SermonsBecause the Angels

There are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

A young mother shared in church on Sunday the pain her family was going through with their foster child at the moment: a pain coming from loneliness, frustration, anger and yes, love for this child that they welcomed into their home last year, and whom we have welcomed into our church.

It made me think of something I have found to be true in my life—that there are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

Some people, Christians in particular, find this statement bizarre, or even a little offensive—as though I am romanticizing depression.  And I truly don’t mean that.  There was a time in my life when I did think depression was an essential part of my personality, because I had no memory of a time when I was not depressed.  Then I went to college, and found out what it was like to be happy.  I learned that much of my depression had its roots in external sources like family dynamics and the Findlay, OH public school system, and that I was more myself when I was not depressed.

Usually, I tell people who are alarmed by statement about sadnesses worth having that everyone who has had children has experienced pain they would never have experienced, had they not had children.  Some parents, in particular have had children who experienced illnesses or other hardships they never anticipated when they felt the drive to become parents, but the vast majority of people think that having their children were worth that pain.

But I am usually thinking about the pain absorbed by people who have chosen to take risks, for the sake of love, that most people choose not to.  Like the people at my church who chose to become foster parents (and before that, worked as volunteers with undocumented migrants), I have chosen to take risks in my life that took me to sad places.  I have worked for a human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, since 1993, that currently has projects in Palestine, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Colombia and with Indigenous communities in North America.  Often it seems that every small triumph our partner communities experience arises out innumerable setbacks, failures, and humiliations.

By choosing to write novels, I also essentially chose a life of rejection.  I think my current depression is partially rooted in the fact that all three of my previous novels came from a very deep place of inspiration, were enthusiastically received by beta readers and then…the end.  So I am struggling with the question of why I was handed these novels—almost compelled to write them—so that maybe 20 people could appreciate them.  (I’m exaggerating a little, but am at a low place.)

Women and children of At-Tuwani  in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine remove roadblock to their village

Women and children of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine, remove roadblock to their village

So why live this sort of life?  Why put myself by choice among people who did not have the choice to live the life they did?  Because when ordinary people choose to struggle together to change their worlds, and when the world takes notice, and begins to reach out to them and stand with them and tell other people about what they are doing to claim their human rights and their dignity; and when the systems and powers that are oppressing and robbing those people finally have to stop telling their lies about them and back off; and when you have been a small part of standing with them and telling their story…there’s a deep, tired joy in all that makes you extraordinarily glad you got involved.

And once I get to a certain point in my novel where it stops becoming work, and characters take on a life of their own, and it’s hard to stop writing—that’s an adrenaline rush like no other.

So at times like these, when I feel everyone of my fifty-two years, and all the young writers on Twitter seem to understand how to navigate the publication and agenting system so much better than I do, and the war in Gaza and the ongoing depredations of ISIS, and tawdry reality of Ferguson, MO and the LAPD and Prime Minister Harper make me dread approaching the CPT Twitter account every morning, I remember and believe:

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AAARGH! I can’t believe I missed the Bellwether Prize deadline!

Probably the biggest “triumph” of my literary career was my selection as a finalist inpeanuts-aargh-baseball Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize a decade or so ago.  The prize has since morphed into the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  That, dear reader, is the fiction that I write.  So far, it is the only fiction that I know how to write, the only fiction that emerges from that deep compelling place, the stories that push and butt inside me until my only choices are to write them or become mentally ill.

My second novel, Because the Angels, at 50,000 words ended up being too short for the Bellwether Prize, and I was sad about it, but I didn’t really grieve for long, because the novel was really as long as it was supposed to be, and I thought that by the next time the Bellwether Prize rolled around, I would have another novel ready.

And it was, and I missed the deadline.  And I missed the deadline because I was working with my human rights organization in Hebron for the month of October and mid-December through mid-February, so I didn’t see the Poets and Writers listing.  But really, that’s no excuse.  If I had been wanting to submit this novel for the Bellwether Prize, I should have been paying attention to the deadline, and I didn’t and now it’s too late.

AAAAARGH! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

I am trying not to lapse into magical thinking about this, as writers are wont to do.  You know, like, “Well maybe God wanted me to miss this opportunity, so that the novel will have more of an impact in another situation.”  (I confess I had plans involving clemency for Leonard Peltier.) Or “Just you wait writer-friend-who-didn’t-like-it; Ms. SuperAgent was thrilled to pull it out of the slush pile and is already optioning it off to Hollywood.”

As a spiritual discipline, I keep telling myself that neither God nor the publishing world owes me a thing.

