Saturday, August 27, 2011

That we are like 'car window' art

This one is for all the creative types out there.

I used to wonder, "What will I do if I never get published?" Then when I got published, I'd wonder, "What'll I do if I can't sell many books?" (I still wonder that one.) That's where we automatically find ourselves. How do we get our work on good-seller lists, and then when and if we do, how do we keep it there? How do we keep interesting the general public enough to invest money into our work?

Why even bother when the shelf life of anything is so short? When I was in Sydney with my family in 2004, I bought an album from the Hillsong Church. I played it a few days ago while I was driving. It's full of songs that are no longer sung in church. They were popular at the time I bought the album but now they've been swept aside to make room for newer songs. Yet their melodies and lyrics are still as powerful and awesome as they were back then.

It can be easy to wonder why we bother expending energy and effort on anything when we know the new is always going to come along to brush the old aside? Why work so hard on something that won't last? What is true for a work of art is just as true for its human creator. Each generation quickly forgets the ones which came before. We visit places that glorify history, such as Ballarat's Sovereign Hill, but the lives of individuals who really lived, loved and toiled during Australia's pioneering era have been long forgotten. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow." We are relegated to names on a family tree or remembered by single accomplishments if we're lucky.

A few years ago, I typed out my dad's handwritten genealogy for him. My grandfather, who was born in 1892, served in both Great Wars and died before I was born, was one of South Australia's most celebrated boxers. Yet now, not many people have heard of him. Maybe those who are yet to be born in my family line will say, "Oh, she was the one who wrote books."

The bottom line is this: we are just as perishable as the things we create. This blog is a prime example of what I'm talking about. We spend precious time forming our thoughts and then expressing them in posts like this which we know very well will soon be buried deep in cyberspace like layers of silt and rock sediment underground.

But I saw a five-minute film on You Tube about a man named Scott Wade who created stunning works of art on the backs of dirty car windows. He was busy making a beautiful landscape, and he could see heavy black clouds in the sky as he worked. That didn't stop him. He just worked faster to finish. The end result was fantastic, and then the heavens opened. His work of art quickly turned to mud and was washed away but the artist still smiled and bowed. I couldn't forget what I'd seen. He was wiser than me. He understood the value of beauty for the moment. I didn't at the time.

Basically, it's just an illusion that any of our work is different from the work of this dirty window artist. Today is really all we have to work with. Just because our creations might not be around to enjoy tomorrow doesn't diminish their beauty today. Every day needs its own beauty. It's sad to assume something isn't meaningful just because it doesn't last for long, or that it won't be seen or heard by many people. Yet that's just what I'd been thinking and feeling.

So keep writing those stories, painting that oil painting, molding that sculpture, composing that song or whatever it is that you do. I believe God loves it whenever we use the talents He's planted within us. He's given us today to fill with our creativity, so let's keep busy brightening today without being gloomy that our work won't be around tomorrow. How boring, dry and stale today would be if everyone stopped working just because we'll soon be forgotten about.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To put the 'random' back into acts of kindness

A few years ago, several people recommended a series on TV called "Random Acts of Kindness" which they thought was great. When I watched an episode, something immediately stood out to me. On this program, a few main groups of people were recipients of hugely elaborate gestures.

1) People who had dealt with long recoveries from serious accidents or injuries.
2) People who had poured resources into their community in the form of service, help or time.
3) People who had committed really heroic deeds.
4) A combination of any or all of the above. (There were more combinations than I would have expected.)

I enjoyed watching the surprise on the recipients' faces and the tears flowing freely from everybody concerned, but I still thought the program's name was misleading. It could have been called DAOK (Deserved Acts of Kindness) To me, the choice of recipients wasn't totally random at all but carefully selected based on the above criteria.

What if it was totally random? What if recipients were selected from the White Pages or a stroll down the street? What if unexpected acts of generosity happened to people who are doing nothing more heroic than trying to pay their next rent or mortgage, put their kids happily through school, and squeeze their grocery shopping into already crammed trolleys and schedules? Our country is full of single mums who struggle to get their children ready for school each day before joining the rat-race. There are dads who are concerned about house repairs which need to be done with not enough month at the end of the money. Think of housewives who face their thousandth load of greasy pans and sauce-splattered plates by the sink while they're exhausted, and families who have to opt for paying off their power bills over taking a short holiday.

