Claire Diaz-Ortiz leads social innovation at Twitter, Inc., and is the author of several books, including Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time. Named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company, she is a frequent international speaker on social media, business, and innovation and writes a popular business blog at www.clairediazortiz.com. She holds an MBA from Oxford University and an MA and BA in anthropology from Stanford University. She is cofounder of Hope Runs, a non-profit organization operating in AIDS orphanages in Kenya. Claire has been called a "mover and shaker" by Mashable, "the woman who got the pope on Twitter" by The Washington Post, a "force for good" by Forbes, and "one of the most generous in social media" by Fast Company. She has been widely written about in such publications as the New York Times, Business Week, The Washington Post, and Forbes.
I sat down with Claire recently and talked through her amazing life. How she, as it seems to have lived such great stories in such a short time. What unraveled was not just intriguing, but also thrilling. Here is a women who is constantly living out what it means to be a "hearer of God." Or - Claire is a women who hears God. Not in a audible way, but in the still small voice kind of way.
Her story is filled with passion for the lost and lonely. Her story is filled with hope running wildly through the middle of life.
John: Claire, I'm wondering, maybe before we talk a little bit about your new book, if you want to just give us a brief history of who you are and what you have done. I think I know what your current job title is, but maybe if you just want to give us a brief overview of where you started and what made you interested in social media, that would be a good place to start.
Claire: Sure. In 2006, I went on a trip around the world. And the last stop on that trip--it was a yearlong trip--was Kenya, where I went to climb Mount Kenya. Someone had told me that there was a guesthouse near the base of the mountain, so I decided to stay at that guesthouse. It was very cheap. The day I went to the guesthouse, I realized that it was actually on the grounds of an orphanage. When I arrived, the orphanage elders invited me in to have lunch at the orphanage. I went in that day and in the middle of lunch, I was in the restroom and I heard God telling me that I would stay at that orphanage. And so I ended up living at the orphanage for a year. My foster son was a child I met that first day, who ended up coming back with me to the U.S. So this book ...
John: On that trip?
Claire: Yeah, we met on that trip.
John: Oh, you met on that trip, and eventually ...
Claire: We met on that trip. I stayed, living at the orphanage for a year, and then about nine months or a year after, I came back. We brought him to the U.S.
John: So, just to clarify. You were going to stay there one day, and you ended up staying a year?
Claire: Yes. And getting that kid along the way. So, the book, Hope Runs is our story. It's the story of Sammy's life before coming to the orphanage, and my life before coming to the orphanage, and then us meeting that day, living together that year, and then the five years that have happened since then, essentially. During the year I lived at the orphanage, I had a blog that was popular. Because I had this popular blog, I ended up meeting some of the folks that were starting a little weird social media thing called Twitter. And so they said, "Hey, you should try getting on Twitter. We think it could be really cool for you to tweet about things." And so, I started tweeting while I was living at this orphanage in Kenya. Obviously, there weren't a lot of people tweeting about their lives in orphanages in Kenya at the time, so I started to learn very early on how Twitter could be used for non-profit organizations and missionaries. Eventually, then, about a year later, I started working at the company where I still work today.
John: So to some extent, your career or your life story has two different paths. Because it certainly is philanthropy on the one side, but then it's also this crazy social media world on the other side. How have those collided, or how have they been beneficial for you in your history?
Claire: Sure. I believe that we need to extend access to more populations on the planet for us to gain the change we are looking for. And I think that Twitter is a great tool for doing that. I think the online world creates a level playing field for lots of populations, different populations around the world. So I like being able to work with non-profit organizations from a cool platform like Twitter.
John: That's very cool. So, going back then to this trip. You decided to climb Mount Kenya. Was this the first time that you had an encounter with God, or were you kind of on a journey with Him before?
Claire: Yeah, no, I've always been a Christian. I was raised a Christian but up until that day, I've never heard God so distinctly. I've never heard him saying to me so clearly that something was going to happen, and I had to keep my eyes open for me to know what that was going to be, essentially. You know, that day in the orphanage, I decided to... I said, "I'm not going to climb the mountain. I'm going to do a 72-hour fast and read the Bible. I read lots of books about things like that, bettering yourself and what not.
John: Yes, I found your list for 2013, I was intrigued…
Claire: So inside I’m saying, "Okay, I'm going to read the whole Bible, and I'm going to fast while I do it, and then I'm going to come up with my decision on if I'm going to stay in the orphanage for a year." And I like to joke that I fainted somewhere near Leviticus, and they took me to the hospital (literally), because I had actually fainted. They thought I had malaria. But at that point I already decided I was going to live at the orphanage for the year, so it was okay.
John: So going through the book of Leviticus should convict someone [laughs]…
Claire: Exactly, exactly. To do anything.
John: To do anything. That's amazing. What do you say to the person who thinks that maybe, at some point in their life, God has spoken to them but they may have missed that voice or that sign? How does someone kind of look at their life and question whether or not God is speaking to them?
Claire: It's interesting, because I've often questioned why did I hear God, so distinctly that day, and why haven't I heard him so distinctly since. I've obviously heard God many times in my life, but what happened that day was bigger than anything that's ever happened to me before since. And, I really think a lot of the reason that it happened was that I had a lot of space in my life for it to come in. I was in a moment of searching, I had some time, there was margin in my life, essentially, and that allowed me to hear. I think probably most of us live our lives so busy and so full that we don't allow time to hear. Maybe we have 15 or 20 minutes in the morning of our quiet time or something. But that's not a lot if you're looking for God to really change your life.
John: That's very interesting and also very convicting. In talking about the margin, Claire, I just have to ask the question, because in social media, we have access to the entire world at our fingertips 24/7. How do you make time, encourage either somebody who's younger or older or getting into or feeling addicted to social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, whatever. How do you plan margin in your life?
Claire: Well, I think it's funny. Some people have thought I've been kind of heretical to say, does working at Twitter mean that I take the digital Sabbath? But I do. I try to take 24 hours off in every single week. And I think it completely restores me in ways that would never happen if I just stayed online. I mean, it's just so easy for us to get caught up in the fast-paced world we live in. And then in the fast-paced world, if you're spending all your time online, it feels even more fast-paced than ever. So you need to step away eventually and just shut it off and pause and stop.
John: Have you always been a writer?
Claire: Yeah. In my head.
John: Sure. But I mean, you haven't come out with a lot of books, right, but you've probably written...
Claire: Yeah. Sure.
John: You know, unpublished or like you said...
Claire: Right. I wrote a book about Twitter that came out a couple of years ago. And, as I say, I've always been writing in my head or something. I have all the Moleskin journals to prove it.
John: Well, that's good. Encourage somebody who's on the fence about either foster care or adoption. What signs should they be looking at to either dive in or maybe hold off for that? How do you approach somebody who's considering that?
Claire: Well, I think it's interesting, because I'm probably overly encouraging of anyone who's considering it. I actually ...
John: Which is okay.
Claire: I mean, I want people to be in a stable marriage if they're married, or to be in a stable financial situation, a stable living situation. Those things are important. But, I think that emotional renaissance, or emotional insecurities about the decision to adopt or the decision to foster, will always exist. Just in the same way that many soon-to-be biological parents have insecurities. And I don't think that's ever really going to go away. I don't think a hundred percent of the foster adoptive parents in the world are running around saying, "I can't wait for him or her to get here this second." But I think they all find that love very, very quickly upon meeting your new kid, essentially.
John: So it's said that expecting parents are never, ever ... Even before they're expecting, they're never ready for a child. Do you think the same is true when they're expecting an adoption or a foster care child?
Claire: Absolutely. And I think perhaps, even more so. Simply because often times when you're adopting or getting a foster child, you're getting a kid at a different age than day one. And you never quite know what day 1,000 might be for a child. And that comes with its own host of challenges.
John: What has been the best surprise about Sammy in your life?
Claire: I think the best surprise about Sammy has been simply the way that when I do little things, I'm amazed by how much Sammy appreciates them. When we were in the process of writing this book, I learned stories I never knew about Sammy. I thought I knew things about him, I thought he knew things particularly about his life in the last seven years since I've known him. But I was learning all these new things and one of them was, the emotion he felt the first time my best friend baked him a cake. Because he'd never... She baked him a cake because we were celebrating. He had graduated and he'd never had a cake baked for him before. And he was just so overcome with joy at this little thing. I hadn't even thought that, I dont' even know ... I guess we had bought cakes for him on past birthdays, past birthdays, I don't even know. And then the fact that the cake had been baked by someone because they cared about him, he was just like, "This is amazing." And he wrote this story in the book, and I just couldn't believe it. I started crying just because I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that A) no one had baked him a cake, and B) that I never knew that was important, 'cause I would've baked the cake years earlier, obviously.
John: What is God teaching you lately?
Claire: God is teaching me an incredible amount of patience right now.
John: And how is he doing that?
Claire: One of the ways .. There are different ways in my life, but one of the ways is in relation to Sammy. You know my parents sometimes say I got kind of the hardest end of parenting 'cause I started this with a teenager.
John: How old was he when you took ...
Claire: I met him at 13. He came over at 14 and a half, 15. You know that is a challenge. I think any teenager is a challenge. A parent of a teenager faces challenges and I'm facing all that. So without having had the years to kind of set him up for success in many ways, we are tackling those things. And that's hard.
Sammy Ikua Gachagua had lost his father to AIDS, his mother to abandonment, and his home to poverty. By age ten, he was living in a shack with seven other children and very little food. He entered Tumaini Children's Home seeing it as a miracle with three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and clothes on his back.
When Claire Diaz-Ortiz arrived in Kenya at the end of an around-the-world journey, she decided to stay the night, climb Mt. Kenya, then head back home to Maine. She entered Tumaini Children's Home seeing it as little more than a free place to spend the night before her mountain trek.
God had other plans. Hope Runsis the emotional story of an American tourist, a Kenyan orphan, and the day that would change the course of both of their lives forever. It'sabout what it means to live in the now when the world is falling down around you. It's about what it means to hope for the things you cannot see. Most of all, it's about how God can change your life in the blink of an eye.
The story he tells is about Billy Stone and Allie, two teen-age-friends, who uncover a long- lost-medallion and then accidentally wish themselves back in time. Will the experience give them a new understanding of who they are and what their lives really mean? Daniel finishes his story to the foster children with the Truth about their tremendous value to God, who loves them and created them. The story not only changes the children, but is bound to change all who see the movie.
Here is a recent Q&A with Alex.
1. How did you get involved with the Lost Medallion?
My good friend Kevin Downes was a producer on the film and he introduced me to the director, Bill Muir. We began talking about the film and the fact that Bill thought it lacked something. I pitched the "foster home" idea to him where a story-teller shares the journey of the medallion with the kids at the home. In this way, the rest of the movie becomes the story that's being told, kind of like Princess Bride. We added deeper story elements as a result of this, and Bill asked me to play the role of the story-teller.
2. When you were a child, did you have dreams of being involved in movies?
I did. My parents were very careful of the entertainment we allowed in our home, but the few movies I saw really sparked a desire in me to make films one day. When we got our first video camera, we made more short movies than I can count. As I grew older, the Lord really turned my heart toward ministering through films, and it's been more fulfilling than I ever imagined.
3. Do you feel more comfortable being behind the scenes of a movie or in front of the camera?
I love most aspects of filmmaking. I enjoy the process of telling a story, from directing to editing. I've enjoyed playing a role, but also enjoyed just focusing on being behind the scenes (as I did in Fireproof). The joy comes when the movie all fits together and the story works. God has been incredible in turning hearts toward him through each story, and I'm thrilled he lets me be a part of it!
4. What did your kids say the first time they saw you on the screen?
They were very young and took it for granted. In fact, at one time they thought that I knew everyone in EVERY movie. They were disappointed when they learned that I only knew the people in our films. Today, they realize that not every dad has his own films.
5. Are you a Red Bull fan, or is it coffee?
Believe it or not, I've never had a cup of coffee in my life. I took a sip of black coffee as a kid and thought it tasted terrible. However, I have had a Red Bull or two. You have to be careful, though. Those things can send you through the roof!
In Unspoken, from bestselling author Dee Henderson, a family legacy brings Charlotte back to Chicago, where a reporter is writing a book about the kidnapping. The cops who worked the case are cooperating with him. Her options are limited: Hope the reporter doesn’t find the full truth, or break her silence about what happened - but her silence is what has protected her family for years.
Charlotte Graham is at the center of the most famous kidnapping in Chicago history. The task force of FBI and local cops found her two abductors, killed them and rescued her, but it took four very long years. The fact that she was found less than three miles from her home, and had been there the entire time, haunts them. Now, she’s changed her identity, found a profession she loves, and rebuilt her life. But she’s never said a word - to the cops, to her doctors, to family - about those four years.
Charlotte wants to trust him. She needs to tell him what happened. Because a crime cops thought was solved has only opened another chapter...
Talk about suspense...
We asked Dee a few questions regarding her new book, Unspoken.
Unspoken is Charlotte Graham and Bryce Bishop’s love story. Bryce Bishop is a good friend of Paul Falcon, so I took advantage of that fact and brought back Ann and Paul Falcon during the investigation within Unspoken. I like being able to continue on with characters and see the next chapter in their lives.
Are you constantly creating new plot lines in your head?
