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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Out of the Comfort Zone, Into the Conference (AKA, Deliverance 3)

With apologies (and explanation) to my patient readers, to whom I haven't written since January 1, I offer the following:

The Conference

“This is gonna make a great blog article,” I told my friend Mary by way of apology, after keeping her waiting for the second time the morning we were both set to pitch manuscripts to agents at The Philadelphia Writing Workshop. The first offense was when I took too long in the shower and found her patiently playing with her phone as I combed the tangles out of my hair. The second infraction was when I couldn't locate my car in the motel parking garage (panic button notwithstanding) and had to beg the attendant to help me cruise the lot to find my misplaced vehicle. After a harrowing 20 minutes, I emerged from the depths to find Mary had given up waiting at our designated meeting spot and enlisted a motel attendant to help locate her MIA friend.

Mary and I had taken a room together the night before to avoid doing the last-minute rush thing into the city. A darn good idea, too, as I had more than a little agita just getting into Rittenhouse Square Friday night. I’m not a city girl – never have been – and after my thrill-laced adventure into town, I’m convinced, never will be. Combining two and a half hours of rush hour traffic, pedestrian peccadillos, detours, and GPS systems that disregard one-way streets, let's just say the trip was torturous. 

But I'm starting at the end. In the words of Good Witch Glinda, “It’s always best to begin at the beginning,” so, without further ado…

The Idea

Mary Dolan Flaherty emailed me a “Rah Rah, Let’s Write!” article several months ago, after the two of us had engaged in a complaint fest about the pitfalls most writers encounter while honing their craft. At the bottom of the piece was a link to the aforementioned conference, which we both decided to attend. Hence, the room and giggle sharing Friday night.

Alas, if I thought writing had roadblocks, I quickly determined that preparing for a conference to pitch one’s writing signals the starting gun for the mother of all roadblocks.

The Washer

Taking it chronologically, the delays started with the breakdown of my washing machine shortly after New Years. My son beckoned me urgently one evening after starting up said machine, explaining the thing had harrumphed, danced a few inches across the basement floor, then unceremoniously shut off. This necessitated several calls to the manufacturer to troubleshoot and verify what I already knew – the warranty had expired – but they thought they could fix it. Three hundred plus dollars and a missed day of work later, the deed was done, and Mom’s Laundromat was back in business.


The Computer

Next, my computer started misbehaving. You know the drill – sluggishness, refusal to summon the Internet (I think the newest protocol insists we not capitalize the “i” in that all-important, can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it technological wonder), etc., etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong: the device was upwards of ten years old, had patiently accepted the keying in of three manuscript overhauls –
in short, didn’t owe me anything. But why now!

Despite my objections, and not a few consults and troubleshooting visits from my long-suffering, computer savvy friend, Eileen, the diagnosis proved fatal, necessitating research, complaining, shopping trips, more complaining, and finally, a brand-spanking-new computer. I bragged proudly to Eileen after successfully transferring all my files from the old machine onto an external hard drive, which took a couple of hours away from my writing endeavors, but all to the good, right? Wrong. Turned out the external drive had gone the way of the old computer, and none of my files was retrievable. Cue Eileen, who made yet another emergency trip to my doorstep, only to deliver the unwelcome news that a second file transfer was in order. I grumbled my way through, but at last witnessed the lights of glory in the form of a usable new computer with usable, stored files. Only problem was a new operating system that demanded I learn its machinations before getting any appreciable work done.

The Water Heater… and the Flu

In the midst of all this frolicking, my water heater decided to malfunction. Delightful, hot showers began to wax frigid in the middle of my second chorus of “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” – all this in the middle of winter. What to do? The plumber – who had already dropped by to tighten a loose radiator valve (I believe “phlange” is the actual term he spouted after taking two minutes to fix a problem that cost me a whole day of work) – declared a new appliance was probably in order.

All was set for February 20, a holiday from school so I wouldn’t have to inconvenience my employer yet again – but the best laid plans… Nobody told my lungs I had an appointment that day, so instead of welcoming the plumber, I greeted a bad case of flu, which landed me in the emergency room secondary to breathing problems. My bed and I became besties that week, during which time tissues and inhalers got up close and personal with my airways.

