My Books

Sunday, December 27, 2015

God Honoured - A Valley of Vision Puritan Prayer

Praise waiteth for thee,
      and to render it is my noblest exercise;
This is thy due from all thy creatures,
  for all thy works display thy attributes
    and fulfil thy designs;
The sea, dry land, winter cold, summer heat,
morning light, evening shade are full of thee,
  and thou givest me them richly to enjoy.

Thou art King of kings and Lord of lords;
At thy pleasure empires rise and fall;
All thy works praise thee and thy saints bless thee;
  Let me be numbered with thy holy ones,
resemble them in character and condition,
  sit with them at Jesus’ feet.

May my religion be always firmly rooted in thy
  my understanding divinely informed,
  my affections holy and heavenly,
  my motives simple and pure,
  and my heart never wrong with thee.

Deliver me from the natural darkness of
    my own mind,
  from the corruptions of my heart,
  from the temptations to which I am exposed,
  from the daily snares that attend me.
I am in constant danger while I am in this life;
Let thy watchful eye ever be upon me
    for my defence,
Save me from the power of my worldly and
    spiritual enemies
  and from all painful evils to which I have
    exposed myself.
Until the day of life dawns above
  let there be unrestrained fellowship with Jesus;

Until fruition comes, may I enjoy the earnest
    of my inheritance
    and the firstfruits of the Spirit;
Until I finish my course with joy may I pursue
    it with diligence,

  in every part display the resources of the Christian,
  and adorn the doctrine of thee my God
    in all things."

- "God Honoured" from The Valley of Vision, published by Banner of Truth

Friday, December 18, 2015

Goodbye to the Penguin Parabaloni

Well, it's the last day. Tomorrow Adélie Angst releases, and my bizarre "Four Books, Four Months" endevour is over. I got to say hello to one book, and goodbye to three. I'm not going to have to edit Reign Falls, Solitaire, or Adélie Angst again, unless some random urge takes me. It's a strange thing to say goodbye to a book that you've worked with for years. Adélie Angst, Parabaloni 5, was my NaNo book in 2013; its been over two years now that I've poured over it, taken it apart, rewritten parts, diced it, chopped it, spliced it, and then decided I didn't like the changes and started all over again. Solitaire has always given me fits, as I mentioned in another post. But Adélie Angst has always stayed basically the same, through every edit. It's the fairly minor things that have gotten changed, because the plots and points of this book I've always been content with, from conception, to writing, through about fifty different edits. No, not just content; I've always liked the bizarre plotline of this story, as well as the adventures of the mismatched American spies, as they try to figure it all out and stop the crazy bad-guy.

I remember that National Novel Writer's Month two years ago, November rolled around and I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, "I want to write a fun book." In the four Parabaloni stories I had already written the footnotes and random comments were always hinting at these crazy, outrageous cases the spies had been involved with, like saving the world on numerous occasions. They hadn't done anything that impressive in the other books... so I decided to let them do something unbelievable in this one, and hang the realistic feel. My file from when I first started plotting Adélie Angst is still saved as, "Outrageous Parabaloni Plotline." I think I succeeded, and still managed to keep it believable. Okay, maybe almost believable is a better description. It's really taken until now, after having run through it extensively in the past weeks, to get me bored with this book. It's always been a fun read, with a plot that I really enjoy, and that  teaches people something extraordinarily simple and profound about Christianity. Our worldview doesn't ignore the angst, and pain, and illogical sorrow of the world; but it offers a beginning without it, and a way into joy everlasting at the end. We have hope with Christianity.

I had fun writing this book. And I encouraged myself too. It's more than just hopeful to remember we serve a smart God, as well as a real One, a God who knows exactly what the humanity He created needs, and makes sure to fulfill our every longing. No service is trivial, because He cares what we do. Every  sharp longing for beauty, lasting joy, truth, it has a defining purpose and foundation in our God. I hope the thing you come away with from this book is the simplicity and beauty of the gospel.

"By Thy own eternal Spirit  rule in all our hearts alone; by Thine all sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne." -Charles Wesley

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The God Who Is Not Just There

Every so often, I look at something that I’ve known my whole life, and see it differently. That’s part of the joy of living as a human, to realize there’s always something new to see and learn. This year as I’m listening to the Christmas music, and enjoying all the beautiful lyrics, I noticed a common theme that I've glossed over before. It was this line that first jumped out at me and got me thinking:

“Come to earth to taste our sadness…[1]

When tragedy strikes, or you just wake up grumpy, knowing you’re going to need grace to get you through the day without chewing someone’s head off, one of the only comforts is to know that God is not only there, but that He sympathizes. In the horrible times, or our off-days, or the instances of great happiness where we just want someone to know how glad we are, we don’t just want a God who is there. We want a God who knows what it is to be here.

Because of Christmas, the Christian Christ sympathizes with His people.

When Christ was born, He came out crying; confused, cold, probably terrified. He came with the sensation all new babies seem to arrive with, “What is happening to me?!”  Those were His first moments as Emanuel. Jesus Christ knows what it is to cry. He knows what it is to have frustrating siblings. To be hungry. To be tired from a long trip. To have a friend die.

Because Jesus came down, at Christmas time, He is not just a God who is there. Up there somewhere above our earth looking down at all of us strange little things down here. No matter how good, or benevolent, a divinity might be ‘up there’ it would never fulfill all of what we want and need in a God. Nor is he is a life force, imbuing the air, water, and earth all around us, but entirely incapable of understanding our personal individuality. Jesus is one of us. He was born. Here, on this dirty old earth. Assaulted even by sleepless nights that caused grumpy days; but He navigated them without sin. He was loved, betrayed, laughed at, laughed with, tired, refreshed, angered, delighted, amazed… Christ knows what we have raging and delighting inside of us. We have a God who sympathizes. We come to Him in our trials and He has the entirely unique ability to tell His children exactly what we need to hear:

“I know, beloved, I’ve been there; behave yourself anyway, I’ll help.”

