Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me. Ezra 7:28b (NIV)
I caught a trailer for the movie Birth of the Cool the other day. Musicians talked of the recording session of one of the most iconic albums of all time: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The musicians were surprised when Miles had no score for them. He simply had “sketches” handwritten.
“We’re just going to play,” Miles told his band.
What happened in that studio, what flowed through those musicians as they “just played” changed the history of music.
I’m not fluent in the language of music, but I believe there is a parallel when it comes to other things in life. I have experienced “it” a couple of times on stage, and it is almost impossible to describe. The scene I’m playing becomes a separate reality. At that moment there is no audience. The present slips away. There is a sense of otherworldliness to it. I slip into another dimension. When it’s over, it feels like waking from a dream.
There is a similar experience I’ve had writing. Time stopped. The words flowed. They were not my words. They were flowing through me. The words were leaves falling from the “tree of tales,” as Tolkien described it. I just happen to be the conduit. I sat down at the keyboard to write. Suddenly I was on the lawn with two men sitting there in their lawn chairs. I was eavesdropping on their conversation; transcribing what they were saying. I have no idea how long I typed. I just wrote what I was hearing. When it was over I had thirty-five pages of dialogue.
I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I have heard those who are speak of “being in the zone.” Time changes. The ball slows down. You see things before they happen. Everything just flows.
In today’s chapter, Ezra mentions three times a similar flow in his life circumstances:
The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
…he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.
Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
Favor. Zone. Flow. There is something mystical and mysterious to it, but I’ve experienced it. It is the Hand. It is favor. It is tangible grace. Things just happen and I am doing nothing to create it, cause it, or make it happen. I’m just the conduit.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that we are made in the image of the Creator. When we ask, seek, and knock at the door of our birthright, we occasionally find the gracious, favorable flow.
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Acts 28:30 (NIV)
It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.
As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?
I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.
Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.
I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.
And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.
The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.
In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.
I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.
I quietly reached a milestone in my journey as a blogger yesterday. With my post Time, Distance, and Perspective I have blogged my way through the entire Bible twice. Along with posts that are basically diary entries about me and my family’s life journey, I have been posting my personal thoughts about one chapter of the Bible roughly every weekday for over twelve years.
Along the way I’ve learned some important lessons about blogging. I’d like to share five of them for any aspiring bloggers out there for whom it might be helpful. First, a little background is in order.
In March 2006 I began my blog and called it Wayfarer. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and my blogging journey began with only a sketchy sense of where I was headed. You’ve probably never heard of me because twelve years later the number of subscribers and followers to my blog is less than a thousand and the vast majority of those followers are simply other bloggers and businesses following me in hopes that I will follow them back. The actual number of faithful readers I have might be enough for a decent summer picnic and a pick-up game of whiffle ball, but that’s okay. My blog is called Wayfarer because it’s about the journey and there’s much to be learned when you keep trekking for twelve years.
The primary motivation for me starting my blog was simply to have an on-line journal for family and friends to keep tabs on me and the fam. If they want to know what we’re up to, they can simply check out the blog. While Facebook might accomplish the same thing, I control my blog and its content, not the algorithms and social media gatekeepers. I like owning my own little acre of the internet.
It’s also important to know that while I’ve blogged my way through the Bible twice, I don’t consider my blog a religious blog. I don’t represent any church. I’m not out there trying to convince anyone of anything. My “chapter-a-day” posts have their roots in my relationship with my good friend, Kevin. Kevin and I are both followers of Jesus and years before I started my blog we came to an agreement to help each other be better followers. We decided to read one chapter of the Bible every weekday. Because we both had jobs that required a certain amount of windshield time we simply called each other and shared with one another whatever we got out of that day’s chapter.
As I began my blog I thought it might be cool to simply transfer the chapter-a-day journey Kevin and I had already been on for years from the phone to the internet. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought to myself, “If we had a record of the chapter we read each day and what it made us think about?” That’s where it all started, and I’m still going.
So what have I learned along the journey? Here are my top five lessons:
Your Motive Matters
There are literally millions of blogs on the internet. My blog is on the WordPress platform, and WordPress reports that there are over 500 new sites started on their platform daily with a total of over 76 million sites and 15 billion pages of content.
If your motive for blogging is to get discovered for the talented writer you know you are and to become a famous celebrity blogger then you need to know that you are playing the Powerball of on-line popularity. Your blog is a very small needle in a ginormous global haystack. It’s been said that as many as 95% of bloggers who start a blog abandon it after a short period of time. So, why do it?
