The Write Stuff

rightstuffTom Wolfe died in May. Since then, I’ve been saving a podcast of NPR’s Fresh Air, featuring archived interviews with this major architect of the New Journalism. Today, three months later, I finally gave a listen. The 20-minute segment is packed with great advice for writers. A quick, adapted summary:

When you’re stuck, write as if you’re simply telling a friend. Free yourself from imaginary constraints, formats and word counts and just let your brain access the story. If you’ve done the reporting, it’s there.

A related cure for writer’s block is forcing myself to write a first draft without my notes. My brain does a better job of constructing the story in logical order than does my notebook. Again, think of quickly telling the story to a friend.

Thorough reporting is the best inoculation against purple prose — laying it on much too thick with flowery sentences that obscure the meaning. When you record real scenes and detail while on the scene and during interviews, you don’t have to make anything up. Bonus: From this article, here’s a hall-of-fame example of purple prose …

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”

On some assignments you will never fit into your surroundings. Wolfe mentions a story he reported about North Carolina stock car racing. He dressed to fit in, only to realize he’d badly miscalculated. Now he stood out even more.

I have reported from villages in Asia where I was the only non-Asian within 100 miles. And at 6-6, I also was a foot taller than everyone else. There would be no blending in, and that’s OK. Better to be the very obvious outsider and get a free pass to ask “dumb” questions.

There’s so much more for writers in this NPR podcast of the interviews with Wolfe. Give it a listen.

Posted in Reporting, Writing | Tagged , ,

Jonah’s blind side might be ours, too 

In a forthcoming book called The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World, author Jack Alexander unpacks a startling statistic from Barna Research: “Only 17 percent of American Christians believe that mercy is their personal responsibility, while the remaining 83 percent indicate it is the responsibility of churches, nonprofits and the government.”

That’s American Christians, not just Americans. The full research won’t be released until spring 2019. I’ll be interested to see how the question was phrased and what distinction is drawn between the Church and individual Christians, who in fact comprise the Church. But yikes.

Alexander writes: “Our distinctive as Christians is to extend love and mercy to those around us, even when they believe and look different than we do. We cannot claim to advocate for God’s justice if our relationship doesn’t include both truth and mercy.”

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God
—Micah 6:8 (NIV)

My pastors have just begun a series on the Old Testament book of Jonah. Everyone remembers the giant fish story, but there’s a lot more to this short book tucked between Obadiah and Micah. Jonah was a prophet, but he was also a jerk. He opposed the idea of God’s grace and, in fact did everything he could to prevent it from happening for his arch enemies, the people of Ninevah. Finally, after the fish incident, he goes to Ninevah and relays the word of God. The whole city listens and turns from its evil ways.

And Jonah’s response as a prophet of God is … well, he’s ticked off.

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
— Jonah 4:1-3

Jonah displays intense pride, nationalism, hatred and indifference to the spiritual condition of others. He knows God is merciful but he doesn’t like it, preferring to see judgment — even on himself.

That’s quite a warped view of God. One Christian critique of Islam is that it focuses on God’s judgment but leaves no room for grace and mercy. If the Barna stats are to be believed (and their track record says yes), then we as a Church first need to look at our own attitudes about that. Apparently they are pretty warped, too.

Here’s where that 17 percent needs to be seen and heard. Mercy appeals to our better selves. Rather than be drawn into blame-storming and endless political arguments that are dividing the Church, we can have greater eternal impact just by seeking opportunities to show mercy and supporting others who do. Mercy is contagious, especially for people who love God.

Here also is where we as communicators of God’s stories are so needed. Mission work is all about mercy, whether it’s extended to war refugees half a world away or homeless and hurting people in our own communities. When we report those stories well, we glorify God by displaying examples of his grace and mercy. We help build a more complete view of God for a safe and comfortable Church that, left unchallenged, could look more like Jonah every day.


Posted in mission, Story, World events | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Report globally and help the Church engage

A video segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live! is getting big social media play this week.

People interviewed on the street could not identify a single country on a world map. Not even their own. It couldn’t possibly be this bad. Could it?

Things do tend to look at least a little better inside most churches. Some semblance of a worldview and a sense of global mission keep a map in front of us and swim against the nationalistic tide. There is no person on earth whom God doesn’t love infinitely. We do well to remind ourselves and others of that.

Even so, it’s easy to write off much of the world. To assume from the safety and comfort of America that Christianity has vacated the Middle East … that India is beyond hope … that Africa — that’s a continent, not a country — consists mostly of mud huts and tribal wars. That Papua New Guinea … wait, that’s a place?

Almost anywhere you can go in the world, God is working — especially so in the unlikeliest of places. In 2014 I had the privilege of visiting Egypt, just after its second revolution in three years. I saw an alive, active Church where denominational lines had blurred as a prayer movement cried out for that nation. I saw thousands of Egyptian Christians gather for prayer and worship, and I heard stories of God working miraculously. You can read and watch some of those stories here.

National prayer event in Egypt, 2014. Photo: Jim Killam


In an American chapter where nationalism seems to be winning the day, it’s worth reminding the Church that our focus must stay global. Good journalism can do that, by introducing audiences to people they’ll never meet but who represent an expression of Christ’s Church in a completely different context.

In Run with the Horses, author and Bible translator Eugene Peterson examines the globalistic viewpoint of an Old Testament prophet who barely left Jerusalem during his life. Jeremiah wrote separate messages to 10 different nations representing 750,000 square miles. His messages, Peterson writes, show “that he cared enough about the 10 nations to acquire thorough and detailed knowledge about them. … All of these oracles show an extraordinary knowledge of the geography, the history and the politics of these nations. He was not interested in them in general but in particular. He bothered to find out the details of their lives. He spoke God’s word in relation to the actual conditions of their existence. … The nations were not lumped together as ‘pagans’ or ‘lost sinners’ and the assaulted with stereotyped formulas.”