Oh, and the water heater installation? Rescheduled, of course.

The Festive and the Not So Festive

The month of March arrived and, with it, new resolve on my part to hunker down with writing and conference prep. There were, however, two or twenty items yet on my to-do list, not least, the birthday celebrations of both my sons and newly adopted, “labor-less daughter” Elise – all within a week of each other! Happy diversions, to be sure, bookended between less pleasant plot twists like satisfying Uncle Sam’s yearly demand for tax computation, completing school financial aid forms, and tending to a nuisance insurance claim. ¡Ay caramba!

I persevered, promising myself that productivity lay just around the corner. What I hadn’t figured on, though, was a ramp up of work stress, including but not limited to an after-school assignment that went from 45 minutes one day a week to three hour sessions three days a week.

Can you see, neglected readers, why I haven't blogged since the first of the year?

The Deliverance

Somewhere amidst all these amusements, the story of Gideon leapt to mind. 

Gideon, the unlikely war hero, who kept God waiting while he attempted to verify almighty instructions. Gideon, who carried out divine directions under cover of darkness, lest he receive repercussions from flesh and blood, only to find his covert action was anything but. Gideon, who gathered his nerve while enemies gathered around him.

Gideon, who subjected Omnipotence to terrestrial tests. Gideon, whose army God whittled down to 300 trembling men, to whom He assigned the unenviable task of opposing the mighty Midianites and their Amalekite allies.

Gideon, whose woefully inadequate army God likened to a banal loaf of bread. Gideon, who carried off the bluff of the century with trumpets and torches, resulting in the overthrow of aforementioned enemies.

Gideon, whose victory with ragtag resources gave this author hope of success despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The Outcome

Turned out many of the setbacks I experienced over this past season were actually gifts. Waiting for repairmen and for illness to subside afforded huge blocks of largely uninterrupted time. Time to tweak my manuscript and assemble materials for agent review (never mind that none of said materials ended up being examined by said agents). In addition, I found I work better under pressure than I once thought, managing to pack three months of preparation into three weekends. 

The surprise ending? I didn't hate the process! Rather, I found myself enjoying my characters and story arc, reveling in newfound enthusiasm in the midst of a third rewrite! 

The best part? Two of the three agents I pitched requested a book synopsis and sample chapters! 

Deliverance. Seemed Easter was a fitting day to expound on that theme.

[Jesus] said, "The things which are impossible with men 
are possible with God!" Luke 18:27

For more like this, check out: Reflections by Thea: Deliverance

Reflections by Thea: Deliverance Part 2, AKA, Jurassic Park Revisited


Reflections by Thea: God Rather Than Men


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Undeserved

"Earn this!" Tom Hanks's character urges Private Ryan, for whom others have given their lives in the eponymous 1998 film. 

But Private Ryan can't earn something he doesn't deserve, any more than my friend, Georg, can earn the gift he received from a drug that was supposed to make him more comfortable while dying, but had the unintended effect of eradicating the cancer that was killing him. 

Neither can I earn the kindness shown me by a stranger on New Years Eve 2016.

When I felt my car scrape his, I knew I was in trouble.

It was dark. I had made a u-turn after missing my friend's street and cautiously (I thought) edged back onto the road, this time going in the right direction.

I hadn't seen his vehicle before it happened, and I didn't see it then. Maybe the car came out of nowhere or, for all I know, he was parked on the opposite side of the street and I swung too wide and clipped him. I didn't know if I'd bumped the car of a man or woman, a wealthy business tycoon or a little old lady from Pasadena.

What I do know is what happened next. I pleaded, "Lord, let him be merciful!" before exiting my Mazda. I held my breath and blurted out, "I'm so sorry! I just didn't see you!"

His face was friendly – what I could see of it. It belonged to a tall man wearing denim (I think). He was Social Security age and driving an over-sized pickup truck. His words will be indelibly etched on my mind.

There were no recriminations, no four-letter words, not even a mild reprimand or suggestion that I visit my optometrist. Any of these would have been well deserved, in order, and a reasonable prelude to demanding my insurance information and a police report.

