Made-to-Order Hospitality


Guest Post by Laura Allnutt

Food is a universal language. What and how and with whom we eat are unwritten essays on our personalities, cultures, and emotional psychology. It’s a language so easy to speak that we often use it as a replacement for actual words, as a buffer between family togetherness and family tension. Rather than I’m sorry for what I said last week, here’s a bag of your favorite chocolates. Instead of Let’s talk about it, let’s order a pizza and scroll through Netflix.

Food is a safe space where humans of all backgrounds, preferences, religions, achievements, and politics can unite and enjoy the common experience of filling their bellies to stay alive another day and avoid the conflicts another moment—until the food becomes the conflict.

I am among the estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies. My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does. I have a taste for almost every food I’ve ever tried, and I used to never pass the chance to try something new. But as I became more and more tied to the bathroom, I knew something had to give, so I began what has been a three-year process of elimination diets and a blood test to figure out which foods my stomach doesn’t like. Here’s the shortlist of offensive foods: corn, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant), garlic, red meat, some nuts, dairy, and gluten. The nightshades cause me the most trouble, second only to corn, which is my mortal enemy. The other foods are tolerable in moderation and only if my stomach has had several good days in a row.

My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does.

There is nothing I hate more than being invited out to dinner or, worse, invited to someone else’s house. Consider how many meals involve some form of tomatoes alone. There’s hardly a recipe for chicken that doesn’t invite paprika or other peppers. Potato and corn starch are in just about every baked good, even gluten-free and vegan varieties. And let’s face it: if you cut open Americans, they bleed waffle fries and corn syrup.

I don’t like telling people that I have food allergies. No one likes to be the oddball, the person who requires special exceptions, the one who adds a layer of inconvenience. But here I am. To make matters more complicated, Sarah and I decided to cut processed sugar from our diet, a lifestyle change that segued into the Keto Diet.

Recently, Sarah and I joined a Small Group at our church. When we arrived at the house, our friendly hosts led us to the kitchen where awaited a countertop of cakes, cookies, chips, sodas, and, off to the side, a tray of vegetables that looked as uncomfortable to be there as I was.

Sarah selected a few chips and a thin slice of bunt cake. I grabbed a bottle of water.

I sat in the far corner and hoped no one noticed my lack of food, because food is personal. To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food.

To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food

It doesn’t help that we live in a culture of fad dieters, vegans, and so-called health nuts. Culture mocks these people rather than acknowledging its sick obsession with food or cheering for those brave enough to choose a healthier lifestyle.

Fifteen million Americans is a lot, and that number doesn’t include the 1 million vegans, 1.6 million vegetarians, 30 million diabetics, and 45 million other dieters with food limitations. Altogether, people with food restrictions make up roughly one third of the total US population. This statistic means that one out of every three people you know likely has a food restriction.

I’m somewhat limited in foods, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy food. I even consider myself a foodie. Sometimes, learning to cook new things or cook old things a new way is an exhilarating challenge! Over the past few years, I’ve learned that food restrictions don’t have to restrict hospitality and companionship.

Here are ways to maintain togetherness regardless of food restrictions:

  1. If you have food restrictions, tell your friends and family. Most people will be glad you told them. Otherwise, they’ll perceive you as snubbing their food offerings or possibly starving yourself. They’ll also feel terrible for serving you food that might cause you suffering. A cranky nurse once left my arm with black-and-blue bruises after she jammed a needle around the crease of my elbow to draw blood. Because she labeled the vials wrong, I had to go back the next day to have more blood drawn. A different and much kinder nurse did the job, and when she saw my bruises, she cupped my chin in her strong hand and said, “You don’t let nobody hurt you. It’s your body, and you got to walk around with it.” I’ve carried her words for several years now, and I’ve since applied them to my inward and outward health. Though I hate to make things awkward, I have to tell others what I can’t eat. It’s my stomach, and I’ve got to walk around with it.
  2. If you don’t have food restrictions, start the habit of asking your guests if they have food allergies or restrictions—even if you’ve known those people for years. You’ll be surprised at how many people have kept their dietary needs private.
  3. Don’t avoid group gatherings because you have food restriction, and don’t stop inviting your friends with food restrictions to those gatherings. Isolation and segregation solve nothing and aggravate everything.
  4. Keep in mind that some people have much more serious allergies than others. I have a friend with severe allergies to shellfish, so much so that she can’t be in a room where shellfish oils might go airborne during the cooking process. Respond to each case appropriately. You may need to plan a different meal entirely if you’re the host, or you may need to politely decline the invitation if you’re the guest. In either case, don’t neglect to invite the friend with allergies or at least explain how you can’t invite them, and if you’re the one with allergies, be sure to explain why you can’t come rather than just saying no. Practice honesty, consideration, and tact to preserve relationships.
  5. Learn new recipes. Recently when a coworker invited us over, we were relieved when she asked us if we had dietary needs. For two weeks she wrote back and forth as she planned her menu around my dietary needs. “I like a good challenge!” she said. Her joy over cooking for a complicated person put me at ease—and the food was great! Cooking outside the box is fun and creative and sometimes stressful and annoying, but it’s worth it.