The best way to present a God’s-eye view of the world is simply to show people’s stories. Lots of stories, from lots of places. Leverage the greatest communication tools mankind has ever known for the glory of God. Tell about common struggles, common experiences and a common love for God. Help people understand and get comfortable with cultural differences. In short: Engage and connect the global Church.

It’s worth noting that Run with the Horses was first published in 1983, a generation before social media and its echo-chamber culture. Peterson writes:

“The larger the world we live in, the larger our lives develop in response. … We cannot be whole human beings if we cut ourselves off from the environment which God created and in which he is working. People of faith live in a far larger reality than people without faith. ‘God so loved the world.’

“We often betray this reality. We huddle and retreat. We ignore and even despise outsiders. We collect a few friends who look alike and think alike. We reject any suggestion that we transcend biological comforts and psychological securities. We barricade ourselves from visions that expose our prejudices, from people that challenge our narcissism.”

May journalists, communicators and anyone else who works in ministry strive to reveal the works of God among his people everywhere. This isn’t such a small world after all.

Posted in Culture, mission, Reporting, Story, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

The defining moment

Photo: Concussion Legacy Foundation

It was September of 1976, the week before the NFL season began, and Gary Fencik had just been cut by the Dolphins and signed by the Bears. On his first day of work, he borrowed his parents’ car and set out for Bears headquarters, then Ferry Hall in Lake Forest.

Then the car broke down on Route 60. Fencik was on the side of the road, in danger of being late for his first real day as a professional football player. He flagged down a passing car.

“Where are you going, kid?” the man with the blonde hair asked.

“Lake Forest,” Fencik replied.

“So am I, hop in.”

This was no coincidence that Fencik and Doug Plank would come together.

Writer Dan Pompei of The Athletic uses scene and dialogue to reconstruct this pivotal, unlikely moment that brought two great football players together for the first time. What a wonderful device to begin a story of how two of the most violent hitters in NFL history are now working, as the headline states, “to curb the concussion culture they helped create.”

Good reporters listen for the meaningful, defining anecdote … the moment that set the course for someone’s life. Then they ask questions, mining for detail. What road was Plank on when the car broke down? Whose car was it? (Though I wish he’d told us what make and model of car it was.) A single scene, including dialogue, can make an otherwise-routine story sing.

Nearly every person working in ministry anywhere in the world has an anecdote (or several) that changed the course of their life. The reporter who discovers it, mines it and makes it the centerpiece of a story will hit readers with a story they’ll remember for a long time.

You can read part of Pompei’s story here. The whole thing requires a subscription, a terrific investment if you like sports and good writing.

Posted in Reporting, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , ,

Your Monday encouragement

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Peering into eternity


Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.

— Isaiah 40:26 (NLT)

There’s a reason photos like the one above, from Zion National Park in Utah, take your breath away. Even when not technically perfect — and my shot here certainly isn’t — star photos deliver a God’s-eye perspective that’s become all too rare.

If you live or work in a place with low light pollution (or skyglow, if that sounds less political), your view of the night sky looks very different than it does for most Americans or Europeans. The American Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West still have some dark-sky areas, but most people can see only a tiny fraction of the stars our ancestors saw. Check out this light pollution map to see how your area of the world rates.

If you find yourself someplace with bright stars — most of Africa and portions of Asia come to mind — you have an opportunity for photos that will wow your audience. Starscape photography takes practice and patience, but the results feel almost magical because the camera “sees” stars that the human eye cannot. It seems like you’re looking into eternity. In a way, you are.

Star photos from a cellphone won’t look like much, but if you have a DSLR camera, a tripod and a lens that stops down to f2.8 or wider, you’re in business. You’ll also need a flashlight to see what you’re doing and, ideally, a remote shutter release button that you can hold open manually.

The best time to shoot star photos is on a clear night during a new moon. The stars shine brighter because there’s no competing moonlight. Set up in the darkest place you can find that has a clear view of the night sky, along with a terrestrial landmark to give the photos a sense of place. But choose carefully, because any bright lights will overpower the photo.

Mount the camera to the tripod. Set the lens on manual focus, because autofocus won’t work in pitch dark. Turn off any destabilization features.

Start with these settings: ISO 1600, f2.8, 25 seconds. Use the “B,” or bulb, option for the shutter speed. Some cameras will meter correctly; others you just hold the shutter open remotely and count the seconds. With exposures longer than 25 seconds, the stars start to look like dashes instead of dots because the Earth is rotating. That’s why f2.8 is necessary; it lets in enough light for a short-enough exposure.

Then, just experiment with slightly smaller exposure times, higher ISO, even lower f-stop if your lens allows. By the way, this doesn’t require an insanely priced lens (though the results definitely do improve). I shot the above photo with an old Canon 50mm f1.8 lens that cost me $50 a few years ago and still can had for under $125.

My Zion photo was shot with a Canon EOS 7D at ISO 1600, f2.8 and 22 seconds, about 11 p.m. The Watchman mountain looked like only a black shadow to my eye, but the long exposure allowed the camera to catch the just-rising half-moonlight, barely there, and orange because the moon was still catching sunset light.

In other words, I either got lucky or God gave me a gift. It’s all in how you look at it.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , ,

Your Monday encouragement

Image | Posted on by | Tagged | 1 Comment