What came out instead was simply, "I'm OK. Are you OK?"

Was I ever OK!

"I'm fine," I replied in disbelief, then inquired tentatively about the health of his truck.

He barely glanced at it, declared it first-rate, and threw his arm around my shoulders.

"Are you sure?" I pressed, wanting to show enough concern that he wouldn't change his mind and call for a cop. He just laughed and prepared to exit the scene. I asked him to wait, wanting to offer something to this gracious stranger who was letting me off the hook with nary a scolding.

I fished around in my front seat for a tract to share with this dear man, something to tell him about a long ago Traveler who also traded compassion for justice. I came up empty handed, so settled for thrusting a king sized Payday candy bar into his calloused palm. The irony of the name of the confection I’d just bought didn’t hit me till later.

The Traveler he reminded me of had calloused hands too, from long hours spent in a carpenter's shop. Those well-used hands would one day accept nails that were meant for me.

"What's your name?" I asked, adding, "I want to pray for you."

"Paul," he replied, then chuckled, "Somebody ought to!"
I guess I was pretty rattled (and amazed) by the whole incident, because it took me five minutes to locate my keys (I was sitting on them). Paul's headlights illuminated my car while I searched for them. Indeed, his truck remained parked behind mine until I at last pulled away, feeling inadequate and special all at the same time.

Paul never once hurried me, but he did bellow, "Happy New Year!" before driving off into the remaining hours of 2016.

I viewed my car later, and it may have one or two new scratches on the passenger side, but nothing to speak of. Paul's pickup was larger and heavier than my ride, so I imagine it got away unscathed as well. Still, in this world of groping greed and Looking Out for Number One, his selflessness stands out like a lighthouse.

Like Ryan and Georg, I'm just going to have to pay it forward.

Check out "Grace Wins" by Matthew West!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thea, Thea

“Are You kidding me, Lord?”

The words form in my head before I can edit them. Even in the midst of holiday hoopla, I know I’m conversing with omnipotence; there’s a certain decorum to such encounters. I smile, realizing I'm also communing with omniscienceWhy sweat it? 

This is, after all, Christmas Eve, and I know the Almighty realizes this is a hugely busy day for those He came to die for.

I’ve already obeyed Him several times this morning. I woke early, then spent quality time with Him and a few dear friends He laid on my heart. Isn't it about time to get to my chores?

“No, you heard me right, Thea,” He whispers back. “You can choose to ignore Me … but is that really how you want to commemorate My birth?”

I reluctantly seat myself at the keyboard, shooing away fragments of to do lists that are cluttering my brain. The food and presents will have to wait.

The reason I must sit down and write is because the message He’s giving me really concerns all the mania of this time of year. I’ve been mentally checked out most of the week at work (I’ve come to refer to this phenomenon as “Christmas brain”). Task piles upon task as I strive to “get Christmas right,” and I almost resent having to show up at the place that not only represents my livelihood, but also a strong sense of purpose for my existence.

More thoughts arrive unbidden.

“You’ve got another hour, Lord. Then Elise and Aaron arrive, then her father, and he's never been to the house before, and the bathroom's not clean yet, and then we go to Anita’s, and then … “

Breathe.

I had a divine encounter at the super market yesterday. I met up with my son and daughter-in-law to grab the cholesterol and sugar, er, ingredients, needed for today’s festivities. It was the most peace I’ve had all week. Despite the crowds and shortage of parking (we had three vehicles between us), my heart surged with joy to be sharing such madness with two of the dearest people on earth to me. We divvied up the list and finished in short order. I told them I enjoyed every moment of our trip, and I meant it.

I’m ashamed to admit, though, one thing marred my happiness. While scrambling to hunt down my share of the goodies, I bumped into a friend. I haven’t known her long, but there’s a certain depth to our acquaintance that comes from shared struggles. She had been a frequent texting correspondent some months ago, but had fallen off the radar of late and not responded when I contacted her. That’s never a good sign.

She followed along as I shuffled through the peanut butter aisle. At first we chatted about trivialities, but all of a sudden she shared something from the heart. I’m an experienced selective listener (most multi-taskers are), but the down side of only paying partial attention is you can miss important tidbits when you’re in deep speculation about weighty matters like which jar of honey has the best unit price.