[1] “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus by Charles Wesley

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Corinth's Pumpkin Cream Muffins

This recipe was up on my website for quite a while, and then (such is life) when I switched it out for a ginger mocha, apparently I did it too soon. Every recipe I really, really love gets a place in my writing, so keep an eye on that webpage if you like this one. But I've had recent requests for this particular recipe, so here it is finally, and I hope you love it as much as we do! (And as a blog post, it will remain solidly online for whenever you want it.) I'm kind of one of those start-with-a-recipe-and-then-do-what-sounds-yummy sort of cooks, but this is a pretty good approximation of what we do. You might want to shift it around to taste. For instance, last time I made them I put minced ginger in the muffin part, and a little bit of heavy cream in the creamy part, and it was pretty amazing.

Corinth’s Pumpkin Cream Muffins
"Charlie especially liked my pumpkin cream muffins, I was pleased to note; he ate five of them in a row, and then asked if there were more, and it made me rather happy. "

4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3 cups sugar
1 tsp. allspice
¼ tsp. cloves
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup cooking oil
2 14 ½ ounce cans pumpkin (or equivalent)
2/3 cup milk
4 eggs

2 8oz packages cream cheese, softened
¾ cup powdered sugar (or to taste)
2 tsp. vanilla

Mix together all the dry ingredients for the muffins. Add the yummy wet stuff and blend it all together nicely, then place in muffin tins (or whatever fun thing you’re using to cook it), filling the cups about ½ way full.

Dump your cream cheese, vanilla, and powdered sugar into a mixing bowl and blend till smooth. I recommend giving it a taste test to make sure it’s as sweet and vanilla-filled and yummy as you want it. Once satisfied that it is perfect, take your mixing bowl to the filled muffin tins, make a hollow in one of your muffins-to-be, and stuff that hole brimming filled with creaminess.

Once all your muffins have cream shoved down deep inside them and spilling over the top, place your muffin tins in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes at 350. Keep a close eye on them as different ovens cook differently, and these muffins dry out fast if overcooked.

This recipe makes 3 – 4 dozen, because you are certain to get requests for seconds…and thirds…and fourths…  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

To Christ The Lord

To Christ the Lord let every tongue
Its noblest tribute bring
When Hes the subject of the song
Who can refuse to sing?

This song permeated my brain this morning. It’s November 1st. I’m sitting in my room this Sunday afternoon, Lynette rolling in a sunbeam on my floor, a candle burning, and a chocolate chia by my elbow. I’m about to leap into finishing the rough plan for the last two Dreaded King books, and start typing away at it this evening. Another tribute to the King; I’m praying He is truly the subject, and my words call others to sing.

Survey the beauties of His face
And on His glories dwell
Think of the wonder of His grace
And all His triumphs tell

What a triumphant song we have to sing, and write, and tell about! Christ is victorious even now as we still busy ourselves with the trouble and dirt and evils of a world broken by sin. But as long as we keep our eyes on Christ, surveying His beauties, dwelling on His grace, our song will always be one of victory and joy.

Majestic sweetness sits enthroned
Upon His awful brow
His head with radiant glories crowned
His lips with grace overflow
No mortal can with Him compare
Among the sons of men
Fairer He is than all the fair
That fill the Heavenly train

Even with a picture like that painted for us in Scripture and verses like this old hymn, how often we fall to comparing our mortal selves with God and His designs, putting our affairs higher even than His. May our affairs all come under His, and every act raise up a name for our God. May this third DK book be something that stays with my readers, drawing them (after the words and characters and plot are forgotten) into serving with joy; a tale that perhaps helps lead them a little farther along the path of sanctification.

He saw me plunged in deep distress
He fled to my relief
For me He bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief
His hand a thousand blessings pours
Upon my guilty head
His presence gilds my darkest hours
And guards my sleeping bed

A few dark hours are plotted for my characters. And yet this is the sharp hope we all carry as children of the victorious King. There is no grief that we must carry alone, no spiritual blessing that we are without, and every darkness is lighted by Christ’s own shining power.

To Him I owe my life and breath
And all the joys I have
He makes me triumph over death
And saves me from the grave

November is, of course, also the month were we take stock of our blessings. And every one that comes to mind, each intangible blessing we enjoy, and every little luxury, comes straight from God’s hand. And every one of them I can enjoy without fear, or distress, or worry, or despair that it will all soon be gone. I live in a triumphant grace.

To Heaven the place of His abode
He brings my weary feet
Shows me the glories of my God
And makes my joy complete

A complete joy. That is a Christian’s resting place, this is where we are headed. To our Savior’s side, the glories of our God, and a joy untainted and entire! It is that joy that spills from Christ’s throne onto the Christian even now, and shines in their smiles and shows deep in their eyes even on the darkest of their days. May some of that joy spill over into this new book, and into all of this month of thanksgiving.

Since from His bounty I receive
Such proofs of love divine
Had I a thousand hearts to give
Lord, they should all be Thine

All Thine, Lord Christ, all Thine! Every word that forms a scene, creates a character who seems to live and breathe on the paper, that forms a thought, or speaks a truth, may each word be Thine; directed by Thy will, subject to Thy truth, and used by You to grow Your people. I pray it and yet I know that I am incapable of creating what I picture. Every year, I sit in front of the computer with my hopes high, knowing what I want this new book to become. It never turns out exactly like I plan. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s even better than I planned. This year, I want it to be melody sparkling with love for Christ, sanctification and service. Almost every November 1st, I sit here feeling incredibly inadequate, the thought of that blank page that will begin my next book seeming like an awful terror that spews out the blank despair of knowing I can never pull this off. But at the same moment I feel excitement building, and the joyful delight of knowing God aids my pitiful attempts. Even more than that, come the words, bubbling up, begging to be let out, to speak of God’s glory, and simply to tell their tale. I’m off to start a new song.