I work on one book at a time, but I’m a slow writer. It’s not uncommon for me to spend three months searching for an idea, writing down scenes until I find a good story spine. Then I spend about five months writing the story, and another three months fixing the story with the help of good editors. I’ll start that process with maybe ten or twelve ideas from my idea box. I write down every idea I have, even if I have to get up in the middle of the night and reach for a notepad. Ideas are like nuggets of gold, some I can use immediately, while others haven’t found a story yet. The ideas are accumulated in a box behind my desk. I think of that box as my security blanket. If I am really stuck, something in that box might generate a place to start.
Who is your favorite author?
Francine Rivers has written some beautiful and timeless stories. I like reading Nora Roberts—I love her characters. I’m currently reading all the Robert Parker Spenser novels; the early ones in the series are worth tracking down.
What inspires you to create your art?
God designed me to be a storyteller. It’s what I enjoy doing with my time. The hours involved in figuring out a story are a process of discovery. All the work involved is trivial compared to the joy that is that moment in time when story threads come together and I can see a book and how its components fit together. It’s a very unique point and something I look forward to with every novel. I’ll often mention to my mother, “I’ve got the story done. Now I just need to sit and write it down.” The rest of the job is tinkering to find the right words for a scene, to cut out what doesn’t need to be on the page and put down what does need to be there. Compared to every other job I’ve done, writing is the most absorbing and fun. I’m inspired to create stories because I want to write the end, and then tell God—I wrote another story, would you like to read it? And hope God likes it as much as I do. The stories are gifts I can give back to God that I hope He enjoys. And I can create them with only paper and pen, so I’ve been making those gifts for God since I was a little girl.
I sat down with Holley to talk about how she began her career in the card industry and how that lead to encouraging so many people around the world.
What I found is a lady who is more interested in having a cup of coffee with her followers than anything else. Holley is a passionate woman who is on a mission to point others to Christ.
John: Let's just talk a little bit about Holly and where you’ve come from. You're from Arkansas, right? Have you always been a Southern girl? What kind of inspired you to start writing?
Holly: Okay. I'm originally from Texas, which is like a whole different country, really.
John: It is.
Holly: My grandparents had a Christian bookstore when I was growing up in South Texas. I was the little kid with a big stack of books in the back room. I always dreamed about being a writer when I grew up. That's how I got started and began loving words.
John: Were there particular authors that you were kind of drawn towards when you were working at the store?
Holly: I was too young to work. I was in elementary school. I remember even in fourth grade, I had Kevin Leman'sBirth Order Book. I was analyzing all my little friends on the playground. I would just go straight to the adult Christian living section and pull out whatever I could find and just read and read and read.
John: That's pretty funny. Does Kevin know or that he inspired you?
Holly: I don't think so.
John: No? Have you ever met Dr. Leman?
Holly: No. I haven't.
John: I think he's published by the same company that publishes you, isn't he?
Holly: There you go.
John: Maybe someday... That's pretty cool. How did you come to know the Lord?
Holly: I was raised in a Christian family with, the grandparents having a Christian bookstore. I grew up learning about faith and Jesus. I remember just one time being in, it was actually in my grandparents' house, and they have a little Gideon Bible, my grandpa is really active in the Gideon's. I remember just kind of flipping through it. For whatever reason, that was the moment for me. I was about seven, I remember praying and just saying, "Okay Jesus, you know, I'm yours." I got baptized the next Sunday and have had ups and downs in my faith, especially when I went off to college. I had a little rebellious streak for a while. I was fortunate to have a family that was always a part of it.
John: After this and being influenced by Dr. Leman and others, is this when you gave writing a shot?
Holly: Yes. Where I really got my start writing was at DaySpring Cards, a subsidiary of Hallmark. When I went off to college, just before Christmas break my freshman year, the DaySpring sales rep went to call on my grandma at their store and she said, "I have this granddaughter who wants to be a writer." You know nanas are irresistible, so the DaySpring sales rep, "She can send some things to us." I did that, clueless at 19 years old and all. But they actually did accept my writing samples and I connected with their editorial team and freelanced when I was in college and interned. Then I spent about nine years there as an editorial director.
John: That's pretty wild to think about the fact that your cards or what you have written have inspired and encourage probably thousands of people all over the world. That's pretty spectacular. From DaySpring then you kind of transitioned to taking a stab at writing?
Holly: Yes, I started a blog around 2008 when all of that was ramping up, and I loved being able to engage with readers in that way. Then a coworker of mine, Stephanie Bryant, and I co-founded the website (in)courage, with an “I” instead of an “E”. We're at DaySpring and DaySpring was like, "I don't know what you crazy girls are doing, but go for it." We were thankful for that, that they let us go ahead and do that as part of our jobs. That took off in ways that we never expected, it was a God thing.
I always wanted to write books, but it felt like God was saying it's time to take that step at that point. I always thought I'd be at DaySpring and just felt called to transition into something new. My last day at DaySpring was on a Friday and Revell offered me a three-book contract on the following Monday, that I didn't even know was coming. That was a pretty good confirmation.
John: That sounds like a God thing. That's pretty awesome. Your first title ... I don't remember the title of your first book.
John: How did it feel transitioning from one avenue to another?
Holly: I had also written two smaller devotionals and published those. It was fun to actually do the kind of books that I read growing up, the longer chapter books. I love the team at Revell. Jennifer Lee, my editor, was awesome. There were a lot of times I was scared in the first go around, and she would say, "It's going to be all right Holly, just keep writing." I loved that.
By that time, I had also got licensed as a counselor, and certified as a life coach. My life was just full of all these different voices of women, whether it was online through my blog, or face-to-face in a counseling office, or in a lot of other ways. I felt like the conversation was already going and so having a book come out of that just kind of felt like the next natural step. It's really just about what all women struggle with and how God's truth sets us free. It was really fun to take all of that and put it into a book.
John: When you write a book, do you think about writing for your audience, or do you feel like you're writing because this is what God has told you to write about?
Holly: I would say both. I always say I feel like the first reader of whatever I write, because I feel like that's how God speaks to my heart. My job is first to listen and then just listen to my audience also. I always say on my blog that I'd love to have coffee with all my readers. That's what I think of when I'm writing. It's just what would I want to say if this reader was right across from me and being able to listen to what she is saying is really helpful. I feel like my books really are, in a lot of ways, a conversation between my readers and I.
John: Do any of your readers try to take you up on that?
Holly: Yes. (laughs)
John: Have you?
Holly: Yes. Last night we did an event at a store. I got to have coffee with a lot of my readers and it was so much fun. Yeah, if I Facebook, "I'm going to be in ____" like we were in Southern California last week and readers were like, "I live there, let's have coffee." Whenever I can, I do because that's what I love the most, just hearing the hearts of women and being able to be a part of their lives in that way.
John: That's great.
Holly: Yeah. The coffee helps, too.
John: Coffee helps too, nothing wrong with that. I think it's very biblical. (Smiles) Your new book is entitled You're Made for a God-Sized Dream. Want to talk a little bit about that? What's behind that?
Holly. Yeah. I felt like I got to go on a God-sized dream journey in the whole transition through launching (in)courage and my work at DaySpring, and then getting to write books. I wanted to come alongside other women, who maybe knew what they were called to do, but were just feeling a little scared to step out, and really equip them to make that transition into their dreams. That's what that book is about. A God-Sized Dream isn't really about size at all; it's about what perfectly fits your heart because God created it for you.
I love saying to women, "You know what, you can be a dreamer wherever you are. If you're called to stay home and raise your kids, awesome. That's a God-sized dream. If you're supposed to move to Africa and do a non-profit, awesome. That's a God-sized dream, too." Just saying, whatever it is that God's asking you to do, go ahead and say yes. I know it's going to be scary and hard, but it's also going to be amazing and full of joy and it's going to change the world. That's just what that book is, coming alongside those women who are just stepping into that dream that God has for them.
John: What do you say with you being a licensed counselor, how do you respond to a lady who comes up to you and says, "I feel like God has a dream for me 'here,' but yet I'm stuck 'here.'" What would you say to that person in attempting to fulfill something that they feel that they've been called to, but feel there are barriers there?
Holly: They're in a different season. I would say to start with whatever you can do today. Even last night, I talked to the ladies and I said, "You know what? A dream can happen in 15 minutes a day. So, if you're chasing toddlers and you have 15 minutes to sit down and write one page, that's enough." Dreams are always about a process. It's not about the finish line. It's about the journey along the way.
Really the best part of a God-sized dream is just going on that adventure with Him. You don't have to wait for that. He's always willing to meet you, every single day, wherever you are. You can get up every day and say, "God, I'm going to pursue this dream. Whatever that looks like today, whether it's five minutes or I get to do it full time, because what I really want out of that dream is more of you." I tell them, "You don't have to ever delay. It's not probably going to be everything you'd like to be doing or that you might be doing one day, but there's something that you can do today." It's really just about living fully engaged and awake.
John: What is God teaching you right now, Holly?
Holly: God is teaching me that He's never going to stop asking me to get outside of my comfort zone.
John: What does that look like?
Holly: I think just ...
John: Can you share?
Holly: Yeah. I'm an introvert.
John: I can't tell (jokingly).
Holly: On like the Meyers/Briggs, I'm like 90% introvert. I love being with people, but it's outside of my comfort zone a lot of the time. I feel like this journey is just very much about dependence on Jesus. I say the Help me, Jesus” prayer a lot. "Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus." Every day, I just pray that He would give me words that are perfect for His daughters. "Give us this day, our daily bread," and "He's the Word," and "He's the Bread of life." I just have to continually go back and say, "I got nothing, but I have you and that's enough."
He continues to expand, books do well and things, and new opportunities arise. I tell women, "The fear never goes away." That's just part of it. That's what keeps us leaning in and saying, "Okay, I can do this with you Jesus, but I could never do it on my own." I think that's a lesson I just keep continuing to learn.
John: Do you ever have a down day?
John: HA! It doesn't sound like you do.
Holly: (laughing) Yes. I absolutely have down days, right? Mark as my witness (Her husband Mark is sitting, nodding his head in agreement). Yes. I get overwhelmed. I get scared. I struggle with depression and anxiety. Every once in a while, I just get up and I think, "Oh, I don't want to do this anymore," or I'm having a really bad day and my life's a mess and I don't know what I'm doing and these people on my blogs seem to think I have it together in some way, and I don't. I try to tell them that, again. I think that's part of it. We all have down days. None of us are perfect. We all have struggles and we're not home yet. That's not going to go away until we're in heaven. I think it's knowing that we can be used by God even in those times when we feel inadequate or we're really depressed or something hard is happening in our lives. That's really comforting to me that He can use us in spite of us. That's a really reassuring thing to know.
John: I'm always amazed on how liberal God's grace is towards His children knowing how much He knows about us. Even when we feel that life is going great, He still sees all the crud in our life. He still says, "Yes, you are the one that I have chosen to be my child, my bride." Pretty spectacular. Do you have a favorite Bible passage that you continually go to?
Holly: I tend to have one that I focus on for each book. With this book, it's Matthew 19:26, "All things are possible with God." I love that because "with God" means it's a partnership with Him. That verse doesn't mean I can do whatever I want and God will make it happen. It means that if we partner with Him, and we're seeking His purposes for our lives then nothing is impossible for us. That's really reassuring to me that I can just show up and say. "Okay, I'm willing to be used and God will work out the rest and make His purposes happen.
John: What are your big goals for the rest of this year?
Holly: The rest of this year? I have another book coming out in September, a devotional companion to this book.
John: Is that finished yet?
Holly: It's Opening The Door to your God-sized Dream, it goes along with the most recent book that's coming out.
John: That's great. That's awesome, Holly. I appreciate you coming in here, bringing me coffee and taking the time to chat with us today. I'm excited to see what God has in store for you.
Michael Landon Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 25 years. Educated at USC and a Directing Fellow graduate of the American Film Institute, he has worked in just about every capacity of the movie making process including film loader, 1st and 2nd assistant cameraman, stedicam operator, Director of Photography, apprentice film editor, production assistant, and actor.
Our buyer of DVDs had a candid conversation with Michael on his upbringing, his work in the past and what he working on now.
Alex: So we'll kind of start out with a general question about your background. How have you seen changes in Hollywood from your days in Little House on the Prairie to your dad's involvement in Highway to Heaven, and to where Hollywood is today? How have you seen it change during that time?
Michael: Well, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place since the Little House days. So there are different aspects and components to the business, right? For example, when Little House was around, you had three major networks, and they controlled most of the content on television, maybe four networks. Now there are literally hundreds and hundreds of channels to choose from. So the idea of families sitting down together and experiencing storytelling, whatever that might be, is no longer around. Everybody has a TV in a different room. And since there's specific, narrower targeting of the audience--stuff for teens, little ones, grownups, etc.--no one's sitting down and experiencing storytelling anymore together. That's definitely one thing I've seen.
The other side is all of the different avenues in which media is being fed to us. It's not just TVs. It's the Internet, streaming, iPhones and iPads. And so it's coming in every sort of way, and there's the emergence of these social media things like YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, and other ways that media is coming and pretty much bombarding our homes.
