The Surprising Purpose of Gifts

Photo credit: Jenn Langefeld

Photo credit: Jenn Langefeld

Don’t think your gift is what you’re called to give; it’s the vehicle.

Michael Card

The first time I heard singer/songwriter Michael Card say this at a conference in Michigan a dozen years ago, I was startled. And a bit confused.

Years later—coming across it while going through my conference notes—it startled me again. And challenged me.

Every human being has gifts, talents, and abilities. They come with the skin—the humanness. Along the way, many of us come to realize that these gifts aren’t for ourselves alone, but for others. That’s the purpose, right?

A doctor’s skill goes to cure other people. She doesn’t keep it just for herself or her family.

An aircraft mechanic doesn’t stay tinkering in his own garage, but works at the airport, fixing planes that will take hundreds of people all around the world.

A teacher’s knowledge doesn’t stay in his head for his own enrichment, but comes out in the form of guidance, direction, instruction, and encouragement.

And a writer’s stories are meant to go out into the world—for the good of readers.

Our gifts—yours and mine—serve others. Got that.

But what does Michael Card mean when he says that our gifts aren’t the WHAT we give, they are the HOW?

The gift is the vehicle. The “how” something gets there.

So what are they meant to carry? To transport?

A writer can give the gift of a story, but what is that story delivering? Darkness…or light? Bitterness and prejudice…or freedom?

Ideally, a doctor’s gift brings healing. A mechanic’s—stability and safety.

The teacher encourages the mental and physical growth needed for a student’s good future.

The fiction writer’s words carry understanding, knowledge, wisdom, compassion, cheer, delight, and so much more.

But there is something that is meant to be at the root of all these things. Its absence often leads people to say, “Well, that was a misuse of his gifts!”

Love. That word — so overused, so misunderstood. So needed.

We’re called to give love.

It is love that heals, encourages, secures, enlightens, challenges, instructs, and makes wise.

The gift is only the means. Only the vehicle.

Perhaps that’s what Michael Card meant.

What's the Use of Fiction?

O'Fallon, IL Library Stairs

Every so often I run into a pocket of people who have very decided opinions about the value of fiction. Negative opinions.

The reason is usually some variant of this:

"I don't want to read pretend, made-up stuff. I prefer the real world. Things that are true. I don't have the time or need for this other stuff."

The first time I heard this, I was startled. It never occurred to me that people would not want to read fiction. My reading diet has always included an ample supply of both fiction and non.

Nonfiction does some things better than fiction can. And fiction does some things better than nonfiction can.  They both move the mind and the heart, but use different ways to do so.

And as to the claim that fiction just isn't true, well, let's take a look at the whole reading world.

Nonfiction is not always true. It can be either true or false, usually a mixture of both. Fiction can also be either false or true.

There's a book on my writing shelf called The Lie That Tells a Truth. It's a guide to writing fiction by John Dufresne. It's got some good points in it, helpful instruction, but I find myself objecting to the title.

Fiction is not a lie. It would be a lie if it told you that the events of the story it relates really happened, and you found out later that they didn't.

Fiction never claims things really happened. You know from the outset that it is a story, complete with setting, characters, motivation, plot events and more. And usually by the end of the first chapter you know what the story is promising to do.

Jane Austen never tries to convince you that Elizabeth Bennet really lived. But she does explore the birth and death of human prejudices and uses Elizabeth and Darcy to do so.

Tolkien does not urge you to hunt for hobbits and elves in the park down the street from your house. Yet he pulls you to experience and wonder at a complex world filled with good and evil, danger and love, sacrifice and heroism. 

Good fiction, true fiction, enlarges the reach and understanding of the human heart. When a heart is engaged in a story, the story has the power to change the heart.

Here's one of my favorite examples from history.

A troubled man walked down a palace corridor toward the audience chamber of the king. He might have been fearful. It's hard to tell several thousand years distant. But it's a good bet he was cautious. Because he was in a dangerous place.

He had the unenviable task of correcting a ruler gone renegade. A ruler who certainly did not want to be corrected. A ruler who definitely had the power to destroy anyone who challenged him.

What would this man say? How would he approach the guilty king?

With statistics? With opinion polls? With logical arguments? By appealing to the king's best interests?

Our man in the corridor chose none of these. When he was ushered into the king's presence, he opened his mouth and began like this.

"There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor..."

It was a story. Fiction. But it engaged the hearer's heart and emotion. By the time the story ended, the king was furious at the injustice it related. Then, the fury turned to repentance.

Before the king's heart could be changed and reasoned with, it had to find itself in a story.

The king was David. The country was Israel. The man in the corridor was the prophet Nathan, whom God had sent to David. With a story.

All sorts of things can happen when a story shows up.

Here's one that I can never forget.

