Seven Benefits of Disappointment

I entered a writing contest a couple of months ago.

The results came in the other day and I was disappointed.

My scores were a 95 (out of 100), 98, and……..a 52.

The high-scoring judges recommended that I send off my manuscript without delay to publishers. The low-scoring judge’s critique advised me to change my novel’s concept.

What?!

How can there be such a huge discrepancy in judges’ viewpoints? More important, what can I learn from this experience?

After a cooling off period—every writer needs a few days to get over harsh critiques—and some prayer, self-examination, and further examination of my contest submission, I gained some insights:

1. God is not surprised at the outcome of this contest. He’s not taken by surprise by anything that occurs in my life. He knew about my score long before the judges even saw my submission. He knew that I would have two enthusiastic judges, and one who simply didn’t like my submission.

2. God is not disappointed with me. I am His child. He knows my heart and that I want very much to please Him. He knows my current state of maturity, knows my current stresses, my deepest desires, my most fervent prayers, my most acute wounds. He views me as I was, as I am, and as I will be. And the days of my life are not measured by my timeline of achievements, but in terms of my relationship with God, built on ever increasing faith.

3. God is in charge. Though I rail at Him sometimes at the the slowness in coming of all things I pray for, I know that He is a wise Father. He is not so much interested in satisfying my temporal appetites as He is in bringing me into alignment with His perfect will.

4. Immunization. A contest, followed by a critique is kind of like going to the doctor to get a shot. You know it’s going to hurt, but the shot will prevent something worse father on down the line. Over time, and after several rounds of shots, You get pretty blasé about the experience.

5. Education. Each critique gives me bits of information to help me improve my craft. I paid money to receive critiques, so I should get my money’s worth by heeding the critiquers’ advice.

6. Perspective. There will always be readers who won’t like my story or my writing. I need to get over it. I cannot be all things to all readers.

7. Focus. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the criticism, but I need to force my mind to focus on the positive comments so that I don’t become discouraged.

You may not be a writer, but I’m sure you have experienced disappointment. I hope that my “seven benefits” are an encouragement to you today. Keep on keeping’ on!

“A fool spurns his father’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” (Proverbs 15: 5 NIV Bible)

Antelopes and Suspense

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One of my favorite things to do while traveling through Wyoming is to search for and keep a tally of the pronghorn antelope that graze near the highway.

Pronghorn antelope spend most of their days in a leisurely stroll from one delectable sage bush to another. Mothers keep their babies close by. I’ve often spotted them lying  in small groups, and at other times, drinking from streams. But one of the group is always watching for danger. They don’t laze among trees, but are always out in the open where they can quickly spot a predator.

Their pace is unhurried. But I suspect that God has built into the little antelope the wisdom of conserving energy for times of threat or danger. When I’ve seen the critters actually run, its pretty thrilling, for pronghorn are the fastest land animals in North America, reaching speeds close to 60 miles per hours.

But if the pronghorn was always running, I’m sure it’s speed would one day fail to wow me.

Because of its conserving of energy, the pronghorn makes me think about the writerly craft of building and sustaining suspense in stories.

I once read a suspense novel where every scene was so packed with action that I grew annoyed. Has that ever happened to you, too? Each new chapter dunked me into the dark water of crisis— assaults, break-ins, phone threats, chase scenes— and gave me no time in which to process the high action of the preceding scene.

I’ve had some well-meaning writer friends advise me to keep each chapter “hopping” and to never let the reader catch her breath. This is advice I fully plan not to take.

The most effective suspense and thriller stories weave back story and relationships and motivations into a strong braid in order to build fascination and tension. This takes time. Just like the antelope who doesn’t always run. Oh, the speedy little antelope might run a few yards at the clap of thunder or the shadow of a hawk, but he saves his biggest race for the biggest danger.

In a delectable and suspenseful read we need some down-time. Not every scene has to give the reader a heart attack. Here’s what I love:

  • It’s the writer’s dropping of what seems inconsequential bits of information during a relaxed conversation. Later in the story you—the reader—smack your forehead and say, “Oh, that’s why he mentioned the snake!”
  • It’s the setting-up of a seemingly decent relationship between friend and friend, or business associates, or girl and boy, but with little expressions or movements or phrases between the two that clue you in to, “Something’s not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
  • It’s letting the reader know that the threat is real and it’s coming, but when?
  • It’s delving into each character’s history so we gain empathy.
  • It’s the occasional scary scene that makes us think, “This is it.” But it’s not. Yet.

And when the threat turns into imminent danger, the characters—like the antelope—begin their real run for their lives.

But if everything—for the antelope and the writer—is a race?

Ho hum.

The Glory of Small Things

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I love the mountains, and I’m blessed to live at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains.

For years we’ve hiked at high elevations so we could admire the spectacular snow-capped “fourteeners,” the big, blue skies, cascading rivers and towering spruce.

