Introducing Smuggins, The King’s Messenger

Quite a few years ago (I’m not going to say how many because it makes me feel old), I sat in a Great Christian Writers class in college and listened to my professor talk about one of John Milton’s most famous sonnets, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” As Dr. Bancroft walked us through the final lines of the poem that day, a character was born in my imagination: Smuggins, a messenger for the King.

Illustration by Stephen Hesselman (Smuggins)

Illustration by Stephen Hesselman

I often say that I “meet” my characters, and that’s the best way to describe how it often happens: they arrive in my imagination, not fully formed, but with an essential essence. That was what happened with Smuggins. He showed up that day with an eager desire to serve, but a lot to learn along the way.

The way took quite a few years. Every so often Smuggins would make another appearance in my imagination and have another adventure, getting to know the King and himself better. And for the last few years he’s been sitting around, his story written, but untold to all but a few. One problem that Smuggins has is that his story falls “between the shelves.” It doesn’t fit into one single category, which makes marketing it a bit of a struggle. And no publisher is going to take a risk on something that’s hard to market. Especially in the over-stuffed children’s lit market.

But Smuggins kept tapping on my shoulder, asking me to share him with a broader audience. He would remind me of the moments he and I learned lessons about serving the King together, and the tears he sometimes brought to my eyes as he learned about the King’s friendship, his forgiveness, his justice.

Telling Smuggins’ Story

So earlier this year, I made a decision—it is time for the rest of the world to meet Smuggins. And since his tale defies categories, I decided to self-publish Smuggins’ story. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but I’ve got some very gifted friends who I was able to call on for expertise and assistance. I’ve relied on their wisdom and input as we’ve gotten the ball rolling on this project.

The most exciting element, to me, is that illustrator Stephen Hesselman has agreed to help bring the story to life with pen and ink illustrations that we will strew throughout the book. My imagination is not highly visual, so I’ve been delighted to see Stephen bring faces to my characters and details to my places.

In order to do this well, Smuggins’ story still needs some polishing. And as this is a side project, that will take some time. So I’ve settled on a release date of early March 2017, and we’re working toward that goal.

I can’t wait for you to meet Smuggins like I did in that classroom so many years ago. And I hope you’ll join me in working to get the word out about him and his story as we move toward publication. If you’d like to follow the journey, please sign up for my eNews, where I’ll be sending out updates about the process. Also, follow this blog, like my page on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. Even better, follow Stephen on Instagram so you can see some snippets of his illustrations—as well as all his other great work.

Thanks for your support!

Three New Twitter Followers

You know it’s a big week when you get three new followers on Twitter. Fine, sure, I know that some people get follows in mass quantities regularly. I’m not that cool.

But this week I must have been brought to the attention of some fine folks and they managed to find me in the Twittersphere and therefore I now have my ego stroked enough to last me for a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

Why did I come to people’s attention?

Well, it may have been this recent blog post at the Church at Charlotte blog, “When Everything is Broken, Remember”:

There is something wrong with this world.

We know it, deep in our souls. When we see a 24-year-old young woman on hospice care, we know it. When we hear of refugee children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to find a safe home, we know it. When a marriage falls apart, when a child dies, when a man is beaten on the street—something inside us says, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be.”

Everything is broken.

Or it might have been this story up at Story Warren this week, “A Man Named John Smith”:

A snippet of Jamin Still’s amazing illustration for my story.

Once upon a time there was a man named John Smith. When Mr. Smith was little, he was very concerned that with such a plain name, he would be lost to history, forever forgotten in a sea of John Smiths down through the ages. If you make it to the end of this harrowing tale, you shall discover that young John’s worst fears were realized. Do not worry, though, I haven’t given the whole thing away—there’s still a surprise or two waiting for you just down the page.

When Mr. Smith was a little boy—(How little, you say? Well, littler than me. And probably littler that the eldest among you, but certainly older than the littlest ones.)—Anyway, when John was a boy, he lived on a farm—(Where was the farm? Indiana. But that really doesn’t have any bearing on this story at all. Now hold your questions to the end or we shall never get through this.)