Sometimes, on my especially bad days, I feel sorry for myself because I can’t eat like a normal person, can’t just grab a pepperoni pizza or a sandwich and fries from Chick-fil-A. I grouse through the grocery store, thinking of the mashed potatoes I can’t eat for Thanksgiving and the Chinese carry-out I can’t eat on Friday nights. But this thinking is toxic and misses the point about food entirely. Food is not about the things we eat but about whom we eat with. It’s about the company, not the carbs. As long as we’re together, life is a feast.


laura.jpgLaura Allnutt is my best friend, apartment-mate, fellow writer, and dearest inspiration. She holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and has recently finished writing her first novel. She works as an online teacher and editor and enjoys being adventurous in the kitchen. Learn more about her in just about any of my posts, and follow her blog Thinking With My Mind Full.


Hope and Keep Busy: Advice for Being Single . . . and Just Being


The evangelist’s wife knelt beside me at the front church pew, her close-set eyes earnest as she asked, “Now, honey, what are you praying about?”

At 17, I’d spent the past year in mental turmoil. But now, against the piano chords of “Have Thine Own Way,” I reported a docile summary: “I don’t know what God wants me to do with my life.”

“Well, honey.” She smiled, relieved at the simplicity of my spiritual ailment. She had a handy treatment which she offered like a lozenge from her big leather purse. “You don’t need to pray about that. The Bible’s already told you God’s will for your life as a woman. You’re s’pose to stay in your daddy’s home and wait until a man comes to marry you.”

Well, then. The path had been laid with yellow bricks toward Oz. And what luck that I was in a budding relationship with a good-looking guy.

I should have risen from the pew rejoicing.

The churches of my childhood declared a woman’s place was in the home, and obligingly, in Lisa Frank journals, I outlined my dreams of a hard-working husband, three kids, a house in a cul-de-sac, and a chocolate Labrador in the backyard.

But despite my plans and conditioning, when she laid that predetermined, narrow path before me, I hesitated to accept it.

Against Mrs. Evangelist’s prescription, instead of settling in with the folks, I went to college, eventually broke up with that good-looking guy, taught college classes for seven years, earned my MFA, launched into a new career in Cincinnati, and here I sit reflecting on the past 15 years.

Sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t right.

If I’d just waited, stayed put, did the dishes and vacuumed, got highlights in my hair or giggled more, maybe I’d be packing school lunches and driving a minivan instead of checking the single box on my tax forms.

Now, at 32, understanding my odds of staying single, I try not to focus on marriage too often. No use in poking sleeping monsters.

Once awakened, discontentment can be hard to wrangle back into its cage. But every so often, something stirs it up. A movie or a book or a couple at the mall will agitate the romantic in me who wants a man to share goals with, to be the strength to his weakness, someone with a strong shoulder and a generous heart, someone to move the heavy stuff and kill the spiders.

And, if I’m honest, maybe most of all, I want someone to save me from what other people think of my singleness.

Recently, my seven-year-old niece informed me, “Aunt Sarah, you aren’t a grown up until you get married.”

While waiting for the terrifying unknown of adulthood, children stay brave by constructing and clinging to a formula for the future. And children aren’t the only ones.

When life goes “as planned” for people—they get married, have children, get a mortgage—sometimes they project those expectations onto others. They set up their single friend with that single person from the office. They judge or blame them for being too picky. They criticize them for not settling. They feel comfortable—somehow—with saying things like, “At least I’ve got a family.”

In a conversation a few weeks ago, one man came right out and said, “The whole purpose of humans on earth is to marry, procreate, and form family units. And, sorry, single ladies—I’m sure there’s some other purpose for you.” He stopped just short of saying, “But I don’t know what it is.”

Words and actions imply, “You aren’t good enough—not without a partner. You’re just a permanent resident in the waiting room of life.” Even Frank Sinatra on my Pandora station croons the reminder,

“You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.”

If I’m not careful, I start evaluating myself by others’ estimations—maybe I am worth less than my friends who are married with kids. Maybe my body shape or overbite or personality just didn’t make the cut for love. Maybe marriage is what life is all about, and I’ve missed my chance to matter.

At those times, I want marriage more than anything, to twist the gold band on my finger and assess my worth, to feel in the night the warmth of the man to whom I have vowed my life, to read the rise and fall of his chest like the stock market of my value at the close of each day.

On the opposite end, some people consider the desire for marriage to be a sign of weakness, of desperation or dependence. You’re your best you when you’re single. 

Mrs. Evangelist told me to wait; others tell me I’ve waited too long; some people tell me to stop waiting at all. Their words leave me, at times, feeling pointless, insecure, even guilty.

But earlier this summer, I read something that has me thinking a little differently.

In the novel Little Women, Marmee is on her way to care for Mr. March who is ill inhope and keep an army hospital. As she leaves, Marmee admonishes her girls, “I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone . . . . Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.”

