Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On death, taxes, committees & meetings: 10 great tips for improving your posse’s email communications.

Everyone’s got a gang, is part of a posse, kicks it with a clique, or serves some unheralded role on a church, school, community, or work committee.

Ah, yes, the dreaded “c” word -- committee (C1)!

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes -- and participating in committees, groups, clubs, organizations, projects, and the meetings they entail.”

Of this reality there is only one thing more arduous than actually planning and managing the meetings -- the second most dreaded “c” word -- communicating (C2) about them!

C1 always requires a good dose of C2.

Think about it.

Whether it’s work meetings, your coffee klatch gatherings, or PTA planning sessions, keeping everyone in synch as to what’s happening where and when can be a challenge. One that’s often overlooked or not taken as seriously as it should be.

Common excuses for failures to communicate are that it’s just so much work, too time-consuming, that using email is too hard...

Blah blah blah....

Enough with the excuses, already!

The result of flailing in your communication efforts is chaos, confusion, and the collapse of your group.

Communicating well and keeping your group members looped in and clued up isn’t that difficult.

Here are ten tips for keeping your committee communication copacetic by using email effectively to administer a healthy dose of vitamin “C2”.

1. Have a point person.


Clearly identify one person as “the” single point of contact for all communications. Don’t assume someone will do it. Don’t pass the responsibility around. Pick a person and give them the reins to your communication. They may wish to recruit a back-up, but leave that to them. Once they are in place, funnel all group communication through this one person.

2. Learn how to use email. 

It isn’t hard. No matter if you use Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, or whatever, there is plenty of online help. If hands-on help works better for you, phone a friend (but not me ;-) to come over and walk you through the steps. Write them down and keep them handy as needed.

3. Always include a pithy subject line.


Always! Never, ever send an email with a blank subject line. Doing so annoys your recipients. A lot. The subject line is how recipients can readily see that your message is one they must open and read. Don’t waste it!

4. Use BCC for all recipient emails. 

I’m sure you’ve received emails that were top-heavy with long lists of the email addresses of every recipient. You have to scroll and scroll before finding the message. To avoid this, use BCC. If you don’t know how, then learn! Put your own email address in the TO section, and everyone else’s email in the BCC. Doing so keeps everyone’s email address private and eliminates accidental and embarrassing “reply all” messages.

5. Never assume anything.

Never ever! Except to assume your recipients don’t know everything. This doesn’t mean you view them as stupid, but that you understand not everyone knows where to find “the best restaurant in town,” or “the big bookstore with the free meeting room,” or “the back room in the church.”

Never assume your recipients know anything and so tell them everything. There will always be someone who doesn't know or has forgotten. Plus, people move! It can be dangerous to direct people to a meeting at “so and so’s” house when the “so and so’s” have moved.

6. Keep emails simple & use lists.

Put key information on separate lines in an easy-to-scan list below a short, to-the-point explanatory narrative. The list can be bulleted or even numbered if appropriate.

For example, like this:
The Holy Berries will be meeting at Bob and Carol’s house this week on Wednesday to plan our holiday outings. Ted and Alice are bringing snacks. You are welcome to bring a friend.
WHAT: Meeting to discuss holiday outings.
DATE: Wednesday, November 19, 2014
TIME: Starting at 7:00 PM and wrapping up around 9:00 PM
WHERE: Bob and Carol Hinkley, 909090 West Palm Avenue, Lakeford, OH 48998
PHONE: Bob’s cell is 216-888-1212, Carol’s cell is 216-888-2121
OTHER: New members are welcome.
People are busy. Formatting the message with lists allows for a quick scan to gather all the essential information. Keeping the message short also allows for it to be easily copied and pasted into electronic calendars.

7. Offer complete contact information. 

In every communication you send out, always include the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of appropriate contacts. Never send an email that doesn’t include at least one phone number for recipients to call if they have questions, or get lost while trying to find your meeting place.

8. Include a GPS-friendly address. 

It’s maddening to be a newbie and receive directions that rely on local landmarks, complicated directions, or assume detailed knowledge of the area.

Gah! If you’re expecting people to show up somewhere, always include a complete address they can punch into their GPS. This means they’ll need the number, street name, and city at a minimum.

If you’re sending the message and you don’t know the address then look it up and verify it! Don’t assume your recipients can figure out where the “dark red house three blocks south of the corner of Elm Street and Nightmare Avenue” is. Especially if the dark red house was just painted blue!

9. Add a concise signature to all of your email.  

This is something everyone who uses email should do. Whether you use an email client on your computer or use email located in the mystical cloud, every email application includes somewhere in the settings the ability for you to add a “signature” that will be appended to every email message you send. A signature is not an opportunity for you to include a cute little saying, but rather a way for you to always share your essential contact information without having to re-type it.

What should usually be included in a signature is your full name, your primary email address, your phone number, and sometimes your mailing address. Other bits of useful info could include the URLS of your websites or blogs, or for your Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, and Google+ accounts.

But don’t get carried away and clutter your signature with useless stuff that makes it more annoying than useful.

10. Send your messages early, later, and just in time. 

When it comes to communicating, the adage about “once and done” does not apply. The best times for emailing your team are:

  • Right after a meeting: This way you can recap what happened in a written record.
     
  • Halfway between meetings: If you meet monthly, about two weeks out from the next meeting is a good time to send a meeting reminder. Use a slightly different subject line than you used in your previous message.
     
  • Within 24-48 hours prior to a meeting: Again, never assume that because you sent one or two messages that everyone read them or remembers there’s a meeting coming up. Simply re-send the prior message and include any new information. Again, use a slightly modified subject line so recipients understand it’s a new message.

11. Bonus tip! Be consistent. 

This tip applies to your communication as well as managing your meetings.
  • For Messages: Send group messages from the same email address using readily recognizable words in the subject line, and format your emails the same way each time. Create a template for building each new message.
      
  • For Meetings: When holding meetings, always have the same start time. When possible, keep them at the same location. If they are monthly, aim for the same day every month (for example, the second Tuesday of each month). 
Consistency in meetings and messages reduces confusion and keeps chaos at bay.

Let all things be done decently and in order!

The old tried and true guideline for creating effective communication is to always include who, what, when, where, why, and how, and doing so in a manner that is complete, concise, and clear. (Ooh, three more “c’s”-- C3!)

Following these guidelines coupled with the 11 tips listed above, your messages will be on target and well-received.

You see?

¡Sí!

Here's an example of an email. Click on the image above to view it larger.


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Do these tips make sense? Do you have any communication horror stories you can share? How about additional tips? Any pet peeves about serving on or leading committees? Don't be spooked! Sound off in the comments! 

For daily tips, always read "Dilbert"!











