All posts by SonWorshiper

Husband, father, worshiper, gamer, writer, singer, pianist, coffee fiend

Fan Farewell

On Friday afternoon, one of my coworkers celebrated escaping moving on from the military.

She’s the wonderful individual who routinely asks me in a friendly but annoyed tone, “Where’s my book, sir?”

Though I never have a good answer to that question, I thought at least I could give something personal and special as a thank you for all the encouragement that her persistence has given me.

I drew up the three main characters of my fantasy series–Josephine, the Soulforged holy warrior; Kaalistera, the shadow-bending assassin; and Lyllithe, the outcast Devoted touched by the Void. It’s hastily-drawn and imperfect, but heartfelt.

When I presented her this gift, it led to a discussion with a couple of other co-workers, and my friend praised my book for its well-rounded characters and exciting action.

Of course, my initial reaction was to cringe a bit, shrug my shoulders, and deflect the praise, because I see all the flaws and mistakes where I should have spent more time to put out a better product.

However, it’s always a meaningful and special experience when someone expresses genuine interest in your creative work.

If you know someone who is involved in creative endeavors, you can show them a little love and spark them to put in the work with a simple expression of interest.

“What have you been drawing lately?”

“How’s writing going?”

“What’s your band playing next?”

“Where is my book, sir?”

Then endure their awkward look of embarrassment, nod politely, and let them continue on their way–probably with a smile on their face.

If nothing else, you might get a drawing out of it.

In Transition

This is something I prepared for our local writing group in case planned lessons didn’t use up the whole time we set aside for our meeting. One of the participants suggested talking about transitions between scenes and how to end scenes, and that’s an interesting part of how we craft stories.

I want to look at transitions and hooks between scenes and chapters, but in order to do that, I need to think through the groundwork of what scenes accomplish for the writer and reader.

What makes a scene?

Usually, we put two characters in conflict about goals. Character 1 wants a particular thing X, and Character 2 wants something else – a different objective, perhaps, a thing Y, or even simply opposing thing X. They enter into dialogue or action that expresses this, and by the end of the scene, something has changed, moving the characters toward their original goals or towards the new ones established as a result of the action of the scene.

Color study for Brandon Sanderson’s “Words of Radiance” by Michael Whelan.

A chapter might be made up of one or more scenes, and a book is made up of multiple chapters… so these scene dynamics create a song of sorts, a rhythm or an emotional effect similar to a roller coaster. We do well to pay attention to that dynamic throughout our book. You want variation. You want to create ebbs and flows, to have some chapters that lead toward increased conflict and tension, while other chapters resolve into peaceful transitions to the next part of the story. You want some moments that are exciting, with break-neck fast-paced action that pulls the reader into the next page or next chapter… and some moments that make for easy shifts into a different tone or state.

It strikes me this is more of a revision topic than necessarily a “while you’re writing” topic. In the first draft, your goal is to get all the important stuff onto the page or screen so you have something to play with… to put sand in the sandbox so you can build your castle. So if you’re writing and it feels like scenes die off or chapters seem disjointed, that’s okay–leave yourself a note to fix it later, and come back once you have a clearer perspective on the overall work. However, like many other techniques and tips about writing, having this bouncing around in your head might help the subconscious input come through stronger and make a better first draft that takes these things into account.

In music, a composer can put any notes together or into a sequence. However, it’s obvious that some flow together smoothly while others are jarring. Sometimes you want that dissonance. Sometimes you want a shift in music to pop in the listener’s ears… but more often than not, you want everything to flow, to build into bigger emotions, to swell and to fade in expected ways.

Similarly, you could have a sharp break between scenes, or end a scene on a calming note and dive into a gunfight in the next chapter. You can do whatever you want, just like a piano player can hit any key. The trick is understanding what effect different chords or keys will have on the music… and what effect different transitions will have on the emotional map of your book.

So what are you trying to do with transitions?

At the end of an argument or once the dust settles after some exciting action, everyone can’t just stare at each other before the scene “fades to black.” That’s going to read like a very awkward pause.

A transition finishes the previous thought or conflict and sets up the next one. All these conflicts, whether in dialogue or action, have consequences that carry over into the next scene.

Character 1 gets thing X. Now what? Is that good? Can it be “good but” – in other words, can there be an unexpected consequence that creates a new conflict or imposes some new problem on the character? (Indiana Jones gets the golden idol but that sets off the trap in the temple, and the chapter ends with him staring at the giant rock rolling his way.)

Character 1 finds out that they actually don’t want thing X, or maybe Character 2 successfully convinces or deters them. Now what? Are they persuaded that Thing Y, which Character 2 wants, is actually more important? (Indiana Jones says we have to go after the grail, but his dad convinces him that his diary is the fastest way to get there… which means going back to Nazi-infested Berlin, instead of forward toward the hidden city where they know the grail lies waiting.)

Transitions ask, “In light of what happened in this chapter or scene, what will happen next?” and they don’t answer that question. It lingers. It’s the curling finger beckoning the reader to read on, a gentle whisper of what’s to come. Answering the question is the job of the next scene or a later chapter. Transitions are a hint at the future, but they’re also a little touch in the tone or the dynamics that prepare the reader for that next portion. Transitions are a place for foreshadowing or for forecasting the consequence of the now-resolved scene.