Hope and Keep Busy. I liked this advice so much that I posted it on my cubicle wall at work. But I’ve found that I only half know how to follow Marmee’s simple directive for moving forward.

I’m good at keeping busy. When I’m creating a hand lettering or writing an essay or focused on work, I don’t cast longing glances at my future or feel discontentment start to rattle its cage. But sometimes, rather than trying to deal with my desire to be married, I stuff it beneath a full schedule and numerous pursuits. I use my busyness to convince myself that I’m fully content with being single because I’m afraid of building expectations for a future relationship.

Expectations are plans that we count on unfolding, sometimes without even working toward them. If we’re not careful, expectations render us entitled or disillusioned, disabling us to accept reality as it comes. And as someone whose spirit has been wrecked by unfulfilled expectations in the past, I’m leery of sustaining them for my future.

Marmee said to hope, but I don’t always know how.

Maybe I confuse expectations with hope.

If I know Marmee March, she wasn’t telling her girls to launch a flurry of positive vibes toward Mr. March for healing. She was telling them to hope in good things yet to come, whatever they were, flowing freely from the hand of a benevolent Father who would never abandon them. If Mr. March had died, the girls still had reason to hope in God’s comfort and provision.

Maybe hope means putting my trust in something more secure than my plans, like a compass to guide me forward, a life preserver to hold me up, a rope to pull me in. A sure thing. If that’s true, I shouldn’t place my hope in fragile things out of my control any more than I would tie a rope around a twig and rappel off the side of a mountain.

If my hope is in marriage or any other unpromised thing (the perfect job, a book deal, a viral blog post), I might live my life unfulfilled, in a constant holding pattern for my purpose and happiness to arrive.

But if I can trust in the goodness of the heavenly Father who redeems shattered expectations, uses lives in unexpected ways and reminds us of our worth in Christ—rather than in a mate—I can experience a full life right now while working toward my goals and hoping for more fulness in the future—which might or might not include marriage. Instead of focusing on being married or being single, I can just be.

Marmee carefully posed her advice: hope first, then keep busy. When I rightly place my hope, I can contentedly thrive in what I’m called to do right now—as a magazine editor, a writer, a friend, a woman—not as a distraction but as the way forward.

When you’re praying for your single friends, don’t simply ask God to send them a partner. Ask him to shield them from shallow expectations, keep them busy in worthwhile pursuits, and make them hopeful in him.



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Note: I recently read this article, “Why Hope Isn’t Just Optimism.” It expands on my thoughts in this post. I hope you’ll read it.

Don’t Drop Your Baby

Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash

Guest Post by Dustin Brady

Having a baby is hard. In my experience, these are the hardest parts of having a baby.

Actually having the baby. (I didn’t do this one, but my wife tells me it’s hard. Also, it looked really hard while she was doing it.)

Learning diapers. When people find out you’re having a baby, they gift you an avalanche of diapers. It’s so many diapers that you start investigating Target’s diaper return policy because surely there’s no way one baby could possibly use all these diapers. Then you look around after the first week and realize the baby has used all the diapers.

That moment when you’ve stayed up all night having a baby, and then you have the baby, and then you expect to be allowed to get some sleep because that’s how it’s always worked when you’ve pulled all-nighters. Instead, the nurse plops the tiniest possible human in your arms and tells you that it’s your job to keep him alive now, good luck.

•Keeping the tiniest possible human alive.

That last point is probably the scariest one for parents (at least the 50 percent of parents not responsible for actually having the baby.) You’re holding this unspeakably small person in your arms, and you suddenly realize that you don’t know how tight to buckle a car seat. Too loose, and the baby could fly out during an accident. Too tight, and he could suffocate.

Speaking of suffocation, you really should have paid closer attention when the nurse was showing you how to swaddle a baby. Her swaddle is a beautiful burrito, while yours is currently a mess of blankets covering the baby’s . . . WAIT, GET THE BLANKET AWAY FROM HIS NOSE! Is he still breathing? Whew. Still breathing. For the 37th time today, he’s still breathing.

As a new parent, there’s a solid week where you’re genuinely nervous that someone will discover that you’re in over your head and take away your baby. Imagine my shock, then, when stumbling down the hospital hallway mere hours after my son’s birth, I noticed this bulletin board.

drop baby

I blinked at the board a few times, then squinted at the nurse’s station to find out if this was some sort of Candid Camera situation. The nurses did not acknowledge me. I turned back to stare at the sign for a few more moments (and read the horrific true tales of parents dropping their babies also posted on the bulletin board), then returned to report to my wife that our hospital was being run by the Joker. She directed my attention to the poem taped next to her bed.

drop baby2

Here are my three favorite things about the literary achievement, “Don’t Drop YOUR Baby!” (Author Unknown):

3. Papyrus font.

2. The kindergarten-teacher-like care with which the poem was trimmed, laminated, and mounted to hot-pink poster board.

1. The choice to all-cap “YOUR” in the title, as if parents are so used to dropping other people’s babies that they need to be reminded to take extra good care of this one.