12. Another Bonus Tip!

What's the one secret that rules over all the other tips?

Never assume!   


When crafting any communication (email, memo, letter, announcement, etc.) never assume your recipients know anything about what you are going to tell them. Don't assume they know what your last meeting covered. Don't assume they know when and where the next meeting will be held. Don't assume they know the agenda. Don't assume they know your phone number. Don't assume they've read past messages. Don't assume they fully understand all that's been explained to them before. Every time, tell them everything they need to know as if they've never been told before.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Let’s have some wholly holy fun by putting the “hallow” back in Halloween!

In Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” a wealthy prince, Prospero, gathers his friends into a sealed abbey, determined to hide from the “red plague” ravaging the country outside.

Believing they are safe from a disease that kills quickly and brutally, Prospero and his guests party on. After some months, someone new shows up and, well, things go opposite of what was intended.

In other words, they circled the wagons against the “evil” they perceived in the world but it still got in. And it killed them.

Kind of like a lot of Christians do when it comes to Halloween.

These fretted believers behave as if this is what Paul admonished in Ephesians 6:
“Finally, be hidden in the Lord and in his mighty power. Circle your wagons so that you can avoid the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is against our ungodly neighbors, as well as scary things going bump in the night and against the spiritual forces of evil who come trick or treating at our doors. Therefore bunker down, so when the day of evil comes, you’ll be clueless as to what’s happening, and after you have cowered in fear, you can point to how the world around you is going to hell in a hand-basket.”
No, no, no! That’s all wrong!

Halloween’s tainted muddled history

As a kid I loved Halloween. So did my friends. We dressed up as friendly spooks, good witches, silly pirates, and raggedy little beggars.

Our goal was candy.

The decorations on the doors we knocked on were of cute hunch-backed kittens, smiling little witches, toothy Jack-o-lanterns, and dancing cardboard skeletons.

Besides trick-or-treating, there were the Halloween parties --many hosted by our churches -- with games, bobbing for apples, costume judging, apple cider, donuts, and more candy.

It was fun. Innocent fun. I’ve captured the mood in a poem called “Rounds” (click here to read).

But, even then, there were those who were beginning to insist, because some were claiming Halloween had some dark roots, the holiday was an anathema event for real believers.

There are always the party poopers.

Yes, I know, there are the claims of our modern Halloween having origins in the Celtic fire festival called Samhain, a celebration related to the end of the harvest season. That it was picked up by the Druids, Wiccans, and other pagan groups and made one of their prime “religious” days. And that now there are those who make it a day of evil.

So what?

We shouldn’t care! Or at the least we should not be fearful.

The claim is that by participating in Halloween in any way, Christians are somehow worshiping the devil or yielding themselves to that evil.

Really?

Again, no, no, no!

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Halloween is also tied to All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. In the day’s title is the clue to a better response from Christians. Halloween is merely a shortened version of All Hallow’s Evening. The definition of “hallow” is “to make or set apart as holy; to respect or honor greatly; revere” (American Heritage Dictionary).

Just as people can be made new and holy in Christ, so certainly can man-made holidays. We don’t need to hide from a calendar event.

Instead of ceding ground to the enemy and letting evil rule, we need to recognize that what Paul was really admonishing in Ephesians is this:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:10-13, NIV).
In other words, put on your costumes and let your light shine! It’s time to stop running, come out from hiding, take a stand, and put the “holy” into Halloween!

Fostering whimsy and joy over horror and fright

There are some churches who have grasped this truth and offer events such as “Holy Ghost Parties” or “Boo Bashes” or the semi-lame “Harvest Happenings.”

While these are moving in the right direction, they do so hesitantly by labeling these events as “alternatives” to Halloween.

It’s time to get over the skittishness and start having truly “Blessed Halloween” events.

The focus is to have fun not promote fright. Keep things light and point to the “hallowed” aspect by dressing and decorating appropriately.

A simple rule of thumb here is to aim for whimsy and not horror. If anything depicts cruelty, it’s over the line and not appropriate. This eliminates blood, gore, and worse, including “Christian” haunted houses that depict horrible accidents and the like.

I miss the days of truly “Happy” Halloweens. I abhor what’s become mostly a giant horror-fest.

It’s time to push back the darkness and light a candle -- and put it inside a happy Jack-o-lantern.

Have a happy, holy, and blessed Halloween!



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Agree? Disagree? Why or why not? Do you enjoy or hate Halloween? What's your favorite Halloween memory from childhood? What's your biggest complaint about Halloween now? Don't be afraid! Sound off in the comments!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Found Remains

They leave home
their dorm rooms
apartments

       whole
with faces, hands,
mouths spouting laughter,
       watering cans of glee
sprinkling the air with joy
and silliness
carefree

       happy

going to a party
looking for a party
heading home from a party

and then
       not

nothing

vanishing brings panic
searching
       questions
as paths are retraced
friends queried for clues
surveillance reviewed for images


speculation fills the newsfeeds
       for days, months, years

and then
       discovery

remains

in some overlooked corner
a shaded mossy crevice
       beneath silent watching trees
or the basement of an abandoned building
or a shallow grave

or a trash bin
 
the remains are found

they leave
       whole

are found
       bones

this is not how any parent
should have to retrieve
a lost child

merely bones

       found remains.

 




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  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

 The impetus for this poem was the headline (
Missing nursing student Holly Bobo's remains found in Tennessee) and first sentence (After three years of searching, the remains of Holly Bobo have been found in Tennessee.) of a CNN report posted on September 9, 2014, and was fueled as well by the more recent case of Hannah Graham. Hearing and reading these stories always evokes a tremendous sense of sadness, particularly as the parents and families of those murdered come to mind. While there is no easy way to lose a child, to have a child abducted and killed has to be especially horrendous to bear.

Friday, October 17, 2014

God authors new version of old book! Includes charts & graphs in full color! Eschews shews & cankerous obfuscation! Endorses the use of the series comma!*

Once upon a time, there were bookstores in every mall. When my mom dragged me out shopping, once I was confident she’d selected appropriate clothes for me (which was something I had to keep on top of to avoid being beaten up at school for looking like a sissy boy), I then holed up in the nearest bookstore. It was heaven.

One of my favorite bookstore haunts growing up in New Castle, Indiana was the only Christian bookstore in town. The Heritage Center, as it was called, was on S. 18th Street, a world away from my house but just down the street from our church. I could usually get a ride or bike it until I finally got that coveted driver's license. The store was run by a somewhat odd family, not particularly well organized, and always held a surprising item or two on the dusty gift-oriented shelves.

While others saved up allowances to buy the latest hit 45RPM record at Horney’s Music Store, I saved mine, as well as some lunch money, for books.

Well, and a few records, too. But it was easier bringing books home than it was rock ‘n’ roll, which is another story.