Consider these three options: Character 1 knows that she got Character 2 on her side, so they’re going to pursue Goal X together…

…so they make a plan of attack (which you don’t reveal yet–that’s the purpose of the next scene or conflict)

…but Character 1 has a premonition or feeling she can’t shake, and knows she better keep her eyes on Character 2.

…and Character 2 declares, “I have an idea about how we can get this done… but you’re not going to like it.” (And you don’t lay it out, because it creates that lingering question in the reader.)

You may even want the tension and drama to temporarily resolve, like a pause in a song before it picks up again. Character 1 may know that she has to figure out three more mysteries as a result of whatever happened this chapter, but for now, they’re in a good place, and tomorrow can worry about its own troubles. That’s a fine closer and still has a sense of transition – I know what is coming next, but I’m gonna catch my breath a minute before I start sprinting after that next goal. Not every chapter can end with a high-stakes “tune into the next episode” moment, or those exciting events lose their power.

Heck, maybe you DO want that jarring, awkward pause where the battle ends and silence descends on the field, in order to create the right feeling for your book. So long as it’s planned and intentional, great.

My Paint skills are so lit. It's ok to stare at this image in wonder.
*Generally speaking* these are the flawed extremes and the happy medium of pacing, which grows from your transitions and conflicts.

Whether you create a pause or try to keep things moving at a steady pace, transitions are about a resolution to what just happened, and a gentle nudge forward.

What about hooks?

Hooks serve to pull the roller coaster along. Instead of a beckoning finger, this is grabbing the reader by the collar and tugging with all your might. There’s no steady pace or pause here. These are the moments where you’re trying to make sure your reader refuses to put the book down at 2 AM when they should be going to sleep. Maybe it’s the rising tension of conflicts and consequences that you’ve built up over a few chapters or scenes until the current scene ends with a clear “it’s going down.” Maybe it’s a cliffhanger or “to be continued” in the middle of the book where the reader has to know what happens next. Maybe it’s the plot twist that spins everything around for both the characters and the readers.

Hooks are about inescapable reactions – hinting at the choice the characters MUST make, a situation they MUST respond to. This may come in action or in conversation – the promise of unexpected revelations or emotional conflicts about to break out. Hooks might also be an obvious threat or impending doom.

Hooks might be about the consequences of the resolved scene or conflict, OR they might be the appearance of a game-changing shift as the result of other people’s actions.

Imagine a political thriller where the CIA agents are arguing on the steps of the Capitol building, trying to determine the best way to go after the terrorists….

…when the hero catches something the partner unintentionally reveals, proving they’re working for the villain (big increase in the stakes, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?)

…when the hero’s partner suddenly draws her weapon and takes aim at the hero (obvious threat, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?)

…when suddenly the Washington Monument goes up in a roiling fireball. (Plot twist! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!)

It bears repeating – not every chapter can end with a hook. That might work in some kind of campy serialized episodic adventure where Cliff Hanger always ends up dangling over the precipice or staring down the barrel of a gun. However, in meaningful writing, you can’t manhandle the reader and drag them through the entire book, or it feels like a breathless, emotional minefield. A song doesn’t just start at crazy complex overpowering dynamics and stay there the whole time. The Washington Monument can only blow up so many times.

The last thing you want is for your reader to stop caring, either because of boredom or because everything is a constant crisis. Mixing the different options for transitions and hooks will create the ebb and flow of an emotional “song” throughout your work. Considering the highs and lows of tension can help you create and even emphasize the emotional beats you want to stand out.

Your characters, your setting, your plot, and your take on the world can all be powerful and meaningful. Keep your end goal in mind (creating a satisfying, compelling, entertaining work), and then let all those conflicts and consequences sing.

What did I miss? What great plot hooks have you seen in print? Let’s share some perspectives! Leave a comment below. 

Remind Me

A few weeks back, I wrote a song — something I haven’t done in quite some time — based on a similar theme coming to me from several angles.

I had been reading “Accidental Saints” by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor I had seen popping up on my YouTube feed. I don’t agree with everything she has to say, or how she chooses to say it… but when she starts talking about the grace and love of God, she is so on point.

Additionally, I had been playing keys for worship at a few churches, and singing songs like “Who You Say I Am” or listening to songs like Lauren Daigle’s perfect “You Say” which capture the theme of our identity in Christ.

Contrast that with the reality that I know how messed up I am and how often I blow it, how often I miss the mark, how often all my striving or all my lazy giving up just isn’t enough. And yet God’s love is there, even in the midst of my abject failure.

I thought of a great picture I saw where an artist captured the constant sense of “I should be doing X” whenever I am doing Y. I should be blogging, so I blog… but then I think I should be getting my work stuff done, so I get on that… but then I think I should be going outside and getting fit, so I do… but then I realize I should be at home spending time with my family, so I do… but then I remember I meant to write more of my book, so I do… but as I’m writing, I realize I don’t get enough sleep, so I go to bed early, but then I wake up and realize I should have been blogging…

It’s easy to dwell on all the voices in life that whisper ‘should’ and tsk-tsk every time I don’t. It’s easy to constantly reach for the next thing and the seemingly better thing and miss all the good things going on around me. It’s easy to think my worth is found in what I do and what people think or how many likes or shares or retweets I get (and thus it’s easy to despair when I don’t see those).

In those times… heck, at all times, I need Someone to remind me of what’s true.

Remind me of Your mercy, remind me of Your grace

Given to the undeserving, who are welcome in this place.

