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From the Mouths of… Puppets?

I was talking with God this evening about sin and reconciliation, and He ended the discussion in a surprising way, which He often does. Sometimes, conversations with God can be funny, hilarious even, and sometimes they can be convicting. This one should have been the former, but it was definitely the latter. So here follows our conversation, as best I can transcribe.

“Lord, I know you’ve removed my sin from me. You’ve taken it, and I don’t have to bear that weight. But sometimes, it’s really hard to feel that way.”

“I know. It’s true though. They’re as far from you as the East is from the West–from one scarred hand to the other [a la Casting Crowns].”

“I still don’t know how You can use a failure like me.”

“You’re not a failure; you’ve simply failed some times. It happens; look at Peter.”

“Yeah, but he only had three years with You before that, and he didn’t even have the Spirit at that point. I’ve been with You longer than I can remember.”

“Peter was in my presence almost constantly for those three years. He talked with me, walked with me, and ate with me. Yet he still denied that he even knew me.”

“And You still brought him back.”

“That’s grace. And look what he accomplished after that.”

“Yeah, but, God, I don’t think I’m cut out for the kind of huge impact Peter had. I don’t think I can do those kinds of things.”

[Immediately, I heard Yoda’s voice in my head:] “That is why you fail.”

The conversation ended there, and I was left stunned, with a feeling of awe that God really can speak to us through anything. When the Lord of the Universe is speaking to you through a two-foot-tall green puppet, it’s pretty convicting. There’s a feeling of “If you won’t listen to my Word, I’ll still get through to you.” And somehow, knowing that it’s really His voice and not that of Frank Oz lends a bit more gravitas to Yoda’s words.

Now, if God starts beginning conversations with, “Hi-ho,” I’ll know I’m in trouble.

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Goodbye, Uncle Bob

Today, I’m thinking about my (Great-)Uncle Bob, who passed away yesterday morning. He gave me many great memories, mostly food-related. Thanksgivings at his house were awesome, and those amazing, huge 4 a.m. hunting-day breakfasts will always bear his name. He gave me my first vehicle (a pickup truck, of course) and my favorite cookbook. I’ll never forget his voice and his thick Louisiana accent. God rest your soul, Uncle Bob, and may He bring you into His Kingdom to see Aunt Noni again, among rejoicing angels.

Be Strong and Courageous

I haven’t written much here lately. Partly, that’s because (in real life) I’m a very introverted person, and I’m currently directing a play (the Broadway musical “Annie,” opening December 2), which uses up most of my people-interaction quota every week. Partly, it’s because my job situation has been pretty uncertain, and between getting work done for the start-up publishing company (where paychecks are inconsistent) and looking for a job (to find consistent paychecks), I haven’t had a lot of time for writing. What time I have had for writing has been taken up by the book I’ve been hoping to have out by Christmas, which is looking more and more unlikely. And then there’s the fact that everything I’ve been wanting to write here has been basically the same: what God has been teaching me.

While I know that the lessons He teaches me aren’t necessarily (or ever) for my sole benefit, they aren’t always useful for others. And since I keep having to relearn the same lesson, I think it might get boring for readers having to reread the same message. I know I sure get bored learning it over and over—you’d think I would stop making the same mistakes!

So what have I been learning? Well, there have been many, many lessons on perseverence, which, in case you didn’t know, is only developed in trials. As a godly friend said to me, “It’s never real unless there are tears.” Yes, I have cried quite a bit over the last year. There have also been an awful lot of lessons on… wait for it… patience. You know, when you’re looking at the bank account and wondering when that promised paycheck is going to arrive, it’s not all that comforting to read 2 Peter’s “we know that with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Okay, that’s referring to His patience in waiting for sinners to repent, but context isn’t comforting at those times, either.

Another thing I’ve learned: one of the downsides of having faith is that sometimes I really want to doubt. You can’t imagine (or maybe you can, if you’ve experienced this) how annoying it is sometimes to have practically no idea how things can possibly work out, and yet still be confident that they will. Can you believe that I’ve actually wanted to worry? Sure, there have been plenty of times when I have worried, but there have been quite a few when I’ve found myself unable to.