Writer's Desk

The Friars Speak

St. Francis, Aviston, IL

Zeal is not a good teacher. It does not discern. It only feels.       Amadeus Walerian, Guardian of the Friary of San Stigliano

I am a friar because I have made a vow to be a friar. To be a poor friar. I do not regret it. Even if I did not get chicken in my bowl.       Cantor

Any half-wit can recognize the sound of a church bell and guess what it means.       Emilian

"God meets every man, but few recognize Him."       Benefice (from his collection)

Don't fool yourself, Cantor. The papacy, the cardinals, the kings of Europe, and the whole Franciscan Chapter are paying very close attention to what is happening in our friary.       Kerstan

Just make sure you wash up to your elbows. I do not want my soup and loaves to smell like your goats.       Gustave

You pray to God as if He were your uncle.       Honorato

All the work I do for the Church of God is done well, and I will not let anyone hinder me.              Nobilus

We will answer your questions....But first you must listen to who we are and why we have done what we have done.       Venedictos

Peace. I wanted--I craved--peace.       Sereno

Bologna was pouring out knowledge throughout Europe, while your Paris was still trying to find itself. But I don't expect you to understand that. Hah!       Quintus

God bless you for doing this, Leo. Many people destroy, but it is a gift to be a comforter. Do you understand? A gift.       Fabrizio

The Fires of Autumn, by Rhonda Chandler, now available in paperback and ebook formats and new Large Print editions!

Photos by Rhonda Chandler

Photos by Rhonda Chandler

Brother Benefice Complains, and Explains

Rhonda Chandler

Rhonda Chandler

Dear Signora Chandler,

I am writing to you because I have just finished reading your manuscript The Fires of Autumn in which I appear to play a small part. Actually, I looked over Kerstan's shoulder while he was reading it, and he was patient enough to allow me to do so.

I was glad to see that you refer a number of times to my large mental collection of proverbs. But you cite so few of them! I have 354 in my collection!

One night at dinner in the friary, I out-quoted that young scribe who works with Prentice. I wish you would have related that triumph in full. Kerstan says that was not the main point of your story.

Did I never tell you why I have such a large collection of proverbs stored in my mind?

I grew up in Pisa, the younger son of a highly respected tutor to the nobility. My older brother is as brilliant as my father. Quick to read. Quick to calculate. Quick to understand. It soon became apparent that I had not even half my brother's skills. 

My father is a fair and kind man, as gracious with his slow students as he is pleased with his sharp ones. And so he was with me.

Yet I longed to make him proud of me in some way.

The answer came to me one afternoon while I was in the garden playing an old nursery tune on my flute.

If I did not have brilliance of my own, I still could collect the brilliance of others. Because, as I had already learned in my young life, "Many troubles have sprung from a foolish tongue."

The next day, while in the marketplace with my mother, I overheard a woman at the herbalist's stall say, "You may paint the flower, but you can't paint its scent." And my collection was born.

In the years since, both my father and my brother have asked for samplings from my store of words, and I have been pleased to supply them.

My brother friars seem to enjoy my proverbs also. On nights when my roommate Cantor has trouble sleeping, I recite them. I start with Artem natura superat sine vi... until I hear him snore.

Of all my proverbs, I think the one Old Leonard quoted to Fabrizio, that late summer day on the hillside, was the best. Don't you?

If I remember right, that was the same day all our troubles began.


Brother Benefice





The Fuel of Life

Photo credit: Quino Al 

Photo credit: Quino Al 

About nine years ago I made a decision to stop writing nonfiction columns and focus entirely on fiction. Specifically, novels.

Which is like switching from sprinting to running marathons.

Practice sessions which used to be, oh, two-hour, 400-word stints, stretched to four-month lengths and a hundred thousand words. Over and over again.

To sustain this kind of work, it takes fuel. And that fuel comes from a place that sounds surprising, even as I type it right now.

It comes from wondering.

One of the most important things I do every day at my desk is keep the wonder going. Every kind of wonder. From the simple, what is that? To the more complex: how is that? Or why is that? Or what if this?

Wonder ranges from quirky fun, to curiosity, to complex mental questions, to knee-bending, transcendent awe.

Wonder isn't just writer-fuel. It's brain fuel. Life fuel.

In 1997, journalist Florence Shinkle of the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote an article on neurosurgeon Leopold Hofstatter, then 92 years old. Hofstatter's mind was as sharp and insightful as ever, which made Shinkle marvel.

After spending time studying the man's work and life, she concluded this. "One thing his life demonstrates is that the quest for knowledge is not only noble, it's healthful, stimulating dendrite growth the way hard physical training builds muscles. We are designed in such a way that our biology is rewarded for our deepest question-asking."

Wondering is very, very good for human beings. Not only does it develop brain strength and ability, it also develops soul muscle. Wondering takes us out of ourselves by expanding the reach of our thoughts. An expanded reach is good for story-writing. For problem-solving. For enriching lives--mine and yours.

Here is an unedited random sample of a few of the things I've been wondering about, past and present.

1.  What if the brain announced dreams like movie theaters do? "Tonight showing..." Would that help you get to sleep or not?

