Monday, October 31, 2011

Why Halloween Matters

Today 161 million people in the United States are celebrating Halloween. That makes it our second most celebrated holiday behind Christmas. (Or third highest if you count the Super Bowl as a holiday.) 70% of Americans are spending money on Halloween this year, the highest percentage ever. They are shelling out more cash per person than ever before as well...even in a down economy. $72.31 per person...or a grand total of $6.86 billion. There is a national shortage of black turtlenecks this year. So, you can guess who a few nerdy guys in your office will be going as tonight.

Chart: Halloween 2011 - Average Historical Spending

Halloween 2011 - Average Historical Spending
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Chart: Halloween 2011 - Plans to celebrate

Halloween 2011 - Plans to celebrate
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All of this spurs a few thoughts in me. Here are the reasons why I think Halloween works so well in our culture...and why, ultimately, I think it is more good than bad.

1. An excuse to celebrate.

Sure if you go back far enough you will find that this "holiday" is really the day before a church holiday celebrating the saints. This was the day to drive out the evil spirits from the village. If you look even further you will see that before the church got a hold of it, it was an ancient Celtic tradition to light bonfires on October 31 and scare away a few ghosts and zombies. I am going out on a limb here and saying that 99.9% of the people spending almost $7 billion aren't doing so as a sacrifice of praise to some evil force. Some of my people (evangelical Christians) get a little worked up about the origins of Halloween. I don't think the origins have anything significant to do with the modern American tradition. I don't think demons are rejoicing that kids are dressing up like Angry Birds and Harry Potter.

Most American holidays are the same way. Modern Christmas has a little, but not much, to do with the birth of Christ. Modern Independence Day and Memorial Day (much younger holidays than Halloween and Christmas) have relatively little to do with Independence or Memorial. For some people they do...but for the majority of Americans those days are about burgers on the grill and fireworks in the sky. Even MLK Day, a holiday less than a generation old, is becoming more of a mid-winter's day off than a true solemn reflection on civil rights. September 11th is not an official holiday, but it is the closest thing we have now to a day of remembering. That said, I'd bet the farm that my grandkids will have that day off school and have no idea why.

I should say that none of this really bothers me. It just is. It's up to me to teach my kids about these traditions - and I do some of them and not others. My whole point here is that we live in a culture that is way less concerned with remembering (origins of holidays) than using them as an excuse to celebrate. Maybe behind all of this is that we don't celebrate enough. People need to party...

2. An excuse to play.

Halloween gives us (adults and kids alike) an excuse to play. We are more pent up than we would ever care to admit. Truth be told, we should all dress up and pretend more than one day a year. As a trained improviser, I see this more clearly than most. I would submit that part of fascination with Halloween is that it is a free pass to take a risk, to improvise, to pretend. Everyone who wants to play gets to play on Halloween. Try showing up to work in April dressed as Gandalf. It won't go over well. But anything goes today...

3. An excuse to be generous.

People are all selfish, right? Halloween proves that, doesn't it? Greedy little kids begging for candy door to door. It's pathetic. is really more about the people giving out the candy. Every year I hear people complain that they didn't get enough greedy little beggars at their door. Sure, every fourth house is locked up and darkened to keep the little ones away. But three out of four are lit up and waiting for an excuse to express generosity. People love to share when it feels safe to do so. Who doesn't like watching a five-year old princess light up after landing a snack-sized Snickers? Giving is good for the soul.

4. An excuse to be communal.

Most of us live in neighborhoods or apartments designed for isolation. As an introvert myself, I see why this is not a bad way to go. The downside is obvious. Most of us don't know our neighbors, let alone love them. Then comes that one night in October when you can't avoid them...unless you flee the neighborhood for a few hours. Every Halloween you get a glimpse of a neighborhood running on an open door policy. And for most of us, it feels strangely right. For some of us, it gives us the courageous to be more neighborly other nights of the year.

Of course, you could look for all of the negative indicators that our fascination with this night brings. They are there - excuses to be gluttonous or promiscuous or whatever. But let's not overlook what is trying to break through...maybe all of this is really a desire in us to be a bit more normal in a world that says normal people never dress up as superheros, give away candy to strangers or hope someone comes knocking on their door asking for a handout.

For those of us who believe God is redeeming everything on the planet, it only makes sense that a pre-modern Celtic tradition rooted in the fear of demons, ghosts and zombies would morph into an excuse to love our neighbors in America several thousand years later.

Happy Halloween to you and yours.

*Halloween stats courtesy of National Retail Foundation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Other Prince

I haven't really looked at my book Between Two Kingdoms for about a year. Debbie had been reading it to the kids over the last few weeks. (They were so excited to read their dad's book that they penciled it in about 18 months after the release.) Last week, Eli asked me to pick up reading. "How often do you get the author of a book to read it to you?" was his pitch. Manipulatively masterful. Considering I am pretty sure he can read for himself.