I heard about a photograph of an anonymous group of people. Everybody who saw it assumed the subjects were witnesses of some catastrophic event, or attending a funeral at the very least. It turns out they were sitting in a train carriage at 8am on a weekday morning on their way into work. Just a couple of the quiet, unsung heroes and heroines who repeat the same routine over and over, day after day, living their lives in quiet desperation.

Imagine what sort of a world it would be if people intentionally did true random acts of kindness for others each week. I used to think I had no money to manage anything good enough. I've come to see that this makes no difference at all. Most of us are so parched for acts or words of kindness or friendliness that the smallest gesture will be soaked up like a sponge.

When I attended the Writers Fair in Perth last April, I was given a free book by another author named Elaine Fraser. Being on a really tight budget, I was looking at the lovely cover of her book, "Too Beautiful" and thinking I'd have to do without. She said, "Just take one with my blessings." Wow! In my 41 years of life, that hasn't happened to me enough to count on my fingers. I can tell you, that was the first book I wanted to read on the plane back to Adelaide. And whenever I see its spine in my shelf, I remember her kindness.

I love it when acts of kindness are truly random as well as deserved.* I like to think how Jesus set a precedent for them. Many of his recipients were not super-deserving but just normal people going about their usual work. "Hey Zaccheus, come down from that tree! I'm having lunch with you... Hey Levi, would you consider leaving that tax booth and coming with me?... Excuse me ma'am, would you mind dipping that bucket down the well to get me a drink? Yes, I know I'm in Samaria but if you knew who I was, you'd ask me and I'd give you living water."

That's grace. That's his way of showing us that random and deserving should, in fact, blend into one, because we all deserve random acts of kindness.

* For anybody interested in RAOK, my novel "A Design of Gold" explores the subject in more depth. Several characters are determined to figure out exactly how, when, why and where they should be carried out and the specific science behind them. Their conclusions may come as a big surprise. Copies available from Koorong, Word, other selected Christian bookstores, or contact me for a signed copy.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

to push past the barrier of my brain and pray

When I was in my teens, the concept of prayer left me bemused. Even long-standing, mature Christians may understand where I was coming from. At times, we may feel tempted to bypass prayer because it seems to violate our gift of common sense. The caption under the guy at the top of this page expressed it for me. How can talking to an invisible person about things He already knows improve our condition one iota? It would seem that our time may be better employed by getting out there and doing things, or seeking the counsel of flesh-and-blood people whose facial expressions we can see, and whose advice we can actually hear with our physical ears.

Then I was drawn to the story of Naaman, the Syrian army commander who contracted leprosy. He was also advised to do something that made no earthly sense to him. He'd traveled such a long way to consult Elisha, the prophet from Israel he'd heard good things about. He did it out of desperation but hadn't expected Elisha's advice to be so ridiculous. In the first place, Elisha wouldn't even do him the courtesy of coming out to speak to him. He merely sent a message. "Tell him to go and dip himself in the water of the Jordan River seven times."

What a major let-down! The poor guy had common sense. He'd already washed himself several times in clean water at home, to no avail. The dirty water of the Jordan would only swell the sores with more infection and make him worse. I would have said, "So much for that quack! A prophet indeed!" Only one little Hebrew maid helped Naaman put his position in perspective when she said, "Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something costly and complicated, you would have done it, wouldn't you? And this is so easy, what do you have to lose?"

Thank God Naaman was open-hearted enough to listen, because we all know what happened when he did.

That got me wondering if I was like Naaman? The Bible tells us that God loves to use the 'foolish' things of this world to confound the wise. The simple thing He asks of us is to humble ourselves and pray. If He'd asked me to carry out some complex chanting, cleansing or posturing formula ritualistically each day, I tend to think I might have taken Him far more seriously.

