Archive for April, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!!!

Call into work. Take off from school. Let church bells ring. Let angelic choirs sing. Let flags fly at full staff. Today culminates another Happy Gestation Period! (<--Um, new readers may not want to click the madness of that blog entry. Heck, older readers have only just now repressed the memory of that one. You’ve been warned.) My mom took her funny pills this week. I received a birthday card from her and she knows I have a … tendency … to open cards in such a way to allow the contents to fall out. So she put in a dollar, just to get my hopes up and dash them (with a note that read “what’s left of your inheritance”). I went into work early so that I could essentially take today off. So I spent the day (re-)reading The Imago Sequence and editing my urban fantasy novel. I suppose I ought to thank Facebook and MySpace: I have been deluged with birthday greetings this year. Thank you all for your kind remembrances. Between the cards, phone calls, and random drop ins, it’s been a full day. As I type, my house is full. Surrounded by friends and family, I can’t think of a better way to spend my day.

And Happy Birthday fellow horror scribes Brian Knight and John C. Hay.

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Bob Freeman is Nuts

So I am going through my normal procrastination ritual of reading some of the hundred or so blogs I’m subscribed to, when I run across Bob Freeman’s blog entry on how he blogs. It’s a question folks like Bob and I get from time to time that I know quite a few folks wrestle with: how do you blog?

I blog just like Bob.

Except completely different.

God bless the writers who can just sit down to a blank page, completely unintimidated, with just an idea, and just start writing, because I couldn’t do that. I need a map, some sort of guide even if it’s just a rough sketch to keep me somewhat on point (or at least make sure I reach a point). It’s not always the case, but I bet you can tell when I don’t at least sketch out my thoughts first, else they pretty much stay the same half thought out idea they began with (this blog began with “Bob is nuts”).

Does blogging take away from my real writing time? No, blogging is PART of my real writing time. I understand what the asker is aiming at. The time I spend blogging is time that I could be working on a novel or a short story or an article, and that’s quite true. But it is still writing (and one day I’m going to calculate just how many words a year I generate in blogging alone and compare that with my “actual” writing output).

I blog on a variety of topics, mostly just whatever I’m thinking about at the time and I publish them in a variety of venues (Indy.Com, Blogging in Black, Hollywood Jesus) for greater exposure and because if I can make money by my writing I most certainly will (heck, I’ve even sold ad space on some of my older blog entries). But I can’t write the way Bob does.

My blog mentors, whether they realized it or not, were/are Nick Mamatas, Brian Keene, and Lauren David (she hates it when I point out that I began blogging as a weird sort of competition with her), thus the weird mix of topics. My blog is my professional face, often the first thing prospective editors and agents look at when they visit my site. I also blog with a distant eye on one day bundling up various blog posts and packaging them as non-fiction book proposals.

But I like I tell folks, there’s no hard and fast rule to this. Half the time I envy those folks who can sit down and write because (and this is my issue) I see them as more authentically artistic. The other half of the time, I wonder if they’re the same folks who talk about their works in progress in the blogs saying things like “I had to cut out 20K of words that didn’t work”. And then I thank God for my map (he says knowing that he’s about to sit down to re-work his first novel to cut 40K out of it because, like a typical guy, he didn’t stop to ask directions when he got lost).

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Who Cares What They Think

Do you know what a highlight is for me as a blogger, as a writer period? When something I write generates thought or good conversation. After my last Blogging in Black column, I received the following comment:

Hi Maurice, Dealing specifically with the comment “(and many of us live with the insecurity of fearing that we’ll one day be exposed as the frauds we secretly believe we are)”. I haven’t ever had this problem. Sometimes I think that I should; that the lack of this insecurity is proof of a) inflated sense of self and/or b) willful blindness to reality. But, one of the reasons I didn’t study English literature in uni after having done it for A-levels/college and have no desire to do an MFA, is that I have a serious problem with the quality pronouncements of the ‘They’ of the literary world.

Continued on Blogging on Black.

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Creative Space Summer – A P.S.

