well to say the church ought to do something. One pastor used to say “Church is the people of God, gathered around the Word of God, ready to do the will of God.” So that means you, and it means me. What can you as an individual do to help new people? You can be a ‘welcomer’ in church, a friendshipper out of church. How well do you know the members of your church, so that you can spot someone new? And how many times do they come before you have the courage to talk to them? It is a skill that can be learned - and think of the friends you will make as you practice! You can encourage your house group to attract new people. You could even volunteer to run an introductory course or a ‘Christian Living’ course!

The true gospel is “Cake on a plate while you wait” AS WELL AS “Pie in the sky when you die.” When our churches cater for people’s needs, then we will be able to answer the question about the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15), because people will see and ask.