There are all sorts of legitimate motives for blogs and sites. Some are built simply to drive traffic and sell ads. Some are businesses trying to make a profit. Some are people trying to build a brand. There’s nothing wrong with any of those motives, but I found that it is important to know what your motive is for starting a blog. You should define “This is why I’m doing this. This is what I’m trying to accomplish.” It helps define what you need to do and how you invest your time and resources.
I’ve also found that a clearly defined motive can keep me going when I occasionally spy the meager handful of views that my brilliant post received and I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?!”
Have Something to Say
I think most people start a blog thinking they have something to say, but sitting down at the keyboard on a regular basis and getting it out can be a daunting experience. Once you get out those three or four posts that you’ve had mulling over in your head for years you find yourself asking, “What now?”
A couple of reasons I’ve been able to keep going for over 12 years goes back to the two motives I outlined when I started. I wanted to create an on-line journal of life, and life doesn’t stop happening. I can blog about our kids and grandson living with us this week as they prepare to live in Scotland. I can blog about the role in the play I’m working on or our latest trip to the lake. I also wanted to record my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. That alone has been a built-in content engine. I read the chapter each week day, and then I write my thoughts.
If you’re thinking about blogging, ask yourself: “What is the engine that’s going to keep giving me fresh content to write about?”
Views and Followers Don’t Correlate to Quality of Content
I read[/caption]I read a humorous article yesterday in Wired magazine about a woman whose young son was obsessed with fans. You know, the rotary blade, move the air kind of fans. Imagine her surprise when she discovered the her son was watching another boy on YouTube doing nothing but talking about fans. His videos talking about fans had hundreds of thousands of views. As does the video of the teen girl in Boise talking about her acne. As does the video of the guy falling off his skateboard.
One of the reasons bloggers fail is that they obsess about their stats. They slip into the comparison trap and fall prey to the injustice of the on-line world. I write a brilliant post about how to better cope with life in hard times and it gets read ten times (eight if you don’t count my wife and mother). Meanwhile, Fan Boy has hundreds of thousands of people listening to him talk about the virtues of the Lasko Model 2527 pedestal fan.
Number of views and followers does not correlate to quality of content. Embrace it.
I’ve written some really good stuff over the years. Yeah, that post about the eleventh chapter of Leviticus? Killer. But, I published into the blogosphere like a sower casting his seed and it died on the vine. So did most of other posts that I wrote. Sometime I hit that “Publish” button feeling like a post is really going to resonate with people…until it doesn’t.
Back in January of 2012 I was on my way home from a week-long business trip to Texas. In the plane I was thinking about all of the great experiences I’d had with my client that week, and it struck me that being a theatre major at Judson College had uniquely prepared me for my job in ways I couldn’t have fathomed at the time. So, I got out my iPad and in twenty minutes I wrote a post: 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success. When my plane I landed I published it quickly (I didn’t even proof it), and thought no more of it.
Two weeks later that post went viral. That one silly post I’d hastily typed on my iPad brought in over 30,000 views in one day (FYI: reaching a hundred views in one day is a stellar day on my blog). I had comments pouring in from actors and producers in Hollywood and Broadway. At one point I counted more than twenty colleges and universities who have my post linked on their department websites.
You never know what’s going to land.
I can’t count the number of times that I squeamishly hit the “Publish” button thinking that my post was the most worthless piece of schlock ever written, and then later that day I hear from a stranger saying “This was so good! You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.”
No. I didn’t have a clue. I’m just a sower scattering my seed one post at a time.
The Rewards Aren’t Necessarily What You Think
At this point, it might seem as if I’m being really discouraging about this whole blogging business. I certainly hope you discern between realistic and discouraging. There are all sorts of amazing rewards I’ve received from blogging that this Wayfarer would never have discovered had I not embarked on the journey and stuck with it.
I’m a way better writer than I’ve ever been in my entire life. You know that guy who wrote that it’s not about talent, but about doing something for 10,000 hours? Yeah, blogging thousands of posts across twelve years has improved my writing, my creative flow, and my self-discipline. All I have to do is go back to read one of my early posts (and then fire down a quick shot of Pepto Bismal), and I know how far I’ve come.
I’ve gotten to know some amazing people and have enjoyed sharing the blogging journey with them. A few I’ve even gotten to meet in real life which has been awesome.
While I may not have hundreds and thousands of views of my posts, I’m continually humbled and encouraged when that “I really needed this” comment comes through or is casually mentioned by someone I would never expect. If my motive had to become popular then I would done things way differently.
What were my motives?
I wanted to create an on-line journal and archive of life. Mission accomplished.
“What year did we go to the ballet in Kansas City? Hang on, it’s there in the blog.”
“Oh my goodness, I’d totally forgotten about that time we did the ‘host a murder’ party at the winery!”
I wanted to create an archive of my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. Mission accomplished. All the way through the Bible. Twice.