So I did...and continued a few nights until completing it last night. Through the process, I realized that I had not read the last chapters of the book for two years or longer. It was an odd experience. I couldn't remember writing several sections. (Maybe my editor made significant improvements...or maybe I just forgotten. Hard to say.) I was struck, most surprisingly, by the fact that I enjoyed it. I think creatives tend to look back on their art with embarrassment. ("I could do much better now," we think.)

I was most struck by the chapter I wrote introducing the evil character Senkrad. He loomed as a faceless, terrible force throughout the book, but appeared for the first time toward the very end. As I read, I remembered how easy it was to write his dialogue. Evil is easy for me to imagine. I have always felt that evil is mostly good with a subtle twist. His words even made sense to me as I read them to Eli. "This Senkrad guy makes a pretty compelling argument," I found myself thinking. I'd like to share a section of the chapter called The Other Prince with you here. Hopefully it will makes sense out of context.

Tommy found himself in the middle of a huge bed covered with a thick, white, down comforter. The room was bright, and if he had not known better, he would have thought that the sun was shining in through the many windows. Touching his head, he discovered that his wound had already been neatly bandaged. He also realized that he was now wearing white, silk pajamas. His hooded robe was gone, as were his clothes—including his jacket.

He sat up in a panic.

A man sat in an easy chair across from him. The man had his legs crossed casually and was sipping tea from a cup. He had a sparkle in his eyes and a kind, relatively young face. Though Tommy had never seen him before, the man seemed strangely familiar to him.

“How’s your head, Tom?” the gentleman asked. “Do I know you?” asked Tommy. “Search your heart. I think you do,” replied the mysterious man. He stood up from the chair and walked over to a small bar. He poured freshly squeezed orange juice from a glass pitcher into a tall, chilled glass and brought it to Tommy.

“Drink this. Your breakfast is on its way.” Tommy sat on the edge of the bed, looking suspiciously at the orange juice.

“Tom—or Tommy, if you prefer—if I had wanted to hurt you or poison you I would have done it already. Drink your juice. Two gentlemen ought to be able to trust each other, yes?”

Tommy was parched and he gulped the juice down. It was the best-tasting drink he had ever had in his life. The man returned to his chair and crossed his legs once more.

“Would you like some more?” He asked, with friendly eyes. Tommy shook his head no. “Are you . . . Senkrad?”

The man laughed. “Senkrad? No. There is no Senkrad, my brother. It’s all a very silly myth. My name is Adam. This is my home.”

The man seemed so familiar to Tommy, like an old friend or relative. It was making Tommy crazy as he tried to place his face.

“I’m confused,” Tommy admitted. “Where are Amanda and Bobby?”

“They are being helped by some of my friends, Tommy,” said the man. “How about you think about yourself for a change? Why did you come here in such a hostile manner? I would have been happy to invite you in and discuss things, like two reasonable, well, adults. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t give me a chance to be your friend, before deciding to make me an enemy.” He almost sounded hurt.

“I didn’t just decide to make you my enemy, Sen—Adam. You are the one who started all of this. If you really are the prince of this world, then you owe us all an explanation. You made the Long Night, not us,” said Tommy.

“A prince is the son of a King, Tommy. I’m not a prince. I am no one’s son.”

“So you are a king, then?” asked Tommy.

“I don’t like to think of it that way,” said the man, with another friendly smile. “I’m really more of a servant than anything else. I serve everyone who lives in the Lower Kingdom. Think of me as the Servant-in-Chief.”

“How is all of this darkness and destruction serving these people?” Tommy swung the covers off and sat up in the bed.

The man looked steadily into Tommy’s eyes. “How old do you think I am, Tommy?”

“I don’t know. What does it matter?”

“Take a guess. How old do I look?” “Maybe thirty,” said Tommy. “I’m twenty-nine,” he said. “I have been in this Kingdom for hundreds of years, but I’m only twenty-nine. Eternally twenty-nine.”

“I don’t understand your point,” said Tommy. “I know how old you are. You are seven. You look like you could be my age, but you aren’t, are you? You must be embarrassed of your real age down here in my world; and I understand why. What does a seven-year-old know about life? About death? About trust or wisdom or anything of any importance? Don’t misunderstand me, Tommy. It’s not your fault you don’t know many things . . . most seven-year-olds simply aren’t that informed yet. Don’t you ever want to grow up a little, Tommy? Don’t you ever want to know a little more? To be . . . older?”

Tommy rubbed his forehead. Was this all a bad dream?

“Tommy? I asked if you ever want to be older?”

“I don’t know . . . maybe I’d like to be older sometimes, but I know I don’t want to die, and old people eventually die.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Tommy,” Adam placed his teacup on the table beside his chair and leaned forward. In a near whisper, he continued, “I’m still alive. I haven’t died. I’ve found the perfect age and stayed there. A few years older than this and my body would start to break down ever so slightly. I’d become just a little weaker day by day, until my body would eventually wear out, as you say. A few years younger than this and I wouldn’t be as strong and mature as I am right now. This is the perfect age, and I wish everyone could be twenty-nine forever. That’s all I’m trying to do . . . just help people live better lives. Share what I know, what I have.”

“But how did you do it? How did you get to this age and then stop growing?”