I did a mental double take, forced my gaze away from the food fest that had been consuming my attention, and looked her in the eye.

In all honesty, I really didn’t have time for an in depth conversation in that setting and with that company. BUT it behooved me to MAKE time to share my love and concern for her well being, and to let her know I was praying for her. That was all I had to give in that instant, and it had to be enough.

A young boy once had a small lunch which he was asked to share with a great multitude. It wasn’t nearly enough, of course – a couple of fish and a paltry amount of bread. Still, what he had he shared willingly, and at day’s end, thousands left satisfied.

Do I dare offer any less?

The phone rings as I type that last sentence. When my son's number appears on caller ID, I know it means he and his wife are on their way and my time to write is slipping away. 

And I haven't wrapped one present yet.

I think of a long ago party such as the one I'm helping to host today. An important guest was expected, one who had never graced that home before and maybe never would again. When the visitor arrived, one hostess served with gusto, growing more and more resentful of her sister, who chose instead to soak in the presence of their prestigious company. It’s worth examining Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus rebukes Martha, the complainer, and commends Mary, the listener:

“Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’
 And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.’”



Check out Jonny Diaz's "Just Breathe"

                      




Sunday, December 11, 2016

Grinch Pinch


In this season of peace on earth and good will towards men, many joyfully lay down resentments and take hold of compassion. There’s just something about the lights and carols and festivities that beckon us to reach out to others and share the joy.

Why, then, am I in the grip of the Grinch?

We all know this guy. He’s the legendary scoundrel who tried to steal Christmas from the unsuspecting Whos Down in Whoville by cooking up an elaborate scheme to abscond with their Christmas goodies. He found out in the end, though, that he couldn’t spirit away their Christmas spirit.

Would that I were a Who.

I’m not going to delve into particulars because I don’t think I’m unique in the slightest. See, behind the lights and carols and festivities lie labor and cash and family stuff, any of which can squeeze joy out of the well-intentioned faster than December 25th turns into December 26th.  I have my baggage, you have yours, but the bottom line is we all have the “I” word: issues. Just because the calendar flips to December doesn’t mean those issues are laid to rest; on the contrary, they’re often exacerbated by the very season we celebrate.

What to do?

The only means I know of to combat the Grinch Pinch is the one that inspired a young, unmarried woman to welcome a pregnancy that could ruin her societally. It’s the same guidance that caused her fianc√© to stay the course with his betrothed and spurn voices that would label him a cuckold and a fool. It’s the same force that led an unnamed number of stargazers, AKA, wise men, to travel well over two thousand miles round trip to worship a divine baby.

It’s a little thing called the Incarnation, which in simple terms means God laid aside His royalty and became a peon for 30 or so years. He put His immortal nature on hold temporarily and took up humanity, ultimately dying a sinner’s death in our stead. He asks only that we accept His sacrifice into our hearts, not just our heads, and try to pattern our lives after His.

A good start to sending the Grinch packing.

Miracle Child

My friend is very concerned about a family member, whose actions have resulted in the breakup of a marriage and the lives of several school aged children being turned upside down. I pray for this household when I remember, but recently something occurred to bring the whole matter much closer to my heart.

I was visiting my friend’s new baby, whose little body was sweetly wrapped in handmade clothing – gifts, I learned, from the family member who went astray. Before giving way to temptation and sin, this person had lovingly crafted the items for a not-yet-born niece or nephew.

Somehow, seeing these tiny wearables made the situation more real for me. Before, it had been someone else’s problem, someone else’s “family secret,” about which I was concerned from a polite distance. But here lay a child, wearing evidence of the love in this troubled person’s heart for an unknown infant, before darker impulses took over.

It brought me to my knees.

It also brought to mind the following verse, which more or less includes every misdeed of which mankind is capable. Some are explicitly stated; others, included by extension, for what offense isn’t motivated by desire and envy when you get right down to it?

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals. nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. ~   1 Corinthians 6:9-11

I intend to stamp the image of those grace-filled garments onto my brain, as a reminder to pray for both wearer and bearer.

