Sunday, August 17, 2014

DOs and DON'Ts of Prayer

Many people say they don't pray because they don't know how. They're happy to step aside and let other people do it for them. But judging by some tortured efforts at prayer I have heard, out loud, in public, and from the heart, many of these folks find themselves in situations where they have to do it anyway. You never know when it might happen to you—when you might find a microphone thrust into your hands and be asked to open a meeting, or a ball game, or a locker room pep talk, or a family reunion, with a word of prayer. Here are some tips that I hope will help.

DO bear in mind that you are talking to God. This is not the time to be scoring verbal hits on other people, present or absent. Nor is it appropriate to sneak news bulletins or editorial remarks, directed at your audience, into the prayer. Ask God nicely for things, and thank Him for what He has given. Express remorse for misconduct, always including yourself among the wrongdoers. Ask for forgiveness, not only for those who have wronged you but for yourself as well. If you must ask God to chastise the wicked, remember that judgment is His, and as you measure out, so it will be measured back to you.

DO set your thoughts in order before you open your mouth. You can even jot down some notes, even a word-for-word manuscript if you wish, and if time permits. Regardless of some people's prejudices against premeditated prayer (as opposed to praying "from the heart"), there is no law against praying even a prayer written by someone else, or one that you rehearsed ahead of time, or one learned by heart and used again and again. After all, the Lord's Prayer is precisely how Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. Provided that you read, recite, or extemporize your prayer with attention to its meaning, it is probably an improvement on the long-winded, rambling, repetitive, and sometimes painfully awkward prayers that often result when a speaker goes into prayer mode unprepared.

DO be clear about what God you are praying to. Don't let the presence of people of other denominations or religions scare you into being vague and wishy-washy about the recipient of your prayer, any more than you would soft-pedal the fact that God exists out of consideration for agnostics and atheists in the house. Stand up for what you stand for. Direct your spiritual letter in such a way that it will arrive at the correct address, and let no one hearing it be confused about whom you are addressing. It is better to take the heat for sounding a clear signal that upsets some armchair general, than to make an indefinite sound that no one can follow. Just because the Spirit "helps in our weakness" and whatnot (Romans 8) does not mean we should let our theology slip when we pray.

DO show respect and humility when you speak to God, especially in front of other people. Affecting a buddy-buddy relationship with Jesus, or worse, a type of romantic involvement with him, isn't in good taste. You wouldn't use a pet name to address a judge in the open court, or a professor in the packed lecture hall, or a general in front of his troops, even if you were on intimate terms with him. Remember who you are, and how unequal you are with God, and how much you depend on His undeserved favor, and the fact that you're no better than any of your listeners; then, if you're still not sure where you stand, imagine that someone else in the room was leading the prayer and show God at least as much respect you would demand of them.

DO mention your rationale for asking God to hear your specific request. This is a good place to stick Bible verses into your prayer (another way that it helps to be prepared). It isn't so much that God needs to be convinced, as that sometimes you and other people listening in need help believing that such a prayer will be accepted by God. Remind yourself, and them, that it is in God's character, expressed by the salvation history recorded in Scripture, to do the very thing we now ask of him. This is how, without having an axe to grind, you can use the time of prayer to instruct the people and strengthen their faith. Prayer is, after all, an exercise of faith.

DO end your prayer with some sort of doxology. It has to end somehow. It might as well be to the glory of God. A well turned doxology is an excellent way to cue the crowd to say Amen. In a certain sense, it's another way of saying Amen. Which is to say, "This is true," or "So we believe," or simply, "We trust You."

DO let the people say Amen. It's not as if they have too much to do. If they don't come right in on cue, give them a gentle prompt, such as: "Let the people say..."

DO listen to yourself—if possible, by playing back a recording of the event where you prayed. Notice your awkward and tedious mannerisms and make a conscious effort to correct them the next time. Listen for sentence fragments, thoughts that went astray, repetitions, cliches, meaningless platitudes, embarrassing gaffes (even ones you're sure no one else noticed), inordinate amounts of throat-clearing, hemming and hawing, fancy rhetoric and complex grammar that most likely went over the people's heads. Then reconsider how much time you could and should spend preparing when you are next called on to pray.

DON'T be a pompous bore. While it's OK to pray in King James Bible language, don't lay it on any thicker than you need to. Having a stained glass voice isn't as important as directing the people's faith toward God's blessings, like a beggar's hand opening to receive alms.