Then there's the content issue. Programming content has radically changed, which to me is extremely unfortunate. Family programming is almost completely extinct. There are a few reality shows that I feel like are probably fine, the singing shows and the dancing shows and things like that, where the content is suitable for the entire family for the most part. But gone are the days of the Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven and Touched By An Angel, and TV series like that. Now, fortunately, I do have the opportunity to create a new TV series for Hallmark based on a very popular Janette Oke book, When Calls the Heart. That is actually Hallmark's second foray into TV series work. So at least now there's an opportunity for families to have an alternative to the very sexualized sitcoms or the gritty cop forensic shows that currently permeate the airwaves.
Alex: So what do you think that the lack of family type of entertainment has done to the family unit, you know, the idea of sitting down and all watching stuff together on a regular basis? What do you think that that causes in a family dynamic?
Michael: It's hard to probably calculate exactly what the repercussions are. I can't imagine it not having some detrimental effect to the family. I mean, technology is amazing, the way we use it, the way we can quickly disseminate information back and forth between each other. But at the same time, obviously, there is this fragmented aspect of being together, where everybody is in the same room and yet not really present with each other. They're on their phone and tweeting, or emailing or texting their friends. It's definitely breaking down the family unit in a way. It doesn't allow for intimacy to really grab hold of families. And also, I can't imagine that the increased and different content isn't breaking down the family unit as well. It clearly is. The messaging that's coming out of a lot of these shows sometimes is sexually promiscuous or shows a lack of respect for authority whether it be for parents or teachers or whoever. I mean, these are messages that our children are being bombarded with constantly--no holds barred. It seems nothing is really off limits. If you advocate limits, then you're against freedom of speech. It's always spun off in a very kind of negative tone.
Alex: Michael, what do you think? Is life imitating art? Or is art imitating life in television and entertainment right now?
Michael: Well, I definitely think they're pushing both, right? I think they're feeding off of each other. And I think we see that. I don't know the statistics, but I can just imagine in terms of the age of sexual contact between young people is getting lower and lower. The sexually transmitted diseases are out of control, from my understanding. Again, the respect issue for parents and teachers is completely falling apart in many areas. So, I think the media is feeding off society, and society is feeding off the media, and it's not good.
Alex: So, let me ask you this, kind of along those same lines. You went to USC film school, right? One of the most prestigious film schools in the country, to kind of learn your craft. And obviously you grew up in the Hollywood business to some extent. What would you say, as a believer, what would you tell Christian parents whose kids want to grow up and be in the entertainment business in some way? How would you guide and direct them to be a part of the business?
Michael: Right. Just a clarification, though. I did go to USC, but I was not in their film program.
Alex: I guess I just assumed that.
Michael: That was the game plan, but I ended up going to AFI for film studies.
Alex: Got it.
Michael: American Film Institute. I was a directing fellow there. It's a great question, because I think that many Christian parents see the business and they're terrified of what it will do to their children, and how it will affect them and the people that they'll come in contact with. It's a tough business. The film business is really, really tough. It's extremely competitive. If you're in front of the camera, your ability to make a living is very difficult, especially if you're going to keep your integrity in terms of the projects that you'll pick and choose. Because you'll see that it's a limited amount of family fare. A lot of it, especially in the younger category, is due to the fact that there are a lot of horror films out there, and teen party kinds of films. It's basically adults who run the business, and they know what teenagers want to see. So it's not an easy decision. I would say, however, at the same time, that the business is craving talented storytellers who want to tell stories that will be uplifting to families; ones that deal with issues of faith, forgiveness and love. So, I would probably still encourage a Christian family whose son or daughter is passionate about it—and they have to be passionate because this business is really tough. It's very competitive. If they're really passionate, you see signs of greatness when it comes to acting or writing, and I would encourage them to allow their children to become involved in that case.
Alex: And so as a producer, or generator, I should say, both on the production and the directing end of Christian content, you're one of the most prolific people in our industry who generate content. How do you personally choose the projects that you get involved with?
Michael: Well, a lot of it is generated by certain properties that I've purchased the rights to, for example, such as the works of Jeanette Oke, Beverly Lewis and Francine Rivers. The content is coming directly from like-minded storytellers, so that's definitely one avenue. Then there are other projects I'm generating, either through novels or I'm being hired to direct, for example, The Ultimate Life. So I, you know, it's a story that just needs to resonate, and then I'm going to try to either get the job or develop it. But the first thing that has to happen is that the story has to resonate with me deeply. I don't see myself as a Christian filmmaker. I see myself as a filmmaker who happens to be Christian. And I think there is a difference there.
Alex: Talk about that difference.
Michael: I think one main example of the difference would be that I see myself as someone who doesn't try to work outside the system, but work with the system. I don't try just to hire Christian actors and actresses. I try to hire the best actors and actresses to play the roles. That goes along with anybody else on my crew. I try to hire the best DP (Director of Photography). So I think that's probably one of the main differences. Not everything that I do has to be Christian, per se.
Alex: Yeah, and I think from our perspective in the entertainment business, in any line of work that's what we're called to do as believers, right? Is to use our gifts and talents and apply them to being the best at that particular trade. So it's a good analogy, and I apologize for stating it the way I did. I should have stated that better. You don't find a Christian plumber and a Christian car repairman. You find a car repair guy who happens to be a Christian.
Michael: That's right.
Alex: For various reasons. You touched on Janette Oke. Obviously you had a lot of success working with the Hallmark Channel, starting with the Love Comes Softly series and that piece. And it's been several years now since that series started, and it had a very, very successful run. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Jeanette and that book series, and what that's meant to you in your career.
Michael: Oh, Love Comes Softly was huge for me. The interesting thing about that particular property was that it took me 10 years to get made. Most people don't know that fact. But it was something that I championed for 10 years. When I started pitching it and shopping it around Hollywood, everybody just didn't get it from the title on down. They just thought it was too soft. You know, no one would be interested in this type of storytelling anymore. The Little House days are over. And then, so I knew that the next step was going to be, I needed to write the script. So I worked on it and co-wrote it with Cindy Kelly, who was a writer that I co-wrote The Velveteen Rabbit with, and had a certain amount of success with that. We wrote the screenplay and it still took a few years to finally land a home. Hallmark finally stepped up to the plate. Even they were a bit skeptical at the time, but when it aired, it ended up being the highest rated movie in the history of that channel by 40%.
Michael: And then the sequel, Love’s Enduring Promise, then became its highest rated movie in the history of the channel. Since then, Hallmark uses that particular franchise. They play that franchise more than anything they’ve produced, by far, and they've produced hundreds and hundreds of movies for that channel. So it proved the skeptics wrong, and obviously there is a powerful hunger and need for this type of family programming. To top it off, I formed a relationship with Jeanette Oke, who is really the pioneer of Christian romance fiction. She started that genre, and I have to say, she is one of the most beautiful, wonderful human beings I have ever met. Everything about her is so genuine and real. I'm honored that she has allowed me to use--and trusted me with--more of her material. I just think the world of her.
Alex: Yeah, I've had the chance to meet her on a couple of occasions--certainly not on an in-depth level--but I would definitely agree with you that that's exactly how she comes across. So you're partnering with her again on this next project, When Calls the Heart. Tell us what that's about, the TV series idea and the movie piece.
Michael: Yes, so the When Calls the Heart series has been a labor of love for us as well, my partner Brian Bird and myself. It is an offshoot from the original source material. The way the books are laid out, it wasn't conducive for a TV series. The setup is the same, which is that we start off with this very young, educated woman who has the desire to become a teacher. She's done all of her schooling, and she comes from this very wealthy family living in the city. She is challenged to take a job out West in kind of this unlawful coal mining town, where underprivileged children live. And she forsakes the comforts of home and goes on this daring adventure to teach these children. And so the pilot veers away from the book a bit, but thank goodness Jeanette Oke is completely in agreement with our take. The actual storytelling is in line with When Calls the Heart. But in order to keep a series going and create a world where we're not moving through the other books that we want to preserve of Jeanette's, the coal mining town that we've created, Coal Valley, is a piece of fiction that is separate from her novel. But the essence and the characters and everything are very much from Jeanette's imagination.
Alex: Excellent. It sounds like both your fans and her fans will greatly enjoy that as well.
Michael: I believe so.
Alex: So you've had the chance to work with Jeanette Oke and then Beverly Lewis, which are kind of two very strong pillars in the Christian fiction community. You made movies so far out of Beverly Lewis' The Shunning and The Confession. So what attracted you to her writing, and what was different in portraying kind of that Amish lifestyle versus the more pioneer days in Jeanette Oke's books?
Michael: Right. Well, you know, it's the fascination with the Amish. And obviously, Beverly Lewis has made an entire career out of that. I believe that the non-Amish all just have a certain sense of nostalgia for life without technology. It kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier. In our culture, technology is integrated into nearly every part of our lives, whereas the Amish pretty much avoid all modern technology, including the car, the Internet and, in many cases, even having an in-home phone. And it's all to preserve that social cohesion within their community. And I just think that when you have the modern world spinning around them at this lightning fast speed and pace, these people in like a time-stopping universe becomes just fascinating. Totally fascinating. Beverly Lewis has captured the hearts and minds of readers, and has created compelling characters that push her stories forward.
Alex: Excellent. So we talked briefly about The Ultimate Life, the sequel to The Ultimate Gift. Share a little bit about that project and why you took it on. What is it about the story of Red that attracted you to it, and what do you hope that somebody who sees the film gleans from it?
Michael: The Ultimate Life. The producer, Rick Eldridge, came to me last year in November and asked me if I'd be interested in directing The Ultimate Life. He gave me the script, which centered on Jason, the heir to the estate. And it got into all the machinations and crazy scheming of the dysfunctional family, and the story took place in a courtroom for about 80% of the storytelling. And I just felt like this wasn't where the story needed to go. I think what people were going to be fascinated by was the character that influenced Jason so much, which was the Red character. So in November of last year I pitched to Rick that this be a prequel, and not a sequel, that the story actually revolves around how Red became who he was, what his early upbringing was like and how he ended up becoming a billionaire and how he had a change of heart. And thankfully, he agreed, and we quickly brought on a few writers and built the story.
I usually don't like telling what the audience will get out of it, because I feel like there are different messages that will resonate with different people depending on where they are in life. I do, however, believe that there is something for everyone in the storytelling, the innocence of young love, of commitment. You know, something that was really joyful and one of my favorite parts of this movie is Red’s young love story. I just love the innocence. I'm not saying that the 40s and 50s were perfect. But it sure was really joyful to be in that time period. That's all I can say. Just the music, and kind of innocence of romance and everything. I'm wandering a bit right now.
Alex: Oh, no, that's okay. Yeah, the brief time that I had on set, and the interactions that I've had with Rick and the scenes I've seen of it, definitely resonate the differences in time periods. Also the timeless things—the lessons or gifts--that no matter what time you interact with, it's still a very appropriate message.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, one of the big themes is gratitude. The one conclusion I've definitely come to is that if you don't have a grateful heart, you can't be a happy person. And listen, I completely understand that there is a lot of struggling going on for a lot of people in this country. But when you look at other countries and what their struggles are, as a whole, we should be pretty grateful. I know we had worked together on getting the film Jamah out, you know, you look at worlds like that, and you see the spirit of those people, and their gratefulness for basically having nothing. It's just so important to try to have a grateful heart no matter what the circumstances are that you're going through.
Alex: That is very true. Very true. In fact, I was talking to my kids the other day, and we were talking about the scene in Jamah of the little boy and the girl having to haul the coffin halfway around the country, and thinking, my kids are about that age. Boy, you know, I'm eternally grateful that they don't ever have to live that sort of thing. So you're right. Gratitude is such a very important thing.
Michael: Yeah. And I just want to make sure I'm clear that I'm definitely speaking to myself when I talk about gratitude. Something that I constantly need to remind myself. If I'm acting spoiled or feeling down because something didn't happen right, I try to remind myself that it's ridiculous.
Alex: Yeah, I got frustrated last night because my WIFI was down for 15 minutes at home--it was a meltdown—so, I know the feeling.
Michael: Right? And then you just take a step back. You go, oh, my gosh, this is ridiculous. In reality I'm so blessed.
Alex: Absolutely. So let me ask you one more question as our time winds down. We usually like to find one crazy, off-the-wall question to ask folks. So, if you were sitting down with an 18-year-old Michael, what would you tell yourself all those years ago?
Michael: Oh, if I was sitting down with an 18-year-old Michael.
Alex: Like with yourself, not just a random 18-year-old kid named Michael.
Michael: With my actual self?
Alex: Yes. What would you have told yourself when you were 18? What wisdom would you have imparted?
Michael: I would have told him… Just trust in Jesus. Trust Him. Trust that He's going to bring you through to the other side, and don't try to do it on your own strength. And I mean that sincerely. This is not just to tell an audience of Christians. When I was 18 years old, I was a wreck. I was a wreck. My parents had divorced, and I was completely lost in the world. And I fought. I fought The Message. I fought it all the way, all the way. I didn't want to have anything to do with Jesus, nothing. Yeah.
Alex: Excellent. Well, that sounds like very timeless advice. Michael, thank you so much for this time; we appreciate it. We very much look forward to partnering on these upcoming projects, and I definitely look forward to our paths crossing again.