One of the things we say we’re about is being a missional church. Being missional can take on many different ways of being lived out. Sometimes they will be ministry opportunities within the Dwelling Place. Sometimes it will be service opportunities with neighbors or otherwise reaching out to our neighborhood. Sometimes it will be partnering with groups who don’t necessarily claim the Christian story. My co-leader in the Big Kids Class has become a one woman idea factory. I just got this e-mail after telling her about my Creative Space Summers idea/experiment:

Hey Friends,

In thinking about the arts program for this summer and even craft stuff for Sunday school, I’ve been trying to think of ways to use the arts/crafts. In the book I have been reading, “Jesus for President,” Shane Claiborne tells how their church practices the resurrection by taking old “dead” things and uses them, like using an old fridge for a compost bin or planting flowers in old toilets (that grosses me out). He also talks about how they see making beauty where there was nothing or ugliness is practicing resurrection….bringing life to the dead around us. SO…I was wondering if we could pray and talk about ways to use the arts program to bless not just the kids, but the community.

Amber makes cards. She said she is willing to teach a class on how to make these really cool cards. Now, here is the question…who could the kids bless with the cards? The homeless? Outreach kids or workers?

[He Who Would Be Head Pastor], I wanted you to be in on this email so you know what kind of stuff is going through my mind. See what you have done to me?!? Actually, I feel more like I am practicing the presence of Jesus in my life now then in all the years of Awana, VBS, and a myriad of other activities combined. Thanks to all of you! Cindy P.S. Another “marginalized” group we could bless with our artsy craftsy kids stuff is the people in nursing homes. When my mom was dying, we were told over and over again by hospice care how blessed she was to have us…her family. They said there are so many people out there dying alone.

Like I said, it’s an ongoing experiment, but I love it when people take up the reins and fill out what being missional means rather than waiting for the “leaders” to do the imagining for them. He Who Would Be Head Pastor sent the following note to her:

Hey, I am all for you – keep dreaming and thinking big – I have a real heart for these things as well. This actually fits well with the series we are doing. I am trying to give people a bigger theology and a bigger understanding of the gospel than ‘Jesus just comes to save your guilty ass and forgive you’ to more of a wholistic understanding that God is healing the entire cosmos – he will not just wad this wicked earth up and throw it away, but he will redeem, reconcile, renovate, restore what he originally made and and and and he invites us to partner with Him in the healing of the cosmos. All these social justice issues that fundamentalits pushed to the side because they were to busy ‘winning souls’ are now very central to the gospel when we understand a big gospel that includes even the healing of the globe. I pray that God continues to stir your heart with these things and together we can do our part and partner with God. What a great and glorious calling – could there be anything better in the world than to partner with the Creator in bringing about His glorious end for all things when He will eventually fill everything with His presence. I look forward to partnering with you and God in bringing about His redemptive purposes in our time and place.

Sometimes I love this job.

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Out of Patience for Politics

I know, I’ve got to quit wading into politics, but I’ve about had it with the shenanigans of Senator Hillary Rodham-Clinton and her camp.

This is the first time in a while that I’ve not only paid keen attention to the primary (as opposed to my cursory interest in the horse race the media tends to depict it as). We have an opportunity for a completely fresh slate, no incumbent running, no vice-president running as heir apparent. While the Republican question is settled, since my vote is still up for grabs, I am still interested in what the other side of the aisle has to offer.

And I’m seeing too much politics as usual.

You would think the prospect of either a woman or a black presidential candidate as nominee for a major party would be historic enough. It’d be great to see this campaign as a battle of ideals, ideas, and messages of hope.

Senator Barack Obama has invigorated this election cycle, if only as an outsider with limited beltway experience/taint. What I don’t want to see, Senator Rodham-Clinton, is more business as usual as the alternative. If you want to chew each other up before the real election in the Fall, well, I guess that’s between you and your strategists.

I understand that win-at-any-cost politics while maintaining plausible deniability is the legacy of President William Jefferson Clinton. Veiled racism is a new color to your palette. I wonder just how many Geraldine Ferraros/taking the black voters for granted/ left-wing paternalists are in your camp: working alongside us, in seeming support, until one of us gets a little too uppity and needs to be put back in our place.

Don’t think we don’t know coded language when we hear it. We’ve been tacitly demonized as boogeymen of welfare and crime long enough to know it when we hear it. Just like we recognize someone willing to come into the hood when they need something, only to flee back to the suburbs once they’ve gotten it.

So, Senator Rodham-Clinton, I expect more from any potential leader of this country. I’m tired of having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Do better.