Remind me of Your patience for the weary and the faint,

Remind me of Your favor toward us sinners You call saints.

 

Keep me in that place of awe and wonder

Where the power of Your grace still pulls me under

Awash in Your mercy, lost in the thought

That the very One who died for is the One my soul fought

Yet You heal and restore me, the sinner that You sought

And transformed in Your glory, the life that You bought

With the blood You poured out for me, my sins have been washed

And exchanged for Your righteousness there upon the cross…

 

Remind me of Your promise, and of Your faithfulness.

Remind me that nothing I do will make You love me less.

Remind me of Your calling, and what You called me for.

Remind me that nothing I do will make You love me more.

Remind me of Your favor toward us sinners You adore

Remind me who You are

Remind me who You say I am

NaNoWriMo is coming

There’s one month left before the most hectic month of the year!

No, I don’t mean the Holidays and the present-purchasing shopping sprees. (I just don’t buy things for people. Pro-tip: that makes December really easy, as well as your social life year-round.)

I mean National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo.

NaNo is all about writing your story and sharing it with the world. It’s a commitment in the month of November to write a 50,000 word novel, and it’s a community of fellow writers or would-be wordsmiths to cheer you on when you’re staring at the screen wondering what the heck you signed up for.

It’s a writer’s version of a marathon, a challenge to yourself to put your butt in the seat and crank out an average of 1,667 words a day for the whole month in order to take your story from the spark of an idea to a (very) rough draft.

Have you ever thought about a story you knew would make a great book? NaNo is your chance to commit to yourself and the world that you’ll take that huge first step.

Do you have writer friends, to whom you’ve said, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to write a book…”? What’s stopping you, other than life, responsibilities, college, Netflix, video games, Pinterest, and maybe a lack of willpower? Pssh! That’s nothing! You can beat all those obstacles down! NaNo is the perfect opportunity to dive in and get it done.

NaNo is also a non-profit organization that works with schools and libraries to encourage young writers to put pen to paper or, more likely, fingers to keyboard in order to build their creativity and focus.

Between now and November 1st, they’ll be posting all sorts of discussions and resources on their site to help writers new and seasoned navigate the rocky course from concept to completion. During November, they send encouraging messages and interviews with successful authors sharing insights on how to keep going. On top of that, you’ll get information from your regional Municipal Liaison on meet-ups and write-ins that are taking place near you.

It’s a wild, albeit difficult, ride, and worth the effort. Want to know more? Check out the NaNo site or hit me up with a question in the comments.

The clock is ticking, counting down to your explosion of creativity. What’s your novel going to be about?

Toward a New Normal

To those who faithfully or even occasionally visit this page, thank you.

This is less a “Why I haven’t been posting” blog and more of an update on my personal life for those who value that sort of thing.

I’ve spent some time juggling and reevaluating where all my efforts are going, so I thought I should post an update to projects I’m involved in and commitments I am pursuing, as so much of my life is currently in flux. Most of these changes come from one primary cause:

In the next three months, I will retire from active duty in the United States Air Force after 24 years of service. 

All the chaos of the ever-changing flight schedule with my squadron won’t be a factor anymore. I’ll have a relative stability to my future planning that I haven’t known for a long time. My wife jokes that every appointment or get-together we plan has an asterisk next to it, with the caveat “unless the flight schedule changes.” That will be a thing of the past… and I don’t think I’ll miss that part at all.

We finally get to focus more on family matters. While I’ve had it pretty good as far as not having to deploy repeatedly for months or years, I’m excited to think I can be around more for the time and activities my wife and children desire.

Right now, I have a couple job opportunities that will enable me to continue supporting my military friends and squadron family in some capacity, which thrills me. I’ve seen our squadron crush a demanding and ever-changing mission even when we ramped up to more than double our usual workload. The number of operational sorties is never going to decrease, so any way that I can help keep some aspect of squadron life a little more together is exciting to me.

Meanwhile (and starting next week), I will be more involved in music ministry than I have been in the last ten years. While I love filling in and helping out at local church services or gatherings, I haven’t found a reliable, recurring need, until a month ago, when an opportunity dropped into my inbox out of the blue.

I’ll be performing every week as a contracted musician for the Contemporary Worship Service on Kadena, and while I’m excited and passionate about that, it comes with a learning curve as I learn to work with the Choir Director and look for ways to fulfill the chaplain’s vision for a service that is on a restricting schedule (sandwiched between Catholic masses).

I’m excited about this because having an upcoming worship service in mind on a regular basis usually keeps my attention and thoughts on grace and the Gospel more than the garbage and glitz that beckon from everywhere else in life.

Additionally, the band is full of amazing talents both on vocals and on their chosen instruments, so I’m eager to jam with old friends once more.

In the writing world, I have a number of friends who routinely ask me about Book Two of my fantasy novels, and I don’t want to keep letting them down. I also have a number of projects incubating in OneDrive files and Scrivener folders into which I would love to invest time and effort.

The local writing group has really become that critique group I always wanted, with a core group of four writers sharing chapters every other week.

NaNoWriMo 2018 is rapidly approaching, and that has been a fantastic experience for me every year I’ve done it. I will continue working as a Municipal Liaison for Japan – specifically Okinawa. While I don’t know how much of a chance I’ll have at cracking 50,000 words in the month of November, I will be able to facilitate and support regular meetings and ‘Come Write In’ events for those who can pour words onto the page.