I bought books by the dozens. Especially books on faith.

While what we learned at church was interesting, I wanted to know more than what the over-simplified Sunday school stories offered. So I read books and I read my Bible.

Let it be noted that even though I was a nerd, I didn’t dress the part. Thus, the management of mom when buying my clothes. Although there was the pocket-protector period I'm not proud of...but I digress.

King James is still king & this has nothing to do with LeBron

I still own the first two “real” Bibles my parents gave me. The first, published by Cambridge, was given to me on Christmas in 1960.

The second, given to me on a birthday when I was in high school, is “the marked reference Bible” published by Zondervan featuring “the finest chained-reference system for Bible study.”

It was color coded with topics on salvation, the Holy Spirit, temporal blessings, and prophetic subjects highlighted in red, green, tan, and blue. Included were a concordance, some articles, and a series of color maps.

Both Bibles are well-worn. I carried them to church twice every Sunday, once on Wednesday nights, and every year to church camp. And I read in them regularly. But, unlike the Bibles I favor now, these two bear almost no underlinings or margin jottings.

While I read them, I wasn’t able to fully engage with them.

Both Bibles were King James Version (KJV) from 1611.

For decades, the KJV was the de facto Bible translation for nearly every church in America. For many, that is still the case.

Up until recently, the KJV was the bestselling version of the Bible in the U.S.. In sales, it’s been surpassed by the NIV (New International Version). But, in popularity, it still ranks as #1.

And that’s a little sad.

In an article I wrote for the July 1983 issue of Bookstore Journal, I stated,
“The King James Version (KJV) is the most prevalent Bible translation used. It always has been and probably always will be the most popular version. But its popularity has nothing to do with the clarity with which it communicates God’s message to modern man. While majestic and musical in style and cadence, the language of the KJV grows more archaic every day. The message is timeless, and God’s Word to us is changeless, but the language of the KJV has become foreign to modern man.”
The vagaries of our ever-changing language combined with ever-improving translation makes the KJV somewhat arcane.

When it comes to the Bible, if all you’ve ever read is the KJV, it’s time you upgraded to something a little fresher. You’re missing out on a lot.

Pick a version, any version, as long as it’s something new

In 1961 my sister hosted a New Year’s Eve party in our basement, inviting all of her high school and church buddies. One of the exciting bits of trivia buzzing around the sober crowd was that even when you turned 1961 upside down, it still read 1961!

1961 was also the year that the New Testament portion of the New English Bible was released. A few years later, this would be the first non-KJV New Testament I would acquire, discovering it one day while browsing at the Heritage Center. The full New English Bible was released in 1970. Reading it was a delight.

My next non-KJV acquisition was the New Testament portion of the New Berkeley Version in Modern English. The NBV was a 1969 update of the Berkeley Version that had been first released in 1945. For years, this was my favorite version because of its very literary style and affinity with the KJV.

Next, along came The Living Bible, released in portions before the entire Bible was published in 1971. For the first time I was able to read through the entire Old Testament and enjoy doing so.

In college, I discovered the J.B. Phillips New Testament and it knocked my socks off!

These four versions -- two translations and two paraphrases -- thoroughly changed my appreciation of Scripture. Finally, I could read the Bible, understand it and enjoy it, just as if it were a captivating modern book.

No more tripping over thee’s, thou’s, and -eth endings. All four are well-underlined and marked with many margin jottings.

Over the years, many more new versions have been released and gained space on my bookshelves.

Pooh-poohing the naysayers

Among writers and editors, conversations can get very heated when the topic veers toward using the “series comma” (aka serial comma, Oxford comma, Harvard comma) versus AP style which rejects it.

Among readers of the Bible, even more heat can be generated in discussions of which translation is the best, as well as whether paraphrases, such as The Message, are of any value at all.

Strong advocates of KJV-only will insist that the King James is the only truly accurate translation of the Bible. I’ve known some to go as far as to insist that Jesus spoke in King James English.

Um, no. He didn’t.

Still, different versions will be accused of representing liberal or conservative theology, being laced with gender-neutral language, containing specific errors of interpretation, or advocating wrong ideas.

The reality is that no version -- translation or paraphrase -- is a totally perfect representation of the original manuscripts, many of which are incomplete. Further, I am not aware of any single mainstream, reputable version that will lead a reader into heresy or spiritual dissolution. They are all solidly the word of God.

In fact, many “Christian” cults use only the King James and still teach horrendously twisted ideas and false doctrine.

The problem isn’t the version. The problem is the heart, mind, and soul of the person reading.

But don’t limit yourself to reading only a single version. Feel free to enjoy your trusted KJV, but also read in at least one other translation and one paraphrase.

I have a friend who buys a new Bible in a new version every year, then reads through it, underlining and jotting notes. Even though very familiar with Scripture, he always encounters lots of new insights.

Thanks to technology, every mainstream, reputable translation and paraphrase of the Bible can be read for free online from your computer, tablet, or phone.

According to the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) below are the current top 10 bestselling versions in the U.S. based on dollar sales :
1. New International Version
2. King James Version
3. New King James Version
4. English Standard Version
5. New Living Translation
6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
7. New International Readers Version
8. Common English Bible
9. New American Standard
10. Reina Valera 1960
These are not the only good versions available either.

But if you’re stuck on the KJV, and insist you’ll only give it up when it’s pried from your cold, dead hands, keep reading.

Something old, something new, something not inscrutable, something really cool

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language first came out in 1969, just before I headed to college in 1970. Me and my fellow English majors were enthralled with the new dictionary. Not only were there words, but also pictures! Lots and lots of great pictures! It was so exciting! This took boring text-only dictionaries to the proverbial next level.

In 1985, the same kind of excitement came to Bibles. One of the first truly modern “study Bibles” was released by Zondervan, the NIV Study Bible.

Unlike the old KJV’s that included a concordance, cross-references, and some maps, modern study Bibles put multiple, instantly accessible references right in the palms of both of your hands.

Study Bibles offer more readable fonts, better page layouts, commentary notes along the bottoms of the page, extensive introductions to each book, helpful sidebars, as well as useful concordances, maps, charts, illustrations, and cross-references.

I still favor my NIV Study Bible, while my wife leans toward the newer ESV (English Standard Version) Study Bible.

But there’s a brand new edition of one study Bible well worth considering, especially if you’re still clinging to your old, rugged, black-leather-clad KJV.

The New King James Version (NKJV) was introduced to the world with a “1 1/2 hour multi-media show featuring words and music, plus live appearances of renowned celebrities and performers” on Monday, July 19, 1982 in Dallas, Texas, during the annual CBA Convention (Christian Bookseller Magazine, June 1982).