Yes, I was dealing with the same God who asked Naaman to dip himself seven times in the Jordan. He asked Joshua to have his army march silently seven times around the walls of Jericho before blowing their horns. He asked Moses to speak to the rock, demanding water. He asked Ezekiel to to lie on his side for months, eating food cooked over cow dung (and originally it was meant to have been human dung, but Ezekiel was too 'straight' for that). As the ultimate craziness, He allowed His Son to die on the Cross in the place of sinners, so anyone who believes in Him would have their sins blotted out. That has been a crazy-sounding stumbling block to many.

What eccentric, unorthodox action is He asking of me? Simply to talk to Him and believe that He's listening and willing to act on my behalf. He asks me to expect that He'll honour my obedience with answers. He asks me to forget any illusions that I'm merely hot-airbagging to the four walls of my room. When I think about it, this is totally consistent with His other 'crazy' behavior and makes perfect sense.

Since taking this attitude on board, I've experienced and heard about many, many answers to prayer and ways in which it has made a vital difference to situations. How about you?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

To Do the Right Thing just because it's the Right Thing

Have you ever been stuck in your usual routine when something unexpected jolts you out of your complacency and changes your life?

During my daily Bible delve, I've been reading over King Josiah's story. He was great grandson of the admirable King Hezekiah but came in line after a very slack and wicked father and grandfather had held the reins for too long. He inherited Judah's throne aged 8, and probably thought the first part of his reign was about keeping the status quo. Yet one day, when this young man was 26, something unexpected happened that proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. The Book of God's Revelation, buried and ignored in the temple for years, was re-discovered.

Horrified and aghast to hear the words Moses wrote so long ago, it struck our young hero forcefully that for years, he and his people were doing all the things they shouldn't have been and none of the things they should have been. He and his closest supporters consulted a prophetess named Huldah, who revealed with great conviction that God did indeed intend to allow judgment to catch up with the people of Judah. It would be a sowing and reaping scenario. She said that Josiah himself would be spared to a peaceful grave, as God intended to honour his earnest change of heart, but as for the mass in general, they were not going to change in a hurry.

Now, knowing this to be true, Josiah went out and began his massive-scale, hard-core reforms anyway. He read out the Law to all the people, got rid of the twisted and perverted sacrificial and prostitution sites and smashed up the obscene relics and images he found everywhere. What impresses me most about him is that he did all this knowing full well that it would be of no long-term use. As Huldah had an excellent track record as a prophetess, he had no reason to doubt her word. The people would turn to their depraved ways again and the land would be taken under captivity. In retrospect, we know this is exactly what did happen. So did he waste his time?

Would I have done the same in King Josiah's place? Although I'd like to think I would, I'm not sure. Knowing the dismal outcome, I think it would have been too easy for me to say, "What would be the use? As well as wasting valuable energy that could be better invested elsewhere, I'll be making myself extremely unpopular. I'll worship God myself, but as for everyone else, what they do in their own time is their business." Thank God Josiah didn't take this wishy-washy approach, and that is what makes him my hero and example.

I've been writing Christian novels set in South Australia. I've been at it for over ten years with no sign that Australian Christian fiction is ever going to 'take-off.' In fact, the only signs that exist indicate just the opposite. It's so much cheaper for our main retail outlets to purchase remaindered books from foreign shores. We can't compete financially, so why bother trying? I'd like to think that if we pray, God will do something amazing, but we just don't have that reassurance. Does it bother me that I might be investing years of financial and emotional energy for no real, tangible success? Yeah, you bet it does! I've got to be honest.

Then I remember King Josiah, who did the right thing just because he knew it was the right thing and there was no way he could sit back and not do it. The one thing I'm certain of is that writing the novels is the right thing for me to do. I sense that deep in my heart. There have been other signs along the way to encourage me. Josiah had a sign too. During his major clean-up, he came across the tomb of an old prophet from years ago who'd actually predicted his reforms and even mentioned him by name (1Kings 13:2). Wow, that must have given Josiah a huge boost in his spirits.

Do you have anything worthwhile but difficult you're trying to achieve? Does it feel more as if you're bashing your head against a brick wall, but you can't stop because it just wouldn't be right to quit? It might involve work, family members or a community project. I'd encourage you to make my hero, Josiah, your hero too, and keep plugging on.