Additionally, infrequent but recurring events like BlogBattle give me a chance to write something disconnected from bigger projects, so I’ll probably continue posting Grant & Teagan stories once a month at a minimum.

My experience with tabletop roleplaying games has shown me that it’s a wonderful opportunity to gather friends around a table for laughs, snacks, excitement, and fun. I’ve got a growing list of co-workers and friends who express interest in an ongoing campaign, but I have barely been able to keep the one group I’m running going.  On top of that, I have a few settings and two or three systems I really want to run. (BattleTech… D&D 5E Curse of Strahd… those 5E Lord of the Rings setting books…)

Once my schedule finds smooth air and level flight, I’m looking forward to arranging some gaming groups where I can commit to bringing my best to the table.

Maybe I can finally work out some opportunities to be a player as well. There’s nothing like being a Storyteller or Dungeon Master (or whatever your chosen system calls that role)… but it’s nice to be on the other side of the screen sometimes and react to the game without knowing what’s lurking beyond the next fork in the road.

In other words, all of this mess of conflicting interests and passions will still be simmering in the crock pot of my life, but the sliders for various activities and priorities are going to shift a lot in ways I don’t fully know just yet. All of this adds up to a lot of reasons to say, “No, sorry” to things I might otherwise enjoy or participate in, especially in the short-term.

I appreciate your thoughts, encouragement, friendship, prayers, and any other support you might offer during this period of instability.

Fangs and Fury

Here’s this month’s BlogBattle post, based on the term, “Blaze,” and once again centered around the misadventures of Grant and Teagan, my 1930s “Indiana Jones-meets-Supernatural” duo of explorers.

I took a stab at a sketch of them on a lengthy return flight from a recent mission. I’m not satisfied with this–it’s unfinished and not what I envisioned–but it was a fun effort nonetheless.

Last “episode,” after dealing with a werewolf, Grant fell unconscious from blood loss. Teagan succumbed to lycanthropy and used that unnatural strength to fight back against a double-agent who betrayed her. This time, we join Grant and Teagan two days later, after Grant has sought a cure for Teagan’s condition.

From The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of Horrors, Destroyer of the Defiled, and Terror of the Treacherous.

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

Firelight danced around the ruined Army camp nestled in the mountains, and wisps of fragrant smoke twisted through the chilly air as Grant hunkered over Teagan’s quivering form. He turned away from the sweat-soaked bristling hair matted on her arms and torso. Grant almost laid a hand on the furry patch of her forehead–between the pointed canine ears that now sprouted from her misshapen body–then reconsidered the danger. He averted his eyes from her bloodied claws and that makeshift muzzle he’d tied around that maw full of jagged teeth. Teeth that could tear his throat open in an instant, or turn him into a monster like–

It’s still Teagan, he reassured himself. She drank Dah-rey’s vial of silver. She’s going to pull through… once the fever breaks. 

His feeble hopes withered at the sound of her ragged breathing, and he turned toward the aged man kneeling beside the fire. “How long will it take for those herbs to purge her body of…”

Striding Bison crushed more of the dried brown leaves with a mortar and pestle, then sprinkled them into the flames. Another aromatic plume rose on the breeze, far more smoke than a pinch of herbs should produce. Curling tendrils stretched toward Teagan’s afflicted body like the fingers of a mournful spirit. “A while,” he said with a shrug, cryptic as ever, his shaky hands moving with reverence and care. The shaman had helped them when past adventures had gone awry, but those had all been of the mundane snake-bite, gunshot-wound, dehydration in the desert variety.

Howls tore through the night, and Grant peered into the murky blackness on all sides. A wasted gesture–the firelight destroyed his night vision. Even so, instead of the call of another werewolf pack, he recognized the war-whoops of hunting parties from local tribes.

“The Chickasaw know what hunts under the full moon,” Striding Bison intoned. “They hate those the wolf spirits possess. Their braves will come with cleansing fire… not the kind for burning herbs, but bodies.”

Grant put his palm on Teagan’s head and grimaced at the heat radiating through her coat of fur.

“They will kill us too,” the shaman added. “They will consider us tainted by her presence. None of the tribes take lycanthropy lightly.”

If the thought bothered Striding Bison at all, he showed no sign. He poured steaming water from a kettle into a stone bowl, dipped a cloth, and laid it across Teagan’s head.

Helpless, Grant left Teagan to shiver under her blankets. He surveyed the wreckage, noting the makeshift defenses the soldiers had erected. The werewolves left no survivors but also had no interest in equipment or supplies. A broken crate of rifles caught Grant’s eye, their dark metal glinting in the firelight. He pulled one from the container and found another box filled with circular drum magazines. “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got,” Grant mumbled, quoting the President he idolized. Teddy wouldn’t back down from the fight. 

Striding Bison smirked and ground more leaves into powder. “The Chickasaw won’t be impressed by Army guns. They’ll have gangster rifles too–and they can shoot from horseback.”

“I know,” Grant said, his shoulders sagging. “But I have to do something.”

The war-cries echoed louder, closer. Even though the mountains blocked some lines of sight, the light of the fire would be seen for miles from the right viewpoint.