The following song by the Newsboys is my prayer for this misguided soul:




For more like this, check out: Between


Thursday, December 1, 2016

A God Thing

It's a God thing. It really is.

Yesterday I felt about as dreamless as a writer can get. Technology problems, time constraints, and the old rejection monster keep knocking at my door. Writing contests beckon as a way to pad my resum√©, but most cost money; which ones are legitimate and most worthy of the time and expense to enter?  Funny how quickly I get mired in discouragement, despite baby step victories. This past month, I had a couple of pieces published in magazines, one more thing to add to my list of credits.

"Yeah, but..." my mind goes, and ticks off a list of vetoes and unanswered queries from agents and publishers.

I seek advice from wise counselors and others in the profession, and their suggestions don't delight me. I don’t want to take courses to rub shoulders with someone who might know someone who might help me. I don’t want to self-publish, have never felt led to do so. Agent-less though I am, can’t the literary world recognize greatness when it shows up in its inbox?

But, oh, what a difference a day makes!

Today - every bit of it - was like a "Dear Thea" letter from God.

A fellow writer invites me to swap and critique manuscripts with her. Our respective books are at about the same point of readiness and we think alike, so why not combine resources? A long forgotten travel mug with the words, “Look into thy heart and write!” appears in my kitchen. Bible verses that inspire me to continue the work I've begun find their way into my daily reading. Notes from a four-year old sermon* cross my desk, addressing the question, "What do you do when you think you're at the finish line, and it becomes a brick wall?" Not least, the same sermon contains an admonition to pray consistently for things that may never benefit me.

How’s that again?

I admit it, I want accolades. I want writers’ prestige. Heck fire, I want Penguin Random House to seek me out, woo me with a huge advance, and whisk me off on a 15-city tour.

I also want to be able to eat chocolate till the Easter bunny cries “Uncle” without gaining an ounce, but that’s not happening either.

Nevertheless, everything I touch today holds the message, stay the course.

It isn’t about my getting mine, whatever that may be. It isn’t about me getting recognized for a plot line God planted in my brain, or for stringing together sentences that flow well and hold people’s interest.

It is about making a meaningful contribution to an important dialogue our country needs to have. It’s about advancing truth – not relative truth, as so many would declare it, but eternal, absolute truth spelled out in a Holy Book that’s survived for centuries because it contains just that.

And it’s about obeying a calling that persists and resists the urge to give up and insists on being heeded, however long it takes.

It’s about doing each next right thing, as God directs, and leaving the results in His hands.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” – Romans 11:29

 *Notes taken from Rev. Jerry Iamurri's August 26, 2012 sermon based on Daniel 10:1-20.



 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Anything But Old Maids

Some may consider Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, old maids.

The traditional meaning of this derogatory term is a woman no one saw fit to marry. The phrase is rarely employed these days, as many now embrace the single life by choice. However, such was not the case in the Ten Booms’ era. The ideal for most women in the early part of the 20th century involved marriage and motherhood. That was not to be for Cornelia and Elizabeth ten Boom.

Corrie endured a broken heart in her youth when a man she had every reason to believe intended marriage chose another for his wife. Corrie turned to her father, Casper, for solace. He offered her the option of transforming her thwarted romantic love into love for God. Fortunately, she heeded his wise counsel, and humanity is richer for that.

Corrie and Betsie were denied success as the world defined it. Rather than becoming bitter, they found contentment and happiness in caring for their family of origin, pursuing careers in the family watchmaking business, and studying the word of God. When opportunity met necessity, they built a secret room in their house and conducted speed drills with the Jews they took in to see how quickly hunted humans could cluster behind a fake wall.

I submit that these women were anything but old maids. Had they married, their attentions might well have remained on the care and nurturing of their families, rather than saving God's chosen people from the evil inflicted on them by Hitler's henchmen. They likely would have been safely tending their own hearths when Nazis raided their childhood home, the Beje, in Haarlem, Holland. They undoubtedly would have remained ensconced in household duties, rather than ministering to broken people behind barbed wire fences.

And Corrie might never have learned the message she delivered to untold numbers of thirsty souls in a post-war world shattered by violence and grief: “There is no pit so deep, that God is not deeper still.”