But after years of admiring the big things, I’ve lately found myself drawn to the little things along the trail. The exquisite columbines, wild rose, cinquefoil, asters, the way moss clings to rock, the tiny, beautifully shaped leaves of the various plants that cling close to the ground.

I used to pass these little things by. They didn’t seem significant in comparison to the majesty of the mountains.

Perhaps the reason I now notice these small aspects of the mountains is because I’ve grown in my ability to appreciate beauty in all its forms.

The mountains are wonderful, but we miss much along the trail if we only notice their lofty heights and fail to look closer.

I think my Christian faith is a lot like this. When I first professed faith, I was impressed by the bigness of the Gospel. That God should love me so much He’d sacrifice His one and only Son.

But later I began to notice (and praise God for) the beautiful, tiny things along the Kingdom “trail.” Not only the bigness of God, but His smallness, too:

  • A single word or phrase in the Word that turns my sour mood into one of rejoicing.
  • Answered prayer.
  • The assurance that He is near—always near.
  • The knowledge that little occurrences such as a random phone call, a chance meeting, discovering just the right article on the internet, are God’s call for me to revise, repent, or re-deploy.

These little daily things make me aware of God’s handprints all over my mind and heart.

The majestic “mountains” made me a believer in God’s Greatness. But it is the small things at the foot of the mountains that give me glimpses into His Glory.

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. (Is. 6:3 NIV Bible)

Safety In Numbers

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A long, long time ago, groups of people huddled around the fire at night.

The fire gave protection from the elements, protection from wild animals, light for those who stayed close.

The comfort and light of “the fire” became the place for fellowship. Stories were told, songs were sung, encouragement bestowed, instructions given, plans formulated.

Children learned the ways of the clan by watching and listening to their elders.

It was a sad and usually tragic thing to be excluded from this comforting circle of warmth, protection and fellowship.

Sadly, today, we Americans have dispensed with the circle of fire of both family and community. Sometimes, we avoid the circle of fire of our church, as well.

The reasons are varied: Too little time, hurt feelings, an independent spirit, a feeling of invulnerability within an economic system that provides never-ending safety nets, and so on.

How sad that technology has replaced fire for our daily comfort and fellowship.

How sad that we have so much that we feel no need to tell our stories and sing our songs to a broader audience.

And how sad that we sometimes fail to recognize that a part of us sickens and wilts when we avoid the circle of human companionship.

About ten years ago, when I lived up in the mountains, I found this pottery sculpture of friends standing around a fire. I call it the “circle of friends.” Their arms are intertwined and each member gazes into the fire. When the candle in the center is lit, the light reflects warmly on the faces of the five compatriots.

This is what God made us for: for fellowship both vertical and horizontal. We are not meant to be alone. Indeed, we are not safe in a lifestyle of aloneness.

Many Christians today think that fellowship and church attendance is optional. As if it is man’s idea, not God’s.

But right from the start, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18)

We have been fashioned by our Creator for fellowship. And even though there are challenges and headaches involved in relationships, the consequences of aloneness are far worse.

By and large, people live longer and lead more satisfied and fulfilling lives when their faces are turned in the direction of others.

Oh My Sinuses!

I’d never had one.

“A sinus infection,” is what the doc said I had after I told her about my raging headache, hacking cough, fever, awful sore throat, general malaise, blocked ears, and…aching teeth?

How can one’s teeth ache?

And the sounds, oh, the sounds that came from me. Surely no human has ever made such sounds. Rrrschpooot! Harruf, hoaoooooooorgh! That was me, trying to clear my throat.

The infection started out so innocently. Mild, transitory headaches and a feeling of not being quite healthy. I was eating right, getting plenty of exercise, downing the right supplements and a daily dose of probiotic. Surely, my body would fight this mild nasty thing off.

But the “nasty” would not go away. So I tried to ignore it.

Weeks of the following passed: “I feel better. I’m gonna take a walk. Oooh, I don’t feel right. Maybe if I lie down for a bit it’ll go away. My teeth hurt. Maybe I need to start using Sensodyne when I brush. They say your teeth can develop sensitivity when you get older. Why can’t I throw this “nasty thing” off?”

The “nasty” waited until Bruce and I were on the road, driving to Illinois, to transform into NASTY. (Why does that always happen?)

By the time we returned home I was sick, sick, sick. The next day I visit the doctor and she gave me an antibiotic.

If I’d been smart, I should have seen her weeks earlier. But I thought if I ignored it, the Nasty would eventually go away.

I think we can all relate. We can also draw a parallel between ignoring a little infection and ignoring other things in our lives that seem minor.

Lesson here for me: take care of the problem (health, work problem, relational challenge, bad habit) when it’s small. More often than not, the problem will not go away, and will get worse if I don’t take care of it. So, Dena, stop procrastinating and do what needs to be done!