“You are one man, McSwain. They are many. They are trained for war, whereas you…”

Fury flared within Grant’s chest, an explosion of rage at the futility of his situation. All his strength cried for action, something to throw, someone to punch, some means to resist the obvious fate looming over him. His fingers tightened on the grips of the Tommy guns in his hands and he glanced at his companion. A realization washed through him like a lit trail of blasting powder. If I have to die to protect Teagan from butchery, so be it. And if I’m going to die anyway… 

Grant dashed to Teagan’s side and set the Tommy guns in the dirt, then drew out his knife. “Bison, you have more of that coyotesbane?”

“Of course.”

“I’m loosening the bonds on her feet and doubling the ropes around her wrists. In a moment, I want you to lead her to safety while I distract the Chickasaw. She’ll be able to move, but she won’t be able to hurt you. Think you can manage?”

Striding Bison’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Grant’s actions. He said nothing, but his eyes moved to the knife.

“I just need to buy you both enough time for her to fight off the disease,” Grant said. He drew the knife along his forearm with a wince, and a line of crimson formed. “The Chickasaw don’t know who was afflicted.”

Grant untied the muzzle and held his arm above her elongated face. Though unconscious, Teagan shifted and jerked, emitting sharp sniffs and a low, hungry growl. In a flash, her teeth latched onto his arm, gnawing and lapping at the wound. He screamed but held still, muscles straining in anguish. When he could bear it no more, he tore his arm free then wrestled the muzzle back over Teagan’s maw.

Pain shot up his arm, throbbing and thrumming with his heartbeat. The moon grew brighter and his senses opened to the world around him with such clarity that he felt as if he’d been deaf and blind all his life. His thoughts wavered between lucid concern for Teagan and a sudden thrilling bond with all of nature.

Striding Bison looked on in horror, then came alongside Teagan and helped her to her feet, her bony arm stretched too far over his hunched shoulders.

Even as he watched the thick black hair sprout from every inch of exposed skin, Grant racked the slides on the submachine guns and turned toward the approaching war-cries. “Come face me,” he howled, his voice deep and guttural. “But be warned! This wolf has fangs!”

An Invocation of Connection

Invocation: the act or process of petitioning for help or support; specificallyoften capitalized a prayer of entreaty (as at the beginning of a service of worship)
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

After a quick introduction, almost every military ceremony officially begins with the National Anthem (plus the anthem of the host nation when stationed overseas), followed immediately by an invocation or prayer, usually offered by a chaplain.

“Let us pray.”

Though we gather, often in the same uniforms, adhering to the same standards, sworn to the same commitment of service to the same nation, these three well-intentioned words can sometimes create a divide when we should be united in celebration.

The religious will bow their heads in reverence, and no doubt a good many people with no particular faith will go along with what they deem a harmless gesture. However, more and more, there are a group of servicemembers who hold no faith or spiritual belief and find themselves staring ahead, waiting for the actual content of the ceremony to begin. They stand in silence, ignoring what feels like a strong nudge of “official” religion… perhaps making furtive eye contact with and recognizing like-minded individuals.

Look at this amazing, lifelike image of an invocation in progress which I totally didn’t make in five minutes in MS Paint!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the purpose of a ceremony is to honor an individual, such as retirement from military service, that person has a huge say in how their event will take place… including whether or not to begin with an invocation. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a few ceremonies begin without one. Some people feel no need for a religious gesture, and that’s understandable. After all…

What would a non-believer “pray” for? 

Religion or no, we have a shared humanity–a connection of experience and interdependence. By definition, no one gathers by themselves. Honoring and celebrating achievements is best done by others, not oneself.

With all the bustle and distraction of modern life, an invocation doesn’t have to be a call to worship or a prayer for help from the Divine. Instead, it can be a means of reminding all present of the meaning behind the moment, the sense of community within our diversity, the shared purpose represented by the proceedings.

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of delivering an invocation for the retirement of a dear colleague and friend. As a believer, prayer seems pretty normal… but I haven’t offered a non-religious invocation before, nor do I recall ever hearing one given.

Figuring out what to say without suggesting that everyone bow their heads or close their eyes took a few moments, but when I thought of my friend and his impact on our unit, the words flowed freely.

I later discovered that there are in fact some secular invocations online. (That middle link even has some invocations given by a David Williamson. That’s not me! How unexpected!)

Even so, I offer a modified version here that can be easily adapted to a retirement ceremony:

(UNIT or ORGANIZATION) family and friends, let us pause for reflection.

On this momentous occasion, in this beautiful location, we gather to honor the service, dedication, and bond of friendship we share with (RANK NAME).

We take this moment to reflect with gratitude on our time spent with (NAME)  – for a constant smile that softened the frustrations of difficult days, for a wise voice that offered rational perspective to challenging issues we faced, for a bright light of joy in spite of the myriad stresses and struggles to which aircrew life is prone. (1)

We take this time to honor (NAME’S) sacrifices and steadfast devotion, and we celebrate the impact of his career on so many present and distant in our community. We draw inspiration from his example spurring us toward better action and deeper passion for excellence in our own service, in all the varied capacities to which we are called.

We rejoice at the blessing of companionship we’ve enjoyed, and cheer as (RANK NAME) now crosses this finish line. It turns out that things will, in fact, ease up. (2) 

As he moves forward to a much more relaxed pace – probably set to a Jimmy Buffett tune (3) – we express our shared hope that he and (NAME OF SPOUSE / PARTNER)  will enjoy the rewards and satisfaction so deserved for all their effort to advance the cause of the Air Force, and his contributions to the grand endeavor of manned reconnaissance. (4)

Family and friends, thank you for sharing this moment.