Today, though, was a different story. Although I struggled to get out of bed, I went to my Diehards Bible study at 5 a.m.—there were only three of us today; we must be the Die-really-hards. During the study, I referenced Matthew chapter 6, where Jesus is telling us not to worry. The anti-worry message wasn’t my point, but I still read it. Then, immediately after the study, I got into my car to head home. On the way home, what did I do, but start worrying—and about food and clothes, the very things Jesus mentions!

Now, what’s been really amusing over the last few months is how God has encouraged me every day. He uses little things: a song lyric stuck in my head at the opportune moment, a prophetic word from a friend, a smile from my wife, a dog barking. Today, He used a potato.

I must admit, our larder is pretty bare these days. We’ve learned to survive and be content with very little, so very little is what we have. I mean, after the three-week fructose fast last month (we were actually sabotaged halway through the third week), I now get a ridiculous amount of joy by simply eating a tomato. But today, I was craving something starchy to go with eggs, and all our bread had decked itself out for Christmas yesterday (though green and white mold isn’t actually all that festive). So I was actually getting depressed about breakfast. But God turned on the light in my head, and I suddenly remembered the potatoes in the pantry. Fried potatoes and eggs, oh joy! Like I said, little things.

Then I got a one-sentence email from a friend who is one of my actors, saying that last night’s rehearsal was good and thanking me for the hard work on the show. It’s incredible how much that one sentence meant to me. It seems my friend is following God’s pattern. The little things mean a lot.

 

And that brings me to the point I really wanted to make today.

What is encouragement? We often use it to mean helping someone to feel better or cheer up. But that isn’t what it means at all. Encourage uses the same prefix morpheme as embolden, enshrine, or enamor. The morpheme en- or em- means to put into, to cause to be, or to provide with. You could even say to inspire. Thus, encouragement is the act of inspiring courage.

So when I say that God has encouraged me, I don’t mean that I was sad and He made me happy. I mean that I was losing the battle, and He gave me courage to keep fighting.

We all fight battles every day. They might be physical, emotional, or spiritual. They might be at home, at work, at school, or in our minds. We battle against our sinful nature, spiritual forces of evil (believe me, there is a real devil), and the corruption of the world. And, though other people are not truly our enemies, it can certainly seem like we battle against them too.

So let me encourage you today. Whatever battle you are fighting, you CAN win. Keep in mind, though, that you will need reinforcements; that’s why God gives us His Holy Spirit and the people around us.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. —Joshua 1:9

Life in a Jobs-less World

What worth is there in one man’s life? Does each person’s life matter equally? What is the measure with which each life is weighed? Such questions are inevitable whenever an icon passes away. And while we Christians believe we know the answers, we don’t always act like we believe those answers.

Steve Jobs died yesterday, and the world mourns for him. His name was known far and wide, high and low. His contributions in the worlds of technology and business–specifically, the way he made technology fashionable–will never be matched. Before Steve Jobs, computer nerds

Yet, after all is said and done, he was still just a man. His end was the same as the end will be for the rest of us. So why should there be more mourning for his passing than for the little boy who just starved in Uganda? Or for the woman who just died of disease in India?wore pocket protectors, carried bulky calculators, and spoke a dialect of English so incomprehensible it might as well have been Khamkura. After Jobs, they wear designer blue jeans, carry sleek iPhones, and set the standards of verbal communication. You might say that because of Jobs, it’s now hip to be square.

I guess a friend of mine said it best on facebook yesterday, when he posted about his grandmother’s passing: “I just found out my grandma died this morning. Rest in peace… You will be missed.” Then, an hour later, he commented, “I guess Steve Jobs also died today. But I doubt his tamales were as good as grandma’s.”

Each life is valuable and should be cherished. One makes great contributions to the world of technology. Another makes great tamales for her grandchildren. Both matter equally.

So as we all remember an iconic and influential man, let’s also remember those whose only influence was on the lives of their children, or those who never had a chance to influence anyone at all.