DON'T make yourself conspicuous by your wit, eloquence, or charisma. Use it to the glory of God, for the building-up of the brethren. You aren't supposed to be on display. You're supposed to be a spiritual telephone for God's people to talk to Him. Try not to stand in the way.

DON'T assert anything that you can't defend based on God's Word, and don't demand anything of Him that He has not promised. Remember that "Thy will be done" comes before "Give us our daily bread" in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Remember that the church has always been, and still is, a refuge for the poor, sick, troubled, grieving, aged, and dying. If you pray in a way that suggests that health, wealth, youth, a happy family, and other gifts are unfailing signs of being right with God, you bear false witness against Him and the suffering faithful. Also remember that these outward signs of God's blessing have often concealed hypocrites who brought shame and scandal to the church.

DON'T string together too many clauses before coming to a full stop. Try using shorter sentences, and make one point at a time. A rule of thumb: If you can't remember which Person of the Trinity you were addressing at the start of the petition, you're probably doing it wrong.

DON'T fall back on trendy catch-phrases to fill moments when your mouth has run ahead of your brain. If you feel a litany of Lord, we just want to thank yous, Father Gods, sweet Jesuses, and what-not, bite your tongue. Saying nothing for a few seconds wouldn't be any worse than chucking in a piece of thoughtless blab. Listen to someone who often falls into these traps when praying, and you'll be amazed that they can be so ritualistic in their "from the heart" prayer while condemning you for preparing ahead. Bottom line, think before you speak—even to God. He deserves that much, at least.

DO name names. Don't just pray for people in general, or for so-and-so's relative or acquaintance. If someone among us, or close to us, or even a public figure has an illness, or an operation, or some other problem, we should certainly intercede for him or her by name. Even a list of names—"Christian" names are enough—added to a general petition for the hungry, sick, recuperating, etc., can make a general case so concrete and specific that the people will feel the difference prayer makes. We're not just entrusting all needs to God; we're putting our needs in His hands.

DO read written prayers, such as collects, litanies, and general prayers, at least from time to time. You can learn a lot from them about what to pray for and how to structure your thoughts.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 13+

Neil Gaiman is not only one of my favorite living authors, but of all authors I know of he is the best audiobook reader of his own work. Upon moving to a new town and getting a card at the local library, I chose his reading of this book as my first borrowing. It lent a spine-tingling chill to my daily driving, and towards the end it made me have to wipe my cheeks and blow my nose before getting out of the car.

The narrator never tells us his name. He never says exactly whose funeral brings him back to the town where he grew up. Until he arrives at the shore of the pond beyond the farmhouse at the end of the lane he used to live on, he doesn't even know what has brought him back here. And then he remembers it all. He remembers the opal miner who stole his father's car and committed suicide in it. He remembers the eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hemptstock who saved his life when he was seven. And he remembers the terrible, dangerous magic that almost tore the world apart before his boyish eyes. And then he forgets again.

Certain books defy synopsis. Were I to say enough about this story to give you an idea what to expect, I could easily spoil too much of it. I dare hint only at generalities. The boy in the story experiences suffocating, pants-wetting fear. He grows enough to show death-defying courage. He places his life in the hands of a maiden, a mother, and a crone who somehow seem older than the world. And he faces beings from another world whose presence in our world would doom either it or them. Because of one tiny, childish mistake, he brings one of them home with him, and the results are disastrous. It takes a magic beyond magic to set things right again.

It's a story about the vast gulf between childhood and maturity. It's about the magic of remembering and the mercy of forgetting. It's about the bittersweetness of being a brainy, bookish kid with no close friends, a well furnished imagination, and an imperfectly happy home life. How many of us can relate to that?

This partly biographical novel was the British National Book Awards' Book of the Year for 2013. By now I should hardly need to add that its author is the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Carnegie, and Newbery award-winning creator of Coraline, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Stardust, American Gods, and The Sandman graphic novels. All that and he's got a great voice!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My First Issue

Here is the lead photo on the front page of the Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, Morgan County Press of Stover, Mo. I took it. And I wrote or at least edited almost everything else on page one, and most non-advertising and non-sports-related items in the rest of the issue. Is that cool, or what?

