Reporting wonder

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Impact stories and the power of one

Columbia Pictures

Think of the best movie you’ve ever seen. A movie that did more than just entertain, but impacted you — changed the way you look at the world. In fact, list your top three. We’ll wait.

Got ’em? Now summarize each movie’s theme with one word. So for instance …

It’s a Wonderful Life: Faith.

The Wizard of Oz. Self-sufficiency (OK, that’s two words but we’ll allow the hyphen).

Saving Private Ryan. Sacrifice.

Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “All good art is about something deeper than it admits.” In other words, universal themes emerge — themes that resonate with people even if a story’s characters and setting don’t. Maybe the theme is courage. Or hope …rescue … justice … redemption.

Now think about your nonprofit organization. Can you reduce your theme to one word? If you can, you’ve probably zeroed in on your primary impact. Next, you need to engage your audience in that impact. What is the observable change created? The change might be personal, spiritual, cultural, economic, social … or likely some combination of those.

Let’s say you operate a rescue mission for homeless and hurting people. You could spout statistics: Last quarter you served 4,000 meals, hosted 1,000 people overnight, graduated 12 people from your rehab program, received $80,000 in donations.

All well and good. But stats aren’t very relatable. Audience members can’t wrap their minds and emotions around the collective predicament of a thousand people.

Instead, show them one. Let your nonprofit’s single-word theme lead you to one person whom your work has served and who exemplifies that word. Tell that person’s story and show how it intersects with your organization’s. Let your audience form an emotional connection, not only with the person but with the story’s universal, relatable theme.

There’s your impact.

For our hypothetical rescue mission, maybe the impact theme is restoration. And maybe the person is Mary, single mom of two kids who got injured, lost her job and wound up hooked on prescription pain killers.

To tell a good story, be it in written or visual form, you need to understand how story works. Newspaper editor Jack Hart, in his book Storycraft, explained it this way:

“At its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions — the actual story structure — to overcome them.”

Simpler still: Bad interrupts good. Sacrifice and struggle are required. Good prevails. People are hardwired for this storyline.

So, you trace Mary’s life before, during and after her intersection with your organization. Her life falls apart. She comes to the rescue mission and enters the residential rehab program, where she perseveres to beat addiction, receive job training and get a new start. Today she lives a victorious, grateful life. In doing so, you connect your audience to the change you are creating together. They see their role in the larger story.

Do this well, and maybe people will still be talking about you 25 years later. When Roger Ebert wrote that line about good art, he was reviewing The Shawshank Redemption, which usually appears in lists of the best films ever made. It’s the story of a banker, wrongly convicted of two murders and sentenced to life in a New England prison. Shawshank remains so beloved because of its one-word, universal theme: hope.

“I believe part of the reason the movie is so important to people is . . . that in a way it works as a whole for whatever your life is,” lead actor Tim Robbins told Vanity Fair in 2014. “That no matter what your prison is … it holds out the possibility that there is freedom inside you. And that, at some point in life, there is a warm spot on a beach and that we can all get there. But sometimes it takes a while.”

*I originally wrote this post for PureCharity, a great organization committed to helping nonprofit organizations grow and thrive.

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Together, a bigger view of God

Photo: Jim Killam

Montana’s Glacier National Park has long been one of my favorite places on Earth. God’s hand is all over this magnificent wilderness. From lush valleys, waterfalls train your eye upward to their source: glaciers and snow-capped peaks. Meanwhile, grizzlies, mountain goats and bighorn sheep roam the slopes.

A paradise-on-Earth setting can say a lot about how we perceive our omnipotent creator. I appreciate Glacier’s beauty from the perspective of a writer and photographer. It makes me feel small amid God’s vast splendor and majesty.

But I’ve also hiked here with my friend Andy, a geologist. Where I see God’s artistry, Andy sees him in the details — how these mountains were formed over eons as layers of sediment stacked and then uplifted diagonally by tectonic shift. And then how the glaciers carved those immense valleys through amounts of pressure and time we humans can’t fathom.

Another time, I hiked with a park ranger and we talked about seeing God in the ecosystem, where all living things depend on each other for balance and ultimately for life itself. Every plant, every tree and every animal leads to a better understanding of God as master designer.

Our culture has mistakenly decreed that there’s a spiritual realm and a scientific realm, and never the twain shall meet. Most of us know better. In Storycraft, a wonderful book about writing narrative nonfiction, newspaper editor Jack Hart wrote: “If you walk through the woods, and you know the names of all the plants, you’ll see more.” I would add that you’ll get a bigger view of God.

