Thursday, July 31, 2014

Joanne Norton’s “The Annie Project”

Many novels contain events, scenes and people taken from the author’s life. “Write what you know” is a familiar dictum from editors and critics, and most writers, even those who write fantasy and science fiction, take that advice to heart.

But it’s not often that one reads an introduction to a novel an admission that the author is two of the main characters of the story. Right at the beginning of The Annie Project, Joanne Norton makes that statement: “I am two of the main characters. My official name is Carolyn Joanne, although I’ve been only called Joanne since birth. So, in the book, I am ‘Cary’ and ‘Annie.’”

What that statement does, of course, is tell the reader that while this is a novel, it is also something of a memoir, something of an autobiography, and, in Norton’s hands, something of a testimony.

But most of all, The Annie Project is a story, a big story, the story of how an elderly woman’s concern about a young girl next door leads to the redemption of a family.

Cary Nolan is a recent widow, a former missionary, a mother and a grandmother. After her husband’s death, she moves to a small town called Newton to be closer to her children. And next door is a mother who drinks herself in an alcoholic stupor, a teenaged boy constantly in trouble with the law, and a 12-year-old girl named Annie who’s angry at the world. They’ve been abandoned by the father.

Norton on a mission trip in Uganda
Cary looks at Annie, and Cary sees a lot of herself. Perhaps too much of herself.

So Cary decides to do something. She has enough wisdom to know that reaching out to Annie won’t be an all-or-nothing proposition, but more of a little bit here and a little bit there. And it won’t be all victories.

Things happen in The Annie Project. Lots of things. Annie’s mother disappears. The father returns. Annie’s brother gets into more trouble. Cary goes on a short-term mission trip to Uganda (and, I suspect, an event in the novel that is clearly autobiographical).

Norton writes with passion. She is passionate about Annie’s story, because she is passionate about her own story. She knows the meaning of grace, both receiving and giving it. She’s passionate about sharing the grace she’s been given.

And she knows that while this may be Annie’s/Cary’s/Joanne’s story, it is also our story. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Heaping Burning Coals

At work not long ago, a large group of us were having a luncheon meeting to discuss an upcoming marketing campaign. Part of the campaign involves talking directly with the public, which is something of a leap for a non-consumer business.

This has been building for months. And on this day, the discussion is around the company’s “persona” or voice, and what it should sound like, what language should be used and what language to avoid, and possibly even what movie actors in various roles might suggest for the effort.

The discussion reaches a point where it’s noticeable that I’m not participating. So I’m asked for my opinion.

“When did we forget how to talk with people?” I ask. “When did forget to put ourselves in others’ shoes, hear what they’re saying, and find a way to respond to their concerns? Why do we think we have to script everything? We’re talking about being authentic when it sounds like what we want is to control the conversation.”

The conversation takes a turn, and in a good direction. Not everyone agrees with what I say, but it’s not easy to argue that authenticity may be the antithesis of what’s being proposed. But at least this issue is out on the table, recognized, debated, and, if not resolved, at least understood.

I’m passionate on this subject. The people around the table hear it in my voice. I hear it my voice.

This is one of those days I feel like a dinosaur. This is not generally the way the company is going, nor is it generally the way the world is going.

Afterward, alone in my office, I think about the church. And I understand what has been troubling me for almost the last 15 years. The business conversation we had at lunch applies to what I’ve experienced at two churches for the last 15 years.

Here’s what Francis Chan says: “We’ve created a whole brand of churches that do not depend upon the Spirit, a whole culture of Christians that do not depend on the Spirit, a whole culture of Christians who are not disciples, a new group of ‘followers’ who do not follow.”

I read those words in Chan’s Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, and I feel burning coals being heaped upon my head.

Been there, done that.