So I became the editor of a weekly newspaper last Monday. That only gave me about half a news cycle to contribute to the next (Aug. 6) issue of the paper. A few photos I took got into the Versailles (Mo.) Leader-Statesman, which my father Robin Fish edits, and which is published by the same Vernon Publishing, Inc., that owns the Morgan County Press. A few more of my photos and a story or two got into the M. C. P., which I am learning to edit. Yes, kiddies! I work a few yards away from dear old Dad! I've even had to change my name to R.D. to cut confusion.

Today the first issue that I worked on from beginning to end went to press. I actually got to see it being printed and stuffed with advertising material. I helped put mailing labels on copies and prepare bundles for mailing. I rode along with a co-worker and learned all about delivering my paper to the stores and vending machines that carry it. And I got started on my second issue.

I was a little slow this first week. I trust that as I gain experience I will learn to work faster and get my stuff in before the deadline. As it worked out this week, the Monday noon bedtime for the Press was stretched to almost 5 p.m., and some of my co-workers in the layout and pre-press department had to stay a bit late. Oops.

But I'm feeling good. I managed to squeeze a feature article into this issue, as well as the first installment of my weekly editorial. And that's all besides news and photos. And I've got my next feature written. I have a lot to learn, but I think I might be able to do this. It's scary in fun way.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
by James Dashner
Recommended Ages: 13+

When Thomas wakes up inside a metal box, he remembers nothing about his former life except his first name. Then the box opens, and he becomes the latest in a series of monthly arrivals in a boys' camp from hell. The teens live in a Glade at the center of a huge maze. Some of them have been there up to two years. No one has ever found a way out. The walls move during the night, when venomous monsters called Grievers prowl the maze. Kids who have survived being stung (or worse) remember just enough about life outside the maze to fear getting out more than staying stuck inside. Though Thomas has just arrived, he has a strange feeling that he is meant to be here.

The next day, a month ahead of schedule, the Box arrives again, carrying another newbie. For the first time ever, this one is a girl. She arrives comatose, nearly dead, clutching a disturbing message in her hand. After she wakes up, Teresa proves to be able to talk directly to Thomas's mind. She tells him that everything is going to change. Somehow she has triggered the end of whatever fiendish experiment these children have been forced into. The maze, she reveals, does not have an exit. Yet the teens must escape, and soon. Otherwise they will all die.

Thomas and Teresa together are the Gladers' only hope to survive. But even though they're in as much danger as anyone else, they must risk a lot to lead their friends to safety. They will face the suspicion of kids who have good reason to distrust the maze's Creators and anyone who deals with them. They will be targeted by the mentally unbalanced victims of the Grievers, who remember something awful about the two newbies. Their lifesaving heroics and death-defying tactics will make them the center of a swirl of conflict and debate. And when they finally crack the code and form a plan of escape, they will risk many innocent lives to get back to a world that may, after all, prove worse than what they are escaping from.

My younger friend Ike told me this was a great series. But even though I had already enjoyed a book by the same author, I didn't seek this book out until one day when I was an hour early for an out-of-town appointment. I didn't know what else to do with my time, and for once I hadn't brought anything to read. So I popped into Walmart and popped back out with this book in my hands. I found it reasonably engaging, for a dystopian-future, blood-sport-for-teens type of book; though, mind you, I didn't miss The Hunger Games by accident. World-building fans will appreciate the effort author Dashner has taken to create an original texture for his tale, with the kids speaking their own distinctive slang, and their world decked in ominously run-down-looking, machine-like trimmings. The more they learn about what happened to their planet, and what the suggestively named organization WICKED has in mind for them, the darker the outlook for the series becomes.

The Maze Runner is the first book in a four-book series, which goes on with The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and The Kill Order. It is also coming out as a movie in September 2014, starring Teen Wolf star Dylan O'Brien. James Dashner's titles also include the Jimmy Fincher quartet (starting with A Door in the Woods), The 13th Reality quartet (starting with The Journal of Curious Letters), and the ongoing Mortality Doctrine series (starting with The Eye of Minds).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Enchantress Returns

The Enchantress Returns
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 10+

Collection spells are not just for debt collectors who want to put the hoodoo on a delinquent customer. In Chris Colfer's Land of Stories series, they are the framework for a quest-like adventure through a magic world teeming with fairy-tale heroes and villains. The first book, The Wishing Spell, was all about a shopping list of magical items that twins Alex and Conner Bailey needed to assemble in order to get home to the "Other World" (namely, ours). It could only ever be used one more time, and the Evil Queen from Snow White wanted to get there first. Now in their second visit to the Land of Stories, Alex and Conner are trying to complete one collection spell, while the Enchantress from The Sleeping Beauty races to finish another. The twins' goal is to create the Wand of Wonderment, whose wielder is invincible, so the Enchantress can be stopped. She, on the other hand, only wants to take over the whole fairy-tale world, and then get started on the Other World.