As for him, you've got to love the way his reign and life are summed up.
"There was no king to compare with Josiah - neither before nor after - a king who turned in total repentant obedience to God, heart mind and strength, following the instructions revealed to and written by Moses. The world would never again see a king like Josiah." Wow, that's enough to raise goosebumps. A pretty complimentary epitaph to be found anywhere, let alone in Scripture. So let's keep doing what needs to be done in our own lives.

* You can find Josiah's story in 2Kings 22 - 23 and 2Chronicles 34 - 35.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why we may feel gloomy when others are praised (no, not jealousy)

OK, when I had the idea for this blog I decided that transparent honesty may be the most effective way to inspire and encourage others who read the reflections. This comes at the risk of looking mean, small or bad at times, but that's the way it goes. It makes me feel really sad to think of other people going through what I went through, and making themselves feel even worse by keeping quiet about it. The photo up above, for example, makes my heart ache. That's why I risk speaking out with a way of looking at jealousy that others may find helpful.

Has this scenario happened to anybody before? You hear a friend receiving lavish praise for an achievement or job well done. You add your own, "Fantastic!" or, "Well done!" and while part of you means it, you're aware of something nasty-feeling eating you away inside. You keep your mouth shut because it's something you'd never want to admit to anyone. You shy away from analysing it. You guess it must be one of those twisted partnerships of bitterness and jealousy, so you just want to thrust it from you. (I think jealousy is one of those taboo emotions we never want anyone to associate with us, so we try to press the lid down on it as tight as we can.)

One day I thought, Running from this thing and pretending it doesn't exist isn't making it go away. Maybe I need to face the monster, give it the attention it wants, to help put it to rest.

So when I did look at it more closely, it surprised me to see that its features weren't quite as disgustingly horrible as I'd expected. Oh, jealousy was there alright, but there was something bigger and arguably more pitiable at the roots; a brittle and fragile self-image. I realised that I'd grown up with the impression that life was an endless quest to prove my worth. The equation I grew up believing was baby of family + school nerd + shy kid = wimp who really needs to work even harder to prove herself worthy of praise. I had to hear the words, "Well done, you've done a great job," to allow myself to bask in the luxurious feeling of achievement. Hearing those words spoken to others while I was standing there seemed as if the speaker was silently reproaching me for falling short.

There was what I'd call a 'double subconscious assumption' going on. I subconsciously felt that they were subconsciously judging me and finding me lacking in some way. Is this crazy? You bet! Miserable, complex creature I was. So to me, the words, "Wow, (Billy or Jane) writes fantastically.... speaks inspiringly ... has great kids ... knows how to look after people....etc" meant that they were actually saying, "and you don't!"

When I finally saw this beast for what it was, it was far easier to exorcise it. I think you have to know what you're dealing with before you can tell yourself, You're doing that thing again! It doesn't mean that and this isn't even about you at all. Something that happened at church years ago was eye-opening too. A pastor was preaching a message about people who dare to step out and make a difference, mentioning several congregation members as examples, while I sat there with a churning stomach feeling like scum. Over morning tea, I mentioned to him that I found his message convicting, and he casually replied, "Oh, well you're already doing it, with your books and your children." It stunned me to think that people might not actually be thinking critical thoughts about me.

Sometimes old-timers' advice, although we may think it corny and cliched, is actually sound because it's stood the test of time. "Face your demons" may be a good example. It also showed me that I was misdirecting my focus. My Bible tells me we're aiming to hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant," when we've finally finished our sojourn on this earth - so the desire to please and impress is built into our human blueprint - but getting sidetracked into hearing the words from anybody all the time makes us sad and sour people. "I'm working for an audience of One" may be another of those wise old terms that help when we really take it on board. And remember, a bit of compassion and love with no strings attached from yourself may be just what you need.

You're a wonderfully unique creation of God, full of potential and worthy of kindness and respect, regardless of what messages you seem to be receiving from others. On the flip side of the coin, others are too, so you can feel free to give them admiration and praise without needing to feel that your own position is threatened.
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