I was there. Having to be in more than one place at a time, I missed much of the multi-media hoopla, but did snag a free copy of this new version. I and others were impressed, even though there were no pictures or maps in the free edition.

Not merely a de-thou-ing of the KJV, the NKJV represents a fresh word-for-word-leaning translation that updates the language while retaining the literary style and structure of the KJV.

For KJV readers, the NKJV it is both understandable and familiar.

A study Bible version of the NKJV has been available at least since 1997, formerly known as The Nelson Study Bible.

Now, a souped-up version of the 2007 second edition NKJV Study Bible -- The Full Color Edition -- has recently been released.**

It’s simply gorgeous, packed with all and more you’d expect in a study Bible. For example, you will find inside it...
  • full-color page design
  • Bible-land photos and graphics
  • in-text maps and charts
  • cross-references with textual notes
  • word studies and indexes with Strong’s numbers
  • Bible times and culture notes
  • book introductions, outlines, and timelines
  • reader-friendly notes and articles useful for extended study
  • concordance including proper names
  • articles on key biblical doctrines
  • harmony of the Gospels.
     
But wait! There’s a little more!

On the slipcover, an offer is made for a “free Bible study tools download.” To access the download, you’ll need to input your name, email address, and the ISBN.

The “tool” is a somewhat unwieldy 221 page PDF containing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from the Modern Life Study Bible, another NKJV-based study Bible. There is no table of contents included in the PDF, and no explanation of how to use this “tool.”

Given that it’s the same biblical text, I’m not sure if many will find it particularly useful. My impression is that Thomas Nelson is offering it in hopes that it will entice some to buy the full book version of the Modern Life Study Bible. It would have been nice if it had actually been a real study tool rather than a marketing device.

Also referenced on the slipcover is an offer of a lifetime guarantee for which you must register online to activate.

Before opening and using your Bible, you may also want to check out the care tips located online and addressed in How To Care For Your Bible.

Shew me thy money! Or, their word will eat as doth a canker: A Final appeal

2 Timothy 2:15 admonishes those of us who follow Christ that, when it comes to faith and God’s word, we must “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.”

Shew?

You mean like when Ed Sullivan used to announce that the night’s program was a “really big shew”?

Or do you mean like the archaic variant of the word “show”?

Arcahic meaning “no longer current or applicable; antiquated.”

Even putting this KJV passage into context doesn’t really make things truly clear:
“It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself. Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker...” -- 2 Timothy 2:11-17a (King James Version)
Doth a canker? Like a canker sore? What? Forsooth, alas and alack, I needeth some helpeth.

Let’s look at the same passage in the NKJV:
“This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself. Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer.” -- 2 Timothy 2:11-17a (New King James Version)
Oh, cancer!

That’s much more serious than a canker sore. And the approval part isn’t just about “studying” about faith, but about “being” faithful.

The NKJV Study Bible offers additional commentary and notes further clarifying the passage (click on the image at right to see the two-page spread larger).

Released just in time for Christmas gift-giving, the “full color edition” of the NKJV Study Bible is the perfect gift for friends, family members, and yourself.

Regardless if you are merely curious about the Bible, are a new believer, or a seasoned person of faith, this is the perfect addition to your Bible study bookshelf.

Additional resources:

NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected these books to review and received them free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


* Okay, the headline was nothing more than a bit of a tease. Sorry about that. Please forg
ive me.
** Technically it's not available until 10/21/14.


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What’s your preferred Bible version? What versions do you avoid and why? Do you read in both translations and paraphrases? The first time you read the Bible in a version other than the KJV, what was that experience like? Do you have a favorite version or study Bible? Share your thoughts in the comments!.

                                             Hardcover | Kindle
 

Friday, August 8, 2014

All I have to say for the time being is something someone else has said already. (Hiatus*)

“If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can't write a thing. But I'll continue to try -- that is the point.... Right now I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me.”

-- Flannery O'Connor














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Have you ever had days (or weeks, or months) like this? Tell me about it.


* “A gap or interruption in space, time, or continuity; a break...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sojourn. Hospice. Vigil. Joe. Emily Dickinson & Shakespeare.

Sunday, June 29

Spattered throughout scripture is the idea that, on this earth in this life, we are merely sojourners.

Travelers just passing though.

Even “aliens and strangers” moving about on this God-breathed world (1 Peter 2:11).

Or, put a little more bluntly by Jesus, we are well cared for “leaves of grass,” here today then withered and tossed on the fire tomorrow (Matthew 6:30).

The point being made is one that we often don’t truly get or even care about until, well, the end is nearer than we’d like.

That point is simply this: life is transient and temporal.

Every one of us will die. Some sooner than others. And all by various means and ways.

Because this reality has been thrust brusquely upon our family in the past few days, I’ve been contemplating, among other things, the idea of “hospice” as we’ve been practicing it.

The literal definition of hospice is intriguing:
hos•pice (hŏs-pĭs)
n.
1. A shelter or lodging for travelers, pilgrims, foundlings, or the destitute, especially one maintained by a monastic order.

2. A program that provides palliative care and attends to the emotional and spiritual needs of terminally ill patients at an inpatient facility or at the patient's home.

[French, from Old French, from Latin hospitium, hospitality, from hospes, hospit-, host; see ghos-ti- in Indo-European roots.]

(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
When the two proffered meanings are blended, as I believe they should be, the truth that surfaces is that, in a sense, we are all engaged in hospice, both as givers and receivers of care.

We are all earth-sojourners seeking hospice -- shelter, care, lodging -- day in and day out.

* * *

My mother-in-law, Ann Laub, a vital and head-strong woman that I’ve known only a few years, went to the hospital some days ago. Her complaint was an ankle gone awry. At 81 going on 82, it doesn’t take much to send a body into a deep hurt.

Sparing some of the finer details, she came out of the hospital after a couple of weeks straight into home hospice.

As you can guess, many other factors were at play. But still, it took all of us varying degrees of time and depth of pondering to move past “But it was only a sprained ankle!” to the hard reality that it is much more.

I think we are all still working it out in our heads and hearts. But the result is the same no matter what.

The weight of life is bearing down. And it hurts.

Now, three strong, lovely daughters (Cynthia, Debra, BethAnn), working as ministering angels, attend to Ann’s needs in rotating shifts. They are variegated images of their strong, lovely mother.

Walt, husband and father, attends also, sorting through all that’s happened and happening, working hard to make sense of it all while being there by her side. His is a difficult and arduous task despite appearances to the contrary. My heart breaks for him, and them.

Others of us, connected by blood or marriage, are here as best we can be. Alternately stepping in to help or moving out of the way as needed. It’s a kind of a dance with awkward steps we’re all trying to learn meaning toes get stepped on at times.