After reading the poem, I looked at my wife with wide eyes. She shook her head. “Can you put him in the bassinet? I think he’s done eating.” I took a deep breath, picked up my son, and walked across the room as if he were filled with nitroglycerin.

For the next two days, all my parenting fears focused into a single mantra. Don’t drop the baby. Don’t drop the baby. Don’t drop YOUR baby. I repeated it to myself. I repeated it to visitors. I repeated it to my wife, much to her dismay.

“I’m not going to drop him!”

“You were closing your eyes.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“I think you were just for like a second.”

“Well, I wasn’t. Also, I’m allowed to close my eyes for a second.”

I pointed across the room to a picture of a sleeping mother dropping a baby doll from her hospital bed. A headline over the photo read, “IT ONLY TAKES A SECOND!”

Seventy-one days since a parent dropped a baby.

I am happy to report that the hospital’s campaign of terror worked. When we passed the nurse’s station on our way out of the hospital, I smiled with pride at the sign. Seventy-one days since a parent dropped a baby.

When things finally started slowing down a few weeks later, I realized something—the hospital was right. Did they go a little far with the horrific true tales of parents dropping babies? Perhaps. But they understood that with all the worries that bury parents—breastfeeding, tummy time, skin-to-skin contact, something called BabyWise—the only thing new parents truly need to worry about is holding onto their kids. Don’t drop the baby, and everything else should take care of itself.

My son is three months old now. I would say that my wife and I are not all-star parents. Bath time is pretty hit-or-miss, for example, and the pediatrician always wags her head when we admit that we still haven’t used those Vitamin D drops she keeps recommending. But, you know what? We have yet to drop our baby.

And maybe that’s all that matters.


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Dustin Brady is the author of nine children’s books, including the Amazon bestseller Trapped in a Video Game. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, two kids, and a small dog named Nugget. He has gone 601 days without dropping a baby. You can check out his work at

12 Principles for Restoring Our Faith in Faith-Based Writing: Part 3

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Well, here’s the last of my 12 principles for creating excellent faith-based writing. Check out part one and part two for the first 9 principles. And then practice these in your own writing!

10. Craft beautiful writing. Literature is beautiful, perhaps especially because there is no standard for its beauty. It’s Thomas Wolfe’s meandering paragraphs and Hemingway’s terse lines; it’s E. B. White’s dryness and C. S. Lewis’ chatty storytelling tone and many voices in between.

But one thing all literature has in common is lyricism—those portions of writing that make you want to underline the text or turn it into a meme. Some writers sustain this high writing throughout their entire books (Tinkers author Paul Harding to think of a recent one I’ve read). These are writers who have no flat sentences, whose books are those houses at Christmas time with lights wrapped around every post and bush and chimney. Other writers produce in patches. For more about writing strong sentences, read Cynthia Newberry Martin’s essay, “Not Every Sentence Can Be Great, But Every Sentence Must Be Good.”

Find literature that speaks to you, then emulate those writers. Don’t aspire to write merely a good story but to craft strong prose that makes reading the story a delight and that will stick with readers even after they turn the last page. (Exercise by composing a passage of your own writing in the voice of another author you admire.)

Beautiful literature holds a little bit of meaning in its back pocket.

Beautiful literature also gives you something more than surface value; it holds a little bit of meaning in its back pocket and lets you figure it out through the use of symbolism.

Anyone who has taken a literature class knows that Huck Finn isn’t riding a raft on just a river: that river symbolizes freedom from Huck’s abuse and Jim’s slavery. The eyes on T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard in The Great Gatsby are more than just a tattered sign: they represent the eyes of God watching the world. And also, just so you know, we aren’t merely discussing the feather-and-beak bird in To Kill a Mockingbird. That bird represents innocence slain at the hand of evil.

Part of being excellent means presenting your message in a beautiful, memorable way.

11. Create excellent art. Martin Luther supposedly said, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

In other words, by creating any excellent, beautiful work, the artist brings just as much glory to God as if he had painted a cross. And for us as writers, that translates to stories that are true and excellent, even if they don’t explicitly share the gospel.

Think of how many gospel messages you’ve heard couched in poorly written stories.

Now think of stories that did not explicitly share the gospel but displayed it better than a gospel tract. Case in point, Narnia. C. S. Lewis said, “It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

However, George Sayer, one of Lewis’ closest friends, said, “Lewis . . . wanted to introduce similar ideas that would make it easier for children to accept Christianity: what he called ‘a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.'” I thought about this concept recently while watching Harry Potter.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort leers over Harry’s lifeless body in Hagrid’s arms and tells the students and professors of Hogwarts that they’ve lost, that they must join him. But then, at the darkest moment, Harry leaps from Hagrid’s arms, alive again and ready to send Voldemort to his doom.