There’s certainly a place in our faith for theological argument. Glacier National Park is not that place, even though we experience God and sense his omnipotence in different ways here. When we compare notes, it’s not with the idea that one needs to be proved wrong in order for the other to be right. It’s more with a sense of awe and wonder at God’s infinite complexity and his sovereignty over not just the “spiritual” realm. “Omni” really does mean “all.” He ordains scientific order and precision as much as beauty and wonder.

What does all of this have to do with reporting God’s stories? I think creation teaches us to develop an eye for wonder, for things that point to him. As we learn to look and listen, we do indeed see more. Then we can bring that perspective everywhere we go. When I as a reporter better understand how different people experience and relate to God, I start to notice things. For instance, in several trips to the Middle East, I learned to see God:

  • In the relationships that developed between Muslim refugees and Christian aid workers.
  • In the palpable history of a land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked. Where Moses walked. Where Jesus walked.
  • In the beauty of desert wilderness, punctuated with green valleys that produce abundant crops.
  • In the mathematical precision of the pyramids, or Roman temples.
  • In churches, where believers worship enthusiastically, gratefully and in unity among various denominations.
  • Amid persecution — real persecution, the kind where people get killed — which believers consider part of their Christian identity.
  • And in rare instances when God works outside of the natural laws he established (which is the very definition of a miracle).

Once I’ve collected these glimpses, I can embed them into stories. This not only gives the audience a better look around a place, but also lets them see God in ways both familiar and not. It’s a chance to help people expand their view of omnipotent God as I expand my own.

Photo: Jim Killam

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Writing advice from a bear of very little brain

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Eternity and the ultimate slam

Photo: Stephen Green.

Please indulge me as I show this video. If you’re a Washington Nationals fan, I’m sorry. Wait. No, I’m not.

Last night was every kid’s baseball fantasy: a walk-off grand slam. They call it the ultimate slam or the golden homer, and it’s only happened this way two other times in Major League history: bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, two strikes, bases loaded and your team trails by three runs.

Then: David Bote sends a ball deep into the night. Bedlam. Utter and absolute joy. Defeat seemed inevitable and then, suddenly: Cubs win!

Yes, it was just a baseball game and no, in itself it had no eternal significance. So why do I keep going back and watching that video from last night?

It was one of those glimpses. They’re different for everyone, and if you’re not a Chicago Cubs fan this all probably seems ridiculous.  But the older I get, the more I’m convinced that we’re wired for eternity. We know it when we see it, because it’s home — even in the briefest of previews. Every good story and every human passion are about something deeper than they admit. We suffer now, knowing that one day all will be made right. We wait for death to be swallowed in victory. We long to be welcomed home.

It’s why we exult when the unknown guy comes off the bench to save the day. It’s why it was weirdly wonderful that Bill Murray, the Cinderella boy himself, watched last night from the front row.

In high school basketball, I once got my own ultimate slam: a walk-off dunk. We were soundly defeating a bad team and, as a benchwarmer, I was in the game for the last several minutes. Garbage time, they call it. With five seconds left, my team held a 97-69 lead. For some reason Rick Tinsley, one of our guards, passed me the ball, and it was like the Red Sea parted. I saw a lane so clear and wide, I could have driven a tractor to the basket.

One dribble and then a two-handed dunk. I almost missed it, bumping the ball against the front of the rim before stuffing it home. Then, bedlam. The crowd went wild as the buzzer sounded. I jumped around like David Bote did last night between third base and home plate. My teammates mobbed me. Guys from the other team congratulated me. At age 17, I had reached the pinnacle of my basketball career. I’d dunked plenty of times in practice, but this would be the only time in my life I’d ever do it in a game.

It’s been almost 40 years. That moment in no way defined my life or even my high-school life. I really haven’t thought much about it … until last night. Every detail came flooding back and I realized that it, too, was a tiny glimpse of glory.

Rather than dismiss those thoughts as childish or unspiritual, I think it’s good to entertain them for a bit. To recognize the hope hiding behind them. I used to joke that one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would arrive wearing a Cubs cap. Now, every time the Cubs fly that silly “W” flag, my mind goes instead to that hope for an eternal celebration.

“May he grant your heart’s desires
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory
and raise a victory banner in the name of our God.
May the Lord answer all your prayers.”
— Psalm 20:4-5

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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.

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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.


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