J. Grace Pennington

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If Stars Can Break the Darkness Down

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I sat down the other night to try to write a song, and ended up with this poem instead. I don’t know why I can easily write poetry and music, but so rarely songs. But I liked how this poem turned out, and hope you enjoy it.

A star against the blackest night
Shines brighter than in day
As gems will always sparkle more
When placed on dark display.
While gazing at the daylight skies
Where have the stars all gone?
Endless turquoise all flecked with cloud
Where blinding sun has shone.
But slipping out into the dusk
Into the darkening time
Then one by one the points of light
All flicker in and shine.
And as the dome of nighttime skies
Grows darker with each hour
The far-off balls of glistening flame
Exude their silent power.
Four bare feet press against the grass,
Two faces turned to skies
My sweater buttoned in the cold
White starlight in your eyes.
Now finding a secluded spot
Away from other lights
Now laying down on soft, moist ground
This quietest of nights.
Each gold star is a diamond jewel
Scattered out in glory
No moon tonight to steal their show
Or photobomb their story.
Now watching as a lone star falls
Sailing across the black
Then blinking into nothingness
Never to wander back.
They say they’re really meteors
These things called shooting stars
But we know better, you and I
We catch them in clear jars.
Just two sounds break stillness tonight
The first is cricket song
The other is the breathing, soft
Of friends where they belong.
You used to be afraid of dark
Or what it might conceal
But now it’s nice, and us, and home
A quiet balm to heal.
The darkness isn’t scary now
We know it never wins
We’ve seen how tiny specks of light
Dispel its threats and sins.
And if the sun is blaring on
It blocks out every star
Who needs the little dots of light
When we can see afar?
But stars, they keep us looking up
They take our view away
From black and fear and cold despair
And onto hope to stay.
Just like the stars show bright at night
Like jewels show clear on black
So in the darkness hope will shine
A whisper through the crack.
Now shivering in chilly breeze
But not ready to go
You sit up anyway and reach
To break the status quo.
Then hand in hand back to the house
Grass cold beneath our feet
And stars inside our minds and hearts
Thoughts playing on repeat.
If stars can break the darkness down
And turn it beautiful
Affording us refreshing rest
In little nightly lull
Then we, created as they were
And each day moving on
Can light our corner of the world
And find the hope of dawn.

Other poems:

The Beauty of Her Heart

Jesus Loves Me

Guest Post — The Lawman in Classic Detective Fiction

My friend Elisabeth Grace Foley just released a volume of her historical fiction stories The Mrs. Meade Mysteries. While I haven’t had a chance to read Mrs. Meade yet, I’ve heartily enjoyed Elisabeth’s other writing and am excited to participate in her blog tour! Since we both love and write mysteries, she chose a popular detective story trope to talk about in her guest post. There’s also a giveaway for her book going on, and you can enter after reading this post. Enjoy!

“Just one hint to you, Lestrade,” drawled Holmes before his rival vanished; “I will tell you the true solution of the matter. Lady St. Simon is a myth. There is not, and there never has been, any such person.”

Lestrade looked sadly at my companion. Then he turned to me, tapped his forehead three times, shook his head solemnly, and hurried away.

~ from The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Most classic mystery fiction seems to feature an amateur or private detective. There have been plenty of police procedurals written, and even some Golden Age mystery authors who featured a police inspector as their investigator, but the detectives who seem to have left the biggest mark on the genre are the independent ones, receiving clients in their libraries or poking about inquisitively in country villages. Nevertheless, whenever an actual crime is under investigation, the official police must be involved, and frequently their presence adds another whole layer of conflict to the story.

In some earlier Victorian-era mystery novels, particularly those written in the first person, the police are an outright antagonist, with the book’s narrator frequently in sympathy with some unhappy suspect (usually a lady) and forever in fear of the police’s turning up some evidence against them—sometimes going so far as to try and misdirect the police or actively shield the person from suspicion. As we get into the classic private-detective mystery mold, however, the relationship between detective and policeman is more of a polite but aggravating alliance. They are working toward the same goal, the apprehension of a criminal, but in what very nearly amounts to competition with each other, and often a low opinion of each other’s methods.

Amateur detectives are necessarily aggravating to police, particularly if they happen to be stolid British police. They get information by unorthodox means, they get to the information first, or (most gallingly of all) they manage to get information where the police failed. And—bane of a fictional policeman’s existence—they propound cryptic, outrageous theories and then decline to explain why.