There is nothing about this that is not hard. And for each, it’s hard in different ways only each can understand and parse. None can tell another how to feel, how to think, how to go through this.

After all, a family is a unit made up of different individuals. Even shared experiences are colored and made infinitely personal in the hearts and minds and memories of each one.

That’s the way of life.

And life, as death, can be messy. All the hurts and hopes, mistakes and successes, good decisions and bad, trials and joys of life still crowd in at the end, demanding a place, seeking to be heard, wanting to be acknowledged, or perhaps forgotten. Definitely, forgiven.

As in life, at death tempers flare, love surges up, tears fall, hugs are given or shunned, misunderstandings erupt, and memory recalls lighter, brighter, happier times as laughter inexplicably bubbles up out of deep sorrow.

Amazingly, mysteriously, joy finds a way.

This is the awkward dance of life.

Today the dance has taken a turn as Ann’s breathing seems to be fading. Everyone has gathered.

* * *

After a few bumpy turns on the dance floor, things settle into a whispered vigil.

Dad works on his crossword from the morning paper. One washes dishes. Another updates the notes for the nurses. And someone else cleans. All are working hard in their own way.

Besides the labored breathing, there are the random exclamations. Ann is nearly simultaneously lucid and not. Deciphering her meanings is as complex as working out a difficult crossword.

How long this will go on is anyone’s guess. Right now, just about everything’s a guess.

Much of life is a guess. But there are certainties. God’s love and grace is assured to those who are his children.

Jesus taught that in giving shelter, clothing, a drink of water -- hospice -- to another fellow sojourner, it was as if we gave it to him (Matthew 25:35-45).

Service rendered in love to the helpless is a miracle of grace. Especially when the helpless and those serving are a little head-strong.

* * * 

Jesus comforted his disciples assuring them of their place in his kingdom and in heaven. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me,” he told them, and then explained that he was going ahead to make preparations.

“Where is it you are going?” they asked.

He told them they knew the place and pointed them in the right direction saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-11).

Paul writes in Romans that those who “confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:4-14).

But what if, some may fret, I’m coming to all of this late, near the end? Not to worry. Again, schooling his disciples, Jesus said, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:25-30).

Spiritual hospice is always available to the living, even when near the end of our journey.

Ann is ready even though some may not be.

* * *

In addition to ministering to Ann’s needs, the daughters also managed to prepare a simple supper. In response to an earlier more lucid request, a dear relative brought the key ingredient for crab cakes.

The freezer was raided for some side veggies. Sundry leftover sweets were gathered from the refrigerator. And the table was beautifully prepared with places for everyone but Ann.

Then the traveling RN, Joe Evans, came.

One of the many care workers available at a moment’s notice, Joe was a wonder. Calmly, with humor and sweetness, he spoke softly, answering myriad questions while at the same time tending to Ann’s needs.

Every concern was gently and thoroughly addressed. Every person was acknowledged. Every expended effort by the family was praised.

Finally, after repacking his bag, he asked to pray with the family around Ann’s bed. Grateful, we circled, held hands, and were humbled as Joe prayed with sincerity, and tears.

Joe understood that this was hard.

* * *

Something I’ve learned about the concept of family is that the meaning and the members shift over time for many reasons, some joyful and some painful.

Death, romance, marriage, birth, adoption, divorce, re-marriage, betrayal, distance, friendships, feuds, and more all impact the family unit. Add to that the connections and severings between and among extended family units.

It can get very complicated at times.

What I’ve also learned is that families are resilient, in their parts and on the whole, and there is always room for new members. It always takes a bit of adjustment on everyone’s part, but the love always grows to embrace the new additions, no matter how they come in or how long they stay. It continues even when some turn their backs and walk away.

Which leads to the most important thing I can say about my family: In all its permutations, I love my family. Whether immediate or extended, here or departed, each part and each person is special and valuable and dear to me. I have been blessed with a great family and a great heritage.

The Emily & Shakespeare dolls,
and a Starbucks gift card from Ann
This most recent permutation of my family, where I have been adopted by virtue of marriage to BethAnn, has been and is a joy. The Laubs have taken me in and extended living hospice to me. They have made me one of them and because of that I am in awe.

Ann has been a key part of that acceptance.

One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received is an Emily Dickinson doll. Ann had noticed a joking reference I’d made to the doll on Facebook. Seeing the doll when I opened the box cracked me up, which was exactly the reaction she was going for. Of course, later, so Emily wouldn’t be lonely, she got me the Will Shakespeare doll. Both are proudly displayed in our home.

* * *

The day is nearly done. The sun has set. Ann is still sojourning with us and we continue to provide her hospice. We will miss her, but in this experience we will gain a new appreciation of her and of each other.

And this comes to mind:
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
Hospice is the work of the Lord.

* * * 

We’re all tired. The daughters are exhausted. Tonight we’ll sleep, maybe.

Tomorrow?

“[D]o not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).

Yes, today was enough for today.


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What are your experiences with losing a loved one or providing hospice? What helped? What didn't help? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


UPDATE: Ann passed quietly on Tuesday, July 1, around 4:30PM surrounded by ALL four of her children (which was a special blessing), her husband of 55 years, a grandson, and a son-in-law.There was a brief memorial service on Monday, July 7th at 1:00 PM at The First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, 710 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, PA 19031 (www.flourtownpres.org).

The family asks that donations in Ann Laub’s name be given to the Abington Hospice Fund Development, 1200 Old York Road, Abington, PA 19001.

NOTE: It was two years ago on July 2 that the family lost Bill Jack, husband of Debra, just a month after their daughter, Lindsey, was married. The photo of them below was taken during a breakfast for the wedding party. We're all wondering what Bill and Ann are talking about together right now.
 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

According to real live "experts," I’m genetically programmed to sleep in. Science is on my side!

 (Originally posted July 11, 2009;
posted here with minor edits)
 
I am not a morning person.

Never have been. Never will be.

Please stop trying to make me one.

Otherwise I just may not be a peaceful person anymore. I’ll definitely be cranky.

Oh, sure, I can make it to a 7:00 AM meeting on occasion, if I absolutely have to; I just set my dual alarm on nag and nag some more. But don’t expect me to actively participate in the meeting. My brain doesn’t kick in until later in the day. I’ll be lucky to show up dressed decently.

Thanks to dear old Benny Franklin, me and my ilk have been ostracized and derided for decades.

You know, Ben,  that smart aleck kite-flyer who coined that inane phrase, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” 
 
Right.

What the heck does that even mean? This from the guy who wore wet shirts on hot sunny days to keep cool. Please!

Ever since this daffy motto appeared in Poor Richard’s, those of us who are more nocturnally inclined have been discriminated against. We’re called sleepy heads, lazy, pillow pushers, outcasts, bums, and worse.