The earthly crisis within manhood will be there until Jesus returns, but in Christ men are pointed toward the gospel as the vision for renewal. Manhood Restored by exciting new pastoral voice Eric Mason combines theological depth with practical insights, putting men in step with a gospel-centered manhood that will enrich every facet of their lives.
John: I’m wondering if you could just give us some background information, Eric, where did you come from? What is your overall background? How did you become a Christian? A short synopsis on who you are and what brought you to this point.
Eric: Short synopsis. I grew up in a quasi-Christian home, more non-Christian than fully Christian. I grew up in inner city Washington, D.C. and didn’t trust Christ until I went to college through my campus ministry on my campus. A couple of years later I received the call to ministry, went to Dallas Seminary and was on staff at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. I played some roles there in ministry. Took a pastoral role at a church in Houston for a couple of years and started to listen to the call to plant a church. I went back to Dallas for a while and then went through a program and fellowship in Little Rock with Fellowship Associates and got commissioned by a multiplicity of churches to plant.
In Philadelphia, I have my wife and two sons. We’ve been married almost 16 years and the church is now six years old and we are a multi-ethnic church in the inner city of Philadelphia, and that’s where we are now.
John: That’s great. Eric, you wrote a book about restoring manhood. And in the introduction you ask a rhetorical question, “Another book on manhood?” What drove you to write this book?
Eric: Several things. I think people around me, the disciples. They’ve watched me make disciples for 20 years and have seen or heard when I’ve been to a conference somewhere ministering. Or just on a very, very personal level with people, feeling like there was a deep need to communicate the Word of God to this generation in dealing with humanity issues. They kind of connected with me and extracted and affirmed that’s what I needed to do through prayer and in getting with the Lord. That’s kind of how it came about, and the pandemic in our minds with the challenge of manhood and masculinity as it relates to Jesus Christ across economic lines.
John: Eric, when you look at that topic, do you see this as a pandemic within our country alone, or do you think this is something that’s going on worldwide?
Eric: Well, it’s interesting because I’m getting people from Australia, South America, Europe, all over the world contacting me about this. It has been not just an American phenomenon but it is also a global phenomenon in which manhood needs to be restored. I think that there are other contextual issues. I can’t personally say from every single country where it is, but everybody has attested to me from different backgrounds in a context that there is a pandemic need for men to be restored by the gospel.
John: And Eric, where is this problem coming from? Where is it stemming from? Obviously we could easily quantify it and say hey, we are sinners. To some extent, do you think that’s been hitting a little closer to home in this last generation? First of all, let’s identify what is that problem and then is it associated specifically with today’s generation?
Eric: Yes, I think that you really don’t see the impact, it’s just like being the president. A president can be in a presidency with a great economic upswing. But they say it takes eight years later to feel the economic impact of a presidency. I think that there has been a pendulum swing within our culture as it relates to manhood. And so I think that is what this generation is experiencing. We had the civil rights generation and their philosophy of America being as a hippie generation/black power/immigrant/bourgeois generation. And then after that we had the hip-hop/pop generation. We have what I call now the eclectic generation and I think that in light of all of those threads, there has really been a decline in manhood. And I’m talking specifically in America. There’s a good book on the father of the American economy, the kind of talks about the downswing of manhood over the last 60 years. It was written in the mid-90s and kind of gives some sociological forecasts that fatherlessness consists of not only being physically absent from the home, but can be presently absent as well. I think the fatherlessness issue is a big issue. I think there are some aspects of technology that play into man’s detached connection to the home, too. For instance, a guy that’s 35 years old and a deeper gamer, that kind of thing. And some of the quote-unquote urban context where there’s a phenomenal downswing of fatherlessness that has been a huge part of the crisis that’s in manhood today.
John: What do you think is the biggest problem? Guys not seeking Christ or guys not seeking their wives well?
Eric: Of course the bigger issue is Christ. Everything starts with that. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can’t do anything,” so I think that’s the main issue. I think it’s both an evangelical issue and it’s a branding issue. In relation to the world and in the Western culture, the church seems to be in the mind of the loss as more of an entity that there’s more robust females in Christianity versus men. So that detachment has created a lack of an apologetic for why the church can’t put a dent in this issue of fatherlessness. When seeking out why as a result to me, of having a robust relationship with Jesus Christ.
John: Eric, did you write this book for the church, for lay leaders, or did you write this for individuals?
Eric: I wrote it for both. I think the curriculum part of it is more for the church, and the DVD set. But the book I wrote for people who are not believers and believers so that, you know, I saturated it with Scripture because I believe the Word of God is alive and active in my mind. Whether or not they know that the verses are there, I think the biblical reasoning of the book can connect with the lost guy and the found guy. I wrote it for both, but I wanted it to be discipleship material that transcends the time. So that it can continue to be something of a tool in the hands of men to be able to walk with men, so we are not just pointing out a whole bunch of problems, but tooling this generation hopefully with solutions that are willing the person to work with Jesus Christ.
John: Eric, you wrote and I think I’m quoting here, “Jesus is the prototype man for men. All of us men are only as manly as it relates to the standard set by Jesus.” Do you want to explain that statement?
Eric: Yes, I think one of the things I didn’t want to do was alienate the fact that Jesus is an example for women. So my point isn’t to really alienate women because the book is on manhood I wanted to voice it, if you will, to men. And so it’s all about being the prototypical man. You know the Bible talks of him being the firstborn above among many and he’s the first fruit. Not only that, but it talks about the Word became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. There’s a Greek word in that verse which means to pitch a tent and to take residence, which points back to the Old Testament covenant of the presence of God being among men. And so Jesus Christ became the prototype of what the church based on 1 Corinthian 3 and 1 Peter 2 , was eventually going to be a house of God. And so, in light of that indigenizing that to men, what I see there is Jesus Christ being the prototype of what it means to be a man because he came to restore all things, but God chose to send him in a masculine form. And since Jesus is in every aspect of who he is based on Hebrews is the greatest of all. That would include him being the greatest man because God made him a man and he is the perfect man. Watching him in his incarnation, I wanted to extract principles from his incarnation that reflect a robust biblical masculinity.
John: Do you think there’s, I want to be careful how to say this, but do you think that there is controversy in that statement because you’re telling guys to look at Jesus because he was a man. You talked about the fact that you’re not alienating women here. How do women look at Jesus? How was your wife or my wife supposed to look at Christ?
Eric: This is like what the Scripture talks about. In relation to their was suffering. You’re looking at the first of Peter four, and it says and he left his example for us to follow. He’s not just talking to women. However, I think it’s very important that Jesus, there is a neutral part of his character that is applicable to both men and women.
Eric: The other issue though, is because He’s a man, He directly images Himself in a way that helps men to see that Jesus Christ was a man and a real man. He didn’t come in the form of a woman. Now that doesn’t mean He’s better for men than He is women. It’s interesting that you asked what women are saying. It’s funny. I have had many women comment—either through Twitter or Facebook or through Instagram—that they’re buying the book for their husbands because they’re excited about it. I’ve had some people say some stuff on the Christian profile group, and the Christian Post did a great job discussing this. And of course, some of the comments are just from people that are in different places in their spirituality.
The main point of what I’m trying to do is to encourage men to live up to their God ordained role. And it’s interesting. The Bible calls Jesus the second Adam. The fact that there was a first Adam who sinned, and what we have learned about our masculinity from that, well, we wouldn’t have learned it from Eve. We learned it from Adam. Jesus is the second and better Adam based on Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As the second and better Adam, he’s a better man than the first. And since God made them male or female, in Genesis 1, he made them male or female, Jesus Christ is the remade, upgrade maleness of Adam and therefore, we would have learned masculinity from Adam, I think we can do so with Jesus Christ a lot better.
John: Needless to say, you wrote the book to men. It’s about men and you wrote it to men. At some point, may be a year or a couple of years from now, you may write a book to women.
Eric: Yes, I just finished a series on Eve this spring.
John: Well, there you go.
John: So the people that are reading this blog post, the women that you had just mentioned that are tweeting you and Facebook messaging you and are excited about it. If the lady is married to a gentleman who is not proactively seeking Christ, reading His Word, leading his family, what would you say, Eric, in that context to that woman?
John: What would she do with her husband in that state? Is that what you are asking?
John: Yes, if she comes to you, hypothetically, and says, “Pastor, my husband seems to be unengaged in all of those areas that you’re talking about.” How would you encourage her? What would you say?
Eric: I think the Bible answers this question so simply. First Peter 31 talks about her serving her husband, respecting her husband and praying for her husband. That he may be one with the Word. I think that there can be some nonthreatening ways that God graces us to facilitate her to get this resource and I think this resource is, of course, engaging. And basically, everything in the book pretty much comes from pastoring people. And having heard that a billion times and having discipled men and telling her about that, that’s what I would let her know. For me, when you’re looking at a pastor’s husband, I think she needs to pray for him and then talk to him about some of the challenges. And we’re assuming he’s a Christian. I think if he’s a nonbeliever it’s a little bit different. I think that when it’s a believer, she needs to communicate, which women do. Communicate her challenges with her desire to see him be the man that God wants him to be in whatever way she can serve him. And then I would hope that she’s in the church, which hopefully they are talking to leadership and asking them to help facilitate the man being more effectively engaged. The last chapter of the book is on restoring man’s relationship with the church because I think the church has to be intentional about facilitating what it is for men to be fully engaged and be the men that God has called them to be. And when that gets in order, then I think by God’s grace, the women won’t have to push towards their husbands to beg them to lead them.
John: Eric, who are you influenced by? What authors are you reading, what music are you listening to?
Eric: You know, I’m a research reader but I’m also a real man. Right now, I’m deeply influenced by Dr. Tony Evans, Dr. Carl Ellis and others. Those are spiritual fathers to me. All of them have influenced me. What am I currently reading? I’m currently reading Anthony Carter’s book, Blood Work, which is a phenomenal, pastorally theological work talking about the blood of Christ on our lives. That’s been helpful. And then I’m going back to a book by Richard Lovelace that’s called, Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal. I’m excited about that. And then I’m going through the book of Esther as well. In Scripture.
John: Eric, one last question here. You started an organization called Thriving.
John: Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Eric: Yes, Thriving is an organization that we started in planning a First Peter fellowship in in a really difficult area in Philadelphia. God has graced us to see tons of people meet Jesus and to be able to really get stability, financially. It’s almost a full sustainability there, then seeing it be multiethnic and engaging our neighborhood and doing work over in Malawi and planting churches in difficult areas to bring the hope of the gospel there. And so as that began to happen, people began contacting us asking us how we did it, and it got so overwhelming to the point we, for the better of the Lord, thought that an organization to help facilitate training urban leaders to be able to engage contacts with the gospel so that churches can be planted and ministry can be done in places that people don’t want to go but has a rich potential with what’s needed to engage the unreached people groups in all areas.
The redemption of manhood sets Jesus as the true standard of biblical manhood, looking to his perfect example to redeem and restore a man's life in the areas of sexuality, home, and work.
The only true alchemy in this world occurs when trials turn to gold, the debris and heartbreak of life transformed and polished into shining beauty by a loving, unseen hand. We try to catch a glimpse of this remarkable change in action, yet human eyes fail us. However, once these storms of life pass, we see the afterglow through signs as sure as Noah's ancient rainbow. A loved one overcomes. Morning breaks after an impossibly long night. Grace thunders through spiritual drought with a mighty downpour of living water. All of this, and more, affirms the fact that yes, life is beautiful.
Such was the thought going into the new album from The Afters. I sat down with lead singer, Josh Havens to discuss the lines between the lines of what made up life and it's beauty.
John: New record. Life is Beautiful. Josh, what is underneath the title? What is the theme of the record. When you guys are singing about the idea of life as being beautiful, what does that mean for you guys?
Josh: Well, this record is really a collection of stories that comes straight from life. It's little vignettes that come straight from our lives. It's the beautiful things that we experience in life, the things we're thankful for and the good things, but also some of the pain and the struggles that we go through. What ties this record together is how God is present in every moment of it. He's with us on the beautiful sunny days and the good times in life, but he's also there when we face the valleys in life and walk through the harder things too. That's why the stories on this record are a real collection of some of the joy and the sorrow that we've walked through and just God's faithfulness through all of it. Ultimately, I think no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God can make beauty in anything. That's definitely been our experience as we were walking through the making of this record.
John: Was there ever a moment in the recording process where either you, individually or the four of you guys together, after a lyric is written or a song is recorded, you kind of just step back and go, "Okay, this is a God moment." Where the song almost becomes outside of who you are and God is speaking to you?
Josh: Absolutely. Yes, there's definitely been songs where it's almost like you blink and you're like, “Okay, where did this come from? Where did this song that did not exist just a little while ago come from, because there is no way we could have just done this ourselves?” There were moments for instance in the song called “Broken” where I remember looking up, and we were all in tears as we were writing that song. The subject matter was so personal to us, and you know, I think writing in a way is therapy for the people who did the writing because you're dealing with the harder things that you go through and you're facing some of these things that are sometimes difficult to confront. For instance, with the writing of “Broken,” we were all discussing different losses that we've been through. I had just come out of being in the hospital with my son. When my son was born he had some unexpected complications and had to spend quite a while in NICU, and that was a pretty crazy experience. We saw other children there who never left the hospital. Parents that never brought their children home, and it was a difficult thing to be there and see all the suffering. We also saw God do some pretty amazing things and he really did show us His faithfulness in those times. I remember being in the hospital and reading the book of Job for comfort and seeing a man who lost everything in his life. I mean he lost his family. He lost all of his possessions, and then in the midst of that loss and brokenness he shaved his head and took off his clothes so he truly had nothing left, and then he fell to his knees and worshiped God. I just remember being so inspired by that and just thinking, “Wow, that's the man I want to be.”