Creative Space Summers

I refer to most things that go on at the Dwelling Place (heck, the Dwelling Place itself) as an ongoing experiment. This is because when it comes to starting a ministry or running with an idea, well, you can’t be afraid to fail. Helping to run the “Big Kids Place” inspired me to tweak a few things about Creative Space.* Now, Creative Space was tweaked last year to incorporate our work with some of the homeless teenagers from Outreach Inc. This summer, since my kids will be home for the summer, and likely driving me nuts (and I mean that in the most deeply spiritual sense), I was trying to figure out what we could do to stretch ourselves creatively and occupy our time. But let me back up.

The Sunday after Easter, instead of having the kids back in our classroom, I had them stay in with the rest of the congregation, in the back. He Who Would Be Head Pastor was doing a sermon examining how the Resurrection changes everything in our lives. I was having the kids draw pictures to describe what the Resurrection means to them. I was so impressed with what they came up with (and what parts of the Resurrection story captured their imagination – without realizing it, they essentially covered all of the stations of the cross). I then spread the pictures along the communion table so that the congregation could have images to think about as they took Communion. With that, I had my inspiration for Creative Space summers.

Basically, we’d have a series of structured projects:

-Collage Art: the kids will interpret themselves through pop culture, using magazines and newspapers to cut out images.

-Art Journal: this is a four week project where they will craft their own journal. This will be a mix of crafts and words as they will take turns describing: 1) themselves 2) their friends 3) their family 4) their beliefs

-StoryTeller Sculptures: will be a two week project where we will sculpt the main story teller in our lives. We will then write a story that the storyteller has told us as well as a story about the story teller.

-Photography week: I’m letting the kids loose with cameras.

-Scrapbook week: we’ll be scrapbooking the images captured the previous week.

-Comic Book weeks: we will be telling a story using pictures (and some of the photos).

I was definitely not encouraged to pursue this by my son’s suddenly taking the arts seriously (and having a piece displayed at his school). On the positive side, this will double as a pilot project for a larger arts ministry that a few of us around the city are working on. And I’m following my own advice: I might as well keep experimenting … my dating life alone inured me to the prospect of failure.

*Not that writers are superstitious or anything, but all of the stories except one that I’ve written at Creative Space have sold. And my friend and I just finished the first draft of our movie script. So as far as getting actually projects completed, I’d consider that part of the experiment a success.

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We Wear the Mask

“I can’t explain, you would not understand. This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb.” –Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

We put on masks, masks that become part of us, ones we wear in order to interact with others and the world. Before too long, we become trapped by these false ideas of ourselves. These false selves, these lies of who we are and how we see ourselves, start developing when we’re young. How our families shape us, how we let our friends define us, the fronts we put up in order to appeal to potential mates. We may derive our self-worth from what we do, we’re of value because of how we behave or what we have.

And yet some part of us is miserable under this definition of who we are and longs to find a way out from under it.

We come to believe this lie and try to fix it ourselves, essentially creating a self-salvation scheme as we try to re-create ourselves. “I am not”–a man, for example–but “I can be if”I have the right rims, the right car, the right kind of money, the right bling, the right girl, go to the right school, get the right job. “I am not”–where I should be in life–but “I can be if”I have the right job, the right house, the right kind of money, the right family, and live in the right neighborhood.

On one hand, we see ourselves as gods of our own domains, free to live as we choose. On the other hand, we’re trapped by definitions of ourselves that we can’t seem to escape. Part of leading a self-examined life means getting over the fear of facing ourselves. We have to see the obstacles in our lives, realize where we are, then we can overcome it.

Be they problems in your family, addictions, compulsions or bad decision making patterns, we have responsibilities to our lives. We must be diligent. We must strip away anything that hinders us from being the people we were meant to be. We must always be growing, be “becoming”. Start with a few simple questions: What do you want to change about yourself? What do you know needs to be changed in your life?

Think through the issues you need to change, don’t numb yourself to them. Shed the imposter and become fully who you were meant to be.

“Sanctity lies in discovering my true self, moving toward it, and living out of it… While the impostor draws his identity from past achievements, and the adulation of others, the true self claims its identity in its belovedness. We give glory to God simply by being ourselves.” –Brennan Manning

Runaways – A Review

“Dead-End Kids”

Written by: Joss Whedon
Art by: Michael Ryan
Published by: Marvel Comics

Don’t ask me why, but picking up Runaways #25 sent a ripple of trepidation through me, reminding me of the comic book from the 1980s, Power Pack. It was a needless worry. Joss Whedon was born to write teams. Obviously he knows it because he keeps doing it. Buffy and her Scoobies. Team Angel. Serenity. The Astonishing X-Men. These series play to his strengths: the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, distinct voices, the sense of self-discovery. Whedon is all about the character journey which is rather critical in a book completely about characterization and the changes they must go through.