“I willed it. You can too, Tommy. You can . . . most people can’t. Most people need someone like us to will it for them. That’s what the Long Night is all about. The sun is what ages my people, you see. Those harmful rays. I’m trying to stop them from aging. Once I do, I have a plan to bring light back into the world. I wouldn’t leave those I love in darkness forever. Not like your King has done to you.”

“My King would never keep me in darkness,” snapped Tommy.

“Oh, well, I mean no offense. He gives you light for your eyes, yes, but what about your mind? He keeps the important things from you, Tommy. Tell me, what has your King taught you about the mystery of death? Has he told you anything about death, except that you should avoid it? What has he told you about the Messengers? What about the ocean that surrounds the island? Where does it go? What is its name? What of the stars, Tommy? Where did they come from? Where do they go when night fades? What has he taught you about how these two kingdoms were formed? Who created them in the first place? Surely, someone did? What has he done for you except make you a leader and force you to wear a ridiculous coat that actually prevents you from leading well?”

Tommy sat on the edge of the bed, motionless, yet feeling pulled in a thousand directions. “I feel sick.”

I think this chapter was easy for me to write because it is so similar to the constant chatter going on silently between my ears. In a world where everything is doctored with a strategic spin, including - maybe especially - matters of spirituality, life can get confusing. As I have attempted to pray in different ways over the last few weeks, I begin to notice that the chatter lessens. In prayer we catch glimpses of our true Prince. We see his face, hear his voice, know his presence. Knowing Jesus is the only way I know to identify his many imposters. I think I am getting a little better at knowing the difference between the real and artificial these days. I hope the same is true for you.

*Art provided by Mark Haas for Between Two Kingdoms

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs on Death (and Life)

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

-Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech

Read it all here.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Why I Make Movies

I finally have had time to reflect a little on the last two months. It has been rather intense on the creative front with pre-production and production of A Strange Brand of Happy and the premiere of Fenced Off at the Cincinnati Film Festival this past weekend. Making movies is hard work. I mean, it's not like being a coal miner or a Navy Seal, but it is difficult. Funding an independent film is hard work. Shooting on a tight budget: hard. Editing with limited resources: hard. You get the picture.

So, I have been asking myself the question of late: Why do I do this? Part of me believed (actually, sort of hoped) that after wrapping production of A Strane Brand of Happy I would have realized that this isn't my thing. That I could scratch "make four movies" off the bucket list and move onto some other grand distraction. But that didn't happen. Quite the opposite. Why?

"Happy" was the most difficult shoot to date. It was more pressure, more people, more problems. There was one day about seven days into shooting that I thought it was all going to fall apart. Really - not hyperbole. I thought I had made a mistake that was going to shut us down. But after about twelve hours of phone calls, we made it through. By the end of the shoot, three weeks later, that day was a distant memory - a milestone on the journey we could laugh about. But on that day, I was stumped and scared. But here is the biggest learning I took from that day and this last movie shoot: I did not want to give up. Not even for a second.

Some people never give up on anything. That's a relatively admirable trait. I used to be more that way, but a few major life lessons have taught me that there is a time to give up an a time to press forward. Some things need to die. But that never crossed my mind with this project. I was going to die fixing it before I would let it fall apart. I think there must be something to the thing in a person's life that generates that sort of commitment. Sure, it could (and probably does) partially stem from some sort of brokenness or pride in me. Maybe these little movie projects can become too important to me. But...that's just half the equation. There is also something to working in the bullseye of your passion and skill set that is different, right, and even holy.

I learned on the set of my fourth movie that I am a filmmaker. That may seem strange. But that's the big takeaway. It doesn't mean that I am not other things, but it means I am, indeed, that. I cannot be otherwise.

It took about 24 hours after wrapping for the first texts to come in from Brad Wise and Isaac Stambaugh, my creative partners who worked even harder on this movie than I did. They were dead tired, beat up and physically sick from a grueling month of 14-hour days. But guess what their post-shooting texts were about? They were all about what's next. "What if we did this?" "What about that idea we had two years ago?" "We should get together and discuss the next project."

So there you have it. It is communal and contagious. Like a disease that brings life. Storytellers simply have to tell stories. And when you get a team of storytellers that are willing to work through the incredibly difficult task of producing a story, you emerge ready to tell the next one. This is the biggest irony of all. What we learned in the making of A Strange Brand of Happy is, in essence, the overriding message of the film itself - that when a person, or group of people, operate within their God-given gifts and passions, a strange brand of happy overtakes them. We believe this quirky inner fulfillment is a pathway to God. Follow it and you will find a Creator and a Storyteller ready to write you into the next chapter.

We have launched a new website to keep everyone updated on our stories. You can learn more about A Strange Brand of Happy, Fenced Off and our other movies at And, to be sure, we will let you know as soon as we figure out what is next.

So, the answer to the question, "Why do you make movies?" is the same answer I have to the other foundational questions of my life, like "Why are you faithful to your wife and kids?" or "Why do you teach so much about Jesus and the Kingdom?"

I do those things because it is who I am. Any other explanation would miss the point.