A thousand men could not compose
A worthy song to bring
Yet Your love is a melody
Our hearts can’t help but sing![1]

[1] "To Christ the Lord Let Every Tongue" by Laura Taylor and Samuel Stennett. Click the link to hear a recording of it on YouTube.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Chesterton's Essay on Family

Since I promised it in my last post, here is the entirety of G.K. Chesterton's essay from Heretics, "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family." I took it from this link (, to give credit where it's due, and it appears to have the British spellings, which makes it all the more charming to read. I don't always agree with everything Chesterton says; he was, after all, Catholic and I am currently counting down the time till I get to celebrate Reformation Day. But for the most part this essay is spot on, and not something you would be likely to hear anywhere else. There are so many wonderful quotes here, I can't pick just one! So instead go read the whole thing, and marvel at the beauties and common sense so perfectly expressed by Mr. Chesterton. 

On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family

The family may fairly be considered, one would think, an ultimate human institution. Every one would admit that it has been the main cell and central unit of almost all societies hitherto, except, indeed, such societies as that of Lacedaemon, which went in for "efficiency," and has, therefore, perished, and left not a trace behind. Christianity, even enormous as was its revolution, did not alter this ancient and savage sanctity; it merely reversed it. It did not deny the trinity of father, mother, and child. It merely read it backwards, making it run child, mother, father. This it called, not the family, but the Holy Family, for many things are made holy by being turned upside down. But some sages of our own decadence have made a serious attack on the family. They have impugned it, as I think wrongly; and its defenders have defended it, and defended it wrongly. The common defence of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.

We can see this change, for instance, in the modern transformation of the thing called a club. When London was smaller, and the parts of London more self-contained and parochial, the club was what it still is in villages, the opposite of what it is now in great cities. Then the club was valued as a place where a man could be sociable. Now the club is valued as a place where a man can be unsociable. The more the enlargement and elaboration of our civilization goes on the more the club ceases to be a place where a man can have a noisy argument, and becomes more and more a place where a man can have what is somewhat fantastically called a quiet chop. Its aim is to make a man comfortable, and to make a man comfortable is to make him the opposite of sociable. Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations. The club tends to produce the most degraded of all combinations-- the luxurious anchorite, the man who combines the self-indulgence of Lucullus with the insane loneliness of St. Simeon Stylites.

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals--of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles. These creatures are indeed very different from himself. But they do not put their shape or colour or custom into a decisive intellectual competition with his own. They do not seek to destroy his principles and assert their own; the stranger monsters of the suburban street do seek to do this. The camel does not contort his features into a fine sneer because Mr. Robinson has not got a hump; the cultured gentleman at No. 5 does exhibit a sneer because Robinson has not got a dado. The vulture will not roar with laughter because a man does not fly; but the major at No. 9 will roar with laughter because a man does not smoke. The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbours is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbours did not mind their own business they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbours. What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own business is something much deeper. We do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbours, in short, is not the narrowness of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are not aversions to its feebleness (as is pretended), but to its energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.

Of course, this shrinking from the brutal vivacity and brutal variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority. It is when it calls itself aristocracy or aestheticism or a superiority to the bourgeoisie that its inherent weakness has in justice to be pointed out. Fastidiousness is the most pardonable of vices; but it is the most unpardonable of virtues. Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious, has a description somewhere--a very powerful description in the purely literary sense--of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds. As I have said, this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche's aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty towards humanity, but one's duty towards one's neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there-- a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life. And this principle applies to ring within ring of the social system of humanity. It is perfectly reasonable that men should seek for some particular variety of the human type, so long as they are seeking for that variety of the human type, and not for mere human variety. It is quite proper that a British diplomatist should seek the society of Japanese generals, if what he wants is Japanese generals. But if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. It is quite reasonable that the village genius should come up to conquer London if what he wants is to conquer London. But if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector. The man in the suburban street is quite right if he goes to Ramsgate for the sake of Ramsgate--a difficult thing to imagine. But if, as he expresses it, he goes to Ramsgate "for a change," then he would have a much more romantic and even melodramatic change if he jumped over the wall into his neighbours garden. The consequences would be bracing in a sense far beyond the possibilities of Ramsgate hygiene.

Now, exactly as this principle applies to the empire, to the nation within the empire, to the city within the nation, to the street within the city, so it applies to the home within the street. The institution of the family is to be commended for precisely the same reasons that the institution of the nation, or the institution of the city, are in this matter to be commended. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family for the same reason that it is a good thing for a man to be besieged in a city. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man to be snowed up in a street. They all force him to realize that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside. Above all, they all insist upon the fact that life, if it be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves. The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family. Sarah wishes to find a world wholly consisting of private theatricals; George wishes to think the Trocadero a cosmos. I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own. The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there. So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally, you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men. The element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose. Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident. In so much as there is in it something outside ourselves, something of a sort of merry fatalism, this is very true. Love does take us and transfigure and torture us. It does break our hearts with an unbearable beauty, like the unbearable beauty of music. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter; in so far as we are in some sense prepared to fall in love and in some sense jump into it; in so far as we do to some extent choose and to some extent even judge--in all this falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

This colour as of a fantastic narrative ought to cling to the family and to our relations with it throughout life. Romance is the deepest thing in life; romance is deeper even than reality. For even if reality could be proved to be misleading, it still could not be proved to be unimportant or unimpressive. Even if the facts are false, they are still very strange. And this strangeness of life, this unexpected and even perverse element of things as they fall out, remains incurably interesting. The circumstances we can regulate may become tame or pessimistic; but the "circumstances over which we have no control" remain god-like to those who, like Mr. Micawber, can call on them and renew their strength. People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, "to be continued in our next." If we have sufficient intellect, we can finish a philosophical and exact deduction, and be certain that we are finishing it right. With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we were finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. That is because a story has behind it, not merely intellect which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence divine. The narrative writer can send his hero to the gallows if he likes in the last chapter but one. He can do it by the same divine caprice whereby he, the author, can go to the gallows himself, and to hell afterwards if he chooses. And the same civilization, the chivalric European civilization which asserted freewill in the thirteenth century, produced the thing called "fiction" in the eighteenth. When Thomas Aquinas asserted the spiritual liberty of man, he created all the bad novels in the circulating libraries.