The premise of The Runaways is simple: a group of kids find out their parents are super-villains and run away. Picking up after Brian K. Vaughn’s run, issue #25 marks both a jump on point for new readers and a bit of a departure for older ones. On the run, our intrepid heroes find themselves in Manhattan, preparing to have dinner with the Kingpin of Crime. The dinner wrings out more in terms of introduction to these characters than a slugfest would have. They walk a tenuous line of trying to figure out if they are heroes or villains and the choices they make only continue to murky up those waters.

“She’s not pretending to be a woman; she’s learning to be a human. She’s trying to change. Become better … She doesn’t fit in, great. Isn’t that what this group is supposed to be all about.” –Karolina

Most super-hero teams are about relationships, a sense of family that comes with the building of a sense of camaraderie and community. This is even more true of teenage heroes as they are at the fun stage of life where they already struggle with issues of self-image (many of them uncomfortable in their own skins), where they fit in the social order (made more complicated by them trying to get out of the shadows of their parents’ villainous history), wrestling with their idea of self-identity, and dealing with feelings of alienation.

Many teenagers find themselves outsiders because they’ve been burned by some community (family, a circle of friends, a church) and are tired of not fitting in, of being rejected, of not being accepted. They put up these “harsh”, abrasive fronts, of the mostly bark/little bite variety, that mask their insecurity. So they adopted this self-defense mechanism: “I am going to make myself an outsider, you’re going to treat me as an outsider, then I’m going to rage against you keeping me on the outside.”

“Regret? It is my meat and drink. My air, my everything. The faces fade, the names get jumbled, but regret … regret never ages.”

People want community, we’re wired for relationships, acceptance, a sense of identity and belonging. The thing is that we don’t often know how to do it or how intensive the work of relationships can prove to be. Some people need to runaway. They find themselves in poisonous circumstances where relationships are toxically entrenched and things could only hope to improve if folks go their separate ways.

Some people are serial runaways. When things get tough, they cut out, running away from their communities and circumstances because they (feel they) have made such a mess of things or burned so many bridges, that they have to leave. There are some positives to be found in this cheating of relationship development: leaving may put them on a different journey, allowing them to grow in different ways, on terms better suited for them. Not only that, but leaving also allows them to re-define themselves and their story so that one day they may be able to return to those communities and be able to say they are truly a different person.

An adroit mix of introspective dialogue and inner turmoil, Whedon sets The Runaways on slow burn which will hopefully lead to a much greater conflict. At least, that’s his typical m.o. That may be the only real criticism of the book: if you are familiar with the Whedon oeuvre, then the rhythms of this book will feel overly déjà vu-esque to you. His explorations of the inner workings of teenage relationships can’t help but evoke his Buffy heyday (and the Kingpin’s appearance reminded me of the Mayor in Buffy season 3).

Be warned: picking up Runaways because Joss Whedon’s name is attached to it will only make you want to go back and pick up the trades of Brian K. Vaughn’s run. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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The Forbidden Kingdom – A Review

“Lord of the Staff”

I have friends who don’t like movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers because they can’t get behind all of the flying kung fu fighters. Somehow they weren’t able to suspend their disbelief for such fighting sequences, however, if one of the protagonists been bitten by a radioactive spider, it would have been all good. In short, movies like Forbidden Kingdom are no different than a super hero movie, except with samurai gear and monk wear instead of spandex.

While it has been advertised as a vehicle that teams Jackie Chan and Jet Li (FOR THE FIRST TIME!!!), there is a plot attached to the movie and it revolves around Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano who basically does a Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) imitation as he plays Frodo in this adventure). Bullied Jason goes through the Gate of No Gate as part of his journey to return the divine staff of legend to its rightful owner.

Based on the Chinese epic story ‘Journey to the West’, The Forbidden Kingdom truly comes to life with Jackie Chan’s appearance and subsequent fight scenes, recalling his Legend of the Drunken Master role. After he shows up, it’s only a matter of time until Jet Li and we get what we paid to see. Granted, this vehicle is something we would have liked to have seen earlier in their respective careers, not when they are both a bit past their prime. They all but don long white, kung fu master beards in this one.