Naturally, you’ll have to change pronouns and such. (Seriously though… people forget this all the time in drafts for awards and citations.)

1 – Be specific about a few qualities for which the individual is known and appreciated. We’re a flying unit with dynamic needs and a demanding schedule, so my friend’s great personality helped ease that stress.

2 – Make the speech personal to the organization as well. Our unit has an old joke from the Vietnam War era, where someone in charge promised that “Things will ease up.” Now we’re working harder than ever.

3 – My friend is a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, and I totally see his retirement plan as a lounge chair on a beach with a margarita in hand. This invocation is about connection;  personal touches and laughs will help.

4 – Capture the broad overview of what the individual has done. It should feel like breaking the tape at the Boston Marathon.

One More Round

BlogBattle is back, and so are Grant and Teagan, the fearless duo whose fortunes and foibles in the 1930s comprise most of my entries to the competition. 

There’s plenty of time left in August’s contest, with the theme word of “Moon.” Check the link above and pen your own tale of luna-cy. 

Note: I write these as if they’re disjointed episodes of some ’50s radio show because it’s silly and amuses me to do so. 

—-

After a long hiatus, we proudly return to The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of the Horrific, Vanquisher of the Vile, and Doer of Daring Deeds! (Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

In this episode, howl with delight as–armed with only one silver bullet–Grant faces down betrayal in… “The Werewolves of Wyoming.”

Mountain Moonset, by Jessie Eastland. From Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Grant leaned against the broken stump of a felled tree, his arm propped on his knee, the dented flask in his hand reflecting the dancing firelight. His eyes glinted like gunmetal as he stared at the corpse on the other side of the fire. His other hand rested on the ground, bloodied but clutching his Magnum revolver. The normally spry man now looked like the mountains surrounding the camp—ancient, weathered, too weary to move.

Brushing back her locks of Irish red with a crimson hand, Teagan dug through the contents of her rucksack. He’s losing blood. So am I. There had to be something they could use…

She tried to ignore the fur-covered limbs and the torn waistcoat stretched across the creature’s frame. Blood soaked through the bleached shirt beneath its vest, the result of a single shot to the heart from Grant’s gun.

Unfortunately, it had taken five attempts to hit the mark. The bullets work. At least we know that. We just need more of them. 

The fire in Teagan’s calf blazed and waned with her heartbeat. A jagged hole in her trousers revealed several puncture wounds in a line. She focused on Grant and pushed her pain aside.

Grant shook the flask and the contents sloshed. “Enough for one more round, if you ladies want some Tennessee warmth.”

Teagan glared across the campfire’s radiance as Grant handed the flask to Da-Re, the meddlesome and far too fetching agent of the Empire of Japan. She brushed a hand through her raven hair and smiled. He handed it to her because she’s the closest, Teagan told herself, trying to quench the jealousy flaring in her chest. Why is she sitting so close? 

The wind picked up again, a mournful wail that tore through the pass. The next gust carried what sounded like answering voices in the dark. Thick clouds rolled low in the sky, as if the moon played peekaboo with the creatures of the night.

Da-Re took a swig and gave a hissing grimace at the alcohol’s burn. “Sorry you had to kill your friend, Mister McSwain.” She handed the flask back to Grant and pointedly avoided acknowledging Teagan’s existence.

Grant shook his head. “Roquefort was always more of a patron, wanting this or that recovered, some mystery answered.” His voice slurred, more from fatigue than the whiskey. “The wire demanding an urgent meeting to ‘renegotiate the contract’ should’ve tipped me off.”

The world lurched and Teagan’s vision spun, but she shook off the sensation and rifled through her supplies. Bandages were easy enough… she could make a number of fabric strips out of Grant’s tattered shirt from their first encounter with the beasts. If I can get my head to clear, at least… but we need something to fight off infection…

More howls reverberated through the mountains, each distinct. The pack sorting out their numbers, searching for their missing member, closing in on where they’d last heard his call.

Each voice stirred the depths of Teagan’s being, some primeval yearning for the open plains, the freedom of the wilderness, the thrill of the hunt. The ache of the wound on her calf throbbed with the resounding echoes.

Eyes closed and body drained of strength, Teagan felt her head loll forward as she fell to her hands and knees.

“They’ll be here soon,” Da-Re muttered, drawing Teagan’s attention. The slender Asian rose to her feet—with Grant’s Magnum in hand—then stooped over the furry corpse. She reached into her vest and drew forth a long metal syringe from between two vials filled with a glimmering metallic solution. Colloidal silver… a possible defense or antidote to lycanthropy?

Teagan looked at Grant, eyes blurry as if underwater. He lay on his side, unconscious but breathing. She could almost hear his heartbeat. “What did you do to him,” she asked, her voice a harsh growl.

Da-Re chuckled. “I waited. Nothing more.” She plunged the syringe into Roquefort’s corpse and pulled the slider. A line of dark red shone through the slot in the metal as the empty glass within filled with blood.

“What are you doing?”

“So many questions, Miss O’Daire.” Da-Re checked the vial, wrapped the syringe in fabric, and slid it back into her vest pocket. “The Emperor wants an army that is ready to withstand all opposition… and you’ve seen these creatures’ ferocity. If we can discover a way to harness that power without the unpleasant side effects…”

“Too dangerous,” Teagan rumbled. Talking felt so difficult. Staying lucid seemed impossible. Why was the moon so bright? “You’ve seen what it does to the victims… surely you won’t do that to your own people.”