John: You guys had the opportunity to partner with the Erwin Brothers on their film October Baby. Then you made a music video for the song "Life is Beautiful" that was in correlation with the movie. What kind of experience was that like seeing your song being such an integral part to the message of that movie?
Josh: Well, the way that that all came about was pretty interesting. We were actually on tour with Casting Crowns and we were working on songs for the new record. Most of the venues were these sports arenas, so we would have stinky locker rooms that were basically our dressing room for the day. So we would bring out equipment into these locker rooms and set up kind of a little mini studio. The idea for “Life is Beautiful” is one that's been kind of in my head for a while. I've wondered about that song and thought even about maybe doing a record with that scene for a while. We started discussing the concept of it and it just flowed out. It was one of the fastest songs we've ever written. We had it written and demoed within a day. Sent it to our manager. It was almost like once we started talking about the idea of things that we're thankful for in life and things that make life beautiful and those little gifts from God, it just started flowing. I remember sending it to our manager the next day after we had demoed it, and he said, "I've got to send this to the Erwin brothers because they just did a movie that this would be perfect for." Well, they had already finished it and turned it in, but they actually pulled it back and asked if they could make a tweak on it and they put the song in the movie because they felt like it would be a perfect fit. Then we did the music video for it. They had a whole campaign surrounding this film called “Every Life is Beautiful.” They didn't know about our song and we didn't know about the campaign. It just happened to be the perfect blend of ideas and the right thing at the right time that got put in place. It's been cool to see. It's such a great film. It's been cool to have a song that was a part of it and see the lives that were impacted by that movie.
John: Josh, are you always writing songs?
Josh: Try to. Right now we're writing songs, but not necessarily for us. We're working with some other artists on some songs. I try to keep fresh. It's one of those things like a muscle. If you don't work it out it gets flabby and you've got to work it back up and tone it again. It's better to not get out of shape. Songwriting is the same way. You don't want to lose it because it seems like once you practice the songwriting muscle as they say, you get better at it and faster at it and you're able to collect your ideas a little better. I definitely feel like once we're in the songwriting groove it's easier to finish songs and to channel ideas. I try to stay up on songwriting. I heard Charlie Peacock, he said he writes a song everyday whether it's good or bad. I think that's a great discipline to have. I'm not that disciplined, but I definitely try to stay up on it.
John: What does this year look like for you guys? You're going on tour?
Josh: Yes, we just finished a tour that we did together with Francesca Battistelli, and then during the summer we're basically just traveling all over doing festivals and fairs and things like that. Then come fall, we're doing an exciting tour. We're partnering with our friends Building 429 and we're going to bring out Hawk Nelson, some good buddies of ours as well. We're going to do a big fall tour so that's going to be really fun.
John: Awesome. Josh, when you look back at The Afters touring experiences through the years, through all of your records that you guys have done, is there a most embarrassing moment that comes to mind?
Josh: Most embarrassing moment. We've had quite a few numbers of them. We've had a number of embarrassing moments. I think for me, I've had some pretty epic falls on stage because I'm pretty mobile. I move around a lot and I go into the crowd and I climb on my piano and things, and I've had a couple of instances where I’ve had some pretty big falls. One of which was actually collected on video and somebody put us on You Tube. That's always fun. I think just the shear length of time that we've done this, we've all had our fair share of embarrassing moments.
There's been times when I walked on stage and said the wrong city’s name and that's something I think most singers have done at sometime or another, and that's always something that's hard to recover from. And it’s like, no really, I am glad that I'm in your city.
John: Yeah, wherever we are.
Josh: Wherever it might be.
John: Have you ever broken a bone on stage?
Josh: No, I've been fortunate to not break a bone, thankfully. I have broken equipment before. My guitar has suffered through my falls.
John: What has God been teaching either you personally or the band in the last month? You had mentioned a few minutes ago in looking at some of the songs you guys were wrestling with the fact that God is present in all things, both good and bad.
John: What about today? What would you say ... you're a married man who has children. Speak to other guys that are just kind of hitting the daily grind, attempting to love their wife well, love their children well, and pursue Christ. What does that look like on a daily basis for you, Josh?
Josh: I think that the reality is we all struggle with very similar things. We all want to be better husbands. We all want to be better parents. We all lose our temper at times. We all say things that we regret. We all make mistakes. I think what God has really taught me on a family level here recently has really been showing me through having kids is a little glimpse of the picture of grace. It's kind of given me an understanding of grace that I didn't have before being a parent, because anyone with kids knows that kids can be rotten sometimes and I have great kids, but they can still be rotten sometimes. No matter how rotten they are, it's not going to change my love for them. If they lie or if they hit their brother or sister or if they do something that I've asked them not to do and are disobedient, that's not going to change my love for them and they can't make me love them any less than I already do, and they can't make me love them anymore than I already do because I already love them as much as possible. That's given me a little glimpse of what God's grace for us is like and His love for His children. That no matter what we do in life even though we can be rotten sometimes and we make mistakes, that doesn't change God's love for us. He loves us so much that nothing we can do can take away even a single bit of that love.
John: Amen. That is a good word, Josh.
Josh: On the band side of things, I think gratitude has been something that God has really shown us through the years. We feel really fortunate to have done this as long as we have. Matt and I have been playing music together for going on 14 years. As a band, we've been touring full time since 2004. So we feel really blessed to be able to do what we do. I always remind my guys, if there's a day where people are complaining or maybe the bus breaks down or we miss flights or things happen that make the day difficult, I always remind them even on the worst of days that we're living somebody else's dream and we're so fortunate to be able to do this day in and day out. We definitely feel gratitude. It's cool to be able to see the fruits of what we're doing because when you write music you never know how God's going use it. Through touring you get to see a little glimpse when people come up to you and tell you these stories. We'll never hear all the stories, but when we do hear those little glimpses of what God has been using the music for, it's definitely encouragement to keep going.
So what are the beautiful things in life? Havens sums it up thus: "Our hope for our record—and a lot of heartache went into this album—is that it will encourage people to see how God is working in their lives. He's not just there on the sunny days. No matter what we go through in life, God is still with us and life is beautiful—God is beautiful."
If you have never heard of Phil Robertson or the Robertson boys, well, you must be living under a rock. The Robertson family has taken American TV by storm, along with it the hearts of almost every person. Along with Phil, his wife Kay and their boys, the reality TV show Duck Dynasty has been a gathering place for the whole family. In other words, it's been a breath of fresh air.
Phil Robertson was born and raised in Vivian, Louisiana, a small town near Shreveport. With seven children in his family, money was scarce and very early on, hunting became an important part of his life.
As a high-school athlete, Phil was All-State in football, baseball, and track which afforded him the opportunity to attend Louisiana Tech University on a football scholarship. There he played first string quarterback ahead of Terry Bradshaw. Phil's been quoted as saying "Terry went for the bucks, and I chased after the ducks." After receiving his Bachelor's Degree in Physical Education and a Master's in Education, he spent several years teaching. While his students claim he was an excellent teacher, spending time in a classroom brought Phil to the conclusion that his time and talents would be better spent in the woods.
This year, Phil wrote a book (Happy, Happy, Happy) that shares about his journey, his faith and his family. I recently sat down with Phil to talk about those three things.
John: Phil, I'm wondering if maybe you can break down for us how you felt your sense of calling. I know in your life football is certainly part of your past. You have either served as a pastor, or certainly you have preached many times in your life, and yet you are also an avid hunter as well, and you have made a lifetime career out of that. How does one who is pursuing Christ identify a great calling?
Phil: Well, I think old Thomas Jefferson said it best, "We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, and they've been endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty..." and that third thing there really caught my attention way back, "...the pursuit of happiness.” So, we have a god-given right to pursue happiness.
In my case, you have to remember, John, it did my heart more good to get about 35 or 40 mallard ducks coming down through the trees in front of me, than it did to throw a touchdown pass. When I was playing ball over at Louisiana Tech, I said, "Bradshaw, you're a second-stringer and I'm ahead of you. I could play my last year and that would keep you back a year." I said, "What I'm gonna do is I'm going to start chasing ducks full-time when I leave Louisiana Tech here," and I said, "You can step up and go on to the NFL and let the good times roll." I said, "I'll be thinking about you down in the woods while them big bruisers are stomping you in the dirt, my man." He laughed and I laughed.
Amazingly, 44 years later I saw him the other day a couple of months ago, and he was … we met up, you know, after that little speech I gave him. He said, "Robertson, you've done pretty good chasing ducks, man, you know, you have a television show." I said, "Well, you've done pretty good yourself, my man." We reminisced a little bit, you know. The bottom line is both of us ended up happy, happy, happy there.
John: Phil, do you appreciate preaching? Is that something that you enjoy doing?
Phil: Well, you have to remember I'm not ordained, like a bona fide, certified, preacher. I'm just a guy that builds duck calls. I do love God and I love my neighbor. I was converted at 28 years old, and before that I had never heard the gospel of Jesus, that God became flesh 2,013 years and died on a cross for my sins, was buried and raised from the dead.
So I zoned in on all my rotten, filthy ways, all my sins being removed, and on top of that being raised from the dead. I looked at that and said, “You know what? I never had anything that I've ever studied or looked at that gave me the opportunity to have all my sins removed and forgotten and be guaranteed my dead body could be energized and raised from the dead.” It got my attention! I basically just went forth from there, from the time I was converted. Since I didn't know that until I was 28, I just tried to make sure that the people I come in contact with at least hear that story. I just go forth across America, amazingly even before the television show. Now, the audience is just far bigger.
I've been going around all across America. They invite me to come, so I get on a jet and I go. How they all started inviting me to come is kind of beyond me, but I just started going across the country and still am. Now, all my sons do the same thing. We're just trying to infuse a little good into our culture, you know. We just think we're better off because of loving God and loving our neighbor, for crying out loud. We think the country needs it. We love them; that's why we do it. That basically is the story, and that is what the book is about. Just a family structure. I am the head of the family structure, Miss Kay and I, you know, grandma, grandpa, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. We eat together, pray together, hunt together, and that is just one little glimpse of one American family, my man.
Phil: Basically, happy, happy, happy just describes the ultimate, rarest of commodities: peace of mind. That's what I meant by that phrase. I didn't know the little saying was going viral, John. You know what I'm saying?
John: Yes. I do know what you're saying.
Phil: You never know, man.
John: Basically, when you talk about the concept of the book, is that primarily looking at the family structure and how you guys have done things in your family?
Phil: Yeah. That, plus, you know, it's a family structure and a worldview. We just think society, our culture and our world would be better off if we just loved God and loved our neighbor and did what was right. You know, our founding fathers… you know, if you read, I have researched them carefully, and I'm on the same page as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. They all were godly men. Someone told me one time, "Yeah, but they made mistakes." I said, "So have we. We've all made mistakes." I said, "But they founded the greatest nation on earth and we didn't, and that's the difference right there."
John: Yes. When you look at the church here in the west, when you look at the Christian culture, what is your thought? Are we okay? Are we doing good? Are we loving our families well enough? Are men standing up and leading their families well?
Phil: I think we need some help in that area. I think, my view is, we sort of got zoned in into going to church. That phrase, "going to church," is not even in the Bible. So you say, "I wonder why that wouldn't be in the Bible," because everyone you talk to, they say, well, “we're going to church, yeah, we're going to church, we're going to church.”
What's happened is we were so busy “going to church,” as we call it, the American model is you report in Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. You can be there every time the door is open, but, really, when you get to looking at 168 hours in a week, if you're in a spiritual setting only four or five of them—Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night—what's happened in my opinion, is we got so busy attending that our culture started disintegrating around us. And our family structures started being torn apart. We didn't infuse Christianity as much as we should have into our culture around us. The people we meet, where we work, where we play.
My idea is, when I was converted, I just go forth, and I reach out to my neighbor, and it's far more than just going to a church building two or three times a week. Do you see what I'm saying?
Phil: We need to be more light for our culture, more salt, more leavening, though, in whatever vocation you happen to be. I'm a duck horn builder, but I made sure that all the people that I came in contact with I did in a nice way. I didn't beat them over the head with it, but I just want to tell them the good news about Jesus. That went … man, did that ever get … now the audiences, John, are like, you know, tens and tens of thousands at a sitting. So it went way past anything I could have ever asked or imagined. It just seemed like God just kept … the doors just kept getting ... the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
What is amazing to me is that these large crowds now that we go to all started from just a little TV show with a prayer at the end of the show. You wouldn't think that would have that much impact on our culture but, man, there's probably 30 or 40 million every week that watch that. I'm having to put up a gate down here because there's hundreds of vehicles pulling up in my yard. I was dumb enough, I've never turned on a computer in my life. I do have a master's degree from Louisiana Tech in education, but I've never turned on a computer here in my 67 years, and I don't own a cell phone.
