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Structure is what we think of. How something is constructed. The formula is applied and the form is made.

This is understood. This is quantifiable. This is a known, safe method to creation.

But then there’s that other world.

Mt. Hermon conference was great, as usual. If you allow it, things happen there that can change you. A brief vision of a deeper space glimmers open before you, among the pillars of trees, the canopy of branches. You walk along in a different light and time and space converge into something resembling deep meaning. You were meant to come here. You were meant to be a part of this.

Of course, it’s not about you. You may know some things, some thoughts to apply. You may come expecting something nonspecific and ill-defined. But you will leave with far bigger fantasies of your purpose in responding to it all. If you could only find the words…

The first evening, I sat and listened to Dick Foth. His insights matched my experience at the conference so insanely, I’m not able to talk about it yet, but that first night he shared the difference between Coke and water. Seems pretty obvious, and it is. But the real difference is in how you interpret the value of Coke, the value of water. Some people, maybe many, prefer Coke. It’s got this fascinating formula, and highly (famously) protected. But as Dick points out, it’s sweetness is toxic and will, over time, eventually kill you. Water it down and it won’t kill you quite as fast, but it still won’t refresh as well as just water. So why do so many seem to prefer the syrupy, sparkly toxin?

Of course, I love Coke too, so don’t miss the metaphor here. But up in the woods I experienced a shift, one of several really, in how I think about the coming revolution I once opined upon at great length in the early days of this blog (check the sidebar). I didn’t know it was coming, not really. I hoped, but it wasn’t like now. Now I know. Not long now, and we’ll be experiencing a major resurgence of "water over Coke." I’m not going to define that any more specifically because I can’t, but those who have ears to hear, listen up. It used to seem so uncertain, like you didn’t want to actually name it unless it might skitter off. I spent a lot of time defining it, looking for evidence, hoping and dreaming. I spent time defending it against criticisms. It’s easy for critics to see this shift in the books we enjoy as a "watering down" of the core Christian message. And yet what do we do to wean people off of Coke? How will they develop a taste for just water?

Think about that. "Come to me all you who are thirsty and I will give you drink…. "Living water that you might thirst no more."

Former CBA chairman Steve Adams said recently to the ECPA that changing lives through Christian materials was “more likely to occur in a Christian retail store than an outlet in any other channel, because this is the one that best integrates like-minded people in a common mission.” Get that? The way I hear that is unless writers, editors, and publishers offer just water along with Coke, we may not have this influence much longer. Certainly, we need excellence at every level. But that’s just part of it. We also need to be providing a whole spectrum of books that reach people with all different tastes.

Overall, what we’re hoping for is a united effort among writers and publishers to accept the myriad different opportunities available to us in reaching beyond our former restrictions. We need people who are awake and already making the connections between what is and what could be. We need people who aren’t afraid of the inherent risks involved for people of faith, willing to stretch beyond the safe boundaries to try something new.  And above all, we need to be seeking the source of that inspiration in the living water, crafting works that have no place in the current market…but will.

This is how you escape the addiction to formula. This is formless freedom. For the change in my outlook and how I approach this challenge I have countless people to thank, but on my mind just now it’s Madison Richards, as well as Jim Rubart and Jen McCarthy. All of you are amazing.

So anyway…who else could go for a nice cold Coke right about now?

17 Responses to “Formula”

  1. I write on the blurry boundary between creative/lit non-fiction and kinda/sorta devotional. My “career” (such as it is) would be a heckuva lot easier if I could content myself to be a good girl and color in the lines of a single genre. Quench my thirst with a Coke while I reach for a Burnt Sienna crayon.
    But I can’t.

  2. The Coke/Water analogy is wonderful. What will make me sad is if people read this post and immediately go on the defensive, assuming you’re calling their work (or their favorite author’s work) toxic and syrupy. This isn’t an issue of commercial vs. literary or any other real or imagined battle line. It’s a question of whether our creativity springs from a love for God and neighbor or personal ambition. I can mix a formula in my own strength, but living water can’t be manufactured. Only channeled. For me this is all about breaking out of the box to see the sky.
    Thanks for this, Mick. You’re cute when you’re inspired. ;)

  3. Angie says:

    You know, when I was little we used to drink Cokes from those little green bottles. Then later my mom bought those Familiy-sized Cokes that came in the six packs. I have a scar on my left wrist from where a broken Coke bottle swung in its family-sized six pack and gouged my flesh while I was on my way into Kroger. Blood dripped all over their floor while they handed me a receipt for the return.
    Water has a taste, too. Go somewhere. Taste the water and see what you think. Where I grew up the iron content was so high it’d turn my blonde hair to auburn because of the rust. Where I live now it takes 30 minutes to rinse the soap off in the shower because the water’s so soft. But of course, now my hair has a few grey strands…
    I’m not sure where you were getting at, Mick, with Coke and Water. I thought I knew but it was like you shifted somewhere in the middle and unsettled me.
    Like Coke stopping making family-sized bottles and going to aluminum cans. Or bottled water becoming such a hot ticket.
    The only thing I can pull from it is: to each his own.
    Maybe there’s a market for everyone.
    And maybe that’s the point?