Where’s our on-the-job accommodation?

But now things are going to be different. Science is on our side! Being an anti-morning person, aka night owl, is in our genes!

Check it out and click the link: If you have a hard time crawling out of bed in the morning, it could be that your body is biologically programmed to start the day later.

We truly are allergic to morning. It’s not our fault!!!

“Experts say a spectrum of natural sleeping and waking rhythms exists, ranging from extreme morning people to extreme ‘night owls.

See that?

Experts” are endorsing our anti-early inclinations.

It has nothing to do with lazy!

We’ve been trying to tell you all along, you snooty, self-righteous, early morning, chirpy, pre-sunrise arise and shiners.

Seriously. Have you ever been at a truly productive early morning meeting? There is no such thing. It is as mythical as unicorns.

And as far as getting to work “promptly” at 7:00 or 8:00 AM – why? What happens in most companies for the first couple of hours or so? Everyone’s getting coffee, hunting down pastries, warming pastries, making oatmeal, getting more coffee, eating cereal, paying an extended visit to the bathroom, chatting, and, well, you know the drill.

No one’s working until at least 10:00 AM.

And then it’s time to start thinking about lunch.

Later, all those “early birds” who got the proverbial worm (yuck!) are suffering from sugar crashes at 3:00 PM and dawdling as they eye the clock, yawning and straining for 5:00 PM to come.

Then they’re done and gone.

Us later-in-the-day starters tend to hit the ground running, and then keep going late into the evening. Why? Because we are happy to follow our natural, in-born rhythms rather than conforming to a senseless and exhausting 8AM-to-5PM routine.

But let’s go back to Ben for a minute.

Do you really believe that if Ben Franklin were alive now, surrounded by useable electricity, cable TV, iPods, smartphones, the Internet, thousands of e-books, and a never-sleeping-always-accessible planet, that he’d be in bed early?

No way! The guy’s mind was way too active.

When he quill-penned that misguided platitude it’s not like he had a lot of choice but to go to bed when the sun went down and get up when the sun rose. That’s pretty much what everyone did back then in the semi-dark ages.

I've got a feeling he was smirking when he wrote it, too.

I guarantee that if Ben F. were alive now he would be searching for whatever it took to never sleep. He’d be up all night chugging Red Bull.

And yet society mindlessly tries to shame us night owls to change who we are by implying that our proclivity to late-night endeavors is somehow evil and less than normal.

That's the same kind of line extroverts use on introverts.

Shame on all you late-night-o-phobes! Where’s your tolerance for those who are different from you?

States Dr. Nancy Collop, Medical Director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, “’It's very difficult for a night owl to become a morning person.”

All hail genetics! We bow to thee. This is how we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Given that the world is a 24/7 wonder, it’s senseless that those of us who are not morning people continue to be castigated, chastised, and chastened. It’s time to get over it already. It takes all kinds to make the sleepless world go ‘round.

We sleep in and stay up and rock the late night.

Frankly, I think anyone who “naturally” wakes up before 9:00 AM is the real freak of nature. What’s wrong with you anyway? Maybe you just need a more comfortable pillow. Or a better bed. Or a sleeping pill.

And people who “love” getting up at 5:00 AM – I’m pretty sure you need therapy. Seriously. Look into that.

And don’t even get me started about those “bubbly” early morning people who bounce around like crazed, giddy bunnies greeting everyone with a frightful toothy smile. Anyone who is extremely cheerful and perky before noon is definitely not right in the head.

Frankly, perky is weird any time of the day.

Anyway, heed my warning!

If you insist that people like me, who clearly do not do their best work in the morning, attend a 7:00 AM meeting and then we snap your head off, don’t blame us. We don’t want to be there in the first place; and you really didn’t need to call that meeting so early.

Go back to bed already!

You really look like you could use a lot more sleep.

Getting up early is  not healthy. Did you know early risers are more susceptible to heart attacks? If that’s not true, it should be.

And me? Don’t underestimate my ability to sleep in. And don’t ever call me on the phone before 10:00 AM. That’s just rude, dude.
 
I think it’s time for a nap.


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Are you a morning person or a night owl? Have you ever been in a really productive early morning meeting? If you are a morning person, how often do you nap? Why can’t we all just get along and sleep in? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to take your brain on vacation without drilling holes in your head

Ah, summertime.

Time to kick back with a tall glass of iced tea, go out back to sit in the fresh bright air, and actually read a book.

Just for the fun of reading.

Or maybe you’re planning to do your reading on a beach. Or, perhaps, on that flight as it takes you to a more distant beach.

Wherever, whether near or far, reading a book is a perfect way to give your brain a nice vacation from the rat race.

And you don’t even have to drill holes in your head!

Unlike a couple of characters did in the new book from prolific author Ted Dekker.

A story sandwich

Hacker opens with Nyah Parks, assisted by her friend Pixel, attempting a ridiculously risky on-site hack at the ominous megalithic data farm, BlakBox. Things go quickly awry and she realizes she’s in far deeper than she could have anticipated. BlakBox is, of course, more than an innocent IT company.

Nyah is a 17-year-old precocious, Q-doodling, tech-savvy, hacking genius who goes through hell and back over three days.Or, at least, somewhere and back.

Her motives for the hack are pure. She merely wants to expose the company’s vulnerabilities and get hired as a consultant, something she’s done before. She needs a cool $250K to get her mother into a special medical program. She already has $101,243.12 which isn’t bad for a 17-year-old.

Two years prior, her family was in a severe auto accident that killed her dad and brother, and left her mother severely incapacitated with head injuries. Nyah survived bearing a scar on her head and survivor’s guilt, among other things, gnawing at her heart.

Just before being nabbed by BlakBox, Nyah texts an SOS to an FBI friend who comes to her rescue.

Nyah’s run-in with BlakBox and subsequent evasion of the FBI sandwiches the heart of the story.

Cornered, with BlakBox and the FBI looking for her -- each for very different reasons -- Nyah seeks out an old friend, 20-year-old Austin Hartt. Austin is another computer geek genius.

He is a reclusive former millionaire suffering from terminal brain cancer. He and Nyah were close until he cut-off contact months earlier. She learns he’s been on a very weird quest to hack his own brain as he searches for a cure.

Austin explains how he once had a sort of near-death out-of-body experience where he encountered a character called Outlaw. He’s now obsessed with breaking through layers of reality to renew contact with the shadowy character.

Austin’s obsession is fueled by cases of others with various life-threatening ailments who had similar experiences as his, but with a different result -- they were cured. For some unclear reason, Austin wasn’t.

In order to literally hack his brain to facilitate his neural-spiritual journey, Austin has gone so far as to drill holes in his skull, with the help of a bribed medical technician, through which he connects his brain to his computer while he floats in a sensory deprivation chamber.