But I also need something to keep me away from the spiral of self-loathing.  The fact that my novel might very well not have sold in another two years and I can enter it then?  Not super comforting.  That the next one I’m beginning work on might be better?  At this point it’s in such nebulous shape–in my head and a collection of notes, I have no way of knowing how good it’s going to be—it hasn’t reached the place that my other three did where everything begins to click.

I do pray that God will use my novels for good.  Since they have secular as well as religious characters and some of those characters use profanity and follow sexual mores frowned upon by most religious publishers (and I’m pretty much fine with them the way they are), I know that some people might think that strange.  But it’s true.  I really do want God to use what I write to transform situations of oppression and sadness.  I guess that prayer is the only comfort I have; it’s something I can do.

But still, AAAAARRRRRGH!  (Really there’s nothing I can do.)


In January, I wrote a Facebook post about my grief over losing Pete Seeger and the wise comments of a colleague (a young Palestinian woman from Ramallah who had never heard of him) about why I was grieving.  I felt a little “smiley hurt” reading an article in the February issue of Rolling Stone, that echoed her comments

Mikal Gilmore referred to Seeger singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration this verse from “This Land is Your Land”:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

That moment heartened many of us, perhaps discomfited others, but both reactions were validations: Pete Seeger was finally singing to all of America as its redeemed native son, as a loved and revered hero. The day he died, we immediately understood, we’d never see anybody like him again.

For those interested, I also wrote a blog post about Seeger in January:





Minerd Reunion, Blood+, and what it means to be a family

Last week I was asked to give a presentation on “Legacy” at a family reunion. My stepmother’s family reunion. Yes, I thought it was a little odd at first, but Mark Miner asked me because writing is a form of legacy and I have an extensive list of publications. I was on a panel with two people who share actual genetic material with the Minerds, a woman who did scrapbooking and a man who had written two memoirs, one about his experiences as a police officer and one based on his mother’s diary.

Saya with her brothers and father

Saya with her brothers and father

The experience got me thinking about what it means to be family. I realized that one of the reasons I found the anime series Blood+ (which features heavily in my novel Because the Angels) so compelling, was that it grappled with just that question. Throughout the series, Machiavellian forces are seeking to rule the world using compounds made of the blood of Saya and her “evil” twin sister Diva. The protagonists are out to defeat them, of course, but in their deepest hearts, what they are looking for is family. The times that Saya is happiest are with her family in Okinawa, with a father who adopted her as well as her two brothers. Her “chevalier” Hagi is utterly devoted to her, but concedes that he had never been able to make her smile as they had. (Given the importance of bloodlines in Japanese culture, I would be interested in knowing if this concept of a happy family composed of genetically unrelated people who love each other sacrificially was meant as some sort of statement by Blood+’s creator.) Even Diva, who is treated as a spoiled princess by her chevaliers, at the end wants nothing more than to take care of her babies. In Saya and Diva’s final, climactic battle, the battle to save the world, Saya kills her. As Diva turns to stone and crumbles (too complicated to explain here), Saya sees her as she could have been, just a young mother, lying on the grass, enjoying her twins, and the full realization of what she has done, killing her own sister, is one of the most powerful moments of the series. Diva’s chevalier Nathan then says, “Poor Diva—all she ever really wanted was a family.”

I did say her handlers were Machiavellian, right?

My own stepmother, Sharon, has always treated me with great affection that helped teach me how to be a step-parent myself when I married. I have another relative, who in a brief, unhappy marriage brought maternal compassion, three sisters and a brother to a neglected, alienated stepdaughter who was starved for a real family, and those relationships have lasted long after the divorce. And Mark Miner himself, who has a passion for finding Minerds/Miners/Minors wherever they may be told me that he couldn’t love his adopted niece more.

Blood may be thicker than water. But love is a whole lot stronger.

First Minerd reunion 100 years ago

First Minerd reunion 100 years ago

100th anniversary Minerd Reunion.  I am seated on the floor near the middle in a gray dress.  My stepmother Sharon is to the right in a black top and jeans.  My stepsister Lisa is to my left in a purple top.

100th anniversary Minerd Reunion. I am seated on the floor in the middle in a gray dress. My stepmother Sharon is to the right in a black top and jeans. My stepsister Lisa is to my left in a purple top.

Why the cover of Because the Angels looks the way it does

I am nothing but thrilled by Davey R. Jones’ Amazon review mentioned in my previous blog post. I mean, “Most Surprisingly Good Read of the Decade?” Last night I went through the last 40 of his 81 reviews on Amazon, and mine was the only self-published novel that he had reviewed at all. So what follows should not be interpreted as a criticism of him, or of Taylor Ramage, one of its earliest reviewers who wrote, “Because the Angels is a classic example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or its layout, for that matter). Although it’s very sweet that the author’s family got involved in the design process, it’s honestly not too impressive.”