Take A Look At Yourself, Bud

(Normally I post encouraging or inspirational messages. But the events on the news lately are so distressing that i wanted to make a point about the origins of injustice.)

In the evening at my local drug store, I had located my purchases and proceeded to the check-out. Another customer joined me in line. Just then, an agitated elderly man stomped up to checkout, not bothering to get in line.

“How come your pharmacy isn’t open?” he demanded.

The clerk, a nice young man, stopped scanning my items and gave the man his attention. “I’m sorry, Sir, but the pharmacy closes at 6.”

“But I called in my prescription here. My wife needs her medicine,” shouted the rude man. Why can’t you open the pharmacy and get my prescription filled?”

“Sir, I’m not allowed to do that,” replied the polite clerk. “But there is a twenty-four hour drugstore just down the road. They can fill it for you.”

The man huffed like a bull about to charge. At this point, there were now three people in line behind me, waiting to make their purchases.

“So, what are you gonna do?” The image elderly man loomed over the cash register, eyes boring into the nice clerk.

“I really sorry, Sir.”

“Well, I’m not!” The disappointed man stormed out, and all of us customers breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Afterward, I slipped into the relative safety of my Toyota and shook my head at that old man’s rudeness. Now, granted, he needed to fill his wife’s prescription.

But he was late. He was rude. He didn’t wait his turn. He shouted and intimidated others. He expected the clerk to break the law by playing pharmacist. Never mind that the clerk could get fired and even sent to prison for dispensing drugs without a license.

Everyone was to blame for his failure to get his prescription filled. He cared not one whit for anyone but himself.

This experience reminds me of a Dr. Oz show recently where three women were asked about road rage. “What do you do when somebody cuts you off?” the good doctor asked.

All of the women responded with, “I flip them the bird.”

Not one of them recognized that their tit-for-tat response on the road contributes to road rage.

Nope, it was solely the other guy’s fault.

It’s extremely rare nowadays for a person to admit his own culpability in an angry altercation.

In divorce, in family relationships, in work situations, in church misunderstandings, in race relations: it’s always the other guys.

Where is the self examination? Where is the repentance? Where is the reconciliation?

On first glance, I’d like to say that we have a societal problem.

But it goes way deeper than that.

This is a spiritual issue. An individual issue.

Baltimore? Ferguson? Political corruption? A national psyche building itself on the premise that tolerance of badness, coarseness, rudeness  is good. We have no right—indeed, we are bigoted and racist—if we expect certain standards of behavior. Rioters—and little children in the home—should be allowed to express their rage through physical violence. Even well-meaning, but mis-lead Christians say we have no right to judge bad behavior. Never mind that the scriptures tell us that we should: “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the rudeness and selfishness of the old man in the drugstore. He’s a microcosm of an attitude that permeates nearly every area of our society.

Without the mirror of God’s Word, we assume our own faces are spotless. It’s the other guy who’s got the grimy face.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility considers others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2: 3,4 NIV Bible)

“I’ll Show Ya”

When my second son, Garrett, was about two and a half, he loved to be the little explorer.

What I couldn’t find, he’d find.

Garrett had an almost uncanny and precocious ability to figure out where things were, be it around town, at Disney World, or at a never-been-there campground.

He’d lead the way with his sunny smile and his confident, “I’ll show ya.”

Nine times out of ten, the little guy was right.

It’s cute when a toddler explains the world to adults. (And astounding when he’s right.)

But I tend to get annoyed when someone I don’t know tries to supply me with instructions. He or she may be right, but they haven’t earned my trust yet.

A couple of years ago, I helped a friend move. One of the other helpers was a guy with an obvious chip on his shoulder. Whatever items I decided to place in a box, he felt it necessary to tell me how to pack the box, tape the box, label the box, stack the box. He was no more a professional packer than I was. Finally I told him in a very sweet tone that I’d be happy to finish the job, and perhaps he could tend to the other side of the room. Honestly, I said it very politely.

The guy muttered something about how women get their dander up and they’re so emotional. I kept my mouth shut, but I wanted very much to tell him that anyone, male or female, would get annoyed when a complete stranger intrudes on one’s assigned job and takes it upon himself to become the supervisor.

I guess the problem was in the lack of relationship. Why should I trust this stranger’s directions when I don’t know if he is trustworthy? I haven’t had time to check him out.

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(My trustworthy super-guys: Bruce, Garrett and Roen)

Who do you know who’s trustworthy? It’s not so hard to accept directions from them, right?

Jesus doesn’t wear a chip on His shoulder. He’s completely trustworthy. When He says, “I’ll show ya,” it’s for our good, and for our protection. Not to satisfy His bruised ego.

And He’s always right. Amazing!

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1 NIV Bible)

Seeking the Creator in nature and the arts

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