Someday my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and perhaps even multiple other generations will be able to read through my daily thoughts and the things I pondered. Who knows what they might find meaningful, and funny, and perhaps even helpful in their own respective life journeys. That’s a reward that can’t be quantified.
So those are just five lessons from twelve years of blogging. Another milestone has been reached, and I’m still going. The journey continues. Who knows where it will take me. One post at a time.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief. Matthew 17:9, 22-23 (NIV)
Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a message and the text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11. As we unpacked the story together, I made the point that Jesus was not a victim of the events around Him, rather Jesus was driving the action of the scene.
Whenever a writer crafts a story, play, or screenplay, he or she must be mindful of how to drive the action of the story and propel events forward. Sometimes action can be circumstantially driven when an event takes place which unleashes a subsequent series of events. In The Godfather, there is an unexpected attempt on Vito’s life and an attack on the Corleone family. [spoiler alert!] As a result of these events Vito’s son, Michael, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s illegal business will become just like his father.
Other times action is driven by a character in the story whose words and actions propel the story forward. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf makes a prophetic observation that even Gollum has some part to play in the events leading to the ending of the One Ring. Time and again Gollum’s mischief and machinations drive the action, even to the climactic moment of the epic.
One of the things that becomes very clear as we read the story of Jesus is that Jesus is driving the action. He is not a passive victim of others. He is not the victim of unexpected events that lead to execution. At every turn Jesus is driving the action which will lead to His arrest and even foreshadowing the events to come. In today’s chapter, Jesus twice refers to his death and resurrection. He knows what is coming because it was part of a larger narrative that He had storyboarded in the beginning, and had been prophetically envisioned for centuries (see Psalm 22 [c. 1000 B.C.] and Isaiah 53 [c. 700 B.C.]).
This morning I’m thinking that Jesus came with purpose. He was on a mission and He drove the action. What about me? What’s my mission? Do I act, think, speak with purpose, or am I passively awaiting for circumstances to drive the narrative of my life?
I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that Jesus told us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Those are not commands to be passive, but to participate with God in driving the action of our stories.
So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)
Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)
Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.
As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.
I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.
I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.
As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.
In recent months I’ve been reading articles about the release of the script of J.K. Rowling’s production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There is a certain amount of frustration among fans who purchased what they thought was a book, only to find that it is actually the script of the stage play. Of course, a novel and a script are two very different things. They both tell a story, but in very different ways. A script requires something more of you as a reader. The author gives you the characters words, but you have to use your imagination to fill in more of the blanks. It’s understandable that many are experiencing frustration with it.
Along my journey I’ve come to understand that there is a similar frustration among those who undertake the reading of God’s Message from Genesis through Revelation. It’s not a novel. It’s not a script. It’s a compilation of writings (and different types of writing) authored across a large section of history. The content is not categorized chronologically but by author and the type of writing. It tells a story, but in a very different way than the way we are used to reading stories. It requires something of me as a reader to connect the dots and see the larger picture.
Even as I wade into the writings of Isaiah, it’s important for me as a reader to understand that I’m reading a smaller compilation of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry. I have to step back and look at the larger picture. I have to connect the dots. I have to see the patterns.
One of the patterns that emerges in prophetic writing is the repeated, cyclical themes of sin, judgement, deliverance, and redemption. I can see it already in the first few chapters:
The people rebel against God:
I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. Isaiah 1:2
The consequences of rebellion are God’s judgement and punishment:
Your men shall fall by the sword and your warriors in battle. And her gates shall lament and mourn; ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.; Isaiah 2:25-26
When the people repent of their ways, God delivers:
On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.
Ultimately, God redeems and restores in glorious ways:
Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. Isaiah 4:5-6
This repetition happens over and over and over and over and over and over again. In the compilation of Isaiah’s writings this pattern can be seen on a macro level (Chapters 1-39 are much heavier on judgement; Chapters 40-66 are much heavier on deliverance and redemption). The pattern can also be seen on a micro-level within a chapter or a few verses. The theme is repeated continually.
This morning I’m thinking about the cyclical, repetitive nature of my own behaviors. No matter how hard I try, I sometimes do or say things that are just wrong or inappropriate. When that happens, things don’t go so well. Relationships are strained or broken. Sometimes I suffer from the consequences of those inappropriate words or actions. I feel guilty. I am guilty. I repent, turning to Jesus whose sacrifice for me on the cross affords forgiveness, mercy, and grace in spite of my repetitive bullheadedness and boneheadedness. Redeemed, not by what I’ve done, but what God has done for me, I humbly and gratefully continue to let go of what is behind and press on to love others as Jesus loved me.
Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over….again.