Austin explains to Nyah why he’s doing what’s he’s doing and what he’s discovered so far. He then convinces her to experiment with him, traveling inward, yet outward, through the immaterial into spiritual realms, searching for Outlaw and answers.

Nyah agrees seeing a chance for finding a cure for her mother. She cuts off her hair, shaves her scalp, lets Austin drill holes in her head, and they “trip” in side-by-side deprivation tanks. The bulk of the book centers on their experiences.

Eventually, the story returns to the drama with BlakBox and the FBI. It ends with the loss of several characters in the story but with Nyah reaching a level of peace and self-awareness that had been elusive for her.

She faces an open-ended future with new hope.

A little of this, a little of that

Hacker is the third in the YA (young adult) series of “The Outlaw Chronicles” that Dekker first released only in e-book format in 2012. To satisfy his fans who want print books, in 2013 Dekker inked a special deal with Worthy Publishing which released the three titles in January, March, and June of this year.

If you haven’t read the other titles in the “series,” or, even if you’ve not read any of Dekker’s 30 or so books, don’t worry. You won’t be lost. Hacker is a self-contained story with a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

Combine a portion of “The Matrix” with some “Inception,” season with a dash of “Altered States” and “Sneakers,” maybe a tiny hint of “Tron,” and a pinch of “24,” then drain off all the foul language and other naughty bits, and you’ve got a sense of what Hacker is and is not.

While Dekker is an author who is a self-professed Christian, this book is not explicitly a Christian story. And it’s not just for the YA audience. As another recent wildly popular YA novel featuring a young couple in an entirely different situation has shown, grown-ups are free to read YA books without shame.

The story moves at a fairly quick pace. However, the middle stretch detailing Austin’s and Nyah’s out-of-body trips left me a little impatient to get back to what was happening outside Austin’s hideaway with BlakBox and the FBI. For a long stretch that part of the story disappears.

Overall, fans of Dekker will be thrilled and newbies to his books will likely be interested in reading more.

Dekker is more than just dark

Dekker is an interesting figure. Given his Christian background -- I was surprised to learn that we both graduated from Evangel University, he about ten years or so after me -- he’s not your typical Christian author.

He doesn’t hide his heritage either.

Nearly every online and cover bio references that he is an MK (missionary kid), as well as mentioning his claims of seeing a “fair share of true-life horror.” This from living in a country populated by cannibals who killed and ate missionaries who worked with his parents. He characterizes this time saying, “You were at threat of losing your life at any moment.”

The darkness of his experience feeds into his books.

But, as he insisted in at least one interview, redemption is also a strong theme in his stories. Hacker is an example.

Dekker is a good writer. He knows how to craft a decent sentence and shape a good story arc.

While his plots are reasonably sophisticated, Hacker and his other books should be accessible to most readers. This is obvious given that he already has thousands, if not millions, of loyal fans.

Slightly twisted theology

My one mild concern with the book, given that Dekker is viewed as a Christian writer and many will be looking for relevant themes twined into his stories, is that he leans a little toward a semi-Gnosticism or Docetism in Hacker.

There is a strong push against the value of knowledge. Added to this is an elevating of the spiritual while practically demonizing the material.

In other words, mystery trumps knowledge and the immaterial is good while the material created world is bad.

For Christians, knowledge, coupled with wisdom, is desirable for living a godly life. And everything that God created, which is very real, is good even though in a fallen state.

Neither is to be rejected or subsumed, but viewed within biblical parameters.

Dekker’s storyline and characters, particularly Austin, strongly imply that to achieve connection to a higher spiritual power requires letting completely go of knowledge and the material.

Or, I could just be reading too much into it. You can decide for yourself when you read the book.

Hacker is a clean, quick moving book, perfect for reading on the beach or a flight or wherever you prefer to read.

Don't be afraid to dive in, drill down, and enjoy the trip.

Additional resources:


NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255): I selected these books to review and received them free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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Are you a Dekker fan? What do you think of his books? Do some dip too far into the horror genre? Do you think he’s really a Christian writer? Sound off and share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Crackers! Therefore Aliens. (#FlashFictionFriday*)

(For the kids.)

At night, look up.

Somewhere out there, past the stars, past the comets and satellites, past all you can see, at the edge of where your imagination can touch, there exists a distant small planet called Spreadlandium.

There, a cheerful alien race busy themselves, day in and day out, crafting delicious and wonderful edible spreads.

And they have all manner of the most irresistible spreads you can imagine.

They have fruity spreads, nutty spreads, tangy spreads, spicy spreads, exotic and aromatic spreads, berry spreads, veggie spreads, meaty spreads, spreads of all colors, flavors, and textures.

They are wizards at making jam-ish and jelly-like ooey gooey spectacular tasting spreads out of nearly anything edible.

Their vast arsenal of nuttery buttery spreads is out of this and every other world!

These aliens are called J’ly Jambeyns. At least that’s the closest Earth-English translation currently available.

If you meet the J’ly Jambeyns they will not harm you. In fact, they are more than happy to share with you samples of their many delicious spreads. As many samples as you care to try.

But, while these joyful creatures are gifted in the making of magical spreads, they have nothing upon which to spread their spreads that is tasty and satisfying.

Sadly, they don’t know how to bake. They have no clue what to do. There is no idea of bread in their heads.

Because they have nothing on which to spread their spreads, they enjoy their own spreads using spoon-like dippers. Or with the juicier spreads, they suck them up through straws.

They even use their fingerish appendages, dipping them in assorted jars and special bowls full of the most succulent spreads, then lick their fingerish appendages clean while smacking their lipless mouthy openings.

While the spreads are always tasty, nothing on which they spread them ever is. Especially not their fingerish appendages.

And this made them sad.

So they sent out a search party in a saucer-shaped spaceship to find something flat and tasty for their spreads.

For years and days and months and weeks, exploring through galaxies one planetoid-ish rock at a time, the J’ly Jambeyns searched. But sadly always came up empty handed. Or, in their case, empty hand-ish-like-thingy, since they don’t have hands like ours.

But they searched on, boosters blasting their saucer shaped craft, a pinball full of life and longing, crisscrossing space and time, searching, tasting, and searching some more.

Through the galaxies they zipped and zoomed, landing here and there, butterflies of hope and curiosity, putting spreads on, well, all sorts of flat stuffs.

They would taste test whatever crispy crunchy flat things they found -- brown leavish things, crunchy stony things, plate-like buggish things, and other flat things they never spoke of again once they spat them out (Yuck!) and rinsed their mouths with a cleansing minty spread.

But still, they searched on, spreading and tasting, spreading and tasting.