Da-Re smirked. “We have plenty of test subjects in the lands we’ve conquered.” She tossed her pack over her shoulder. “Sayonara, Miss O’Daire. I trust I will not see you again.”

Teagan ignored the treacherous woman and crawled toward Grant. His shallow breaths sounded like rushing winds to her over-sensitive ears. He still lived. She could smell the tang of iron in his blood—far more bearable than the stink of those metallic vials Da-Re carried in her vest pouch.

“You should leave him be,” Da-Re said. “More peaceful this way. When the werewolves come, they’ll come for prey.”

Teagan’s muscles tensed, and sudden rage coursed through her. Her back arched, bones popped, and fabric tore as she turned her gaze to Da-Re. The woman looked like a silhouette with the moon—so blazingly bright and full—behind her in the sky.

Bhitseach,” Teagan growled, “they’re already here.”

She lunged across the fire, claws extended for the kill.

 

Tune in next time for Da-Re Versus O’Daire, and the Beast Within!

 

Right Privilege

It’s another Sunday morning… with another service in a nice church building where sunlight streams in through the stained-glass or colored-plastic windows…

A crowd of people shuffles in, some awkwardly mingling, others choosing spots for solitude, while some popular praise song plays through the speakers.

The band has another set of songs we’re about to play, with a lot of familiar words like “amazing” and “unfailing” and references to the usual miracles, et cetera, and so on.

Another sermon is prepped, with another take on a well-known passage, with a few solid points, some clever anecdotes or cultural references, and maybe a decent invitation to respond. It’s the Good News or whatever… but more like the Good Olds, because we’ve heard it all before.

Oh, it’s Communion Sunday too, so there’s another stack of serving trays with another round of thumb-sized disposable plastic cups of grape juice and another batch of white fibrous wafers.

Another week in the house of God.

Not just any god… THAT God. You know the One… the “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life john three sixteen” God.

Yep.

The first song on the list is “This is Amazing Grace” by… well, I didn’t check, but no one’s going to care. It’s upbeat. It’s a perfect
“get the blood pumping” song. It’s familiar to the congregation. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and all that.

The second song is “Do It Again” from Elevation Worship. Some people probably don’t like it because Steven Furtick says some questionable things, and good on them, because you should test all things and throw out anything that isn’t one hundred percent of God. But it’s a song about how “Your promise still stands, great is Your faithfulness” and that sort of thing, and that’s pretty good. Reminds me of the old hymn and stuff.

The third song is “Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)” with its pretentious two titles thing going on. Artsy songwriters know that two titles means the song has depth. As the second title implies, the John Newton refrain figures in, with only the 900th alteration to the melody, 890 of which are probably Chris Tomlin songs.

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that I’m not going to bother typing because we both know you know the words and stopped reading already.”

Sermon is preached. Elements are distributed. Do this in remembrance of Me. Sing the closing song. The Lord bless you and keep you. You’re dismissed.

Church services as spiritual shampoo: lather, rinse, repeat a week later.

They say familiarity breeds contempt, but I think familiarity breeds complacency and presumption. It feels like we’re singing, “This is the same old grace… this is expected love…”

We might as well be, if we’re just going through the motions because ‘this is what Christians do.’

In preparing for this particular service, I thought about how ho-hum my heart can get about the Gospel. Growing up in church, being a part of worship teams for years, there’s a risk that I am so accustomed to the good news that it’s no longer good nor new. It’s just “what it is.”

In Luke 7, Jesus has dinner with some religious leaders as they’re trying to sort out who this upstart is and what is He really preaching. A woman with a bad reputation bursts into the scene, falls at His feet, weeps over her sinful state, washes His feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair… and all the while, the
religious folk are like, “Dude, doesn’t He know what kind of nasty skank is touching Him?”

Jesus talks about two debtors, both of whom had their debts forgiven. One owed twenty bucks, the other five hundred. (Yeah, I’m paraphrasing. If you’re getting hung up on “well actually He said” then I implore you to stick with me and consider my point, not the particular unimportant details.)

“Which one do you think would be more grateful,” Jesus asks. Well duh, obviously the person who owed five hundred. Jesus agrees, and explains that “whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.” He also calls out the religious folk, as usual, and reaches out to the outcast, as usual.

(In fact, it strikes me that the forgiveness goes in reverse compared to what Jesus describes. He forgives the woman AFTER she expresses all this passionate brokenness and worship.)

I think on any given Sunday, I tend to come in feeling fat, dumb, and happy spiritually – if I’m feeling anything spiritual at all. Most often, I’m probably just distracted and ready to get on with the rest of the day. I’m so used to the fact that God loves us, and has a plan to prosper us, and works all things together for our good, and… yeah,
all those promises that still stand, according to the song. I don’t need to know what they are or think about them, I’ll just sing that they still stand, and that’s pretty good, right?

No.

Paul calls me out when he writes to the Ephesians (Eph 2:1-4) and says, “Hey, remember? You were DEAD in your trespasses and sins, walking or even being carried along with the current of the world,
under the power of darkness. We all lived according to the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling our desires, being in our very nature children of wrath, doomed to punishment.”