Fans of cracked fairy tales will love this book's mash-up of Rumpelstiltskin, the Little Mermaid, the Snow Queen, Jack and the Beanstalk, and many other stories, as the twins search for the most prized possession of the seven most hated villains in the Land of Stories. Glee cast-member Colfer proves again that he is more than just a pretty face, as he explores the private lives of folkloric monsters with a touch ranging from heart-touching tragedy to grim horror.

When I listened to Colfer's own audio-book reading, I came to appreciate his hammy side, as he fearlessly put distinctive voices to many characters. He seemed especially fond of voicing the rough-living Mother Goose, the operatic enchanted harp, and the spoiled Queen Red Riding Hood. In comparison, his narrator-voice sounded disappointingly flat and rushed. But I have read one of his books in hard copy too, and even though his vocal performance may not fully do it justice, his work is very entertaining. The old stories come together in a creative new way, investing old and new characters with hilarious attitudes and romantic feelings. One particular scene, in which Alex takes counsel with a quartet of storybook heroines, got me choked up for some reason. His text is riddled with pop-culture Easter eggs that both kids and adults will delight in finding, from a sneaky Harry Potter reference to a line from a Mel Brooks movie. My favorite line: "Witch, please!"

In the end, however, something develops that will put fans of the series through an emotional wringer, at least until they collect the third book in the series. A Grimm Warning came out in July 2014. Colfer's other work includes the YA novel Struck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal, which was made into a film starring the author himself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Dragon's Lair

The Dragon's Lair
by Elizabeth Haydon
Recommended Ages: 12+

The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme, allegedly discovered in an archeological dig and reconstructed by an expert scholar, relate the experiences of a young explorer in a long-ago world full of magical races, objects, and stories. In this third book, following The Floating Island and The Thief Queen's Daughter, Ven and his friends flee from the frying pan to the fire. By "frying pan" I mean the Inner Market, walled up inside the Gated City, walled up inside the seaport of Kingston, where the Thief Queen has just been cheated of her prey. By "fire" I mean, well, fire. A dragon's fire.

Tipped off that Felonia is out for revenge, and threatened by an unkindness of ravens (such an apt word), Ven collects his human friends Clem and Char, pickpocket extraordinaire Ida No, his merrow friend Amariel, and the quiet little Gwadd girl Saeli, in the back of a produce cart driven by a Lirin forester named Tuck. Together this diverse group will answer a riddle put by the River King, investigate the disappearance of Saeli's people, intervene in a war brewing between the Lirin and Ven's Nain folk, and—if they survive that far—ask a dragon named Scarnag why he has made himself the scourge of the countryside. And they'd better hurry, because Amariel has one turn of the moon to get back to the sea, or she will be stuck with legs instead of tailfins.

Ven's relationship with his friends hits a rough spot in this installment. He had hoped his friends from Mrs. Snodgrass's wayside inn would get along with the merrow girl who once saved him from drowning. But the suspicion between the merrow and the others is heightened by clashes between such strong personalities as Ida and Amariel. By trying to protect the secret of Amariel's true nature, Ven just makes things worse. When his party finds itself pinned between the arrows of the elvish Lirin and the crossbow bolts of the dwarvish Nain, the situation is about as bad as it can get. Yet Ven moves forward with courage, determination, and above all, curiosity. He obtains treasures no one would have believed he could get, and the greatest of these treasures is a magical story of betrayed loyalty, bitterness, and sorrow. And he both learns and teaches a lesson about the power of forgiveness.

Elizabeth Haydon, whose C.V. lists "advanced degrees in Nain Studies from Arcana College and in Lirin History from the University of Rigamarole," informs us that the manuscript suddenly ends at the conclusion of this tale—just when Ven and his friends are about to start a new adventure. Fortunately, it seems her team of archaeologists dug up another journal, because a fourth book, The Tree of Water, arrives in bookstores in October 2014. I've received an Advance Reader Copy of it, which is why I've been in such a rush to catch up with the series, squeezing the latest two books into a week when I'm packing to move houses. I absolutely have to return this book to the library, post haste. But I'm not in such a hurry that I would skip over the two "Endnotes from the Documentarian" and the Acknowledgements, all of which are entertaining and full of clues. For more fantasy novels set in Ven's universe, check out her Symphony of Ages series, whose seventh book came out in June 2014.