Ever the more carefully.

Ever the more hopeful.

And then...

One day, the J’ly Jambeyns came to earth. They landed in a small town, in a big back yard, behind a grassy knoll, near little Suzy.

Suzy was sitting outside on a sunny summer day leaning against a tree reading her new book.

She was enjoying a cold glass of milk with a plate of peanut butter and grape-jelly-laden saltine crackers her mother had made for her as a snack.

As she was munching and humming and reading and watching the buzzing bees tickle the flowers, there came a different, much deeper buzzing from somewhere above her head.

Suzy looked up just as the saucer flashed by and curved behind the near distant hill, out of sight.

There was a thump thump thump thumpety bump bump bump shhhssshhsshh and then silence followed by a metallic gear-grinding sound which was the saucer door opening.

Then mumbly jumbly voices giggled, sang, and quizzed in the air right into Suzy's ear. She could not make out what the voices were saying but knew they were coming closer.

Up from behind the rise oddly shaped things began to grow silhouetted against the bright sun-soaked sky.

Suzy squinted as these things became taller, bouncing up and down, and then realized they were creatures ambling up over the hill toward her.

They were odd little creatures who were also the source of the giggling voices that were jibbering joyfully in a language she did not recognize.

She sat motionless as the creatures approached.

The creatures saw her and froze.

Their eyes, bouncing and squinting on stalks above their heads like wind-bobbled sunflowers, ogled her and then spotted her peanut butter and jelly crackers, including the half-eaten one Suzy held in her motionless hand.

Their bumbulating eyes opened wide and round as softballs.

Simultaneously, the creatures let out an excited, “Oooooooooo deeeee wooop deedoo! Sup sup?”

Then they all held their breath as they nudged their leader.

A brave brightly dressed J’ly Jambeyn approached Suzy smiling. Although she didn’t know that it was smiling. What she thought was its mouth looked liked a squiggly line, which was how Jam J’ly Jambeyns smiled.

She wasn’t afraid. Just really, really curious about them. As were they about her.

The J’ly Jambeyn leader came close to Suzy, extending a tentacle arm thingy at the end of which was a very prettily and delicately decorated open container of a most aromatic spread, the scent of which was already tantalizing Suzy’s button nose and making her mouth water.

It smelled incredibly amazing and looked intensely delicious.

As one tentacle arm thing held out the jar of spread, with the other, one fingerish appendage extended, the leader J’ly Jambeyn pointed at Suzy’s crackers and made a series of sounds that seemed to be a question.

Suzy guessed it wanted to trade from the way it was gesturing at her plate.

“Okay!” she said and smiled and passed the plate of crackers to the J’ly Jambeyn with one hand while accepting the gift of spread with her other.

The J’ly Jambeyn excitedly began sharing the plate of crackers with its companions.

First, they tasted the crackers with the peanut butter and grape jelly.
“Mmmm ummmm hmmmm munch munch,” they all mumbled as they tasted cautiously.

Next, they scraped off the peanut butter and grape jelly and put their own nuttery and jelly-like spread on one of the cleaned crackers, passing it around for each to sample in delicate, judicious nibbles.

Then they put other spreads on the other crackers and passed them around for more delicate sampling.

“Ooooooooo! Ahhhhhhh! Mmmm, mmm, mmm, mmm. Munch! Munch! MUNCH! Whatta! WHATTA!” they all sang out together.

Suzy thought the “Whatta!” sounded like a lot of people shouting, “Hurrah!”

For the first time ever in eons and eons the J’ly Jambeyns had found something tasty on which to enjoy their delicious spreads.

They immediately knew that these whatever-they-were would work as edible transports for every kind of delicious spread they had every concocted or could ever imagine concocting.

They were amazed and joyful, deliriously ecstatic. And then quizzical and questioning.

All at once and all together they wondered where they could get more of these whatever-they-were spread transports.

As one, they turned to Suzy who was slurpishly sampling the gift spread with her fingers.

The brave brightly dressed leader J’ly Jambeyn held out the last cracker, pointed to it, and said, “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?”

Suzy looked at them as she thoughtfully licked her fingers clean of the most amazing jelly-like spread she had ever tasted, trying to understand what the J’ly Jambeyns were saying as they all now pointed and repeated, “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?”

All at once the most stupendous thing occurred.

Instead of “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?” Suzy heard as clearly as the birds chirping in the green-blazed trees “Where can we get more of these crispy spread supporters, whatever-they-are? They are very truly tasty and worthy of our delicious spreads. We would eagerly with much joy like to acquire many billions of them.”

“You mean crackers,” replied Suzy. “You can buy them at the grocery store. But I’m not sure they have billions. I think you’d have to go to the big bakery for that many.”

All the J’ly Jambeyns eyes bobbled up and down wide open as each realized they could understand Suzy. It was a complete and delicious surprise to them.

Somehow, the tasty treats they shared freely with each other had given them the ability to talk to each other. They could communicate! And communicate they did.

The J’ly Jambeyns were so excited they all started singing and dancing and clapping their tentacles in overwhelming frabjous joy.

While Suzy could understand every gleeful word they sang, to anyone else passing within earshot, it would have sounded like nothing more than a bunch of children giggling in a sing-song kind of boisterous silly giggling.

Suddenly they stopped and quieted and stared at Suzy again.

In unison, they sang out enthrallingly, “We love crackers! Take us to the grocery store and then to the big bakery please! We will give you many containers of delicious spreads in trade for many, many of your delicious crackers!”

Suzy said, “Okay. I’ll take you!”

With that, Suzy and the leader J’ly Jambeyn, hand in tentacle hand-ish thingy, headed off toward the grocery store, followed by the rest of the J’ly Jambeyn crew.

The J’ly Jambeyns had never been as happy as they were that day. They made up on the spot and began singing rhapsodic songs about their delicious epic discovery of crackers.

As they all paraded joyfully down the street toward the store with Suzy, neighbors standing in their yards stared, stunned, pointing, mouths open in amazement.

Meanwhile, a caravan of large black official looking cars with darkened windows sped toward the raucous scene and the oblivious, unsuspecting Suzy and the alien panoply.
Flash fiction is nothing more or less than a very, very short short story.  
This one is a tad longer than others I’ve shared at just over 1600 words. As I was working on it, it dawned on me that all children’s stories are, in a sense, flash fiction! Interesting.
Anyway, this could probably use some work. And based on what little I know about writing children's stories, it’s probably too long for a children’s book. But, here it is just for fun for you!

So, what do you think happens next? Are the cars a welcoming committee? From the government and intending to take the aliens captive? Maybe corporate moguls hoping to cash in on the alien’s talents? Or perhaps they are executives from the History Channel looking for source material for another alien special. Let me know what you think in the comments!