A Pirate’s Life for Me

Sorry it’s been so quiet around here lately; life gets in the way. I was writing a comment on a facebook link that my friend Brian Jacobs shared, and I realized it had turned into a blog post. So I decided to simply post it here.

Brian’s link was this video interview with Neil Gaiman: http://www.wimp.com/neilgaiman/.

I totally agree from a producer standpoint. Japanese manga/anime publishers had this attitude for many years (though I hear it’s changing now): we will allow fansubs (fan-produced translations) of our work because it’s free publicity. More people are being exposed to our content, and many of them are going to want to buy the authentic version (whether for better image/sound quality, original language, or whatever).

On the other hand, Neil Gaiman can afford to give away free books for a month. Those of us with smaller names have to be more strategic and creative.

Now, from a consumer standpoint, I value the artist’s work and want said artist to produce more. The best way to ensure that is to pay the artist. It’s a little more complicated when agents and publishers and government all have to get their piece, but the core is that I, as a consumer, want to pay the artist. This principle is held by most people, and that is why free (or pirated) products drive sales.

The flipside of the principle is that, since I value the artist’s work, I want others to value it. I want to share it. No one has a problem with this sharing if it involves a physical object, like a book. I have paid for the book, and it is, thus, my property. I can share it if I wish. The problem arises when I want to transfer the work by any other means. For example, if I legitimately acquire and then make a photocopy of the script for a Broadway show, that’s a problem. The content is not my property; the form is my property. The content, ultimately, belongs to its creator. [Wow, there could be a pretty deep theological discussion in here.]

But what if the creator has not made a way for me to legitimately acquire and share the content? Well, personally, I’d say I’m not at liberty to share that content, at least not beyond a certain point (“fair use” comes into play here). But there are people who, finding the content unavailable, will find a means to make it available. You want this physical book as an eBook? Just scan the pages, save them as a PDF, and open the file on an eReader. Sure, it’s poor quality, but it beats nothing, right? I disagree, but some people think this way.

So what’s the bottom line here? As a content creator, it’s my obligation to make sure my work gets out to consumers in any form they want. As a publisher, I’m responsible to both the creators and the consumers to make sure this happens (and I’ve actually not been doing very well on this front). And as a consumer, it’s my responsibility to let creators know what form I want, to promote them if I can, and to ensure that I always place the proper value on their work.

Skill: Craft (Cheese) +1

My friends brought us a quart of fresh goat milk last night, so what did I do? That’s right, I made cheese.

This time, I didn’t quibble about measuring at all; I just used the remainder of the first culture packet. When I had mixed it in (about 7:30 last night), I sealed up the jar and put it in an insulated, soft-sided cooler along with a rice-filled pillow that we had microwaved for a minute (works wonders as a heat pack).

I let that sit overnight and opened it about 9 this morning. The curd had firmed nicely (solid and springy to the touch, but easily punctured or cut with a finger or utensil), so I broke it up with a spoon and spooned it into the muslin-lined colander to drain. I let it drain (saving the whey, of course) until about 11:30. I checked it then to make sure the muslin hadn’t clogged, and I determined that the curd was dry enough for my taste. I also tasted some, and found the flavor to be a little stronger than the last batch. This may have resulted from the slightly longer setting time before draining the curd.

This time, instead of leaving the curds plain, I put them into a food processor and added a bit of diced onion and chives. When blended, I found I had made a beautifully creamy cheese that spreads better than butter. My first homemade shmear! (Technically, though, shmear is supposed to be whipped, not just blended.) The results are delicious, especially on my wife’s homemade French bread, and I continue my epic cheesemaking quest.

Cheese at Last, Cheese at Last!

Well, it finally happened. I have taken the first step toward becoming a real-life cheesemaker.

Last Thursday night, my wife and I went over to my mentor’s house. He and his wife have begun a small farm on their half-acre property, and as part of this venture, they have a small flock of goats (4 adults now and 3 kids). My wife got to milk the goats that night, and our friends said, “You did the milking; you get the milk.” So we got our first fresh goat’s milk, woohoo!

We only went home with a quart and a half, which isn’t much, considering all of the goat cheese recipes I have tell me to start with a gallon or two. But I decided that this was the time to start, and I would just use the quart and cut the recipe in 1/4.