When did we forget to depend upon the Spirit? When did we decide that Willowcreek is the model, or Mars Hill is the model, or “one church / multiple campuses” is the model? When did we start applying the notion of “success” to the church and defining and measuring success by size and numbers? If it was about numbers and size, why didn’t God start with the power and size of Rome instead of some fishermen in an empire backwater?

Perhaps it’s the effects of getting older and more curmudgeonly. Perhaps it’s heard one too many church transformational plans. Perhaps it’s walking into too many church meetings or seminars and being ambushed with a great new revitalization proposal to “bring millennials back to the church.” Perhaps it’s singing one too many repetitious praise songs in worship services.

Those heaping coals are burning.

“God is not interested in numbers,” Chan says. “He cares most about faithfulness, not the size, of His bride. He cares about whether people are lovers of Him.”

And big buildings, big music, big attendance, eclectic services, church planning consultants, fundraising programs, new communications technology and coffee bars can’t do that. None of these things can do what God cares most about. These things come from man.

Only the Spirit can do what God cares most about.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Forgotten God. To see more posts, on this chapter, “Supernatural Church,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An eternal silence

An eternal silence beneath
the surface of the wave, moves
untroubled by the crashing
sound above, moves forward,
always forward. The line
of sight compresses
to a infinite point
where the four converge:
four corners of sand,
of sea, of shore, of air;
four boundaries of earth
of air, of fire, of water.
Four winds blow unseen.
Four horsemen gallop
unheard and unhearing.
Four muses cry unanswered
and ignored, the cries emptying
into a wave of silence.

Tweetspeak Poetry has a poetry prompt this week, and it’s about waves reaching the shore. To see more poems submitted for the prompt, please visit Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Your Work Matters: When Others Don’t Appreciate

I have a job that sounds exciting—I lead the social media team for a large publicly held company.

Every day is different. No day is like any other.

I can plan my day—schedule meetings, carve out chunks of time to get work done, make phone calls, set aside some time for professional development (when it’s social media, you have to keep up)—and about 10 minutes after arriving at my office, I’ll determine whether or not my plans will hold.

They usually won’t.

One recent Wednesday was fairly typical. On the schedule were several meetings, including two with outside agencies assisting with specific projects, one with the company attorney, and another with a visitor from Africa; a special group lunch featuring an outside speaker; and a 90-minute block of time set aside to review a post for the company blog and review online social media activity associated with our company.

I arrived at 8:30. By 8:40, I could see my plans for the day were out the window. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures

Poets and Poems: Boris Pasternak and “February”

Perhaps it was the watery eyes of Omar Sharif, the beauty of Julie Christie, the fierceness of Alec Guiness, or the wounded look of Geraldine Chaplin. What it was, I was a young teenager when I was pulled into the movie version of Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean. It was one of the movies rarely made today – a big movie, with dozens of characters, stories and sub-stories. It was an epic film based on an epic literary work that had only recently been published.

Published in Russian in Italy and forbidden in the author’s own country.

The movie pulled me to the novel by Boris Pasternak, and I read it when I was all of 14. It’s a love story, actually several love stories, set against the backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and the long Soviet night that followed. Pasternak received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, largely on the strength of Doctor Zhivago and his poetry, but the Soviet regime forced him to refuse the honor.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Painting of Boris Pasternak and his brother by his father, Leonid Pasternak.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The choir wore white robes

The choir wore white robes,
spotless, bright white, bathed
in light, moving, swaying
together, giving the impression
of light shimmering, moving,
swaying, to some unheard music,
an orchestration from an unknown
choir director, raising and lowering
invisible arms.

The choir wore white robes,
and began to sing in voices
of white light, cool white,
shimmering sound,
moving sound,
They sang in white robes,
and the skies opened
in brilliant red.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The language of rivers

The languages of rivers
may on that day become
one, together fused
into one, one speech,
one thought, one belief,
one heart, that day
the streams flowed
into a torrent, a force
swirling, raging, a wave
covering all of it, all
of what was before,
becoming what is now,
what will be.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.