Most of the private detectives of literature had an official nemesis, one who might be brought to grudgingly admit their expertise but was still driven distracted by their methods. Sherlock Holmes had his Lestrade, Hercule Poirot his Inspector Japp. Their service as a different sort of foil to the detective is almost as valuable as that of the loyal companions-and-narrators Watson and Hastings. (The quote at the beginning of this post is my favorite Lestrade moment in the entire Holmes canon.) Yet they’re not the only type of policeman to appear. Holmes and Poirot both occasionally met with intelligent, sympathetic inspectors with whom they had a pleasant working relationship. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple encountered her fair share of skeptics, but was fortunate enough to have friends in high places as well—her old acquaintance Sir Henry Clithering, for instance, the former Police Commissioner who is always ready to champion her abilities to disbelieving subordinates; and the younger Inspector Craddock (whose relationship with her progresses as far as calling her “Aunt Jane” by their later cases together!). Dorothy Sayers took it a step further with the character of Detective-Inspector Parker, making him a close personal friend of her independent sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and their working relationship perhaps one of the best examples of policeman and private detective combining efforts. Yet even here, in spite of their friendship, the tension between official and independent methods is occasionally felt.

When I first created my own lawman for the Mrs. Meade Mysteries, the blunt, gruff Sheriff Andrew Royal, I had no idea that he would develop into a full-fledged recurring character. I needed a sheriff in The Silver Shawl and I invented one. But since then, he’s become one of my very favorite fictional characters to write. He adds a welcome jolt of energy and a dash of humor to every scene he appears in. As a mystery-fiction lawman, he’s partly of the Japp and Lestrade variety, often driven distracted by Mrs. Meade’s baffling methods of reasoning, but he’s also a worthwhile ally to have on your side when you need him. (As remarked in The Parting Glass, he has “a respect for Mrs. Meade’s insight that she had well earned, but he had not yet accustomed himself to the unexpectedness of her thought processes.”) There’s less absolute clash in methods, since Royal, the sheriff of a small rural town, is not quite as formal as Scotland Yard, but he does have his own blunt ideas about doing his duty.

Beyond that, though, what makes his and Mrs. Meade’s conversations work is the fact that they’re also old friends— in spite of their widely differing personalities, they can discuss things more freely and understand each other’s point of view better than they ever would otherwise. Though I’ve read hundreds of mysteries, until I created Sheriff Royal, I’m not sure I ever fully comprehended the use of a lawman as a foil for the detective. Now, though, it’s become one of my favorite aspects of writing the series.

Elisabeth Grace Foley is a historical fiction author, avid reader and lifelong history buff. Her first published story, “Disturbing the Peace,” was an honorable mention in the first annual Rope and Wire Western short story competition, and is now collected with six others in her debut short story collection, The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories. Her other works include short fiction set during the American Civil War and the Great Depression. A homeschool graduate, she chose not to attend college in order to pursue self-education and her writing career. Visit her online at www.thesecondsentence.blogspot.com.

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Don’t Let This Happen to You

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I recently spent a week at the Christian Worldview Film Festival in San Antonio. As someone who’s followed the independent Christian film industry for several years now, I’ve been very pleased to see the steady growth of quality in Christian movies. Ten years ago we were hard pressed to find any Christian titles that weren’t unbearably cheap and cheesy (though a few existed). Now several well-made stories are gaining momentum. It’s exciting to see.

I must admit, however, that there are still a lot of Christian films that are weak, poorly done, or just plain bad. After sitting and watching several hours of recent Christian films, I think I can pinpoint five very common problems. Some are very easily fixed, and some are more complicated, but as both a filmmaker and a film watcher, I think some added attention in these areas could dramatically improve our films.

1. Don’t have opening credits.
If your film is less than thirty minutes long and/or has no famous actors in it, dispense with the opening credit sequence. Opening credits have two possible purposes. One is to ease the audience into the world and the story. In a short film, you can’t really spare the time for that. It’s paced differently than a feature. The second purpose is to let the audience know which of their favorite actors they can look forward to seeing. Most indie Christian short films don’t have actors that are widely-known enough to make opening credits worthwhile.

2. Choose an interesting story.
This should be a no-brainer, but over the weekend I saw far too many films that just weren’t interesting. The sad fact is, just because a story is interesting to you doesn’t mean that it will be interesting to others. If you’re making a documentary about a friend’s conversion, you have to give us a reason to care. That sounds callous, but storytelling is about engaging people’s minds and emotions, and if you don’t do that, your story isn’t worth much. Before you choose a topic, stop and ask yourself “Why will this interest my target audience?” or an alternate question, “What can I do to my current story to make it more interesting to my target audience?” Did your friend become a Christian because as he was walking along one day lightning struck the person walking next to him? If so, include that little detail. It takes the story from mediocre to meaningful. Every story has the potential to be interesting, sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper. The extra work is worth it.

3. Stick to your topic.
Again, this really sounds self-evident, but the number of disjointed films prove that it may not be. By wandering from your topic, you weaken your story and your point. If the point of your short film is the value of hard work, don’t include an arbitrary subplot where the protagonist discovers the dangers of orange-flavored Jello. If your documentary is about why children should learn to read before age three, don’t start talking about missionaries in South Africa. Unless of course the missionaries teach African children to read before age three. These are exaggerated examples, but the point is simple. Ask yourself if each scene, interview, or subplot specifically supports your main topic or storyline. If not, don’t include it.