Someone says, "Well, Robertson, you're all over the Internet, you're all over the computer." I said, "Well, how did I get there?" They said, "That is a good question, but somebody's putting you on there." The bottom line is, it just went beyond anything I could ask. I've never seen anything like it, I tell you that. I'm not quite sure what it is except maybe the Almighty is working in it.
John: Phil, do you think your life, or your wife's life, or even your family's life has changed since the start of the show?
Phil: Well, you have to remember, with us, simplicity is sort of the key. In other words, Miss Kay and I, we raised our boys to love God, love their neighbor. They saw us interact with so many people who had marriage problems and drug problems and alcohol problems that we'd invite them in, and Miss Kay would feed them and I'd tell them the good news.
Well, my sons were standing around or sitting around listening to all that. The impact that we had on them, and we all gathered up as a family and thanked God for our food, we just kept life simple. Now that the fame has come, and the money... well, you got to remember, the way we operate, with the removal of sin from our lives, and on top of that being raised from the dead, trust me, my man, and this is one family group that believes that takes precedent over any kind of fame or money. Because money and fame can't raise you from the dead, my man. Only the Almighty can do that.
Phil: You just keep the first thing, the important things the important things. Do you see what I'm saying?
John: Absolutely. Ten years from now, what do you want this whole thing to be? Where do you see yourself? Where do you see your family from now?
Phil: Well, at the end of the day, all you have when it's all over is your name and what you stood for. I'm kind of like old Patrick Henry. He said, "The United States was not founded on religions but by Christians." He said, "The United States of America was founded on the gospel of Jesus." I'm just carrying the good news forth. At the end of the day, that's about the only legacy I would care about, that they say, you know… someone asked, I think it was Daniel Webster, "What's the greatest thought that you've ever had in your mind?" He said, "My accountability to God." That's basically where I am.
John: Phil, besides the founding fathers of our country, what other influencers do you have? Are you a book reader?
Phil: Only the Bible. Very seldom do I read books or commentaries. I just stick with the Bible itself, and I keep it within arm's reach. I have a set of encyclopedias and I have a dictionary from old Noah Webster, the father of public education. He's the one that came up with the dictionary, and it's still his heir, it's still here to this day. I have encyclopedias, a good dictionary, and my Bible within arm's length of myself. I always tell people, I said, "I'm just short-circuiting the computer world."
John: I love it. I love it. Would you share with me a little bit about what God has been bringing you through, maybe in the last week or month or so?
Phil: Oh, my goodness, what are you talking about? If someone had told me that at some point riches would come, fame would come, and the opportunity to go across the United States of America and proclaim the good news, I would have said, literally I would have said, "Impossible." So, man, look, I just look back at it. All I can tell you is the audiences are getting bigger and bigger. This weekend I'll be at David Lipscomb University, and there will be about … I have to give three speeches because the building wouldn't hold but 4,500 at the time. They got three sellouts.
First, they said do one. Then they called and said, "Mr. Robertson, we filled the building up again, can you do two?" I said, "Yeah." Then they called back and said, "How about three?" I said, "I'll do it." Basically, the opportunity is there. To answer your question, with all these things, we just are sort of like men with a mission.
The good news is Alan, my oldest boy, goes out and does the same thing, and Jason does the same thing. By the way, Jase and Al are great speakers. Old Willie, and even old Jep, and as shocking as it sounds, even Si. Most people don't realize Si, as nutty as he is, Si is a very godly man. I mean, he's one of the godliest people I know. I mean, that guy is straight as an arrow, but it's beyond my pay grade to understand why so many women want to marry Silas Roberston. I said, "What are y'all thinking?" I said, "It's scary, Si, I tell you." He said, "Well, boys, you know, I've always blown a little smoke," he said, "but I never had some fool come along and say he'd pay me money to do it." He said, "They want some smoke, I'll blow it for them." Si is a very godly man. Most people don't realize that, and he is happily married up there on the side of the road. It's been a hoot just kind of watching my brother, you know, and all my kids. We've had a big time with it.
It's just a good format for a family group, a functional family, which I think the United States needed to see.
Phil: Face it boys, it's been a while since America saw actually a functional family who just loves God or their neighbor and hunts ducks. I mean, give me a break. I just don't see the downside of it. Evidently, there are at least 30 or 40 million who feel the same way I do, so there is still hope for America, boys. We're just trying to infuse a little good into our culture.
John: Amen. Phil, how can we be praying for you and your family?
Phil: Pray that the Almighty will continue to protect us, because you remember the Bible says that the gospel has divine power that demolishes strongholds. Looking at the world all around us and all the murder, the mayhem, and the mischief and all the immorality and all that, just remember this particular little family group literally is going into the teeth of the tiger. I would pray, if I were you, I'd pray for the Robertson clan as they go forth for divine protection and strength and boldness as we go forth. That's what I would pray. I would appreciate it, too, my man.
It isn't often a person can live a dream, but Phil Robertson, aka The Duck Commander, has proven it is possible with vision, hard work, helping hands, and an unshakable faith in the Almighty. If you ever wind up at the end of Mouth of Cypress Road, sitting face to face with Phil Robertson, you will see that his enthusiasm and passion for duck hunting and the Lord is no act- it is truly who he is.
"Tell us what we want, or we will beat you. You might as well tell us now and save yourself."
The story of Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh is not just a story isolated unto itself. It's not just a story about two young missionaries in a highly politizied country. It's not just a story of the persecuted church.
But it's my story.
It's your story.
It's the story of what Christ is doing through His precious Bride. The Church.
In their new book, Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh recount their 259 days in Evin, the notorious Tehran prison. Here, prisoners are routinely tortured, abused, and violated. Executions are frequent and sudden. But for these two women, this hell on earth was a place of unlikely grace as they reflected God's love and compassion to their fellow prisoners and guards. Against all odds, Evin would become the only church many of them had ever known. It's an amazing story of unyielding faith—when denying God would have meant freedom. Of incredible support from strangers around the world who fought for the women's release. And of bringing God's light into one of the world's darkest places—giving hope to those who had lost everything, and showing love to those in despair.
I had the privilege to sit down and converse with Maryam and Marziyeh about their life of pursuing Christ.
John: Ladies, what an honor it is for me to talk with you. I’m very thankful to you for giving us the opportunity to dig into what’s been going on in your lives. Obviously, you have a book that tells the entire story of what took place and your activities. When I was going through it, I was amazed that, ultimately, this is a God story. I’m wondering, maybe, before we get into some of the specifics of that story, if either one of you, or both, could share with me, and the folks who read this blog, what is it like growing up in the Middle East? What is it like growing up in Iran as a child? What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Marziyeh: Thank you, John; it’s really a blessing for both of us to share. Whenever we share, we consider it an opportunity to be a tool in God’s hands and we really appreciate you having us. About life in the Middle East, we both were raised in Muslim families and, as you know, Iran is an Islamic country. In our country, religious laws and regulations always stop people from knowing the truth. But, I can say that there are some differences between countries like Iran or other Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt. It’s not the same; especially the way that the people follow the rules and the religious laws.
In Iran, most people are not real Muslims and they don’t believe in Islam. In fact, they are tired of these Islamic rules and believe that Islam is not their religion, but is forced on them. Most of them don’t know anything about the Koran or its teachings, and it might surprise you to know that they are very open to hear about Jesus and the message of salvation. That’s the difference between Muslims in Iran and Muslims in other countries. But, the government usually tries to force people to follow the old religious rules.
I remember from childhood we had to follow these rules. For example, at school, students were forced to read the Koran or other Islamic books or pray in a mosque that is in Arabic. And they didn’t let the student’s learn about other religions, especially Christianity. And all we were told at school was that Jesus was the prophet of love and peace, nothing more. It was not just about Islam and Christianity; they don’t even let the students do research and learn about other religions either. We both remember that when we were children of about seven or eight years old, they would force us to stay in line and say things against the U.S. and Israel. They forced us to say, “Death to America. Death to Israel,” before going to classes. At that time we were just children, we had no idea what we were saying, but these are the things that the government tried to force people to do even though they don’t want to do this.
Maryam: And I can add one or two more sentences about that. As you know, women in Iran have less rights compared to men, because according to the Koran there are many verses which are about women and about their rights [or lack of]. About how a husband can punish his wife it she doesn’t obey, and most of their rules are against women. Women usually have to wear a hijab, which most of the women don’t believe in, and don’t want to do. But, this Islamic government, they force them to wear Islamic cover.
John: Based on what you both just told me, is there a condition in Islamic countries, or, I guess it sounds like it’s okay to be specific to Iran, that when people think of Christianity they think of America? Or if they think of Americans, they think of Christianity. In other words, are both of those words synonymous with each other?
Marziyeh: I can say that I usually teach people that Christianity is good for Western countries because they teach them that most Christians don’t have hijab and don’t follow Islamic rules, and they don’t cover their hair. That’s why they teach (because of this) that Christianity just belongs to Western countries.
John: So any Western country, not necessarily the United States?
Maryam: It’s mostly about the United States. When they refer to the West, they refer to United States.
Maryam: And I remember I had this experience when I was talking to people about Jesus, especially young people. Some of them, their first question was, “Oh, so in Christianity, we are allowed to drink wine because in Bible it says that you are allowed to drink wine?” They like this about Christianity and they think that this is from the West.
Marziyeh: And also, they tell people who converted to Christianity that you are converted to Christianity because of this, these things, that you can drink as Maryam told or that women don’t have hijab. And also in their worship, they dance--sometimes they dance. And they tell that most Iranian people who are converted to Christianity is not because of Jesus, it’s because of freedom in Christianity.
John: Ladies, can you take a few moments to talk about how you were introduced to Christ?
Marziyeh: My story is a long story. Can I tell whole testimony or just briefly?
John: You can do whatever you would like.
Marziyeh: Okay, so Maryam said that about 10 years ago we both converted to Christianity, but at that time, we didn’t know each other. It’s been about 8 years we have known each other and we have lived together. As Maryam explained about Iran, we both grew up in an Islamic country and from my childhood I always loved God and wanted to find out more about His truth. I did everything to get closer to Him. Since I was born into a Muslim family, my only means of getting to know God was religious teachings among the Muslim and at school. But, I always had many questions that Islamic ideology and Sharia law [the moral code and religious law of Islam] could not answer for me.
The God who created me, He is like a father. He is closer to me than members of my family and I didn’t believe the wrong belief that exists in Islam. Because in Islam, they teach people that God is one who rules over the human right and punishes them for their life of sin. I believe that that was a terrifying image of God. I didn’t believe the daily mosque prayer bending several times in front of a God who was already in my heart. I had many questions like, “Why should I speak to my God in Arabic instead of my native language? Doesn’t this God understand my native tongue? Why should I pray to Him as if He is a great leader or ruler over me? and Why should I cover myself in front of a God who created me?” There were many questions like this in my mind and the answer I was getting at school was not convincing me. Despite all of this reservation, I decided to follow my religious duties and told myself, “I may be wrong, and the truth will show itself to me one day in the future.”
So I prayed in the mosque for two years with the prayer I used to with the Koran. And even would wake up in the middle of the night and pray to Him again. But this type of prayer and worshipping were not making me feel any closer to my God. On the contrary, they were distancing me further from Him as they had become a routine action that I was forced to do, not that I wanted to do. And I remember before I converted to Christianity, I had a dream and God spoke to me through my dream.
In that dream I was praying to the sky, suddenly the sky opened and a white horse came down and it spoke to me, and it said, “Sit on my back.” When I obeyed, the horse took me to a city where they were just coming out of the mosque.
At first, they couldn’t see me, or the horse, but suddenly the Muslim worshipers were revealed as wild animals with savage features. As soon as I saw them, they could see me, and they tried to kill me. So the horse ran like the wind to save me and I remember as I held its neck I felt its love pouring into me with the power and purity I have never known. After that, we were safe. I awoke but I couldn’t explain how much love God let me touch in that dream. I’ve never touched love like this before.
After this dream, I decided to put aside my religion and came to the conclusion that the most important part of being a believer is just my heart. Then I began to speak to my God in the way of a relationship between a father and a child. And one day I heard, at that time, one day I heard (from my friend who had converted to Christianity) about Jesus. That Jesus is the Son of God who has come to this Earth for us, for freedom from our sin. At that point, I became very curious, because I haven’t heard anything like that about Jesus. I just thought He was just another prophet as He had been introduced to us in our textbook at school.
John: I want to interrupt here. Did the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus scare you, to some extent, because it’s so contrary to how you were raised?
Marziyeh: No, it doesn’t scare me. But I didn’t know anything like that, I didn’t hear anything like that about Jesus. Because I just thought He was only another prophet, because in our school they teach us Jesus is just a prophet.
John: But He was not Mohammed? I mean, there is something very …
Marziyeh: They teach us He is a prophet, but not like Mohammed. In Islam they believe that Mohammed is the best and perfect prophet and that you cannot compare Mohammed with any other prophet. And that’s why I became very curious about this. I told myself, “How do I know Jesus is the truth?” It was the first time I heard that about Jesus, that Jesus is not a prophet, but that He is the Son of God. So I decided to study other religions and also I began to read the Bible because I wanted to find the truth. But, after awhile I realized that I could not possibly spend many years to study all religions of the world because there are many religions in this world, even in Christianity. I just decided, I just knelt and prayed and told God, “Please show me the truth because if Jesus is the truth, you must guide me to the right path and save me from being misguided. Because I don’t know what is the truth in this world. You are my God, you created me and you know what is the truth.”