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures. The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important. Hence it is misunderstood by the moderns, who imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty. They think that if a man makes a gesture it would be a startling and romantic matter that the sun should fall from the sky. But the startling and romantic thing about the sun is that it does not fall from the sky. They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations--that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes. There is nothing baser than that infinity. They say they wish to be, as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2015


This book has given me fits since I first started writing it. I began Solitaire, oh…about three years ago. Just for fun, because I wanted to see what happened next in the Parabalonis’ lives, those interesting spies I’ve created. (Yes, sometimes an author writes to find out what happens next; that is my big secret to eight successful years of NaNoWriMo, I want to find out what happens next so badly I don’t have much of a problem pounding out 50,000 words in a month. [By the way, on a random side note, each Parabaloni book is a standalone story. There are no cliff hangers at the end of a Parabaloni novel, each one is designed to be picked up and read whenever, though the characters do develop a bit throughout the series. So if you haven’t read the previous three, no sweat, pick up this one.]) I enjoy Simeon the taciturn super spy, and Vincent the sunny inventor, and Pete the skinny Saudi, and Gigan the French sharpshooter, and I was curious what their next adventure was going to look like. I came up with a satisfactory villain, formed a plot, and began to type. The first half of the book went alright, and I enjoyed it, and found it adequately fun and interesting.  (When Vincent gets kidnapped things really take off!) Then the second half came along. I pounded it out, and I found it adequately fun and interesting, but…something’s bothered me about it from the first time I wrote it.

A few months later, I came back to it. (Like a mental grass bur, I can never really shake a nagging problem with a book of mine.) Rereading the scenes, with Simeon playing the part of Italian Mafia man and all the Parabaloni working out their con on Gigan’s family, I enjoyed it…but it just wasn’t right. So I rewrote the whole second half, about 50,000 words. It was better, the plot got a lot of issues ironed out, and made a lot more sense, and even the characters were more true to themselves. But it still just…wasn’t right. Even after revising it a couple of times, this one has always given me the dreaded feeling that it needs something. And then I decided to do this Four Books Four Month thing and I’m going, “Ack! People are actually going to be reading this!” Which I hope you do, I hope you read it and like it, and maybe even learn something from the words of encouragement during the hard times, or the doggedness of sticking out a difficult duty; that’s why I’m getting the book out there. But I admit to a bit of sudden panic at the knowledge I had to fix it in one month.

What do you do when you have to fix something and you don’t know what’s wrong with it? Easy; you get someone else to tell you what’s wrong with it. One of my awesome beta readers (probably my most faithful and honest one [no offense, beta readers who read this, I mean she’s good about telling me when she doesn’t like something]) went through the whole book for me, and put her finger on it. The issue isn’t really with the characters, it’s with a proposed difficulty I felt for them.

Weird right?! Ok, so you remember me saying that one of my favorite things about writing novels is creating the characters, making personalities that seem as if they are alive, working at it until I feel like I would know them in a heartbeat if I saw them walking down the street, and they would be a bosom friend. Well, I’ve worked with these Parabaloni for years. The first one was my first ‘serious’ book; before that I played around with fairy tales and whatnot, but that was my first attempt to actually write something real. And then it was the first one I revised seriously (ok, rewrote and then revised seriously). I’ve spent a lot of time with these guys. So here’s the thing; when I had Vincent take Simeon’s name, it worked, and it was perfect, and what they both needed. And then I threw Pete and Gigan into the mix, and a part of me is going, “They need to feel included, poor guys can’t be on the outs the whole time.” And yes, I am laughing out loud at myself as I type this up. See, I don’t think that way when I’m writing a book, or plotting it. I just tell the story. So after I got my beta reader’s notes back, I had to spend most of a day analyzing why I wrote it like I did, and I realized that was the issue. It was me. I wanted Pete and Gigan to be on ‘the in.’ And it didn’t work. Seriously, it doesn’t work. They have families of their own, and they really don’t need another one. You need your family. Christian friends are awesome, and a Christian brother is a real bother in Christ; but a blood brother will always have that special link of familial closeness that a bosom buddy will never really break into.

I know that. I’ve always known that, and appreciated it, there is a certain link to a blood relative (adopted ones too, of course) that just isn’t there with a friend, no matter how close you are to them. It’s a beautiful strange mystery that God’s instilled in this world, and one that I am so grateful for, and thoroughly enjoy. It’s a blessing that is at once exciting and strange, that such different personalities really do exist in (relative) harmony, and are tied inexorably together by a family name. One’s family is a small world that is gigantic in its eclecticness and eccentricities. G. K. Chesterton’s marvelous essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” comes to mind whenever I ponder this weird truth. I don't agree with everything he writes, but the idea in that one, from Heretics, is pretty spot on. I’ll post the whole thing for you next week, but here’s a good quote from it to explain a little of what I mean:

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor… The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.” 

Our family is an adventure. And it’s our own adventure, that no one else can claim; except maybe a sibling. Now, Gigan and Pete, they like adventures. I never tried to make them dump their families, in fact I worked hard not to let that happen, but despite me when I tried to add on a new family that’s exactly what was happening .

So, this month, I dumped the second half of Solitaire again. And wrote a new one. Not a completely new one, I used a lot of the scenes from the last one I wrote, but at least half of it is completely rewritten and new. And I like the parts with Simeon clambering over the Notre Dame roof chasing an evil scientist, and I’ve always enjoyed the bits with Pete and Gigan trapped in the loony bin with the dirty psychologist. I am happy to report the Ant Man soundtrack works well for giving inspiration, and Gigan and Pete are so much happier and more natural the way I have them now. And they don’t feel left out at all; I guess it was just me all along.