4. Be aware of what message you’re sending.
It would seem that Christians would be very careful about this. After all, if your purpose with your film is to bring glory to God, then every frame needs to be subservient to that. This can definitely be tricky, because we do need to portray evil and sin, and we don’t always have time or means to completely address every single thing that shows up in our movies. But there were quite a few films I saw over the week that had wonderful, godly central messages, but fairly prominent attitudes or implications that were very concerning. One story with a powerful gospel theme depicted a very selfish marital relationship that was never addressed. Another good story indirectly implied that not only could a Christian live perfectly, but that if they did, God would keep them safe and prosperous. We can’t control what people get out of our stories, and this is an issue that requires a lot of discretion. It doesn’t have hard and fast answers. But it’s something we need to examine and be aware of.

5. Don’t throw out solid principles of storytelling.
If you thought I was on a soap box before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I may do a whole blog post on this sometime because it’s a very complex topic that deserves much more than one paragraph. Hollywood often does better than us in this area, but as Christians, we are the ones who should have a better understanding of why principles are important and why they work. The standards of storytelling aren’t arbitrary. They are discovered, they are proven, and they reflect the hand of a Creator. They demonstrate design. The three-act structure isn’t something we made up, it’s something we found. It works not because we’re used to it, but because it appeals to aspects of our lives and our emotions in ways that God put into place. In a conversation I had with a filmmaker after one film showing, I was curious about some simple story structure that I felt his film had violated, and whether he had known about or considered this. His answer surprised me. He was in fact aware of the storytelling rule, but he felt that he had come up with something new that would work better. First of all, we know that there is no new thing under the sun. It can be prideful to think that we can innovate something that has never been thought of before… and it can be prideful to think that as beginners we can throw to the wind the principles that dedicated men and women worked hundreds of years to discover and understand. I’m not saying that all storytelling principles are set in stone unmoveably. Nor am I saying that there is never a time for innovation and improvement. But if we don’t have a proper respect for time-honored conventions of storytelling that have worked for centuries, if we don’t learn how and why they work, if we toss out the work of those before us instead of building on it, how can we expect to turn out powerful, God-honoring movies?

This post may seem harsh, and if it does, I am truly sorry. I don’t point out these things because I want to bash independent Christian films, but because I love them. I want them to be the best they can be. I want them to touch lives and point people to Christ and soften hearts. I believe in Christian filmmaking–and that’s why I take the time to make these observations.

And I look forward to next year’s Festival, excited to keep watching the progress of films that do their very best to touch hearts, change lives, and honor our King.

March Chatterbox – Smoke and Mirrors

I’ve never participated in Rachel’s Chatterbox event before, but I saw so many gorgeous scenes from other authors, and the theme for this month was so fascinating, I couldn’t resist. The theme is mirrors, and the scene is from Firmament.

Smoke and Mirrors

There’s something soothing about brushing your hair. Sometimes it’s more than just working out tangles, or getting the strands to lay smoothly. It’s ritual. It’s repetitive, it’s normal.

I stared at my eyes in the mirror as I slowly dragged the bristles through my hair. Pulling the brush through, wincing as it caught a tangle, pulling it through, smoothing the section down with my hands. Repeat.

The rhythmic motion calmed the queasiness in my stomach. I had brushed my hair every night since I was six years old. The Doctor had always known me then. He would be in the next room reading the news, and when I came in he would lay down the pad, smile, kiss my forehead and send me off to bed. I’d brushed my hair every night since we’d arrived on the Surveyor thirteen years ago. The Captain had always been himself then. He’d sometimes lend me a book to read, or let me watch himself and the Doctor catch a game of checkers.

I would have thought that by now, nothing could shake or surprise me.

I remembered their blank looks as they stared at me, back at each other, then at me again. They’d pretended a moment later that it hadn’t happened, they’d smiled and carried on almost like normal. But not quite enough like normal to make me forget.

“Andi?”

I jumped, yanking the brush downward, and wincing as it caught a tangle and pulled the hair against my scalp. August’s voice was so near… right behind me. I peered in the mirror, straining my eyes for a glimpse of him, but there was no one but me.

I removed the brush from my hair, and slowly looked over my shoulder. My heart thumped against my ribcage.

August stood just centimeters behind me.

Breathing slowly, I turned back to look at the mirror, and a gasp pushed out of my throat. August’s reflection stared back at me as the laws of nature demanded it should.

I shut my eyes tightly.

“Are you okay, Andi?” he asked, his accent soft and familiar.

I opened my eyes and stared. His reflection still looked me in the eyes, standing just behind mine.

I pressed the brush into my hair again. “I don’t know.”