  4. relevantgirl says:

    Maybe it’s considered risk to give water because in giving living water (in word form) to folks is more about letting Jesus pour into us than about us remanufacturing others’ hard won words.

  5. Your post today was refreshing. Like water.
    Thanks, Mick

  6. Meg Moseley says:

    Today, my neighborhood’s water supply was shut off without warning and didn’t come on again for hours. There’s nothing like a dry tap to make me realize how much I need water. An interesting object lesson for me to absorb in connection with your post, Mick. Thanks.

  7. J. Brisbin says:

    Ughh, Coke. Yuck.
    Pepsi rocks!
    So I guess you can say I’m interested in “watered down” Christian fiction? :-)
    That don’t sound so good… I was kind of hoping to go in the other direction ;-)

  8. Nadine says:

    Mick I enjoyed your post. I find that this world needs a variety of writers because of the variety of readers there are out there. Freedom to write what is Spirit lead (the living water) is what I strive to do.
    I see you have met my good friend Madison. She’s the best isn’t she.

  9. Jen Mc. says:

    Loose Cannons In the Universe for Jesus Unite!
    Alright, so that’s how I often feel. Except that I’m deeply in love, as we all are here, with a God who loves us so personally and passionately that I sometimes wonder if He’s flirting. Do you know what I mean? Men see it differently, probably. But those very intimate details of our thought lives that He knows, and then the times when He lets us know that He knows…It is in this incredible vulnerability, the pillows in our closets with tear stains, with dents, that we come to imagine a Rock might in fact exist- with the ability and desire to keep us grounded, protected, treasured, beloved. He brings us back down to earth because He wants us here, and then He keeps us alive through Himself, the Living Water.
    This is the AUTHOR of our faith. And His stories, if our stories, must be told through the myriad lenses of His own thinking, His own design. We didn’t come up with ourselves ourselves.
    Don Miller is a hero to a new generation of believers because he is an anti-hero, a self-deprecating sinner who tried to get out of paying his taxes by flirting with the IRS lady. It’s brilliant. He puts his quirky, honest self on the table, and in this way he is flat enough for God to get some work done. It resonates with a generation that doesn’t necessarily know what to do with religion, with confession, with prayer. He demonstrates through fantastic writing that it is authenticity and love that drives this crazy bus through the universe. And folks want to read him because he tells the truth and he’s very funny.
    How do you get water to thirsty people? Must identify the thirsty. Dave Barry, he’s probably thirsty. Probably not too likely to thumb through Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, though, unless he gets a tip from a very alert reader about an exploding toilet incident inside.
    Kay Arthur said that God told her He’d heal her from her past if she would speak it. That’s a very high-risk offer if you ask me, but when you thumb through the story of Kay’s life, her healing becomes your own. God packages Kay’s healing in a gift for you.
    Wow, you know?
    This living sacrifice stuff is not easy. But it is authenticity that lives at the root, and a very basic tenet of authenticity might state that we must be who we are. And this is how we have to write. Some of us are quirkier than others, and it’s okay. We’re in, the workers are few. (Phew!)
    We’re blessed to have such an authentic forum here.

  10. Wow, indeed, Jen Mc., great thoughts. And you’re right, I think men do tend to see it differently. But when women write of this intimacy, this flirty nature of God (I’m speaking to you, too, Mair), I feel a little jealous. A little left out. I want what you see. I want a romance with the God who teases. But then again, maybe I’m one of the “quirkier than others.”
    Isn’t one of the greatest challenges to this that we need to discover who we are in order to be who we are? I don’t know about you, but I’m still figuring that out. Daily. Stumbling into myself. Falling face first. Then being lifted back up into someone I sort of recognize.
    Is this evidence of multiple personality disorder? Maybe. Or is it evidence of a God who is intimately involved in shaping the clay he gave the name Stephen Paul into the person he wants me to be, the person he intended to inhabit this name and this life.
    Maybe some of this writing life is about figuring out who we really are – whom God is molding us into. And maybe, as we do that on the page, others will see the hand of God and God’s infinite, intimate love and realize their thirstiness and reach out for a drink.