Every time I read or watch this scene, I get goosebumps. Not because I believe J. K. Rowling meant to infuse her story with the message of the resurrection and Christ’s defeat of Satan and death, but because the story reminded me of a story I already know. I made the connection. I wonder if a child who had read the Harry Potter series and was then introduced to the gospel would recognize those themes, making it easier for him to accept.

Laura says, “Art is a reflection—not the thing itself.” It is not an exact replica of life, but so often it can be a launching point for discussing the gospel or other spiritual topics later.

I don’t think that a story should suffer by shoehorning in the gospel or faith. Paul McCusker, who writes drama for Focus on the Family and wrote the script for the movie Beyond the Mask, said, “If there’s going to be a faith element, it has to come out of the plot and the characters, as opposed to characters coming out with their faith.”

“There’s a difference when the gospel is shown rather than explained.”

As my friend Kaitlyn said, “There’s a great difference when the gospel is shown rather than explained. Showing real people live out real faith without forcing a conversion.”

In a Relevant magazine article, Micah Conkling proposes that Christians should put forth “fiction that is true. Fiction that reveals to its readers things they never knew about the world, themselves, and their Creator.”

What does excellent faith-based writing look like? Well, like all writing, it will look different for different people. But maybe it’s not about having a Christian publisher’s logo on the spine of your book or having a chapel on the cover or a tidy gospel ending. Maybe it’s just good writing written by believers—writers based in faith, even if their stories and essays are not.

12. Don’t sell out. At a conference earlier this year, Laura and I got a glimpse into the Christian publishing industry. More acquainted with mainstream publishers, we were fascinated to hear a view of the Christian industry.

After one of the sessions, Laura asked the speaker, a fiction writer and editor, if there were a place in the Christian market for literary fiction.

The woman bristled at the word literary. “Literary fiction doesn’t do well anywhere,” she fairly snapped. In her defense, I imagine she’s probably run up against many people who have snubbed her Christian romance genre.

Laura spoke to one or two other editors who said the same thing: “There’s no place for your writing in our industry.”

Laura knows that it will be a struggle to find a publisher for her book, but she’s prepared to deal with that and to keep trying indie, mainstream, or Christian publishers until someone takes her or until she has to look for alternative methods of publication. And frankly, there’s no reason for her to panic or press her novel into a mold. A lifetime of rejection letters is too soon to sell out.

Be encouraged: Christians are reading.

Look for authors whose faith stories make it in mainstream literature—Marilynn Robinson, Leif Enger, Jan Karon.

Be encouraged: people are reading. Christians are reading. Let’s give them good, true, beautiful writing, both prose and poetry, to nourish them in their faith, mind, and spirit. Let’s create writing that reflects the excellence and elegance of the Creator.

“Good art points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and the divine intrusion while calling us to more faithful relationship with the world, relationship that witnesses to the hope and redemption found in the Triune God and offered to us through Christ, the incarnate image that redeems all images grasping for God. In this way art can be a powerful source of truth-telling, sometimes even uncovering the stories we would rather forget.” (Faith Imitates Art.)


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Note: To read more about faith-based writing, I suggest you check out Story Craft by John R. Erickson. He’s got a lot of great things to say.

12 Principles for Restoring Our Faith in Faith-Based Writing: Part 2


Thanks for coming back for part 2 of this short blog series. If you’re just taking a look at these posts, you might want to check out the first 6 principles for producing excellent faith-based writing. This post will cover principles 7–9. The next post will cover the remaining principles.

Let’s get started.

7. Show truth through conflict. The world’s story and our own stories are products of conflict. We are born through the conflict of labor. We mature through the conflict of choices. We achieve through the conflict of resistance.

Conflict, in all its complexity, is layered. Situational conflict affects or reflects a character’s internal conflict. Moby Dick’s Ahab isn’t traversing the seas only to wreak revenge on the white whale for biting off his leg. He is also on a quest to annihilate the power of nature and perhaps even the power of God over his life.

In his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell is not just putting down a rogue bull elephant; he’s battling within himself over the tyranny of Imperialism.

In Hemingway’s novella, the Old Man is not merely angling for a great fish; he is struggling with the inevitability of his old age. (1)

Conflict is sometimes most effective when it makes the reader uncomfortable.

Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that made you feel unsettled, not necessarily because it sullied your conscience but because it addressed an issue or featured a conflict that society doesn’t like talking about—at least not in deep ways?

I recently watched Ladies in Lavender starring Judi Dench. In the movie, an elderly single woman becomes infatuated with a young man after she and her sister save his life. I’ll admit to an initial “eeesh factor.” An old lady with the hots for a teenager? It just seemed wrong somehow.

But as the movie progressed, I empathized with Dench’s character. She’s an elderly woman who doesn’t feel her age, who has never known love, who feels that her time has come and gone. We all know desire for something we don’t or can’t have. We get it. But not every story teller would have been brave enough to show longing in a conflict that opened up a new perspective for the viewer. (You’ll have to watch the movie or read the short story to see how it ends.)

Let’s face it: it’s easier to settle for writing something safe rather than something excellent.