And now, I have half a month to revise like a wild thing and get it into your hands. Yes, I was crazy to start this. But I hope you like Solitaire, and learn a little bit about faithfulness, and its ties and limits, and decide what color the Statue of Liberty should be. I am off to have another of many a long editing session with my furry corgi muses. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Bloopers

I've been saving up the mistakes that I've found when editing some of my books; at least the ones that made me smile. After all, if we can't laugh at our mistakes, how boring would we be? I sometimes think the twinkle behind the eyes of those wonderful, cheerful people that make you smile just to see them (you've met one or two, I'm sure) comes from always being amused at their own mistakes. Anyway, here are some bloopers gathered from editing. Enjoy.

"The nose of the immense doors crashing into the wall reverberated around..." (Either that's missing an 'i' or those doors have a pretty awesome doorknocker.)

"…covering the shot cropped grass in front of them…" (Better watch out running over that grass barefoot!)

"Nehemiah idly wondered what he was excited about as he offed a hand to assist Anna’s alight from the wagon." (...So now he's one handed for the rest of the book?)

"The old woman dropped another curtsy and moved back threw a swinging door..." (That's some old lady, throwing doors around.)

"The noice began to fade into a different song." (Noice? I thinke I wast reading too muche Spencer.)

"The ballad reached its pinochle when…" (I always play pinochle when approaching a ballad's pinnacle, obviously.)

"Charlie’s hand ran over it and walked to a box of the same badly hewn wooden planks." (Hm, I wonder how a hand walks to a box?)

"I do hope you enjoy pursuing this work." (Puff puff, catch the book!)

"Several heads working in the fields rose and watched us coming." (Wow, that's a gruesome field, filled with severed heads.)

"I hardly realized when I said yes to thine father that I would be at the mercy of every whim of the Dreaded Ding!" (...yeah...I don't think this one needs a comment.)

"…wondering what I mind find in this new secret passageway." (I mind wondering what I might find too, Corinth Meagan.)

"…where that symbol shone in plain side through the uplifted flap." (So is it a sight of his side, or a side of his sight...)

"They settled comfortably in the cushions and looked at each other." (Anyone else ever want to dig a hole in a pillow and slip in?)

"'The same day as the hair die.' Vincent mumbled through cake." (Die hair, die!)

"'Happy bilrthday,'" he said. (…the day bilr did something great?...)

"…a contended hum sliding from him as he moved." (Hm, a fighting song perhaps?)

“…giving his companion a plausible excuse to use as a salve to his conscious.” (Because no ones sub-conscious needs a salve.)

"‘For I have come not to serve but to be served,’ the scriptures recorded our Lord as saying. And this from the King who creates and rules all kings!" (Yeah...I really did say the exact opposite of what I meant...and didn't notice for months.)

“I forgot what an idiotic think I was doing…” (I think it's an idiotic thing to think of things too.)

“Simeon tossed him a machine gun, and Peter noticed it was loaded with amour piercing rounds as he dropped the RPG to catch the new weapon.” (I just loooove those bullets!)

And then there are some things that seem fine when you write them, and even when you read them over again a time or two, and then someone else kindly reads it for you and points out the all-too-obvious mistake:
"…why should we go back with only a location and a handful of spotted terrorists?" (LEOPARD TERRORISTS! HAHAHA!)

"Peter lifted his glass of milk in a solute…" (Dissolving milk glass?!)

"Breezes stirred a branch till it began to creek." (those are some impressive breezes, to turn a solid branch into a watery creek…)

"'Do you know, she might be right?' said one in a voice, quivering with age. (You know, when people talk, it's usually in a voice...comma placement can be important, folks.)

"The night sun was peeking through the windows again as they began to break up." (CRASH! Whoops, so much for those windows: note to self, specify which “they” you mean.)

"He slid his feet out of his seeping bag and into his shoes." (Some questions should not be asked; like what was his sleeping bag seeping with?)

"Now a pal of black smoke lay about the place." (Oh boy, what a great pal that pall of smoke is to me!)

"A small game foul, served stuffed with joart and potatoes…" (Foul! Foul! That fowl is foul!)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Anatomy of an Edit

In editing, like writing, everyone has a different method. This is an explanation of the way I do a thorough overhaul of my books before putting them out for you to read.

Stage 1.
Rip it apart, and put it back together again. No seriously, this is the stage where I ruthlessly rip out scenes and whole characters that aren’t actually needed. A term used by many authors for this stage is “killing your darlings.” Those lovely little conversations, or scenes, or that sweet little character (who just happened to appear on page 20 and you liked enough to keep till page 300) that you just loved when you wrote it; but that really have no bearing on the plot, or even character development. In the first Parabaloni I ripped out a whole character, that had been there from chapter 2, and had a whole story running underneath the other stories. He just wasn’t needed. So Matt died. Well, he lives on in my earlier versions. For me, that’s what makes this stage endurable. I can go back and find him again when I want. I create an “Outakes” file for every book I edit, and everything I rip out goes there. So if, after further thought, I decide that delightful little scene really did add something of value to the story, I can copy it back in again. It’s a mental balm to my troubled soul. Though I know the instances where a ripped scene gets put back in are almost non-existent. Exceptions do happen, of course; in The Way of the Ravens (which hopefully will be ready to be read and enjoyed by you this coming spring) I wrote three chapters, decided they were unneeded, ripped them out, put them back in a few months later, ripped them out, and now they are back in again at the moment. It will be interesting for me to see if they’re still there when I release that book.

Also in this stage comes the task of smoothing the book out. Tweaking those awkward sentences into something that flows, realizing when you typed up “hungry” you actually meant “voracious” and various little interesting chores like that. In this stage of the Dreaded King books, I get to tweak each character’s voice to sound like them when they tell their portion of the account. For instance, Charlie uses “upon” but Corinth never does, and Corinth uses “rather” while Charlie and Meagan can’t ever utter the word. Meagan’s sentences can only be a line, sometimes a line and a half if he has something very important to say. But Charlie, well, his descriptions are flowery, and wordy, and he notices everything. And Simpson, the translator? He’s a bit of an absentminded nut, honestly, as I expect you’ve noticed from the footnotes he’s scattered around the books.