After this praying, at that time, if I want to tell the whole story it’s long. But, I had a disease and for the first time I was invited by my friend who told me about Jesus to a church. It was the first time, first experience that I was in a church and it was very interesting for me because people were worshipping in joy and praying in their own language. And during the worship, suddenly, I heard the voice in my heart that told me Marzi, you are healed, Marzi, you are healed. I wanted to ignore it, but I told my friend, and she told me, “That is Jesus and he can heal you.”
And later at the medical appointment--that day I had a medical appointment too--when I went to my doctor’s office, when he wanted to write my prescription, he couldn’t. He put his pen down and told me, “I don’t know why I cannot write anything for you. Come back another time.” I wanted to insist him, but God reminded me of His message in the church and told me to trust Him. He had healed me, but I didn’t believe Him. I didn’t fully believe in Him because the healing was not enough proof for me. I just asked God to show me more about Himself and I wanted to be sure about this. Actually, at the bottom of my heart I had begun to believe in Jesus. But, still I had some doubt. For example, I had read the Bible but I had some doubts about Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? I couldn’t accept it; I didn’t believe it.
I remember one day I was praying, and suddenly the flames of the Holy Spirit came on to me and I received it and I began to pray in tongues. I couldn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t know the meaning of my words but I could fully understand what I was telling to my God. And at that time, I remember while I was crying, suddenly I saw Jesus in front of me who was standing next to a large throne, which was covered with shining gold. And at that time, I wasn’t on the earth, and the middle of my forehead was burning as though someone had branded it. Suddenly, all my doubts disappeared and I felt that God had removed the curtain before my eyes and now I could see the truth. I couldn’t stop my tongue and just kept worshipping Him and I remember it was 12 at night until four in the morning. I kept praying and singing the song of praise nonstop. It was like a spiritual lovemaking that I didn’t want to end, but I couldn’t control it. By about four in the morning, I stopped praying, but what had happened to me was so incredible that I couldn’t describe it.
I always tell people that no one had forced me into anything or manipulated me. No one had cast a spell on me or hypnotized me. The explanation that I could legitimately derive from that experience was that I had met my God through the Lord Jesus Christ. From that day on, I dedicated all my life to Jesus and it’s been many difficult years with Him. During these years, I had many stories and dreams about God that each one is a long story. But I always tell that Jesus was the only person with me, every single day during the lonely life I had. And even without going to a church, I always have long walks with Him. He is next to me and He has been my guide in my life.
After that, at that time, I was working in a beauty salon and I had earned a trainer and management degree for training new hairdressers. I had this passion from the day I converted; I had this passion to talk with people about Jesus. After that, some of my friends suggested to me to start my own business. But I wasn’t interested in that because I believe my calling with people is their heart not their hair. So I quit my job, and after one of my friends suggested theology, I traded a certain future for the unknown because I had this passion to follow Jesus.
John: Were both of you ladies in Iran when you became Christians?
John: Is it different for a man than a woman being a Christian in Iran?
Maryam: Because women’s situations are different than men’s in Iran, we believe that women are more open to hearing about Jesus and the message of Christianity. This is because in Islam they don’t have equal rights with men. There are many Iran rules in the Koran about women, like temporary marriage. I don’t know if you have heard about this. Men can have a wife and also they can have temporary marriage. They can marry a woman for a few hours, for a week or a few months. They just sign a contract, they spend time with the woman, and after the contract expires, they are not together.
And there are also many other rules that men have. Husbands can beat their wives and [it says] that the wife needs to obey her husband. Because of all these wrong rules in Islam, especially for women, the women are more open to hearing about Jesus. They are tired of these rules and they don’t want to follow these rules. But I cannot say that men are not eager to hear about Christianity, too. They’re also open to hearing about Christianity; but in comparison, women, we believe, are more eager to hear because of all the Islamic rules against women.
John: Obviously, your story centers around the fact that the two of you started a couple of house churches that were underground. One was for prostitutes and the other one was for women. So both of them for women, but one was for prostitutes, specifically?
Marziyeh: No, the second one was for young people, women and even some men.
John: Oh, for young women and men. Okay, all right.
Maryam: Especially for young people.
John: Okay, like college age or even younger?
John: Yes, college. Then you were both turned in and you went to prison for almost a year? And not just any prison, but you went to one of the most severe prisons in Iran, in Tehran there, correct?
John: What was the most difficult part of being in prison?
Maryam: Prison is prison, and going to prison is not a pleasant experience for anyone. From the first day we suffered from many physical and mental tortures. For the first 14 days we were in a detention, which was in the basement and we had to spend our time with women who were prostitutes, addicted and homeless. The women who ran away from their homes… they sent us to that detention. We had to sleep on the ground. There were no carpets and we couldn’t eat for five days, for the first five days we didn’t eat at all.
Also, in Iran prisons, the situation is very difficult. Not just for political prisoners but for all prisoners. For example, there is not enough medical care and there is no doctor in prison. We could be, for nine months we suffered from different kinds of physical diseases but we were not allowed to see a doctor. Especially when they heard that we were Christians, they did not let us to see doctor. Most of the time we were under pressure and we believe that mental torture is even worse than physical torture. They sent us to a building, which is called 209 for interrogation. For 20 days we were not together and once a week we were being interrogated by two interrogators for long hours. We had to sit on chairs facing the wall blindfolded. These are all pressures that we suffered in prison.
But our most painful experience in prison was executions of prisoners with whom we were living every day; we had never experienced such a thing, it was so horrible. After those executions, we could feel the spirit of sorrow and death. We couldn’t say anything, we were just, we were shocked and we stared at each other but we had no power to speak. That was the most difficult experience for us in prison. Especially after prison, because when we got released, they executed one of our best friends and that was a shock for both of us.
Marziyeh: And also, you know our situation in comparison with other prisoners was worse because we were Christian. We were not allowed to use other facilities that there are in prison. For example, there were some classes. I cannot say it was good classes, but there was a center in prison that each prisoner could go to every day and participate in some classes. But when they heard that we are Christians they told us, “You are not allowed to come here. You are dirty. You are Christian. Because you have converted to Christianity, you are dirty.” The managers talked with me very bad and she told me, “You should be executed. You shouldn’t be here because you manipulate the mind of other prisoners. That’s why we don’t allow you to come here.” In most situations, like Maryam explained about the clinic, about these places, our rights were less than other prisoners.
John: How does one share the gospel story in an Islamic culture?
Maryam: We had this experience in New York after we finished the study in theology in 2005. We returned to Iran and we had this passion to go back and talk to our people about Jesus, because we knew how much they were thirsty to hear and how much they needed Jesus as their savior. I can say that when we were in prison, we were trying to, when we wanted to evangelize to people, we wanted to share our own testimony because we were from the same background. We were from Muslim countries and they would listen to us when they heard that we were from a Muslim background and our situation was the same as theirs.
Sometimes some of our American friends ask us, “How do you evangelize to people and how can we evangelize to Muslims?” We always tell people, it’s better for a Muslim to hear about Jesus from a Muslim background person who converted to Christianity because they can see the changes in our life. They could see how Jesus revealed himself to us and it had a great impact on them and they would listen to us. But if a person, for example, from Europe or America goes and talks to people in Iran, they wouldn’t listen as much as they listen to both of us. Usually, I share our own testimonies and how Jesus revealed himself to us.
John: Switching gears just a little bit. What do you ladies think of the church here in the West? Or, specifically, here in the United States? Is the church healthy here?
Maryam: We had different experiences here. When we moved here we understood that there are different denominations here and the churches are different. That teachings in churches are different from each other too. In Iran, there was just one official reading that the pastor was preaching in Farsi [a widely spoken Persian language, primarily spoken in Iran] and we could attend that church. But when we moved here, we observed that there are many churches, many denominations. We had both good experiences and sometimes not very pleasant experiences because of some teachings. Some churches, we believe they are just following the rules and in some churches we could see that people and believers are not--how can I say it?--alive. We couldn’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in some churches.
But, we had very good experiences also in other churches. We were in a church recently and we told the pastor that it was good that we came to their church because we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. We met with many believers; some of them are really an encouragement and blessing to both of us. I can say that it’s different. Some Christians here are just believers. They are Christians because they are born as a Christian, like Muslims in Iran, they are born as a Muslim. There is a difference between a person who calls himself or herself a Christian or a person who is really a believer and had some personal experience with Jesus.
John: I’ve heard it said before that the persecuted church, that brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for their faith in other countries are praying, to some extent--and take this in the right way--that those of us who are in the church here in the West become persecuted, because then we would live a more authentic Christian life. Do you feel a similar thought or ideal when you think of the church here in the West? Are we authentic? Is the church passionate enough for the glory of Christ?
Marziyeh: In our country, I can say sometimes persecution helps. For example, in our country they say because of persecution many people came to Christianity because they don’t have any hope. They are hopeless and they are disappointed. It helps to have a good relationship with God. What about here…? We heard in some churches that they believe that America needs persecution because people need persecution to have a good relationship with God. But, I don’t believe that we should pray for persecution.
In America, there is freedom, and Maryam explains that many people are born as a Christian. People should have a live relationship with Jesus, they should have a personal relationship with him. Most of the Christians here are born as a Christian, and they don’t touch Jesus in their life, it seems. They don’t have personal experience with Him. But I don’t believe that persecution can help these people or that we should pray for persecution. I don’t believe it’s correct.
Maryam: And also I think, I have this question because in some churches the pastor asked us, “If you need to pray for persecution, come to our churches.” But I don’t believe we need to pray for persecution and we don’t need to wait for persecution to come to change ourselves. These days we can hear the news about Middle East, about countries like Iran. There are many examples like Marzi and I, and other people who are in prison. These days an American pastor is in prison and many people, thousands of people hear the story. Why should we wait for persecution to come? There are many examples around us, we can look at them, we can start changing by just knowing that we cannot always be free, we cannot always worship God in freedom. There may be some time in our life that we will experience persecution. Persecution is not just going to free them. We all have difficulties in our own life and I don’t agree that they need to pray for persecution to come.
John: Amen. The truth is is that the persecuted church is still very much part of the church that I belong too. We are the body of Christ and if the church is persecuted anywhere, all of us should be on our knees praying for our brothers and sisters.
John: Ladies, how can those of us who are reading this blog or reading your book, or how can the church here in the United States be praying for our brothers and sisters in Iran? What is the biggest need?
Marziyeh: There in Iran, there are many Christians who are still there in the prison, like Saeed Abedini, I’m sure that you heard about him, and also Farshid Fathi, and there are also Christians. After we got released we heard the Iranian government arrested many Christian groups. We don’t know all of their names, but as you mentioned earlier we are all part of a body, one body in Jesus, and we should be responsible for those who are still suffering. We can pray for them. Maryam and I, when we were in prison, we could feel the power of these prayers and we have, we believe that we have power in our prayers and that we can change many things with our prayers.
And also, it’s very important to send letters to prison. When we were in prison, we heard from guards every day, we received about 50 letters and they told us that your letter is more than our official letters. And this kind of support scares Iranian government because they knew that Christians all around the world were uniting. And Christian people who are in prison are not alone. Because of all the pressure, they are scared to continue their cruelty. And also, it’s very important to inform other international organizations, people who work for human rights like the United Nation and embassies. Also, when we were in prison, we heard that the Pope from the Vatican sent a letter to the Iranian government, and that all of this activity scared this government that kept us in prison. We believe that when the public speaks out, it makes a huge difference.
John: How can we be in prayer for you ladies?
Maryam: We would like to ask you to pray for our families. They are still in Iran and we usually ask readers to pray for them. Also, here after publishing the book, we are under pressure from some attacks. Whenever we start a new mission, we have felt these attacks from Satan. When we were in Iran, we wanted to start our house churches or start distributing the Bible, and we had some attacks. Here also… it’s been three weeks since our book was published and we can feel these attacks, and we just need to be focused on our mission. We don’t want to be focused on the enemy. We want God to strengthen us so we can be focused on what He wants us to do.
Captive In Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh
Download the first chapter from Captive in Iran by clicking here.
Bonnie Mohr is wife. A mom. A farmer. An artist. And normal. She wrote once, "My work is a reflection of who I am, and what I believe. It is simple, and it is truthful! It defines moments, places, and things in life that are good, pure and right. I believe that if you engage your life and everything you believe in whole-heartedly , with conviction, passion and love…..everything else will fall into place."
If you are reading this and thinking, "I have never heard of Bonnie Mohr." You are probably wrong. Her paintings have been seen by thousands, if not millions of people. It's because of Bonnie's simple approach to both her life and work that drew me to want to sit down with her and find out what is on the other side of that brush.
So read on. I hope that you will not just get to know Bonnie in a better way, but you will understand more of her passion.
John: Bonnie, you grew up in a large family, correct?
Bonnie: Yes. There were eight children: seven girls and one boy. I was the second oldest. We grew up on a small, family dairy farm in Southern Minnesota. I really would have to refer to that as a simpler time compared to way we raise our children now. Especially with social media and the technology era that we live in. I grew up on a dairy farm and because most of us were girls, we grew up as a strong family unit. We worked as a family. Us girls, we milked cows and stacked hay and picked beans, and picked up rocks in the field.