Or maybe it was the exciting news that I get to present this year at The Rabbit Room’s Hutchmoot 2015. I’ve written about Hutchmoot before, and The Rabbit Room has certainly been formative in my life for the past few years, so I’m utterly honored and grateful to be speaking this time around. And getting to do so with Russ Ramsey on the topic of baseball? Yeah…so cool. I’ll let you know how it goes later!

(See what I did in this post? I turned a “catching up” post into a real one. Tricksy. I may just attain the level of coolness my Twitter followers expect of me someday.)

Words, Words, Words

I learned a new word today.

I love learning new words, particularly when they’re multi-syllabic and fun to say.

WordsToday’s word was “concatenation.” Both multi-syllabic and fun (and defined as a series of interconnected things or events). Evidently, listening to NPR does make you smarter.

It reminded me of some of my favorite words of the past and my adventures in using them. Like when I worked my hardest to get the 18-month-old, highly verbal son of friends to start saying “caterpillar,” “hippopotamus,” and “hobbledehoy.”

I discovered the last one on an evening during college when my friend Bekka and I were either bored or determined to waste time, and rather than doing it sitting in our distinct dorm rooms and chatting with each other on AOL Instant Messenger (where we would sign off with threads of text that said things like, “Farewell, Gorgeous.” “No, you’re gorgeous.” “No YOU’RE gorgeous.” “No, you—”…if you ever needed proof that college students are like preschoolers, I’ve got plenty of stories for you), we were hanging out in my room and exploring the dictionary.

One of the things I regret about our digital age is the loss of the codex dictionary. While I adore being able to type a word into Google and have the precise Merriam-Webster definition pop up immediately, I miss seeing all the other words on the page—that was where the fun lay. For on the same spread as “longitudinal” in my dictionary are words like “loofah” and “lollipop.” I can’t look up “summa cum laude” without seeing “Sumerian” and “sumac.” Natural curiosity leads me to read more definitions on the page than I went there to find, and in the process I learn new things—words, concepts, history, connections.

Anyway, Bekka and I sat on the floor and thumbed through the dictionary and found fun words, and when we happened upon “hobbledehoy” we knew we’d found a keeper. Its origin unknown, but dating from 1540, the term means, “an awkward, gawky youth.” We were sophomores in college, surrounded by 19-year-old boys. It was a descriptive-term-to-situation match made in heaven.

I’ve used the word any chance I can ever since, including trying to introduce it to every toddler I know. Perhaps, though, my favorite use of it I found when reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. She describes the first meeting of Molly and Roger this way:

To Molly, who was not finely discriminative in her glances at the stranger this first night, he simply appeared “heavy-looking, clumsy,” and “a person she was sure she should never get on with.” He certainly did not seem to care much what impression he made upon his mother’s visitor. He was at that age when young men admire a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood.

That right there? I don’t think I shall ever be able to top it.

Speaking of fun words, I want this book.

Rethinking Scarcity: New Post at The High Calling

Slaten and Rogers

Two artists: Son of Laughter and Jonathan Rogers. Photo by Mark Geil.

I’ve got a new post up at The High Calling today. I was asked to write on the theme of “rethinking scarcity”—and to look at in the context of art. Immediately I thought of the ways the artists I know come together and support one another in their work, forming communities that not only advance the production of art, but also deepen its quality.

“The Industry” is not dead, but it is desperately trying to stay alive in most cases—often at the expense of good art. So those who want to create new art, quality art, honest and true art, are forced (and, I think, will increasingly be forced) to step outside the industries. Rather than seeing this as a setback, perhaps we should look at the situation as a gift—and a challenge:

From the post:
“I expect no one would disagree that creative innovation often arises from scarcity. From Ritz cracker apple pie to the dinners we developed with nothing but a microwave and hot pot during college, some creative spark in human nature thrives when put to the challenge of limited resources.

Likewise, in comparison to the booming creative industries of the 1990s, today’s musicians and authors—even some of those signed with major labels and publishers—are creating within the context of limited resources. While the leaders of the companies that produce and distribute much of our art are cautious about taking costly risks like launching a new artist, rapid developments in technology allow artists willing to take the risk themselves to bypass the industry and get their work into the hands of the audience. Adam Young of Owl City wrote in 2012: ‘Here at the outset of a new century everyone is back at the starting line fighting to be heard. It’s effortless to hear and steal new music so bands have to think of ways to reinvent themselves and turn the box inside out.’