  11. “We didn’t come up with ourselves ourselves.”
    Ha! I love that.
    “Authenticity” is one of those words that is unfortunately wearing thin–losing some of its power through over-use. But the idea of living sacrifice is eternally new every morning (along with the mercies that make it possible). One of the biggest ironies I see is an attempt to copy authenticity. (Impossible by definition.) When publishers look for the next Don Miller or the next Kay Arthur, they’re essentially encouraging purple to try to be orange. Mimicry is not and never can be authentic.
    Like Steve said, it comes back to letting the potter reveal his design for the clay–first to the clay and then through it. And that’s why we have tear-stained pillows. He breaks our hearts to bring us near. Then He remakes us into something far more beautiful than we ever would have imagined.
    Good thoughts, people. Thanks for launching another great discussion, Mick.

  12. Discussion detour.
    Every time you’ve posted a new photo, Mick, I’ve thought, “He’s outdone himself. There’s no way he’ll capture a more impish moment.” Now I’ve changed my mind. Apparently impish moments are her idiom. ;)
    I predict your daughter will have lots of fun in life. (I speak from impish experience.) Your job is to pray hard and laugh even harder. Secure all loose items and enjoy the ride!

  13. What if my writing is one of those pots designated for destruction? Now that’s not a fun thought.
    At least I’m safe in my Maker/Redeemer’s hands.

  14. “What if my writing is one of those pots designated for destruction.” Maybe that’s not such a depressing thought, after all. There’s something rare and wonderful in writing words only the Maker/Redeemer (and maybe a few of His faithful servants in a critique group) gets to enjoy.
    Isn’t that what our conversations with one another are? One-of-a-kind stories written in real time and shared once by a select few. I think some of my best writing is done in relationship – in emails, in conversations over coffee, in phone calls, and especially in those wordless moments of connection. Of course, none of that will get me a 3-book deal, but I’m okay with this because it still has infinite value as part of that “remaking” process.
    I’m not sure I’d refer to that process as “safe” so much as “good,” though. Breaking hurts. So does being re-made. So does thinking you have something to say to a lot of people and discovering it was just for you.
    And God.

  15. Great reminder Steve – some of my best writing is done over emails and through relationship as well – maybe because the pressure is off and I’m just talking to someone I care about?
    Still, it’s those impossible to force, “now” words of divine inspiration – the ones that don’t necessarily come out in the discipline of our ‘morning pages’ – that often strike the deepest chords.
    And yet, if we’ve truly touched another’s heart with our words, regardless of the venue, why does that seem so much less satisfying (to some) than having man’s validation by way of a printed and stamped tome with our names emblazoned on the cover?
    And you’re right – so much of what we “get” is for us alone, or us and God, or us and one or two others, but we mistakenly proclaim it for all the world to see (read) and thereby dilute its power in our lives.
    Relational writing – now there’s a topic I could post on for days…
    Thanks again for your thoughts!

  16. “so much of what we ‘get’ is for us alone, or us and God, or us and one or two others, but we mistakenly proclaim it for all the world to see (read) and thereby dilute its power in our lives.”
    I guess I just want to explain the above briefly.
    In other words, our writing is still valuable if it’s a letter to a distressed friend or a bestseller that reaches thousands.
    I think that as humans our tendency is to ‘give’ everything we ‘get’, when the point is to be uniquely obedient with each gift He gives and to take them to the places (or people) He tells us to.
    There is a timing to the release of the words God gives us, and sometimes we get ahead of ourselves. Sometimes “good” can become the enemy of “best” in our lives as well as in our writing.

  17. Mir says:

    I never want just water with my meals. I like coffee (which has been shown to have some positive elements, particularly for diabetics), and tea (which is touted for health benefits), and yes, Coke Zero.
    They have flavor.
    Water is useful, hugely useful, to quench thirst, bathe, cook, nourish plants, etc. But water is tasteless. Coke has flavor. People drink Coke instead of water cause it has flavor and gives you a boost (the caffeine).
    So, the essential aspect is: Does it satisfy something that you need satisfied?
    If it does, people will drink it, buy it, read it.
    Formula satisfies expectations–Poirot will solve the crime in a room with all the suspects. Captain Kirk will outwit the villain. The heroine will get the hero and have a HEA, complete with wedding and baby epilogue. The PI will get beat up a few times, and figure out who’s stalking the mobster’s daughter and where the murderer hid the gun. The good wizard will beat the bad wizard and the King will marry his fair maiden.
    We like a bit of surprise with our formula (the red herrings, the twists, the twist of lime), but we like to get that flavor we seek.

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