Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We go to church for the write reasons

writers conference sign, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fresno, California
Fresno Christian Writers Seminar, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fresno, California
Let’s face it, even the best writers need help to write more good.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fresno, California
On occasion, a church can be the place to find that help, so on Saturday, we attended a writers’ seminar at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fresno. Though it wasn’t an official program of the church, a church member arranged for using the space, and Ted Niami, Good Shepherd’s pastor, welcomed everyone to the seminar and prayed for blessings on the gathering.

The event was the second (annual?) Fresno Christian Writers Seminar, a project originating initially with one person, Dr. Allan Hedberg, a local clinical psychologist and author. He has, not surprisingly, written about psychological issues like depression and relationship dynamics, and he’s also written biographical works about Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther. His books have been published by traditional publishers, but he has also self-published. Because of his experiences, he wanted to help writers who have a variety of goals, though the seminar is aimed primarily toward beginning writers.

After last year’s inaugural seminar, I suggested Tim Stafford as the keynote speaker for this year. Tim’s writing experience is broad; he’s worked as a writer and as an editor in both fiction and nonfiction. He’s also a good friend.

I’d read Tim’s work for years before I met him. When I was a teenager I subscribed to Campus Life magazine; every month the first article I turned to was the “Love, Sex, and the Whole Person” column Tim wrote. After working for that magazine, he worked for years in Kenya where he taught locals about magazine writing and publishing. Since then, he’s worked for Christianity Today while also writing over thirty books (his most recent, Those Who Hope, is a novel set in a rescue mission in our hometown of Santa Rosa).

When we talked before the seminar, Tim noted how much the publishing business has changed since he began writing. He mentioned that he appreciates that he’s been able to make a living by writing, but said that in the present environment, writing as a livelihood is more challenging. He added that people have been able to write for a career for only a short period of human history, noting that some monks got bread and wine for their work.

In his talk to the writers, Tim argued that writing is part of a writer's nature; when he was growing up, he knew he had to write. Like no other medium, writing has the power to communicate both personally and reasonably, and he pointed to the Scriptures as the chief example of how God values writing. He talked about the variety of genres to be found in the Bible, from history to memoir to poetry to apocalyptic (rather like contemporary dystopian fiction). “You want to read great writing? Read Jonah.”

“The Bible is preoccupied with Truth,” he pointed out, and he said that Christian writers should be as well. He talked about something he’d noticed while preparing to teach an adult Sunday School class on the life of David. He said that though the Bible presents David as a hero, “a man after God’s own heart, it doesn’t hide that he did very horrible things as well. David was an adulterer and a killer -- and at times very petty. Christian writers need to be willing to show the church and Christians doing bad things because, in fact, they do. Christians shouldn’t be writing propaganda, but rather truth.

After Tim’s presentations, other speakers talked about other elements of writing and publishing. Linda Weller, an editor and proofreader who we remembered from last year’s seminar, spoke about her work. Writers should be reminded that someone else can make their work better, since there’s some egotism in thinking you have something to say for the benefit of the world -- or even just a reader or two. [editor: Thanks, glad you noticed!]

During breaks, we headed into another room. Several authors had books for sale, and while sometimes it seems like writers are just selling to each other, it’s helpful and even encouraging to see other people’s work. (I don’t think Jesus would have overturned those book tables. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.) Snacks were also available, which kept people circulating and chatting.

Scripture has a lot to say about the gifts and talents that God gives His Church. Writing is one of those gifts, and it’s good for churches to provide a time and a place for people to grow in their abilities. Mindy learned barista skills at church. How many millions have learned to sing at church? And what about all the churches that have, well, schools? I was glad to see the Church doing something write here (because I, to, have a lot too learn).

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

We go to Church before the Big Game

Mountain View Community Church, Fresno, California
Mountain View Community Church, Fresno, California
“I’m Tony, one of the pastors here at Mountain View Community Church, and welcome to Jersey Sunday!”

We’d already spotted quite a variety of jerseys: Niners, Raiders, Colts, Packers, Cowboys… But we didn’t see any Eagles or Patriots jerseys, probably because it was a Christian church. (I kid, I kid. Nowhere does Scripture explicitly say you can’t be a fan of Philly or New England. Well, Psalm 1:1 says not to walk with the wicked, but…)

The varied jerseys were not the usual Sunday attire at Mountain View, but the flags from many nations around the interior of the sanctuary and lining the driveway at the church entrance are there every week, which I believe signals that missions is a priority in the church. Just as Revelation 7:9 describes every nation and tongue represented in heaven, perhaps so is every flag (and jersey).

I think the worship service we attended was a more sparsely attended than usual, which is the case for most churches on Super Bowl Sunday. (I learned this early in my life of ministry when I was an intern at a large church with a large staff. When I was finally offered the opportunity to preach at a Sunday evening service, I was excited and happily accepted. Then someone else on the staff whispered to me, “You know that’s Super Bowl Sunday.” There were definitely fewer people than average at that service -- only about 600 -- but it’s still the biggest crowd in my preaching experience.)

Still, I think was smart to use the football theme while they could. For instance, the sermon began with a clip from an episode of last week’s Jeopardy. The contestants had left the “Talkin’ Football” category for last. The three players were unable to answer a single question. None of them were willing to even hazard a guess, to Alex Trebek’s amusement. Pastor Fred Leonard noted the frustration of watching people who were unable to answer questions when we knew the answers, which led into a discussion of how much more important it is to know God’s love, focusing on Romans 8.

The Missions Moment before the sermon was also introduced with a video clip. When the missions pastor, Mary-Tyler Wahl, mentioned the film Pay It Forward, I was concerned; a Kevin Spacey film clip might be a bit awkward considering the actor’s recent mentions in the news. But the clip was instead a Cheerios commercial on the theme of giving. After the video clip, the congregation was encouraged to contribute to the Pound of Love program, a monthly food and clothes give away. Mary-tyler did say that Pound of Love was different from the idea of paying it forward: the gifts are given with no strings attached, with only the goal of demonstrating Christ’s love.

One of the challenges of writing about churches every week is that good churches tend to do many of the same things, but this church had many little things that they just did very well. I liked that they took the offering during the opening of the sermon. The worship team led the congregation in singing rather than performing before them, and I appreciated that the lyrics on the screen were in Spanish as well as English.

I very much appreciated the way the church handles visitors. Part of the area where people gather before and after worship services is a Guest Hub which newcomers are encouraged to visit, and different visitor’s gifts are offered for the three first visits (a candy filled mug for the first visit, a t-shirt for the second, and a book for the third). Donuts are available in the Hub every week, too.

Long tables in with information about (and sign-up sheets for) small groups were in the gathering area and at one of the main entrances. I noticed that there were sign-ups for Spanish language ministries as well, and the staff of the Spanish language congregation (which meets on Sunday afternoons) was featured with other staff portraits in the Guest Hub.

It so happened that on the day we visited there wasn’t much of a mountain view because of Fresno smog and fog. The other half of the name, representing God’s community in that place, is obviously a constant.