Remember?

“BUT GOD, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love…”

We’ve been bought out of slavery, saved from condemnation, given a new life and a new hope, all our garbage and filth and sin exchanged for the pure, clean, stainless, righteousness of Christ before God… and yet all those words sound like more of the same-old.

Without getting too political, I think of the concept of “white privilege” and discussions of race relations. I don’t come from a culture that has a strong, recent history of slavery or past prejudice
affecting my current situation. I’ve got it pretty good where I live… both culturally and spiritually.

How often do I show up to church and enjoy my “Right Privilege” as a
Christian? Am I so accustomed to the message of the Gospel that it’s no longer amazing? Just kind of accepted, just assumed? Is the grace of God expected? Is the love God shows deserved? If I’m honest with myself, is that where I’m at?

Is it even a thought in our minds that the God of the Universe made provision for us, coming down to intervene in our wayward path, redirecting us from the course of sin and death on which we walked? Is that something we consider, or something we’ve heard so many times that our reaction and reception becomes empty and hollow?

“I love you.” Yeah yeah I know.

“I love you.” Right.

“I love you.” Got it.

“I love you.” Haha, are you just going to keep saying that?

“But I love you.” I mean, as well you should.

“But I love you.” But we kind of knew that already. That’s who You
are, isn’t it? God IS love. It says so.

We act like our grace is earned and no response is required. That’s
woefully mistaken.

“I love you.”  Ugh. Thanks, but I’m busy. I’ll get back to you.

How about same time next week?

Tune Out

Another spoken word, emotional venting piece as I think about the accomplishments I’ve done and the things I should be proud of but I’m not.

People say nice things, and I assume they’re just being polite, or they don’t know the “real” me. When people express even the smallest hints of frustration or disappointment, part of me gets defensive like they’re calling my whole life into question, and part of me agrees with them that I’m the worst.

I know none of those voices are really true, nor do they capture all the complexities of interpersonal relationships, but it’s hard not to believe the stories that emotion and fear try to tell.

For example: Since the head librarian of the base library is a friend in the local writing group and a NaNoWriMo participant, she was happy to take a copy of each of my self-published novels to put on the shelf. I assumed they’d be lost in the back somewhere, but then a co-worker told me, “Hey, my wife saw your books on the shelf at the library today!” The staff put them with new releases on display near the front of the library.

Which SHOULD be “Oh wow, that’s cool.” Not everyone can say that… but instead, it feels like, “That’s nice, but give it a month, and then they will actually disappear into the back, just like I thought.”

A fellow writer and friend has also self-published, and we both talk about how it feels like something “less than a real writer,” like a video game achievement unlocked with an asterisk noting that you were cheating while playing.

People can find us on Amazon. How many people can say that? Surely that counts for something, doesn’t it? “But anyone can upload a pile of word-vomit onto Kindle Direct Publishing and have a so-called ‘book,’ so…”

I know I shouldn’t listen to those thoughts. But they’re my thoughts.

I might record this like I did with The Basement.  If you’d like that, let me know in a comment, and since I’m a sucker for external validation, I’ll probably do it.

Tune Out 

How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

Got a couple books sitting up on the library shelf
That’s really tight oh right I just published myself
Got a check that they pay me to come to the chapel and play
Takin money to do a job I’d do for free any day
Just a sub, just a fill in, just doin’ a couple months’ stay
Doesn’t matter, I kill it ’til they come and take it away
Got a job where I got to the top of the intel op game
But it’s just an additional duty I do on the plane
Who I am and who big Air Force wants, well it isn’t the same
And I’m not gonna grind myself down ’til I end up insane
Any more than I already am, if you know what I mean
Which you do if you’re seein these words that I type on the screen
I’m not tryna pretend I belong to some emo rap scene
I’m just tryin’ to square up my feelings and intervene
‘Cause I know that nobody can change me or fix all my mess
And I say that I want to be changed when I pause to confess
All the garbage and failure and choices that causin’ me stress
Guess I’d think that if I didn’t like this, be doin’ it less
All the things that I do for which people may even applaud
Serve the highlight the ways that I feel like my life is a fraud
Like I’m not who they think, like I’m not what I try to portray
Heck, I’m not even living up to all the rules of the game
If I can’t even live out the truth of the words that I say
Then what have I got in the way of a valuable name?
Everything that I’m doing runs counter to what I proclaim

So how do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

All the things I wanna see
All the things I’ll never be
All the praise they say of me
Should be cause for revelry
But because I don’t believe
It’s a joy I don’t receive
It’s a faded memory
Like a haunting melody
Of an opportunity
That’s forever out of reach
And the voices whisperin’
Like a spreading malady
I don’t think I can be free
From the voice inside of me
From the weak and desperate plea
For a lifeline on this sea
Of shifting anxiety
Crippling fears and then worry
What if everyone could see
What I keep inside of me
What I never will release
All the truth I won’t repeat
All the doubts that never cease
All the foes I can’t defeat
No one knows this side of me
But it shows up when I sleep
Voices rising from the deep
All the secrets that I keep
All the darkness starts to creep
Up in my soul into a heap
Of regrets that make me weep
Choking out the air I breathe
Keeping out the Voice I need
While doubt plants another seed
Of depression over deeds
And mistakes that make me bleed
In a way you’ll never see
Pouring out internally
Over all the parts of me

Tell me
How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made