Stage 1 ends when I’m finally satisfied the book is as smooth, direct, and streamlined as I can get it. This is the moment when I find a wonderful beta reader to ship it off to. (At this point, thanks and heaps of cudus go out to Joy and Aaron Gruben, Linda Hoover, Rebekah Cook, Krystal Webb, and Rael and John Dyal, some of my amazing beta readers. THAAAANK YOU!!!!!!) These are the splendiferous, superlative people who take the time read over my book before I send it out to all you other wonderful people, and tell me the obvious plot holes I completely missed, the absolutely ridiculous way this phrase sounds when read aloud, and various other little housekeeping matters that my brain glossed over. Because there’s always something. You become familiar with the phrases, the characters, and the plot, and there’s always something obvious you miss that a beta reader will catch for you. I’m learning this step in the process is really indispensable.

Stage 2.
Proofreading. The most boring part of the process to me. It wouldn’t be, except that stage 1 preceded it. Remember I’ve already gone over this book at least three times (sometimes twice that much), and that’s after I wrote it and ran the first initial couple of edits. The words are already very familiar. And now I have to read it again, and again, and again, trying to catch every little misplaced word and typo.

I usually let Christopher, my kindle fire, help me with this process. I read it over at least once on Allen (my laptop) to try and catch the punctuation mistakes and other little things that you really have to see to catch. And then I send the word document to Christopher, hit the “text-to-speech” button and let him read it to me. The automated voice droning out the words is a perfect way to get a different feel for the book, and catch things that I gloss over while reading it. Though he makes some strange mistakes. “Apt,” according to Christopher, is really only ever short for “apartment” and never a word by itself. And “no” often ought to be read as “number” because obviously it’s an abbreviation and not a negative ejaculation.

My family loves it when I’m at this stage. I have to do something while I’m listening to the same book over, and over, and over, or I’d go crazy. So this is the time when the little delicacies start flowing from the kitchen as I bake cookies and muffins and breads with Chris droning on in my ear, and me constantly pausing my cooking to highlight a mistake I just noticed. The laundry also gets folded at this point, as I’ve been letting it pile up while spending hours on Allen. And the floors vacuumed, and hey, I might even go so far as to clean the windows while Christopher reads to me!

After I get Christopher and Allen together and implement all the changes I highlighted on the kindle into my word document, stage 2 is FINALLY finished! And it’s always about now when the happy dance slides naturally from me.

Stage 3.
“Have you seen any new movies you liked?” This is the point where I’m always asking my friends this question. Because it’s formatting time. It’s a pretty brainless stage that takes a lot of hours, just shifting words to a bigger or smaller font, creating chapter headings, inputting page numbers; a thousand and one little things that takes a word document and makes it a book. And since most of it requires no thought, I usually work at it while something else gives me mild entertainment; like a brainless movie of some sort. I’ve watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes during this stage. A whole lot.

It’s both a boring stage and an exciting one. A lot of time goes into mindless inputting on the computer, but minute by minute you get to see your hard work turning into something real and beautiful.

The End
And then I hit that “publish” button, and tell the world there’s a new book by Catherine Gruben up and ready to be read! But it isn’t really new. It started as a random thought that festered and bugged until I sat down in front of Allen and pounded out a plot. Then it became a rough draft of a book. And then it became a work in progress as the editing took over. That first little idea probably came at least a year before the book hit your Amazon account. Sometimes it’s more like 4 years from start to finish before I finally get around to declaring it fit to reach your hands.

At this point in my Four Books in Four Months (see my last blog post if you're curious), I'm almost through with stage 2 for Dreaded King: Reign Falls. Yay! Thanks for all the cheering you've all been doing, it's helping me stay on track. Whoo hoo, first of four books, here we come!

Getting a book from your mind onto real life paper is a long and tiring process. But it’s a wonderful process; I’m never going to stop until God snatches me up to His side.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Four Books: Four Months

Okay people, I am about to declare something crazy. Something completely crazy that I'm going to do.

I was glancing over my books this week and suddenly went, "I really wish I could share my fifth Parabaloni book with my fabulous readers this Christmas, since it’s a Christmas book, and I think they would really like it. But,” I thought, “I have Dreaded King: Reign Falls coming out in October, and a fourth Parabaloni book before Adelie Angst, and November when I’m supposed to write the third Dreaded King book for National Novel Writer’s Month…But then again, that’s just a book a month…”

So, here’s the deal. The crazy, stupid, ridiculous challenge that I’m setting myself. In between all the other wonderful random things I have going in my busy life, I am going to edit and release three books, and write one, in four months. Yep, that’s right. Four books, in four months. And yep, I’m crazy to be considering it. But it’s going to be awesome. Here’s my plan:

September – October 1st: Reign Falls is going to finish up its overhaul and reach your hands, so you can finally find out what happened to Meagan and Corinth and Charlie as they race away from Yaspur the Hard and his gray-clad assassins. (They do succeed in getting away from him…for a little while, anyway…but not for too long. Though I suppose that’s a bit of a SPOILER so you can ignore it.)
October 2nd – October 31st: Solitaire, Parabaloni Novel 4, is getting its overhaul and major editing done. Ever wondered what really happened with Gigan the French sharpshooter’s family? It had to be something major (and therefore interesting) to have completely alienated him from their boisterous presence. And what’s the deal with the neon green hair, anyway?
November 1st – November 31st: NaNoWriMo! Another full month given over to the ridiculously crazy task of starting with a blank word document and ending up with a full book. At least in rough draft form. Dreaded King 3 is going to be finally written. I’m so excited to start hammering out all the ideas that have been floating around in my head for the past year! Obviously this one isn’t going to get to your hands for a while yet. But it will begin the process, this November! (Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering, there are going to be 4 Dreaded King books in total; it’s not a series that drags on forever.)
December 1st – 20th: Adelie Angst, Parabaloni 5, is going to be edited and out in time for you to shove it in a stocking or under a tree. Filled with penguins and paintings, space ships and snow, tension and teases, this is probably the most streamlined of my Parabaloni novels, as far as getting the plot down on the page with the least amount of distractions. And it is quite a different sort of a plot, let me tell you. I hope you enjoy watching the way your favorite quirky band of spies spends their holiday season.