But think of how people must have squirmed when To Kill a Mockingbird was released. Have you ever read (or seen) August: Osage County? Talk about uncomfortable. Elements of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or any number of Charles Dickens novels may make readers feel unsettled.

The perceptive reader will never view the world the same again for having experienced that truth in the conflict along with the character.

8. Avoid answering all the questions. Recently Laura said, “You know the problem with Christians? They have answers.” It’s true. Perhaps because we believe we have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Christians feel indignant at the thought of being questioned or feel guilty for questioning the truth for ourselves.

So we often work backward rather than forward from a problem, not just in matters related to the gospel but other ones we often lump under morality or sanctification. (2)

Perhaps too often we oversimplify things.

A prepackaged answer doesn’t leave room for questions, for a dialogue in the reader’s mind, prodding him to seek out the answers. (And a script doesn’t allow for Christians to figure out the weak spots in their faith or in their thinking.)

In my last blog I ended by mentioning the blessing of not knowing and of living in that tension. When I think of tension, I inevitably think of Doubt, a Pulitzer-winning play adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Throughout the story you are left wondering if a priest has had inappropriate relations with one of the altar boys. The headstrong lead nun is determined to prove him guilty, but other evidence points to his innocence. In the end, the priest leaves the parish, but we don’t know if he left because of his guilt or because he was just tired of the nun’s judgment. The audience never knows the truth, but the ambiguous ending is not a gimmick—it is a device meant to heighten awareness to areas in our own lives where we are uncertain. In those areas we can pursue genuine truth or cultivate faith in the void. (3)

I work for an organization that frequently ponders deep biblical questions and almost as frequently comes to the decision, “We don’t have a position. We can’t know the answer.” I’ve struggled with that reality. Why would God put certain things in Scripture if we have no way of knowing the answer completely? I believe it’s his way of reminding us that we cannot know all—that we must learn to live gracefully, faithfully in the not knowing.

I say all of that to make my point: don’t try to answer all the world’s questions or give answers for all the world’s issues in your writing. Lead your readers on the trail to the answer, but let them make the final steps for themselves.

9. Not all endings need to be happy—but share hope.

I once thought it was enough to let people know they aren’t alone, to portray the world as it is with us huddled together in the darkness. But I don’t think it’s enough to merely diagnose the world’s problems without also giving a prescription.

A Tale of Two Cities. Where the Red Fern Grows. Harry Potter. Things go badly for the characters in these stories. Heart-breaking, life-changing tragedies strike. Yet there is growth, redemption, and love. Life goes on.

It’s not a book, but one of my favorite stories is Castaway, a movie starring the incomparable Tom Hanks. Talk about a loaded, melancholy ending. Yet at the end, you know that somehow things will be OK because there is still hope—in fact hope is the theme of that movie.

Think, conversely, of stories that leave you with no hope. I think of Of Mice and MenThe Great GatsbyThe Thief and the Dogs. It’s a technique that is useful in some situations, if by pointing to the despair or meaninglessness you mean to emphasize light (like Flannery O’Connor mentioned in the first part of this series.) But there should be a reason for its use. Despair does not become a believer, and it’s rarely a fulfilling story-telling technique.

We have to offer a remedy or at least the hope of a remedy. The ultimate remedy, of course, is Christ’s redemption and grace. But it’s not necessary to lead the reader all the way there by putting the gospel blatantly in a story. Just let the reader know there is hope and give him a breadcrumb trail to find it. (More about this in principle #10 . . . in the next post.)


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1. Often setting or time period adds another layer of conflict in heavier or lighter ways. In Little Women, though it is not a main conflict, the Civil War affects the March girls’ lives. In the Scarlet Pimpernel, the French Revolution colors the entire story. I recently watched a new musical called Horizons of Gold at a theater in the area. The play set the biblical story of Ruth in the 1930s, with the Dust Bowl in Kansas creating significant conflict. The play not only entertained and inspired me but it also informed me of an ecological catastrophe I knew very little about. If you do some digging in history, you might find little known time period conflicts that lead to a good story. And in the process of telling a good story, you can educate your readers—a pleasant bonus.

2. I’m not speaking of matters laid in black and white in Scripture (e.g., that Jesus is the only way to God or that adultery is wrong.) Though even in matters of the gospel, it’s still good to press on our beliefs, to make sure they hold up next to Scripture.

3. By the way, Silence, a novel by Shusaka Endo, also made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, attempts the same effect at the end.


12 Principles for Restoring Our Faith in Faith-Based Writing: Part 1

Fiction 2

Much of the Christian writing industry reeks of good intentions gone bad, like a potato salad for the church potluck, left out on the counter. With hackneyed themes, formulaic storytelling, and saccharine endings, some faith-based writing—especially fiction—just isn’t worth reading.

An article I read a few weeks ago said that God told us to love him with our hearts and souls—but also with our might. That means he wants our good intentions and excellent performance.