They did not like the cover. In fact, I think I could posit a mathematical theorem based on the titles of their reviews: Taylor titled her review, “Because the Angels: What Christian Fiction Should Really Aim For.” ∴ Grandiose praise of Because the Angels in review titles is in inverse proportion to the reviewer’s regard for the cover design.

imagesSo why did I choose to have the cover look the way it did? Well, my novel heavily featured the anime series Blood+, so in my writer’s fantasy, an editor would be bowled over by the novel’s unique concept, of course, and consult me about the cover design. I would suggest that they contact the production company that owns the copyright to Blood+ and get permission to have the main character, Saya, slashing through a collage of photos representing the Iraq War (blood, explosions, Abu Ghraib, etc.) with her sword.

This event did not happen, so I thought about getting a picture of a samurai girl—as a nod to Samurai Champloo, also featured heavily in the novel—doing the same thing. My brother mentioned that my niece was a member of her anime club at school and liked to draw anime characters. That took me on another train of thought. Spike and Marcus, two of the main protagonists, are writing cut-above average fan fiction based on Samurai Champloo into which their anxieties for Spike’s kidnapped sister Margie subconsciously intrude and that eventually gets turned into a trashy fantasy novel. I thought having a somewhat amateurish drawing of a samurai girl against the background mentioned above might actually be in keeping with that subplot. As it happens, my sister-in-law is a professional graphic designer. If you see this ubiquitous design all over the web, that’s her:

because-the-angelsShe took my idea and designed a much more understated background, which I realized was a better choice, but when I said, “Could you put Gandhi heads on the samurai’s kimono?” (Margie, the hostage, is fully committed to nonviolence.) My sister-in-law said, “Sure.”

I had wanted the samurai figure to be wearing sneakers, but neither my niece nor my sister-in-law could get the feet right; hence, the explosion.

But overall, I am still pleased with the result. If the book is ever picked up by a another publisher and they say they want a different design, I will be open to that, of course, but for now, as an indie author, I can only be grateful to have artists, professional and amateur in my family, who listened to my ideas for the cover and for independent reviewers who liked my book—and also didn’t charge me.

I thought my novel DID have a happy ending and “ Most Surprisingly Good Read of the Decade” review for Because the Angels

When I first started getting back comments from people who had read my Shea manuscript, I was taken aback when they referred to the novel’s sad ending, because in my mind, I thought the novel had a happy ending. Good triumphed. The efforts of all the people who sacrificed so much to bring the fascist Christian Republic down succeeded. Iz and Shea reconciled. Yes, a lot of the people who resist the regime die along the way, and my narrator, Islam Goldberg-Jones remains in prison at the end because in the U.S., Federal judges are appointed for life, and the entrenched Christian Republic judiciary and Christian Republic holdovers in the FBI conspire to keep him there. Most of the people who committed the worst atrocities under the Christian Republic never have to pay for their crimes.

But that’s how the world is. Famous and anonymous heroes for millennia have sacrificedleonard_bw their lives, bodies and sanity to bring down tyrants or systems of domination. AIM activist Leonard Peltier, whom most of the world regards as a political prisoner, remains incarcerated today for murder even though the U.S. government lied to get him extradited him from Canada, coerced witnesses, withheld evidence during his trial, and even though an Iowa jury acquitted his co-defendants of the same crime.

Dictators and generals in Latin America like Augusto Pinochet, after their torture states finally fell, lived affluent, comfortable lives for decades afterwards.

People think I’m a glass half-empty kind of person. Sometimes I think that’s true. I think sometimes when the Israeli military occupation of Palestine finally ends, if it does end in my lifetime, that I want to be the one who remembers all the people who gave everything they had to fight it and ended up crippled with despair, as well as the ones who ended up dead. But I also think that while compassion is never wrong, it is also always right to celebrate when grassroots movements succeed in toppling oppressors. We need to take a moment and honor the thousands, even millions of nameless Filipinos, South Africans, Chileans, Serbs, East Timorese, Tunisians etc. who decided simply the time had come when toppling their government was more important than their lives, or, that if they all worked together, they had the power to topple their government with minimal loss of life. By honoring them, we also learn, and when we face tyrants ourselves, we are better equipped.