We grew up in a world where less is more. It was also a world of hand-me-downs and shopping at the garage sales, and, I guess you’d say, really just being happy with what we had. It was kind of a nice way to grow up. Our family believed in church and togetherness. My parents gave us a strong foundation to go on with life and we learned to make the most of what we had. So that’s my upbringing.
John: Have you and your husband raised your kids in a similar fashion then?
Bonnie: Totally. Our strategy is to allow our kids enough freedom to grow and fit into the world of today, while instilling a strong foundation. What a lot of kids lack today are strong roots and the basics that prepare them for life. By that, I mean work ethic and responsibility and trustworthiness; about the ethics of life and going to church. We follow in line with a lot of families in that our kids participate in sports and are involved in different clubs and activities, and so we don’t always have those sit down meals three times a day—like I grew up with.
I find that our lifestyle is more on the fly and more on the go, but the advantage we have to raising our kids today is that we do live on a farm, and a dairy farm on top of it, which is quite labor intensive. A lot of the learning about responsibilities just naturally happen on a day-to-day basis around here. It’s not like we have to think of ways to try and raise our kids to be good, responsible young citizens. It’s a lifestyle. Farming has all the hard work and sacrifice and commitment that goes into a very rigorous lifestyle, and it’s one that’s almost hard to make a living at.
The upside of it, the silver lining in the cloud has been that if you’re trying to raise good kids, it happens almost in a natural manner on a farm, because of the things that happen here. They learn about life and death, they learn about care and responsibility. They learn about working together. They learn that our livelihood is contingent on the weather and circumstances that are out of our control. Truly, out of us eight kids growing up, there are only two of us now that live on a farm. And I’m the only one that is sort of repeating my own childhood in the way we are raising our children. I think it’s just a real rich blessing and I know that our kids are going to be set for life.
Our job is to raise them, and I say we’ve got them until they’re 18 and after that they’ve got to be ready to go. Having a farm and being able to raise our kids this way has been just a huge, wonderful blessing for us and it feels good. There aren’t a lot of people who have that opportunity anymore.
John: That’s very true. Bonnie, you had mentioned that in your family growing up, church was certainly an integral part. How did you become more aware of who Jesus is and how did you start to follow Him, as opposed to, say, riding the coattails of your parents?
Bonnie: I think everybody has his or her own journey in life to finding Jesus, and then with figuring out to what degree of commitment you’ll live your life for Him. For me, my life every day is a glorification to God and what He has blessed me with. I know that the blessings in my life are because of God and that it is He that works through me to create and fashion my life. I think as a kid growing up, I just followed in line with the rest of my siblings. We didn’t question going to church. We didn’t question who God was.
We were taught who God was. We were taught what our religion is and we went to church. We grew up in an era where you didn’t challenge your parents or talk back. You were just obedient and disciplined. I’m really thankful that I was blessed to have that sort of an upbringing, because at a pretty young age I became aware of who God is and why we’re here. And that everything we have is a blessing from God, too. Thankfully, I married another Christian, and we were both Catholic. That was another blessing: not having to choose what religion we would raise our children with.
Come to the water
Live in the moment, and Be.
Refresh your mind. Rest your body. Renew your spirit.
Regain a gentle heart and Peaceful soul.
Restore in The Power that is greater than you.
- Bonnie L. Mohr
For me, once we started farming and my business was starting to grow and we were having children, the load got heavier and heavier. Managing and coping with the load of life, really hit a threshold for me when our third baby was born. I was still trying to be a farm wife and milk cows. I was up at night with babies and I was trying to paint and I was running my own business by myself.
I guess the defining moment for me in life where I really made a 100% conscious decision that I needed God in my life--and that Jesus was my strength—was when that third baby came along. I crashed and burned. My wonderful, busy, happy life became too much for me. It was at that moment that I truly turned my life over to God. And I saw that because I was young and ambitious and strong and healthy, like a lot of people in life, I was wanting and expecting more faster and was in the “bigger is better” mindset.
I wanted it all, so to speak. I couldn’t work fast enough and the days weren’t long enough and I was trying to do everything. But what I was really doing was living life with my own set of goals and values, and not asking myself what God and Jesus wanted for me. It was at that time that I turned my life over to God and decided that I would let him take the wheel. That I would be happy and enjoy and embrace every day of my life and whatever he put in my path for each day. That was a big turning point in my life. And ever since then, I’ve really lived my life more about what does God want me to do. What does God want me to do with what he’s given me? How am I able to serve him?
I’ve really started to learn that the true root of my happiness is living my life for God and for Jesus. When you are open to that reality, all sorts of wonderful things start to happen to you, because you now are … you’re working for God. Your life is for Him and life here takes on new meaning and purpose all of the sudden, which makes it very exciting.
The other part is that, I guess, for the first 15 to 18 years of my career, I thought I was going to be a cow artist. I grew up on a dairy farm and I was painting cows and rural America and domestic animals and the like. I have built a very substantial following in the rural American art field, and especially, in the cow world with dairy farmers. Kind of obtained a level of worldwide recognition as a cow artist. When I starting painting inspirational art, and when my life starting changing, I began to see and feel that there was a lot more to what was going to happen with my art. And now I really believe that the first part of my career was a warm-up for the more important stuff, for what’s coming ahead.
"Life is not a race - but indeed a journey. Be honest. Work hard. Be choosy. Say 'thank you,' 'I love you,' and 'great job' to someone each day. Go to church, take time for prayer. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Let your handshake mean more than pen and paper. Love your life and what you've been given, it is not accidental - search for your purpose and do it as best you can. Dreaming does matter. It allows you to become that which you aspire to be. Laugh often. Appreciate the little things in life and enjoy them. Some of the best things really are free. Do not worry, less wrinkles are more becoming. Forgive, it frees the soul. Take time for yourself - plan for longevity. Recognize the special people you've been blessed to know. Live for today, enjoy the moment." - Bonnie Mohr
I think really I’ve just started to tap into the second phase of my career, which I believe will be more inspirational art that holds great meaning and changes people’s lives. It’s been pretty amazing so far, and I’m more or less just a sponge soaking it all up right now. So I’m very excited about what type of work I will be producing down the road.
John: I really appreciate you sharing that testimony, Bonnie. It sounds to me like God has done some amazing things in your life, and I know those words carry a lot of weight behind them, so I certainly appreciate that. I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about how you first became interested in being an artist and painter, and if there are any other mediums that you enjoy?
Bonnie: I work only in oil. At the beginning, I started out in some acrylic and a little bit of pencil drawing, but oil is my number one choice because of the richness of it. And also because of, I guess, the qualities of oil paint and everything you can do with them. I’m fascinated with—frankly, in love with—oils for another reason, too. The masters used it. I think, if you’re going to do anything in life, why not try to be the best and stack yourself next to the best if you can. Why not try to emulate them? So because they painted in oil, it’s just my love and fascination also to paint in oil.
I would love to do some sculptures some day, but there’s just so much for me to learn in this area yet that I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to get that far. As far as why I’m an artist, there’s really only one answer to that, and it’s because this is what God’s quest is for me. The likelihood of me becoming an artist, in my opinion, was about equal to me becoming an astronaut. I had no calling at a young age for it, other than that I was fascinated with color and design. There was something magical about artwork to me, though, and I was just drawn to it because of color and design. I had a silly fascination for anybody that could paint. I just thought that was so cool.
I remember going to college for Dairy Production, with a minor in Communications, and one day while studying in my dorm room, I began thinking about how great it would be to spend my whole life doing something fun, like the way hobbies are fun. Like an athlete, a pro athlete, who gets to play football or basketball their whole life and get paid for it. I started thinking about using the talents that I’ve been given--and we each have something we’re good at—but then I kind of just put that thinking away in a box and put it up on a shelf somewhere and that was the end of it. It was the seed, perhaps.
On a side note, on evenings and weekends when I wasn’t studying or going out or traveling, I used my art as expression of who I was. I enjoyed picking up a paintbrush and putzing with it. That was really the extent of it then. In fact, I have no formal training; I’m self-taught. I just have always had this fascination with art. I went to some art shows back in the ‘80s. I don’t know if you remember, but western and wildlife was huge and there were western and wildlife art shows all over the country. You could go to convention centers and attend art shows and look at artists’ work and things like that. I did that.
I went to a couple of shows and walked around in great awe of these people who had this talent, this amazing talent. I really don’t know why, but I just thought, “I wonder if I could do that?” Thinking back to high school, I did take an art class and loved it. I’d say I was maybe average or slightly above average. As I got older, I continued to have this magnetic attraction for art and just kept wanting to do it.
When we got married, my husband had a job where he traveled a fair amount and so I had time on my hands. I did pursue learning to teach myself to paint. At that point it was purely a hobby though. The more I worked at it—and it was a struggle since I’m not naturally that gifted or talented—the better I got. I’ve had to learn a lot, and I struggled, but I really worked hard. There are no artists in my family, and I didn’t know any artists personally. What it really boils down to, I believe, is that this is the path God wanted for me. I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me awhile to get this far and develop my skill level.
Today is a gift. Embrace it with joy and anticipation... realize the possibilities. It beckons you towards your destination in life. Be at peace - you are exactly where you are meant to be at this moment. God has carefully chosen the people, events, joys and challenges on your path today. The things you will encounter are stepping stones of what is to come. Make the most of today. Focus on "the present" - you will see and appreciate things you might otherwise miss. Follow your heart - search to find your purpose in life and you will find meaning and happiness.
Use your talents, do your best, contribute. Make a difference, because you can. Be passionate about your journey - sing, dance, laugh, and love as you go. Give praise and allow time for prayer. The promise of tomorrow begins with the endeavors of today. Do not let the fast-forward pace of the world deprive you from savoring "the now." Seek things that fill you with love and bring you joy. Have faith, it fosters hope - it makes the difference. Believe, with God all things are possible.
Live well - live today, for it is a gift.
- Bonnie L. Mohr
Once I really got going with it and became serious about my art, I just did it on evenings and weekends while I had my other job. I was in marketing and communications for a publishing company. At that point my husband traveled and we didn’t have children, so I had time to work at it. In a very big nutshell, that’s really the process I went through. I guess, after about two or three years of actively pursuing art and teaching myself on a serious level, my skill level got to a point where I was painting quite well. I started showing my work and I landed a job with an IA company to paint one their bull studs.
At that point, I decided I was going to try this full time, and I put in my notice at my job. My husband was very supportive and he just said, “You know, if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job.” I made the decision that I wouldn’t wait until I was 65 to pursue my dream, or wake up one day and say, “I wished I would have done that.” I decided that I would try it in the here-and-now, and it’s been a big journey. I definitely have earned my stripes. It’s been wonderful, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the path God chose for me. I think that’s where faith really comes in, when you need to stick with it and pursue it. So, here I am.
John: Bonnie, who would you say is your biggest influencer? Who do you look at and go to or listen to or read or whatever and find yourself inspired by that person?
Bonnie: I have a couple of pieces of art, actually, hanging in my home that are by an Italian artist from the 18th century. William Adolf Bouguereau is his name. It’s very interesting; he’s painted a lot of religious images. He was actually French. His work is phenomenal. He has some great religious pieces that he did. I’d say right now, he is probably my greatest inspiration as an artist. Actually, hanging downstairs in the house I also have a couple pieces of other pieces I love by … Oh, geez; I’m drawing a blank right now. I’ll run down and check after a while, but I don’t know. I’d have to say that as far as artists those two are probably my favorite and as far as authors, I don’t know. I don’t really read a lot. Max Lucado.
John: Yeah, Lucado.
Bonnie: He’s a very inspiring man as well. I love some of his books. He’s sort of been an inspiration to me as well.
John: What would you say to the young inspiring artist? The 8-year-old or 12-year-old young man or lady who looks at your work or at William Adolf Bourguereau’s work or anybody else’s and says, “Wow. I want to do something like that.” How do you encourage that young person?
Bonnie: I think the thing I have learned is to dream the impossible, because it really is not the impossible after all. I truly believe that if you have a love of something, if you are passion-driven and want to achieve it—whatever it is—then there’s no replacement in the world for that passion and hard work. That’s probably what I learned as a kid growing up on the farm and that’s probably what has carried me to where I am today. Like I said, there’s really no logic to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think I was just really true to myself and followed my heart. I prayed about it and I never gave up.
I think we live in a world today that’s more of a disposable, fast-paced, instant gratification type of world, and unfortunately our younger generations are learning that they have the ways and the means to have what they want instantly, and so much, too. Fortunately, that’s not the way I grew up, because that’s really not the way it works when it comes to really great things in life. Really good things require hard work, dedication and persistence, and they require having a dream and, of course, conviction. That’s sort of the moral of my story, I guess, since nothing has come easy for me either. But I had, and still have, the desire to be successful. My belief, as I’ve said, is that if you work hard and pray about what you’re pursuing—and if you persist—you will probably succeed.
Most people just never take it that far, from what I’ve seen. Many people give up. Then I think it’s all about being happy with what you have. Finding true joy and satisfaction in what you do have or already do is important too, because too many people in life just mope about what the next guy’s got and what they don’t have. Life can’t be about what they wished they could have, but about really plowing into their own life and what they do have. I think that’s it.
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