I decided to start with the Chevre recipe; it was the simplest and quickest. The recipe is designed to produce a soft, unripened cheese (think cream-cheese texture) in about 36 hours. So Friday morning, I (indirectly) heated the quart of milk to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, added the Chevre Direct-Set Starter Culture from Lehman’s, stirred, put the lid on the jar and the pot of water in which I heated it, and let it sit 12 hours.

There were two problems at this point. First, the packets come in pre-measured quantities, designed to go into one gallon of milk. I had to estimate pouring in 1/4 of the packet, and I think I used a little too much. The second problem is that the house is cold in the mornings, even in the middle of the summer, which this isn’t. The milk is supposed to sit at around 72 degrees for 12 hours; that’s a difficult thing to accomplish when you know the house won’t get to 72 degrees until… well, the second week of July. Actually, the upstairs would get over 72, but not until four in the afternoon. The downstairs probably wouldn’t hit 70. But I figured, the pantry stays a bit warmer than the rest of the downstairs, and it has a door that can be closed. I decided to leave the milk in the pot of warm water and set the whole thing on a shelf in the pantry for the day, with the door closed. That turned out fine.

That night, I broke up the curd and poured the curds and whey into the butter muslin to begin draining. I had the muslin set up in a colander on top of a stainless steel bowl in the sink. It turns out, the whey is really good for use in baking bread, and my wife has been on a bread-baking kick lately.

Here’s where the biggest problem occurred. The recipe in the recipe booklet conflicted with the recipe on the culture packet. The booklet said let it drain for four to six hours; the packet said six to twelve. I went with the packet, thinking that the product would have the most accurate instructions. So we let the curd drain until the next morning (about ten hours). Oops.

What I got was not the soft, cream-cheese texture I’d imagined. Instead, the cheese was fairly solid, crumbly, and a bit springy. It broke into small pieces as we tried scraping it from the muslin, and it squeaked when we chewed it. The cheese had turned out exactly like the “cheese curds” we tried last fall at the Tillamook Cheese Factory!

The taste of the cheese is very mild (even with a good deal of salt), and it gives a very interesting texture when sprinkled on spaghetti or soup. I’d say the first experiment was a success. Next time, I won’t let it drain as long, though.

Why Do You Serve?

I received an email from my church today, and I assume everyone else who serves in any ministry and holds a valid email address did as well. It was a generic thank-you-for-serving message with an additional request. The church is holding its annual ministry fair this weekend, and they are apparently putting together a multimedia presentation that will include quotes from members. So this email asked for a one- or two-sentence response to the question “Why do you serve?”

Well, if you know me, you know I’m slow of speech and fast of finger–I am not of many words when speaking, but I find it very difficult to avoid being longwinded when writing. Two sentences wouldn’t have been nearly enough. So here’s my response to the question.

It’s the wrong question. The real question is, “Why don’t I serve more?” I mean, there are so many needs to be met in the church. There are always holes in the tech department, nursery, children’s ministry, facilities, you name it! In fact, I sometimes feels like the only places where I serve are the ones that don’t really need me. There are plenty of bass players (more skilled than I) to fill the worship team schedule, lots of people audition for Christmas Dessert Theatre every year, the choir would still be strong without me. (I do assuage my conscience by serving in children’s ministry.) I know that some people appreciate me serving where I do, but it sometimes feels like there is more need in other places.

Shouldn’t everybody? After all, the Bible is pretty clear that Christians are supposed to be serving. Over and over, we are told that the greatest shall be the servant of all; that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works; that our leaders prepare us for works of service to build up the Body; that faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows. Philippians 2 is one of my favorites: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who… made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…”

I am grateful. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: we show our gratitude for living by living rightly (“by not being Oscar Wilde”). God has given me so much, especially through this church, and I am more grateful than I can say. So if I can’t say it, I might as well try to show it. If I’ve received a blessing, I should strive to multiply that blessing to other people. You know, we only truly love God when we love people.

You may be thinking, But I serve in other places! The Bible doesn’t limit us to serving only in the church. It’s true, and good for you for serving people outside the church! But we are called to serve within it.