Therefore, when Christmas day rolls round and you see me with reddened eyes and a slightly fattened stomach, you will know it’s because I have spent the last four months, every second I can snatch from real life, staring at Allen’s screen. (That’s my laptop. In case you had forgotten.)  

This is not going to be an easy task. As my dad just commented, glancing over my shoulder, “This is like NaNoWriMo squared.” So any encouragement you happen to want to send my way would be ecstatically welcomed; and quite possibly snatched up with a stressed-out, maniacal cackle, as I grasp at it like a drowning man grasps a life raft. I am going to be drowning in words. But it’s going to be such an amazing ride. I’m going to learn so much about me. And I hope about you. If I can (yeah, one more thing to write) I’ll be keeping you updated here on my blog. So stay tuned, everybody, and share this around! The more people who know that I’m doing it, the more incentive I’ll have to get it done. And to get it done well, for the glory of God. So comment on my blog posts, hit the share button on this, like my Facebook page to keep up with the process…

And let’s do this thing. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lily's Lesson

This is Lily, my geranium.

See the new buds sticking up out of the plant? Aren’t they beautiful? So hopeful; a kind of quiet beckoning, whispering for me to expect happy beauty in the next few days. Those buds weren’t there yesterday. At least I hadn’t noticed them. But they must have been there…I think the reason I didn’t notice them was because, as a geranium, Lily still had all the old brown ugliness of past blooms clinging to her. This morning I pulled off the old dead stuff.

Suddenly she looks fresh, and clean, and green, and filled with a hope of beauty again. Lily has been sitting on my windowsill for two years now. Sometimes she looks brown and dusty, and (to be quite honest) simply ugly, without a hint of ever blooming again, and I wonder why I let her stay. But I can tell she’s still alive, so I leave her on the window, occasionally dumping water from the dregs of my bottles or the dogs’ dish onto her soil. And then I wake up one morning to red buds. And I realize I haven’t cleared her of the old dead leaves in months. When I pull them off, there she is, all fresh and green, and budding again and offering a hope of happy beauty in coming days. I tend to forget about her, she’s so steadily there. I snap shots of my teapots or books, and forget she’s even in the picture.

For two years it’s gone on. I don’t know how Lily has survived my haphazard care that long, except by the grace of God. But then that’s how we all survive, isn’t it? Only by the grace of God, getting up every morning, looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves…again…still alive, still breathing. Some morning’s that’s kind of what I think: “Well, here I am again.” But then there are other mornings when I get up excited, ready to serve the good God and spill His love onto those that come in contact with me. “Oh boy, I get to live again today!”

I can’t help thinking I’m a little like Lily. She just keeps blooming. Keeps living, keeps putting out beautiful red flowers, stops blooming until she gathers her strength for it again, and then come the buds one unexpected morning!

If we are always at the brimming tip of our energy and delight, we burn out. And then comes the inevitable question, “what did I do wrong?” The answer might be nothing; it’s only that you are at a strength gathering season, and just give it a week or two, and the brown dead stuff will pull away and the happy blooms will be back. I’m not talking about seasons of depression. I’m not even talking about wearing thin and feeling like every day is a grind (like I spoke of in my last post). I just mean that in the Christian life, some days you wake up ecstatically excited to serve our good God and to do the little chores He’s given you, and some days you wake up just content and mildly happy with it.

Endurance is the thing. You just keep going. And as you just keep living and doing what you’re supposed to, the buds just keep showing up. They come, they bloom, then they leave, allowing a little brownness into your life. And then a passage of Scripture, a silly game with family, Spirit breathed enthusiasm pouring into your heart, a phone call from a friend, something comes along and the brownness falls away and there you are; fresh and green, joyful and expectant…promising a hope of happy beauty.

Keep living, Lily. I can’t wait to see your buds turn into flowers.  

Monday, August 10, 2015

Barely and Brutally Good

Most people in our culture have been cultured in such a way that a picture of depressing Puritans pops into their mind when they think of Christianity. And the Puritans they picture aren’t the real historical thing, but are always in somber clothes, with frowns on their faces, demanding that people everywhere stop having a good time. But, really, is that Christianity? A place where everything you enjoy has to be surrendered to a vague, depressing duty? That isn’t the Christianity of the Bible. Or the Christianity of G.K. Chesterton. There is a slim volume of his that you probably have never heard of, titled the archaic exclamation, Manalive. It’s a strange little book, but one that smashes the idea of a stuffy Christianity to bits, and gives most Christians today a challenge they have never considered.

When was the last time you played in the rain, or wore three hats to the mall? Have you ever climbed a tree because it was there, or howled at the moon just for the fun of it? When was the last time you felt alive, so alive you couldn’t stand not to do something? Something exuberant, and silly, and absolutely ridiculous, because life was just too grand of a romp to pass by! The feeling comes all too seldom in this broken, somber world. When it does come, that’s when the world is greenest, and life feels worth living. But it never lasts for long, at least not in my life. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis speaks of only being able to see the world through ourselves, for we are the only ones that we can ‘get into’ and understand. Using his logical method and looking in myself, I know I only have the briefest of flashes of the exuberant life. But those flashes make me want to keep looking for the next one, watching for it, coveting the sudden overwhelming joy of just being alive. Why do I lose it? Why do I go back to staying alive instead of feeling alive? What is it that saps my bounding enjoyment of the life I love and live every day? Looking in myself, I find the reason easily enough. It’s every day. It’s the routines, the circles, the ‘getting in a rut,’ and getting too used to what I have. And it’s something else that comes with every day, and that runs deeper than just the routines, a surprising something that starts the ruts in the first place.