2.  What if people responded to heat the way popcorn does? And popped off their beach towels at Santa Monica or Gulf Shores? What would happen to them then?

3.  Is there a deeper meaning behind Spider Solitaire? Really.

4.  Consider that every human being is an art-maker. Everything we do is a daily work of art--in our work, our home, our family relationships, friendships, the shape of our lives--it's all art. How would seeing it like that change what we do each day?

5.  How does the geography of the area in which I live shape my life?

6.  How is the selection of conversational topics a family trait?

7.  If you type the word "replied" too fast, it sometimes comes out "pre-lied" instead. How does one "pre-lie?" Is that the lie's set-up? Or is it like when something is not a lie now, but will be in the future? Can that happen?

8.  When are "givens" not always true?

9.  A famous quote begins, "Hell hath no fury like..." We talk about the fury of hell; what about the fury of heaven? Which should we fear more?

10.  This after seeing a newsstand headline--what exactly is a natural cause of death for a two-headed snake?

11.  Why is it easier to be bold and confident when you've got someone to be bold and confident for?

12.  Why does knowing the heart of God render any jealousy obsolete?

What are you wondering about today?

Photo credit: Joshua Sortino 

Photo credit: Joshua Sortino 

A Haunting Question, or How This Novel Began

Photo by Thomas Millot 

Photo by Thomas Millot 

It started over twenty years ago when I was reading Nicolas Cheetham's book on the history of the popes, Keepers of the Keys.  Well into the medieval years of the saga, I came across a heart-wrenching paragraph that wouldn't let me go.

The paragraph followed pages of tension, pages which related the slow and stubborn build-up of opposing human forces. The kind of situation in which observers shake their heads and say, "This is not going to end well."

History is full of these situations. But what made this one stand out to me was the unexpected response that followed the events.

[I would tell you what it was, but that would spoil the story!]

The response haunted me. And puzzled me. What would drive this group of people to respond in that way? Especially since they had been on the opposite side before? I asked myself this over and over.

I didn't want the answer of the historical eye, hovering as it often must from a thousand feet above in order to understand the way life was 700 years ago.

I wanted to know the answer from what it looked like to those on the ground.

An image appeared in my mind: Two curious, young boys climbing a tree in order to look over a friary wall to see what the friars were doing. How they lived inside the wall.

And here's the thing.

Both boys saw the same scene with their eyes. The same buildings, the same group of robed men talking together, the rows of the orderly garden. But in their hearts, each saw something different.

A difference that would direct their lives into opposing paths.

The boys' names showed up next. Fabrizio and Sereno. Details of their lives, their stories, began to emerge. What they hungered for. What they had lost. What they were blind to.

And that's when my heart started to bleed.

Photo by Matteo Fusco 

Photo by Matteo Fusco 

The Secret, and Truly Vital, Ingredient

2013 Bermuda April Trip--Rhonda 101.jpg

I met her in a coffee shop along the waterfront, next door to the ferry terminal. She was wearing the gray, short-sleeved uniform of a Bermuda traffic safety officer and had stopped in with her partner for an afternoon break.

I don't remember how we got to talking, but soon she pulled out her phone and showed me pictures of...cakes.

Not just ordinary, everyday cakes. But tall, gorgeously-iced, beautifully-presented cakes. They were all her creations and she spoke of her work with such enthusiasm that I instinctively paid closer attention.

Many people complain about the work they have to do. Fewer speak of their work with happy pride. This woman's animation pointed to something else, something more, as we bent over the pictures together.

In her tone, her manner, her careful attention, there was a keenness for what flour and sugar, eggs and milk could do. Her regret? That she did not have more time to devote to such creations.

A friend had asked her for her recipes once, and had followed them exactly. But the end product didn't taste the same.

"You know why?" she asked me.

I didn't.

"Because she didn't love it," she said, looking me in the eye. "I could tell. You have to love it."

Her break was over and she and her partner went back to their work. But I stayed longer, with notebook and pen, staring at the words I had been writing on the page, and thinking.

Thinking about love as the most important ingredient in creation.

I asked myself the question: do I love these stories that I am working on? The answer came quickly, and I was glad of it.


I have tried working on stories I don't love. Stories, that for some strange reason, I felt I should write. Producing words for those felt like digging through concrete. With a spoon.

"You have to love it."

I packed up my pen and notebook, gathered my things, and stepped out into the warm afternoon. A light breeze moved the flags. Birds soared through the blue sky. Waves splashed at the dock wall along Front Street.  Pedestrians moved quickly down the sidewalks, hastening somewhere after their day's work was over. A group waited for the lights to change at the street crossing.

And I was struck by the fact that all this was part of Someone else's creation. This setting, these characters, came from Someone else's mind.

And though events have broken and wounded the original creation, it's still apparent what was in His mind when He made it.

He had to love it.

And He did.

2012 December Bermuda Jenns 158.jpg