So let’s discuss some ways to make excellent faith-based writing. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a few principles that I gathered from teaching nonfiction and fiction writing classes. Because it’s rather long, I’ll post this in three parts.

1. Think well. Historian and author David McCullough said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” But where does clear thinking come from? For Christians, good thinking goes back to biblical truths. That’s not to say that someone who doesn’t read God’s Word can’t write truthful, excellent things. God’s Law strongly permeates our sense of morality as humans. God’s Word engenders morality and also balance, discernment, and reason. Every day I become more convinced that immorality leads to insanity. It makes sense, then, that the closer we stay to Scripture, the clearer our thinking will be.

2. Read more than just the Bible. This isn’t contradictory to what I just said. Scripture is the touchstone for wisdom and a faith-based worldview. But to practice that worldview, we must venture into the great expanse of knowledge that God has so incredibly allowed us as humans to discover and create. It’s neither required nor noble for the Christian to sink in a rut of ignorance. Jesus died to take away your sin, not your mind. As Laura often told her students, “We walk a narrow path—but that doesn’t mean that we have to be narrow minded.”

Jesus died to take away your sin, not your mind.

Reading books—nonfiction, poetry, fiction—allows us to see things from different perspectives, and those perspectives make our writing broader, deeper, courageous. If you struggle with making the most of what you read, check out my blog post “Learning to Read Again.” 

3. Stay up-to-date on current issues. I don’t enjoy keeping up with political and governmental news. I do try, however, to visit a newspaper site once a day so that I at least know the topics brewing in society. It feels necessary if I want to write something that people care about. Weren’t some of literature’s finest classics written about issues that would have graced front-page headlines? (Think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Toni Morrison). To use a cliche, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of society so that we can communicate to its heart.

Last year, Laura and I visited one of her former MFA writing mentors in D.C. Over tea and Persian food, we discussed memoir. Her mentor said, “Sometimes I wanna say to my students, ‘Get your head out of your navel and write about someone else’s point of view—someone else’s life.’” And it’s good advice for us too!

On a final and perhaps slightly divergent note, I once took a survey from my former Christian college students for an article (I have yet to write) on Christians in secular MFA programs. It was sobering how many students said they were hesitant to attend a secular MFA because they were afraid their faith wouldn’t hold against opposition. As Christians, we must know what we believe and enter the fray headlong to understand the culture so that we can counter it with grace and truth.

4. Talk with others. The best people to talk to are those who think differently than you. By best I don’t mean the most pleasant or the easiest. I mean that these are the people who will sharpen your reasoning and strengthen your empathy. Start hard conversations. Ask for opinions and view points.

5. Write the hard things—but don’t be a part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor said, “Writers who see by the light of their Christian Faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse and for the unacceptable.  Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live. . . and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” She goes on to say that a Christian author who sees “distortions” in the culture will try to make those appear as distortions rather than as normalities to his readers. As Christians, we are called to spread light. But sometimes we have to first show the darkness.

“Good judgment and a sense of responsibility are the answer.”

In her Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan discussed the upheaval that seems to categorize our generation, fueled by the violence of the entertainment industry. She said, “Art is art and censorship is an admission of defeat. Good judgment and a sense of responsibility are the answer.” In other words, you are responsible for what you write. Call it what you will: censorship or responsibility or conscience. What you write will influence someone one way or another, and you are, to a degree, culpable for that influence.

We have to find a balance between showing sin and evil without making our writing immoral. Sin is a reality—if it weren’t for sin, there would be no conflict, would be no story. It’s necessary to include and, yes, to make it seem as vile as possible. But it’s also necessary to measure your inclusion of those sins. I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t write, but I’m here to ask you to think twice before including gratuitous sexual, violent, or gory details. Are you celebrating these things, employing them for their sensational appeal? Use good judgment and don’t be part of the problem.

6. Let the characters be gray. Effective characters in faith-based writing are black and white—and gray all over. Roald Dahl said, “Make your good characters as good as they can be and make your bad characters as horrid and nasty as they can be so that your audience won’t be confused.” That’s a fine approach to writing books for children who often need things laid out rather than nuanced. However, good and evil are not always so easily defined.

Black and white are easy to sort in our minds. We throw the white issues in the white box and the black issues in the black box, and we throw the black box away. There are a great many things in the world that can be placed in one of two boxes, but people are not one of those things.

“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.”

In the Harry Potter series, Sirius Black tells Harry, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.” You and I are not perfect people—neither are book characters. We dislike Christian fiction many times because the characters are so pristine—we can’t connect with a perfect person, and we resist learning from the flawless person.

I think of the gray characters as those who start as one thing, with one flaw, one wrong motive, and then take a turn either in action or in mind. If properly executed, developing a character in the gray area of life allows your reader to understand grace and complexity, to understand the depravity and redemption of humanity more clearly.

Ebenezer Scrooge. Elizabeth Bennet. Huck Finn. Edmond Dante in The Count of Monte Cristo. Troy Maxson in Fences. And one of my favorite characters from film, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. We could use words like dynamic or antihero to describe them, but the point is they were too complex to put in a box. Their characters made us face complicated topics and decide along with them what we would do.