So perhaps it is no surprise that there is a particular richness in some of the art being created today when economics and technology have joined together to topple the industries of yester-year.”

Read more at The High Calling.

Figuring It Out Later: Hutchmoot 2013

“I’ll probably figure out what this weekend meant to me in a few days,” I said to Rachel and Christine as we drove home from Hutchmoot on Monday. After I attended for the first time last year, I discovered that I couldn’t put into words what it had meant until I’d read the offerings of a few other attendees. When the experience congealed enough to examine, I was able to see how it had begun to heal wounds and weariness deep within my soul and how God was pointing me forward to what would come next.

***

When I lived in Alaska, I struggled greatly with the lack of sub-created beauty. There was plenty of beauty to behold—don’t get me wrong. The mountains, the rivers, the wildlife: it was all gorgeous. But on those bent branches, no one had built straight baselines. Architecture in the far North is utilitarian at best. The visual art is almost exclusively representations of the scenery.

I found that I wanted to be surrounded by artists—visual artists, musicians, performance artists, writers—who would seek to create new beauty as image bearers of their beautiful Creator. It was one reason I chose to leave Alaska and pursue my craft.

IMG_0971In leaving Alaska, though, I lost my primary missions connection. I’d been serving as a missionary there, involved in a global agency, and seeing lives changed through the power of the gospel.

***

A few months after the 2012 Hutchmoot conference, I sat down with my boss at the University and sketched out my thinking regarding my vocation and my job. One of the things Hutchmoot had made clear to me was that the two were not the same. In the course of that conversation, Todd took a step back and asked me—as a friend, not an employer—what it was I wanted to do in life, what I really love.

I stumbled through an answer. One of the reasons life thus far has been somewhat random in terms of experiences is that I really love a whole variety of things. I love writing. I love college students. I love missions. I love art. I love teaching.

I think I said all those things, but what Todd picked up on was that my voice broke when I said “missions.” He said, “You’re still passionate about that. Remember that.”

***

At some point during Hutchmoot in 2012, my sister observed to me that she hadn’t seen a lot of international flavor at the conference. It wasn’t a criticism, just an observation. “Not a lot of international flavor” is odd for our family. We grew up in missions, our parents based out of the U.S. Office of SEND International. The family lived overseas twice, in the Philippines and Hong Kong. We traveled the world. Even just growing up in Metro Detroit, global was part of our blood. In high school, I had classes in which I was the minority—my favorite school events were the ones run by the Indian American Association, the Asian American Association, the Pacific Islander American Association…

***

In June I left my job. I leapt, not sure where my feet would land.

I’m still not sure. Currents of wind are carrying me along for now, but I don’t know if they will hold me up forever, or even for long. I’m loving flying right now. It’s been wonderful. And I’ve gotten to do and be involved in things in the past four months that I couldn’t have imagined doing a year ago.

***

The intersection of arts and the global engagement has been a theme of my past year. I’ve begun working with Curator, a publication of the International Arts Movement, and gotten to know more about the organization as a whole. My roommate, a missionary, is discovering what her place in the arts is and could be. I’ve begun working with a missions organization that publishes books. I’ve built friendships with artists who are engaging with art on an international level.

Most of all, I’ve become convinced that in our global society, the message of the gospel, the Kingdom message, must be communicated through creative means. Whether we are crossing cultures, or if we are Westerners communicating to our own culture, art is a way to communicate the Message to a culture that is not able to, or does not want to, understand us.

***

I returned to Hutchmoot this year with two friends, the spilling over of my experience a year ago. As the Lord would have it, both of them have global missions experience.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that this would be the year I would meet other ’Mooters engaged with global missions. Perhaps Randy Goodgame singing about aliens living among Israel on the first night was prophetic. Perhaps it’s because of what God’s been doing this year that my ears were more open to others who were thinking about the intersection of the arts and global missions. Perhaps it’s because I brought two friends with me.

But I met people whose world was bigger than the contiguous United States. I heard phrases like, “I lived in Europe for a while,” and “Have you been to Romania?” and “I may not be staying where I am right now, God’s moving me on,” and “You’re an MK? Me, too!” and “Next year, there should be a session on Art and Missions.”