I was tempted to put in a plug for my novel Because the Angels, when the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war rolled around and then decided that was tacky. (The plot is partially based on the experience of my organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, when four of our colleagues were kidnapped in Baghdad 2005-06). But this morning, I decided I hadn’t plugged it for awhile, so I thought I’d send out a tweet with a link to the Amazon Kindle page. I discovered that someone I didn’t know had written the following review:
Most Surprisingly Good Read of the Decade, April 22, 2013
This review is from: Because the Angels (Kindle Edition)
“BtA wins the most surprisingly good read of the decade. Past the cover art and the anime obsession, the story is fraught with messy, intense, and endearing characters. What’s probably best about the book is the amazingly successful and comedic ending. Without being sappy, the author manages to weave a brilliant resolution to an engrossing tale.”

It’s my first genuinely unsolicited review—probably from the week of free downloads in late February, early March. Davey R. Jones also really like Junot Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book I really loved, and books by Mario Vargas Llosa, Madeline L’Engle and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so he seems like a kindred spirit. I am assuming he’s not the dead Monkee. Glass half full, see?

Twitter timesuck, Agent-cycle, Gilead and Writing that pays


I made a decision today to close my Twitter and HooteSuite tabs (I use both, because I use both 300% magnification for an eye disability so I skim HootSuite  to look at writing-related tweets and then read everything else on Twitter.)  I have found it basically impossible NOT to check it 10x a day.  I haven’t listed anything on Ebay for more than a week, which is my usual downtime activity.  But now that I have a May 1 deadline for some Bible curriculum lessons—writing that I actually get paid for,  I need to strap in.  I’m going to check the feeds just twice a day.

So far, I’ve sent out five agent queries and gotten three rejections.  I’ve also just heard from the Dana Awards that my manuscript didn’t make even the honorable mentions.  So the honeymoon is over.  Not everyone sees how exquisite Shea is.  I’m back to “if you’re going to be a writer you have to be able to take rejection and x received 60 thousand rejections before it was finally published blah blah blah” mode.  I am being a bit more careful about my querying though.  Even though I have a template, I’m not sending out the query e-mails on the same day I write them.  I’m let them sit and tweaking at them until I feel good about them.

The first draft of  my query today—meaning first draft of my final paragraph, “Why I am sending this query to you, Ms. Agent”—was about our shared enthusiasm for Mariindexlynne Robinson’s 2005 novel Gilead. That novel made me feel really hopeful when I read it (or listened to it, since I can’t read normal size fonts anymore.) It made me realize there is a place, post-Tolstoy, for novels about people of faith.  Great novels.  It’s sad really, that the term “Christian fiction” immediately brings to mind a genre that is formulaic and trite, when faith should be deep, and awesome and profound.  Which, of course, Gilead is.

With this agent, I’ve shared a little more personal information than I usually do—like that I’ve not used the link to the Kirkus Review of Because the Angels with some other agents because it has “an interesting approach to Christianity” in the title.  I’ll let the letter sit a couple days and see whether I think it’s still a good idea.  Wouldn’t someone who loves Gilead be interested in that?  But does she get fifty queries a day from people claiming a Gilead kinship? Aaargh!

The downside of the shared enthusiasm is that you become more emotionally invested.  Even though I never met this woman, it means more when someone who loves a book you’ve loved rejects you.

But of course, I have a lot to occupy my time.  Six weeks until my sabbatical is over, and I have these thirteen lessons about Jesus’ use of the Hebrew Bible to get done, as well as a bunch of boxes in the hall that I said I was going to go through and get out of the hall before my sabbatical was over.

On my way home and a little novel augmentation

I am sitting at JFK airport–Mad Props to Jet Blue for providing free Wi-fi and ample electrical outlets–in a four hour layover.  Took the red-eye from Burbank.  My body thinks I landed at 2:30 in the morning and my husband really thinks I need to attend this with him after I land in Rochester at 10:30 a.m.:

Meet the Authors:

Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf



Thursday, March 14

12:12 to 1:00pm

Central Library at the Rundel Auditorium

115 South Ave. Rochester, NY

Free of Charge


Normally I would say, “You know, that DOES sound interesting,” but I’m going to be in an altered state for the rest of the day.

Even though the memoir writing trip was abortive, writing-wise, the trip wasn’t a complete write off.  I did a big promotional giveaway of my novel Because the Angels and it was at the top of the free downloads in the political novel genre and did surprisingly well in the literary novel downloads as well  (although I’m not sure other literary novelists would think it belonged there.)  I also got to spend an afternoon with my CPT colleague and friend Tim Nafziger, who gave me the idea to incorporate journal entries of one of my characters, Ralph,  into Shea, my current novel.  As I started spinning this out in my head, I realized Ralph, who is writing during the years he is 14-16, is gay.  That’s one of the things that gives me the deepest satisfaction when I write–when characters seem to tell me who they are instead of me telling them who they are.  So thanks, Tim.  And thank you for being chief among my encouragers over the years, letting me know that my fiction was something more than a promoter of my mental health.