Sky Raiders

Sky Raiders
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 11+

When Cole and his sixth-grader friends troop down the basement steps to view a spooky, Halloween house of horrors, they're more worried about whether they're too old to go trick-or-treating than about being kidnapped. But the basement is already nearly full of caged kids waiting to be forced down a ladder in the floor. Cole manages to hide until everybody has gone down the hole, wondering how anyone could think of getting away with kidnapping so many kids at once. Then he follows them. His plan is just to find out where the kids are being taken, so he can report back to the police. But the hole in the basement floor proves to be a portal to another world—and it's a one-way trip.

Cole arrives in the Outskirts. It's a world where magic, or something like it, is possible. It's a world where slavery is permitted. Cole's friends have been captured by a team of slavers, and are being hauled to market. Some of them are to be delivered to the High King, who is interested in kids with Shaping potential; which is basically Outskirts lingo for magic. Before he can free them, Cole is betrayed, snatched, marked as a slave, and sold to the sky raiders. These folks literally live on the edge of the world, and plunder the castles that float by on clouds. It's a dangerous job. Average life expectancy is measured in weeks. Cole will have the especially deadly job of scout, until he has flown fifty missions—if he lives that long. All he really wants to do, though, is escape so he can find his friends.

Raiding the castles is tough work, and not just because of the risk of falling into a bottomless pit. The brink is bounded by cloud walls, from which the castles emerge and into which they disappear every day. Nothing that goes into these cloud walls ever comes out again. The castles themselves are inhabited by semblances, more or less conscious temporary illusions of life. Some of them are people who can be reasoned with. Some of them are dangerous guardians. Tricks and traps await the unwary. For those who survive, the castles offer treasures, weapons, and enchanted objects to make the risk worthwhile. Cole doesn't get much training. To make his fifty missions count, he has to bring back something to show for them—even if it means running from a giant cross between a scorpion and a centipede. His best chance is a sword that tugs him wherever he points it, a cloak that makes semblances do what he says.

Cole has just started to prove his courage when the slave girl Mira, toward whom he feels protective, finds herself in trouble. The High King wants her, and he considers her capture important enough to send four hundred legionnaires. Mira's secret turns out to be even bigger than knowing that the High King murdered his five daughters. She actually is one of the daughters, secretly imprisoned for decades, and kept eleven years old all this time by the fact that her shaping powers have been stolen. As soon as Cole, Mira, and a couple other young sky raiders run away together, they have a whole army after them and a strange, deadly, unpredictable world of magic to hide in. Before they can get away, they must reunite Mira with her rampaging powers, entrust themselves to new allies, brave forests haunted by fiendish monsters, and learn not to drive each other crazy.

These kids argue a lot. Sometimes their arguments grow repetitive. The clash between their personalities is ripe for conflict, which could work in favor of an ongoing series, but in this case it doesn't achieve much other than making the reader squirm in his seat. Some of the characters introduced in this book will be fun to watch for a while to come, such as Liam, the super-powerful shaper who can't take anything seriously, and Lyris the semblance-knight, who wants above all to test his courage. I may be misspelling his name, since I enjoyed the audio version read by the kid-friendly voice of Keith Nobbs. I don't think it was his fault, or my imagination, that this book seemed heavy on talk and light on action. Apart from some thrilling scenes, mostly early in the book, and swaths of amazing imagery and atmospheric suspense, my overall impression of the book was that it suffered from too much bickering between four kids sharing an automated transport. Also, Cole's role in saving the day, while important, isn't really central in the end.

The Outskirts is an interesting new world, full of dangers and wonderful, magical possibilities. But the Five Kingdoms series, starting in this book, has a way to go before it can match the energy and enchantment of the author's other titles. These include the fabulous Fablehaven quintet, the Beyonders trilogy, and two Candy Shop War books, most of which I have enjoyed and admired. I'm only two books away from having read everything in these series, and I don't plan to quit just because I found this book not quite up to their level. A lot will depend on Book 2, The Rogue Knight, to be released in November 2014.