Spoiler Alert! (If you plan on reading Manalive, you might want to skip this paragraph). Chesterton writes of a man who takes a pistol and shoots life into people; who burgles his own things to be reminded of how wonderful they are; who drops his wife about town and then ‘finds’ her again in a romantic elopement, in order to remember how much he loves her; who walks around the world in search of his own home, simply because he wants to regain that feeling of sheer joy in what he already has. It’s a strange book. At first glance his main character is a strange man, even a very bad man. When you don’t know what he’s doing, he looks like a murderer, a burglar, a dallier, and a deserter. But the point of the book lies in the fact that he is none of these things. The point of Chesterton’s slim volume, Manalive, is that Innocent Smith is, in fact, innocent.

Innocent Smith breaks the conventions. But he keeps the commandments. He lives an exuberant lifestyle of crazy joy, spreading the wonderful sensation of being alive everywhere he goes. He is a “man found alive with two legs.” But there is a secret to his life, and to his consistent, childlike joy.

It doesn’t sound like Christianity, not the way we have been taught to think of it in our Western culture. But the Bible doesn’t agree with that stilted view of a somber, supercilious Christianity. When was the last time you read Ecclesiastes? I mean really read it, not just quoted a verse here and there. Guess what The Preacher says over and over again? “Be happy. Take pleasure in your work. Do what you love, and love what you do. It is God’s gift in this life.” It sounds like the mantra of our culture, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But unlike the world, he doesn’t stop there. The preacher has a logical mind that looks past the now and into the time when all our work stops, and we join both the wise and the fools in the grave. He comes to a different conclusion than the rest of the world.

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Keep the commandments. This is the key that most people are missing to their joy, that even many Christians don’t understand. Keep the commandments. It is the way to keep out of the ruts, the key to feeling alive instead of just staying alive.

Now before I go on, let me make a quick disclaimer: I’m not naively claiming that doing good will always make you happy in this life, or that if you do good only good will happen to you. That has been claimed time and time again, and always proved to be perfectly fallacious. But I am making the claim that you can’t be truly happy if you are not doing good.

God is good. He is the Summum Bonum, the greatest good. And this God made the world. He made mankind. It is this God Who put a conscience in each one of us. A conscience, and a sense of something higher than the here and now, a longing to do something lasting. We all feel it, though different people call it different things. Our calling, our purpose, our goal, whatever we call it, we all want to make something that lasts. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes laughs at us, calls it vanity, and points out the many ways everything we make is going to leave when we die. And yet in the midst of it he says again and again, “enjoy it.” He even takes it a step farther.

“There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

It is a gift of God to enjoy what we have. But if our work disappears into a black abyss when we die…how can we enjoy it with that dismal thought to look forward to? We can enjoy it because of one overlooked fact: not everything will disappear. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical treatise, it is a Christian studying the world, giving his findings, and coming to a conclusion. So what is his conclusion, what do we find at the very end of the book?  There is one more verse after the one I quoted above:

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

God is good. God cares about what we do, and He is pleased when we do good. We are making ourselves crowns that will last for all eternity when we keep the commandments, and perhaps even gaining a smile from our good God. This is, of course, the Christian I am talking about here. We only gain that smile if He is ours already, not a hundred thousand good deeds could possibly rectify a single bad one and gain us God’s good pleasure: but if we are already His in Christ, then it is another matter. God delights in those who fear Him. And the smile of an everlasting God lasts forever. Keeping the commandments can be a lasting goal and purpose in itself, and that alone gives us delight and joy.

But there is another reason keeping the commandments helps us keep the joy of being alive, and edges us over the ruts of just staying alive. A simple reason, almost too simple. I have to resort back to C.S. Lewis’ method to explain it, and I urge you to follow me in, searching your own soul to see if it’s the same as mine, as I look at a plain fact of life (another fact that is often overlooked): when I sin, I’m unhappy. It’s as simple as that. Sin makes me dull, and listless, and takes away my joy. Not all the time perhaps, there is often a moment of gratification that comes in fulfilling an unlawful desire. But in the long run, sin dulls my senses. Especially my joy. Sin saps happiness, it sucks it out of me like a vacuum. It isn’t just the routines that kill my sensation of being alive, it’s really the sins that creep in and I allow to stay, usually the ones that are small enough I don’t view them as a threat: pride, selfishness, maybe a touch of a lazy bone… Whatever it might be, the moment I allow it into my life is the moment when my feet begin to drag and the ruts begin to appear. Of course, the ‘rutted’ sensation can certainly come from other sources, not solely from neglecting your duty to God, but my point here is to show they often start because of it. And you don’t have to live like that.

Christianity is the religion of the liberated. We have been set free in Christ, free to be happy, and made alive in our good God. But we can be entangled in the chains again.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage... For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty;” (Galatians 5:1, 13)

When we are caught up in sin, it begins to choke our aliveness. Christianity is a freeing religion, it is the religion of the awake, the joyful, and the alive. But even the Christian misses it if they don’t keep the commandments! It’s scattered all over Scripture, a call to be good, to follow Christ, even to be perfect. There are so many reasons given to follow our conscience and behave ourselves, but this is one that is almost universally overlooked. God has made us so that being good makes us happy. And being bad saps our joy, wearies us, and begins routines and ruts that kill our sensation of being alive. Chesterton’s slim little Manalive seems idiotic, especially to modern minds, when it states its main point near the end of the book. But when we actually look into ourselves, and examine the moments when we have felt the most alive and happy, and the opposite times when we have felt the most depressed and listless… Well, I know what I usually see when I look honestly.

But I know I can’t explain it as well as Mr. Chesterton, and I’ve likely just confused you by trying. So let me allow Chesterton’s characters to explain it instead of me. Read over his parting thoughts on his main point of Manalive, and allow yourself to be challenged by it. Because it is a challenge, a brutal one; but a challenge that will make us happier than we would ever expect, if we actually dare to follow it.

“If one could keep as happy as a child or a dog, it would be by being as innocent as a child, or as sinless as a dog. Barely and brutally to be good—that may be the road, and he may have found it. Well, well, well, I see a look of skepticism on the face of my old friend Moses. Mr. Gould does not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry."

"No," said Gould, with an unusual and convincing gravity; "I do not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry."

"Well," said Michael quietly, "will you tell me one thing?

Which of us has ever tried it?"