I walked away with some definition to the global corners on a few of the dreams I’ve been dreaming. And in the time since the conference, I’ve learned of some ministries that fascinate me, because they are doing just what I have been wrestling with in terms of global engagement in the arts.

***

I still don’t know exactly where I’m going. But if I could distill what God taught me last year through Hutchmoot 2012 into one sentence it would be this: “I’m a writer.”

As He continues to work in my heart in the coming weeks, as I continue to process the things He taught me during Hutchmoot 2013, I’m wondering if a single sentence will come to the fore again. If it does, I suspect it may be this: “I’m a missionary.”

New Guest Post at Story Warren

Have you been introduced to Story Warren yet? It’s a delightful place, full of wonderful people who tell wonderful tales and recommend wonderful things. Y’all should head on over and check out one of those links in the previous sentence. Or all of them.

S.D. Smith, who runs the place with his many allies, is a highly enjoyable human being (saving his fault of hating peas). Sam was once described by my friend Laura as “the sort of person who…[will] grow up and be like Dumbledore or Obi Wan or Gandalf – speaking the words that alert you to the power/magic/force that perhaps you were too afraid to hope was real.” I can’t think of a better description. So when Sam wrote me a note and asked if I’d be interested in guest posting for Story Warren, I was grateful for the opportunity and told him I’d ponder what was in my head and see if anything came to the fore. He responded with “Ponder your brain contents.”

So I did. And then something came to me, and I wrote it down, and I sent it along, and Sam liked it, and today it posted over at Story Warren. Go ahead on over and check it out. Then poke around and read things like this, and this, and this. And then like them on Facebook and keep up with them. ‘Cause this is something and you want to be a part of it.

New Guest Post at Everyday Liturgy

I had another guest post go up today at Everyday Liturgy titled, “A Romance It Certainly Is.” Here’s a snippet:

We cannot avoid the reality of this world. We see its dark underbelly in everything from the news to human trafficking to the person who pushes past us in a crowd without apologizing. This world, and we people in it, are broken, cracked, and bloody.

But as believers, we have a second sight of sorts. We see this world as it once was and as it will be again.

Check out the rest over Everyday Liturgy!

Leaping

In less than two months, I will not be employed full time. It’s a slightly terrifying idea, but a step I’ve seen the Lord clearing the way for over and over as I’ve walked forward.

I talked with a friend about it a few months ago. I said something like, “I’m going to take a leap and leave this job to pursue other things.” He asked what I would be doing. I said I wasn’t quite sure, some things had fallen into place but much hadn’t. He said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t be leaping if you knew where you were going.”
Photo courtesy of: http://francescakotomski.com/

That’s the thing about leaping. Knowing exactly where and how you’ll land is not guaranteed.

When I took my current job, I gave a handshake commitment to stay in it three years. That was a big deal for me. Since college, I hadn’t been in one place or one job for more than two years. When year 2.5 rolled around, I was getting pretty itchy. I’d been there a long time. I began to do a little bit of looking around to find out what other jobs were out there that I might be qualified for. And then, right about the three-year mark, my boss died and the University decided to change its name. Personally or professionally, it was not a good time to make changes.
So I stayed through year four. And it’s been a good job. I love the team I work on and I believe in the place I work for. What more could you ask for?
The intersection of gladness and hunger.
Frederick Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I haven’t found that place yet. And the conclusion I’ve come to in the past months is that I’m not going to when I’m working in a full-time job that keeps me insanely busy, creatively depleted, and emotionally over-invested. It’s a good job, but it is not the right one for me in the long run.
So I’m leaping. I’m stepping out and exploring my options. I’m picking up freelance editing and writing work, I’m teaching adjunct, and if need be, I’ll find something part-time to fill in the gaps (one does, after all, have those pesky things called bills).
But for the first time in a long time I’ve ceased striving. When the panic of the unknown rises, I place it into God’s hands and know He will carry it. He’ll make the connections that need to be made – I’ve been watching Him do so already.
As I leap, will you do something for me? Will you pray with me and for me that God would show me the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? I’m closer to that place than I used to be, but I know I haven’t yet quite found it.
Oh, and if you know somebody looking for an editor or proofreader, would you point them my way? Thanks.☺