So what do you think? Where are you serving, and how would you answer the question?

Shiny Newness

I’ve been pretty quiet here lately. There have been many reasons for my lack of content generation, some of them are probably even good ones.

Partly, I’ve been lazy. Partly, I’ve been caught up in Asimov’s Foundation series (three books in two weeks; that’s pretty good for me). Partly, I’ve been inspired to get back to writing my fantasy series (I had put it down for a year or so; I’ll put up a post about the series soon), in addition to the nonfiction book I’m co-authoring. Partly, I’ve been working diligently on several editing projects (including Brian Jacobs’ second Enigma Squad book).

Most recently, though, I’ve been consumed with a new project for our company, Creative Fuel Studios. I’m officially the Director of Publishing there, which is great — I don’t think there’s anyone as young as I with that title anywhere else in the world. The only problem is, we’re not a publishing company. Since we formed the company, we’ve been claiming to be an “Interactive Media” company, but if you looked at our portfolio, you’d think, “Design Studio.” Most of the company has been too caught up in doing what pays the bills to do much of what we really want to do. And what is it we want to do? Content creation and production.

That’s where I come in. I run the company hobby.

It’s been quite a ride trying to figure out how to do that, but I’d grown pretty frustrated in the last month or two at trying to do it on my own. Then my wife started working at CFS. She inspired me (as she so often does), and we started brainstorming. The ideas kept building, and we developed a plan. We’re now developing CF Publishing as its own vehicle, and I’m driving! Between facebook, Twitter, and our blog, I think we’ll actually be able to start leading the industry, generating new, awesome content and ideas. So fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a fun ride!

The Digital Future

For several weeks, I’ve been reading through an online conversation between authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath.  It’s incredibly long (hence the several weeks reading it) and some bits are not worth reading, but for the most part, it’s very insightful.  The premise for the conversation is that Eisler, a successful author, just turned down a $500,000 contract with a legacy publisher (one of those big-name, traditional, advance-against-royalty-paying companies) in order to self-publish his books.  Konrath is a talented young author who has made a fortune by self-publishing.

They make some very sound points, though there are some holes—specifically, their knowledge of baseball history, according to Mike Shatzkin.  Shatzkin also points out how Amazon-centric the conversation is; the authors don’t mention the wide variety of self-publishing services available.  On the other hand, if Amazon’s CreateSpace is what Konrath used to become hugely successful, would you expect him to worry about any other services?

So I wanted to add my two cents.  Here’s my big idea: No one is sure what the future holds, but everyone can see some probabilities.  For example, Konrath states what seems to be a high probability when he says, “Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.”  I think it’s true, and it’s probably the direction that the publishing side of my company will be headed in the next two years.

Here’s where I think Konrath is a bit short-sighted (not that it matters much to him, since he’s made a killing already).  He says that one point in favor of digital publishing is that

virtual shelf life is forever. In a bookstore, you have anywhere form a few weeks to a few months to sell your title, and then it gets returned. This is a big waste of money, and no incentive at all for the bookseller to move the book.

But ebooks are forever. Once they’re live, they will sell for decades. Someday, long after I’m gone, my grandchildren will be getting my royalties.

He’s spot-on about the no incentives for booksellers bit.  But eBooks will not be “forever” for long.  Again, I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems consistent with past trends.  I’m predicting that within the next year or two, Amazon will roll out a maintenance fee for every title in its virtual store.  Why?  Why not? They’ve done all they could to become the top dog in bookselling, they do everything they can to get their cut from publishers, they essentially tried to buy up the entire eBook market a year ago, so why wouldn’t they start taking a bigger cut than they already do from authors?

Konrath’s books may sell for decades, but his grandkids will have to fork over a significant cut to get those royalties.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the only player in the game, and authors will probably be able to cut some sweet deals with other booksellers for a while.  But once everyone else sees how Amazon plays the game, I’m guessing they’ll want a piece of the action as well.

We’ll see in a few years if I’m right or not, but one thing is certain: things aren’t going to stay the same as they are now.