Bad News and Good News in that order.

So day before yesterday I heard back from the agent who had my manuscript and she said that she got about halfway through it and decided the setting wasn’t convincing and that the character of Iz was too static, i.e., he did not transform fast enough.  One of the regular readers and cheerers-on of my other novels also gave the same critique.  From a previous posting, you know that I was almost anticipating rejection and knowing that a rejection from this particular person would hurt more.

Some of her suggestions I can work with to improve the manuscript.  I’m not sure about Iz, though, because I happen to know that there are some men who can be basically kind-hearted and heroic and know that their infidelities cause a lot of pain but still keep cheating on the women who love them.  When I was walking yesterday in botanical gardens at UCLA while my friend was at a dental appt. I thought about a way I could bring transformed Iz from the future back into the place in the novel just before he has the affair with Zeinab/Dolores.  But then I thought, am I doing that just to make people I like  more ideologically comfortable?  Does that “cheat” the transformation at the the end?

This is where I could really use a writing mentor.  I asked for one on She Writes yesterday, and got some sympathetic responses, but no takers  (because there really was no Marilynne Robinson or Chaim Potok among them.)  Rebecca Forster, who writes legal thrillers noted that she bases her books on real cases but that sometimes she has step back and make sure she isn’t following them too closely because they become plodding if she does.  I actually think my book doesn’t follow Hosea that closely.  I’m sure Hebrew Bible scholars won’t think so!  There’s as much if not more Amos in her climatic  speech at the President Coulter campaign rally as there is Hosea.  But anyway, I’m going to try inserting a section from future Iz today and hope for a mentor.

The good news is that I based on reading someone else’s experience on She Writes, I offered Because the Angels as a free download for five days, and the day after the rejection, I found out that it was the #1 top free download in the political fiction genre and #31 in literary fiction–and most of the ones in the literary fiction category were public domain novels like Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights. I spent most of the day sending out tweets and posting on Facebook pages.  It slipped down to #3 yesterday, but was back up to # 1 today, and it was featured on the Progressive Christian Kindle.   Now, that’s only 259 total downloads, I found out, but it will be interesting to see if something comes of it–reviews, for example.



To Do list

I’ve been running a low-grade fever the last couple days and have had accompanying cankerimages sores that took over half my mouth and restricted to me to a liquid or very soft food diet.  I was kind of stressing out over my To-Do list, but then I thought that my To-Do list, unlike my pre-sabbatical lists, was a real writer’s To-do list:

  • Sketch out an outline of questions for the friend whose memoir I will be working on with her in Los Angeles from February 25-March 13, to get her thinking
  • Get my column for Mennonite World Review done before then (Writing on the Idle No More movement currently sweeping across Canada, and implications for White settler Mennonites.)
  • Get the first 50 pages and an outline of my novel ready for the James Jones novel contest before then
  • Get the query letter for the agency I really want to represent my third novel polished and ready to go
  • Get a more generic query letter for agencies ready to go
  • Check out some Samurai Champloo and Joss Whedon sites for Because the Angels promotion.

When I go back to work for Christian Peacemaker Teams in June, it will be nice to look back on this list, and remember there was a time when I really spent most of my creative energy on writing.


It gets better

Well, I finally threw in the towel after foaming at the mouth too long over not being able to remove a permalink on the front page that directed people to my first novel instead of Because the Angels, the novel I’m currently trying to promote on Kindle.  Many thanks to Aldo Argaman, my husband Michael’s oldest son for creating a much more manageable site.

I do want to learn how to use social media, but I’d much rather write stories full of humor and pathos that transform the world.  Haven’t done that yet either—at least not the second part, but I’m just saying it would be more rewarding than figuring out permalinks.

I find that I’m in an interesting space literarily.  I’ve basically been playing with the plot and characters of my current novel (see previous posting), since 2009.  And now that it’s out to readers, I still have a lot to do—revisions based on readers’ comments, research on literary agents, submissions to novel contests, but in my downtimes, when I have insomnia, when I’m sitting through something boring, I no longer have a novel in my head to work on.

Maybe I’ll use that time for some spiritual development.  I’m going out to Los Angeles in a couple weeks to help an Iranian Jewish friend who was a dissident under the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic write her memoirs and that might give my brain some downtime mental yo-yo work to do.  But I suspect I should probably just embrace the space.