Bent Branches, Straight Baselines

It’s been just over a month now since spring began – slowly this year in Philly – coming at us in fits and starts. I think it has actually arrived now, though there are still one or two trees that are only just leafing out. But the azaleas and the dogwoods have bloomed, so I think it’s really spring.
This slow spring has drawn my attention more than once – trees that often bear the bright of yellow-green in March still showed their naked limbs well into April. It was as if they wanted to say, “See, here’s my structure. These are my bones. You may not have noticed them this winter when your eyes were cast to the ground watching for ice patches. Look up now; see my angled boughs.”
At the beginning of April, my friend David posted a short piece on his blog titled simply, “On Baseball.” In it he quickly and poetically examined the architecture of a golf and baseball, finishing with these words:
Baseball unites heaven and earth: it inscribes a pattern of clean lines, orbs, and diamonds upon the dust from which we were formed and in which we toil, and the lush green in which we find rest. Upon that heaven-and-earth field, prodigal sons set out on barren base paths; and we watch and wait to see if they will make it back home.
The words arrested me. I love clean lines. I love the straight, the symmetrical. There is beauty in a ballpark. But as the trees bared themselves, I had the realization that straight lines are a rare thing in nature. The Creator’s beauty meanders more than man’s.
And when we humans create without the assistance of our man-made tools, our creations are meandering things too, the image of God creating in the pattern of God. As I began to think it through, I realized that the straight lines and measured curves of architecture echo the straight lines and measured curves of the heavenly throne room – and our ideals of beauty find their fulfillment in the descriptions of that place.
Somehow, we find ourselves caught in the middle, loving both the bent branches and the straight baselines. Caught between heaven and earth. Redeemed yet human. Prodigal sons looking for home.
My first inspirations on this topic formed themselves into an essay for The Curator, the web publication of the International ArtsMovement for which I am now serving as an Assistant Editor. 

David’s continued thoughts on the topic have been manifested in a second blog post where he says kind things about my Curator essay and much better things of his own. 

When Characters Come Calling

I met a boy the other day. His name is Peter. He’s about 9 years old. He has a sister named Sam, and a mom and dad. He’s cautious, smart, quiet, wise. He reminds me a lot of my nephew. He loves science and he’s going to discover the great world of bugs this summer. He will learn that life is not forever what it always was. He will discover that change is difficult and unsteadying. And he will learn that there is magic in the world – in the minutiae of creation, in the wonder of imagination, in the love of family.

One of the people who will speak into Peter’s life this summer is a older man named Ben Palmer. I met Ben years ago when he was living a different story. He was in crisis then, and while that is behind him now, I know that much of what I learned about him during that time will be seen in his interactions with Peter this summer. He will be hard-nosed and he will be truthful. He will be deeply broken and utterly renewed. And he will speak words to Peter that “alert him to the power he was perhaps too afraid to hope was real.”

Perhaps it is strange to you that I seem to know so much about Peter’s future though I only just met him. Don’t worry. This prescience isn’t wrapped in hocus pocus.

I’ve had encounters like this before. I once met a young man named William, and before we finished our first meal I discovered he had a whole story to live before I was done with him. And suddenly the name William just wasn’t right – not if we were to be spending a good portion of the next few years together. So decided to call him Edmund and he looked much more comfortable with that name.

In Peter, in Ben Palmer, in Edmund, I have the unique opportunity to see the past, the present, and the future all together. I’m fairly certain I know where they’ll end up, but I’m not quite sure. You see, they all surprised me when they came calling at the corners of my imagination. They could shock me once again with a sudden departure.

It’s an imperfect prescience. They’re breathing and living within their own stories. I hope to paint the canvas for them as they take the journey they’re on. But I don’t yet know what every bump in the road looks like. They may trip and fall. They may meet friends and enemies who surprise me equally when they come knocking with their stories fully formed, reaching back and reaching forward.

I met a boy named Peter the other day. He trooped into my imagination whole-bodied, meditative, and staring at a blank spot on the fridge where there is no summer calendar while he ate his waffles smothered in real maple syrup.

I told you there was magic in this world.

Note: I wish to thank Sam Smith and Kristen Peterson, friends I met last year at Hutchmoot, for their contributions to Peter’s existence and Ben Palmer’s new story. Hope you don’t mind that he’s not called “Sam Peterson.” You never know when your words will spark someone’s imagination. See, I told you there was magic in this world.