Today is my 10th anniversary blogging. On March 26th, 2006 I set up a free blog in three easy steps and wrote the following simple post:
It’s sunday morning and the house is getting ready for church. Why is it that the whole household can be up, ready and out the door by 8:00 Monday thru Friday, but on Sunday you can’t make it to church on time by 11:00? <sigh> One of life’s little mysteries.
That was the beginning of my journey. Ten years and 3,412 blog posts later, I’m still going. I am not, by most people in the blogosphere’s standards, the definition of success. I haven’t made a fortune. My number of subscribers remains very meager. I have about 240 subscribers through WordPress and a reach that extends to a couple thousand people through Facebook and Twitter. On a typical day my blog gets about 150-200 views.
On this 10th anniversary I’ve been looking back and reflecting on what I’ve learned in my blogging experience. Here are a few thoughts:
Know your motivation. My blog has always had a very simple motivation. I just want to write about my life journey. I want to record my thoughts and experiences on different subjects. I want to share what’s going on with family and friends. As time has gone on I realize that my blog serves as a diary and a record. It will be an accessible archive for children, grandchildren and future generations of my experiences and my heartfelt thoughts. I have come to accept that my blog will never generate tons of subscribers simply because not that many people know me or are interested in my vacation pictures.
Know your content focus. Your motivation determines your content. The vast majority of my posts over the past decade have been my chapter-a-day posts. If I was really trying to establish my blog as an inspirational of devotional blog I would center my blog on those posts and reserve my personal journal, theatre, and photography posts elsewhere. My motivation, however, is for my blog to be a repository of my personal thoughts and experiences. My chapter-a-day posts are simply a record of my thoughts in my own daily quiet time. I’m not trying to preach to anyone or market myself as an author. I’m just sharing my daily, personal thoughts after reading a chapter of the Bible. My blog is a wide-angle lens on my life and it includes all kinds of different posts. A blogging expert would tell me that my wide range limits my audience, but my motivation has never been to build a big audience. I just want to express myself.
Just write. According to a NYTimes article, 95% of blogs are abandoned. I’ve known many who have started a blog, but after a post or two they walk away from it just like the Ab Cruncher they purchased ten years ago and used twice. I would argue that most people stop blogging because they aren’t really motivated, they struggle to know what they want to say. I think many people get discouraged that the world does not beat a path to their URL. Blogging requires a certain amount of fortitude. You’re going to write a lot of crap that no one wants to read. Keep writing. Post regularly. Be content with a few followers. The first six years of my blog I averaged about 15-20 views a day. It’s only in the past few years that it’s grown ten-fold. I’ve come to accept that blogging is about the journey, not the destination.
You never know what’s going to resonate. I have written a lot of really great posts, at least I thought they were profound. Virtually no one reads them. They never “get legs.” Then, I’ll post a random thought hastily typed and with little consideration and it will start to generate all sorts of traffic. I’ve given up trying to judge or prognosticate.
The rewards are not what I thought they’d be. I will confess that I, like most aspiring bloggers, have pipe dreams of my blog becoming wildly popular. I regularly talk myself off that ledge and laugh at myself. I then remind myself of everything I’ve written in this post thus far. The rewards I’ve reaped from my blogging journey are not what I expected, but I consider them to be priceless:
I’ve become a better writer. When I go back and read some of my chapter-a-day posts from the early years I regularly cringe. They were so short. The thoughts are undeveloped. Ugh! The contrast, however, serves to remind me that writing 3,412 posts is going to make me a better writer. I value that.
I’ve met some really great people. From my early blogging mentor, Mike Sansone, to people like Terry, Samantha, Jonathan, Michael, and David. My blog has opened up opportunities at relationships and networking I might otherwise have never had.
I have built an online personal reference source. What year was it that we took that trip to Cooperstown? Do you remember what year we performed Much Ado About Nothing? My blog makes it much easier to find definitive answers. Trivial, perhaps, but I value it.
I’m leaving a legacy. Those most close to me, my family and my friends, will have a record of my life experiences and my thoughts that will live beyond me. I sometimes think of my love of family history and how much I wish I had a journal of my great-great-grandfather to learn what life was like for him, what he thought, and what he felt. Perhaps I will have a great-great grandson or granddaughter who will appreciate my little blog. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to have a positive impact on their lives.
I occasionally make a difference in someone’s day. Every once in a while I’ll get a message or an e-mail saying something like, “Thanks. I needed your post today.” Rarely do I get to know how or why. It’s nice to know, though. I’m grateful when people tell me, and it helps motivate me to keep going.
Thanks to those of you who follow along on this journey. Thanks to those who stop by now and then. Thanks especially to Wendy and Kevin R. who regularly discuss, respond, and encourage. Here’s to the next decade!