Like all great super hero team ups, there is a fan-demanded battle between the heroes, a misunderstanding, of course. Like all great kung fu movies, there must be a training sequence as our hero manages to learn a lifetime’s worth of kung fu in under a week. This one, however, is filled with laugh out loud moments.

The true story of the movie is the story Jason finds himself in.

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Home and décor is a popular hobby of the hoi polloi today. That does not mean everyone is actually buying carpets left and right or getting laminate flooring at the first chance. That means everything, from the curtains to the bed linens, are being paid equal attention now.
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“It is their opium.” –Jade Warlord (Collin Chou)

Jason finds himself caught up in the whispers of prophecy, the opium/hope of the people under siege by the ways of the ruling empire. The imperialistic power takes the form of the Jade Army, led by the Jade Warlord. The Jade Warlord is like the spiritual aspect to evil taking on a personal dimension in the form of “the adversary.” This evil one is given dominion over the kingdom until the return of their great King.

In the meantime, the Monkey King challenges the reign of the Jade Warlord, his example and disobedience going against the ways of the empire. At one point, the Jade Warlord demanded that the Monkey King bow to him. Their battle seemingly ends with the Monkey King defeated for a time, trapped in stone, awaiting t seeker to find him.

“Go free yourself.” –Monkey King (Jet Li)

What’s interesting to note is that Jason’s quest isn’t for eternal life, the elixir of immortality, but that is a part of what he gains as a part of his journey. His seeking is the point, the end goal unto itself. In some ways, the gospel is analogous to the kung fu training he so desperately wants. It can be had by all, takes many forms, can be found by seekers, adapts to the culture and to circumstance of the seeker, Master and student walking side-by-side (in the way of discipleship) and ultimately, it frees the seekers.

In so pursuing, Jason becomes an instrument of prophecy despite the fact that “He’s not even Chinese.” He, the Silent Monk (Jet Li), the Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) form a band of misfits, yet it is so often how the gospel is carried forth, through flawed vessels. Such counterintuitive ways are how the ways of the empire are subverted. “Vengeance has a way of rebounding upon itself,” the Silent Monk warns. Violence and recrimination continue the cycle of evil, but the honesty of confession and forgiveness break the cycle. The key to defeating evil is truth and reconciliation; the power of forgiveness and love.

To be honest, the fight sequences are sometimes too cartoony. The special effects aren’t exactly seamless and you could practically see the guide wires during some action. When the effects over take the fighting, it robs the specialness of, well, the outlandish violence we come to expect from these movies. We still see flashes of what made these two kung fu movie legends great, in fact, The Forbidden Kingdom may make you want to go out and rent some of their classic movies. Still, it’s quite the crowd pleaser of a romp.

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Enjoying a Good Silence

Our lives are noisy. From the moment we wake up to the blare of our clock radios, to the radio to accompany us to and from work to the television which keeps us company at home to music as a running soundtrack to our lives as we jog or run errands, our lives are filled with constant noise.

When we doing have the noise, the sheer busyness of our schedules, our self identities wrapped up in what we do. Too many of us think that we’re indispensable, that we have to be at our jobs, at every meeting, at every volunteer group or whatever, from sun up to sundown. We run ourselves exhausted, fueled by the certainty that there is not enough time in the day to get everything done. But we try anyway. In being busy for busy’s sake, we fail to realize that much of it boils down to empty activity, ways of hiding from ourselves.

Rather than always running around filling our lives with being busy, maybe we ought to try the underappreciated discipline of learning to be still. Our need for constant diversion fuels both our restlessness and our avoidance as we end up never attending to the things that matter most. Ultimately, we become disconnected from ourselves, God, and each other.

Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the world. Silence is the final reduction, to be completely at rest, in solitude so that internal dialogues can best be had. Oh, we don’t want to. Think of how we punish criminals: it’s one thing to lock them up in their penal communities, but when they are too bad among themselves, we put them in solitary confinement. In the silence, you have the madness of yourself and only your inner junk to deal with. When you have to confront who you are, your fears and your doubts. In this unknowing of ourselves, we are left to deal with the depths of your heart, the emptiness, the loneliness.

But this is a fight that must be waged if you are ever to finally know peace. Times of renewal and reflection, silence and solitude, helps us to cleanse our hearts and listen better.

[This blog would have been a lot shorter had I just written: “Thank God Spring Break is over and my kids are back in school.”]

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