Sometimes the story itself can be a gray area. It’s not exactly literature, but I’ll use the example anyway of Captain America: Civil War. I left the theater neither Team Tony or Team Cap—and I think that was the point. Both were fighting for what they thought was right, and I the viewer was left in a gray area, not so much trying to decide what side to take but contemplating what both sides stood for. In a world eager to take sides rather than live in the tension of the “not knowing,” the gray area is a great place for us to be.


Hopes and Fears: What I Learned from the Thai Soccer Team Rescue

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“Did you hear about that story?” My sister nodded toward the TV mounted on the wall of the nail salon.

A headline ran across the bottom of the screen. Thai soccer team stuck in a cave.

I shook my head and looked back down at my feet in the swirling water.

The more accurate truth was that I had been avoiding the story. I do that often with news reports—disassociate myself. Some people are drawn to stories of suffering or tragedy; I’m repelled by them. If I know I can do nothing to help the victims, I’d rather ignore them entirely. What I don’t know can’t haunt me.

Later that evening, my family discussed the story, repeating details about the bleak situation and perilous rescue plans.

My sister shuddered. “I just can’t imagine sitting in the dark with the water rising.”

But I could imagine. With that description, I was transported several years ago, back to one second after I made the poor decision to enter an enclosed waterslide. Panic rose in my chest, my throat closed, fear exploded in my brain as I slipped around in the water, plunging in the soaking darkness for what seemed like hours.

What I now knew would indeed haunt me for the next few days, our common fears binding me to these boys across the globe as I prayed earnestly and frequently for them at all hours of the day.

All day Sunday I refreshed my news page, watching eagerly as one by one they emerged from the cave, born again. As the rescuers carried out the final boy and the coach, I lowered my phone with relief.

And then I started wondering, Why was I so relieved when they were rescued? Why had the world collective prayed and watched and toiled so diligently to bring them back to the same world that we grimly denounce—a world supposedly imploding with dwindling resources, raging climate change, hurtling asteroids, political unrest, tyrant fingers hovering over red buttons?

The only answer, I reckon, is that the world hopes. Despite what it tries to tell itself about doom and gloom, it just can’t help itself. Each day we choose to swing our legs over the side of the bed and step into a new day—that’s hope. Every new cure, species, galaxy, relic—each discovery is born from hope. Sometimes hope masquerades as the struggle to survive, and sometimes hope shows up in sacrifice.

I’d spent days avoiding the boys’ story, but, when I faced it, I found they and I—the whole world—had two things in common: fear and hope. (1) It’s an uncomfortable truth that there is little hope in the world without first some fear. And without sharing in the boys’ fear, I couldn’t have shared as deeply in the hope fulfilled in their rescue.

I’ve thought a lot about my hope for the boys in that cave. Though I had prayed for their rescue, peace, sanity, and endurance, those seemed like temporary needs—certainly the most immediate, but not even the most important hope for them.

My hope continues even now.

I hope the boys will understand the significance that for a few days a divided world united to pray for their safety, even knowing that the outcome could have been just one more heaviness to add to their already laden lives.

I hope they will comprehend the sacrifice of those who saved them—the SEAL who died giving them oxygen, the countries who contributed or offered resources and manpower, the hundreds of volunteers who left their safety to submerge in frigid water and traverse treacherous conditions, the technicians who devised strategies against nature and time.

I hope the boys will explore other caves in their lives without hesitation, always conquering their fears and emerging to see the world anew.

I hope that they will discover why they were spared—why, after the final one exited the cave, the water pumps gave way and a deluge filled the cave, as if—as if—the water had been held back by some invisible Hand.

I hope they will redeem their lives by rescuing others from dark places, low places, deep places of the earth and mind and spirit as passionately as they were rescued.

I hope that they will find the ultimate rescue in the saving grace of the Messiah who offers to deliver us from fear of death and from spiritual death itself. (2)

And I have hope, too, for myself and for you.

Already the story of the boys’ rescue has trickled down to the lower columns of the news sites, swept away in the current of immigration, NATO, Trump’s antics, an outbreak of salmonella, chaos at Build-a-Bear, Meghan Markle’s newest outfit.

Sometimes, when I read the news, scroll through social media, or observe conditions around me, I feel myself suffocating in the darkness, perched on a ledge, the water rising and oxygen dwindling.

But when we’re swallowed once again in stories of politics and scandal and hate—the caves of our own making—I hope that we’ll think of the soccer team rescued from a Thai cave and remember that no matter how isolated we feel, we’re connected by our fears and struggles, but also by the power of prayer, the spirit of unity, the value of life, and the hope of rescue—even in the darkest places.

. . . . . . . . .
1. I’ve always loved that line in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Christ is the fulfillment of our greatest needs and our desires.

2. I don’t believe that any hope found in this world can see us to eternity unless it is based in Jesus Christ and his redeeming work for us. “God . . . has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Peter 1:3–6).