What Chocolate Cake Taught Me About Art

If I can help it, I’ll never eat cake someone makes out of a box from the grocery store. I’ve been spoiled. My birthday comes around about this same time every year (!). When it does, my wife treats me with a made-from-scratch birthday cake. The recipe is her grandmother’s. It’s handwritten by Granny herself. And it includes things like buttermilk (when was the last time you bought that?!) and chocolate baking squares. To top it off it’s covered in buttercream frosting. To. Die. For.

I dare you to bake a cake from a grocery store box. Then bake one from scratch. Do a taste test. There is no question in my mind that you will much prefer the one that’s made from scratch. The grocery store box cake will be dry and lifeless. The one made from scratch will be moist, dense, and filled with flavor. It’s a work of art.

When I ate that deliciousness again this year it taught me something. A little extra effort, care, and fine ingredients make a world of difference. It could be compared to coloring in a coloring book as opposed to drawing freehand. Or paint-by-number instead of an original painting. Paint-by-number never looked good to me. There is no blending of the colors.

Here’s the lesson: In your daily work — in the art that you create — don’t paint by the numbers. Whenever possible, don’t use a box cake. Be daring enough to start from scratch. Even a little bit more effort can make a big difference in quality. More love and care in your project will set it apart. Ingredients that are a step above may be more expensive, but the quality will bring back your customers or consumers.

Seth Godin likes to talk about the fact that far too many corporations are on a “race to the bottom.” They use the cheapest labor and materials to get things to market and sell them. Quality and creativity are lost.

You don’t have to be that way. You can put extra effort, care, and fine ingredients into your work and art. You can bake a cake from scratch. The people who eat it will notice the delicious difference.

When have you noticed a home made difference?

How to Write Something that Gets People to Take Action

No matter what you do you have to know how to write. More than that, there will come a time when you have to write something that causes people to take action. Whether you are in sales, marketing, teaching, or ministry, you are a salesperson. You may have to sell an item, a concept, a course, or an idea.

Today I heard a master copy writer speak about how to write things that move people to take action. He narrowed the whole process down to four steps. When you are writing copy that converts, it’s important to do these four things:

  1. Here’s who I am. Your reader needs to know who you are. It’s important to make a personal connection. Start by sharing something about yourself with which your targeted reader will identify.
  2. Here’s what I have for you. Once you have introduced yourself, show your reader what you have for her. Whether it’s an item, a concept, a course, or an idea, explain it with colorful and creative language.
  3. Here’s why it matters to you. If any of these four steps would be the key, this is the one. Your reader won’t buy or take action unless what you are “selling” matters to her. Speak into the heart and mind of your reader as best you can.
  4. Here’s what I want you to do next. Create a call to action. Be specific. Don’t be afraid to ask. Refuse to back down.

This structure would work for:

  • a sales email
  • a sermon (with proper distinction between Law and Gospel)
  • a newsletter article
  • a lesson plan
  • a Facebook post

Here’s what I want you to do next: Try writing something according to this structure. 

How do you get people to take action?

What It’s Like to Be Born Into a World of Innovation

I got to babysit my eight-week-old grandson yesterday. Our daughter had to go to the dentist, our son-in-law had a meeting, and my wife had to substitute teach. It was my day off, so I got the text: “Would you want to come watch Crosby?” Um. Do you even have to ask? I would move heaven and earth to spend some time with my favorite little boy. Being with Crosby made me realize that this little boy is surrounded by innovation.

Crosby and I spent about an hour-and-a-half all by ourselves. And Grandpa did just fine, thank you. I carried him around the apartment. He fell asleep. His Uncle Ben called and woke him up, so we face-timed with Uncle Ben for a little while. Pretty soon a diaper needed to be changed (yes, I still remember how to do that). Then we played on his little play mat. Before we knew it Mommy came home.

As we spent a little time together I began to think about all the innovation Crosby already has in his little world. He has an Amazon Echo Dot in his house that can set a timer for his nap or play lullaby music. His pack n’ play has everything but the kitchen sink. The monitor attached to his bed plays video to an app on an iPhone. Even his diapers don’t have sticky tabs. Don’t ask me how, but they attach without “tape” like diapers used to.

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, recently described today’s world as a place that “values innovation more than anything else.” We can debate the value and morality of that statement. But there’s no arguing the fact that our world is filled with innovation that is greatly valued. That’s the world that Crosby has been born into.

He will never know what it’s like to live without a cell phone, a computer right on his desk, or the internet. He will always know the conveniences of innovation. He’ll be able to do things past generations only dreamed of. When he wants to he’ll be able to book his own vacation online. All the information in the world’s libraries will be right in his own hand. When he wants to see (live!) the face of a friend on the other side of the world, he’ll be able to do that.

Now Artificial Intelligence is coming down the pike. Machines are being taught to think like human beings. Who knows where that will lead? It’s both scary and exciting at the same time.

So here’s what I will try to teach Crosby in this innovative world:

  • Use technology with gusto, but always be wary and respectful of it.
  • Learn how to be bravely creative.
  • Don’t be afraid to innovate. It will do you well in life.
  • Don’t always rely on technology. Find opportunities to use your own brain without any technological help.
  • Love people before innovation.

I hope I get to babysit again soon. I’m sure it will inspire yet another blog post. (Love you Croz Man!)

What would you add to the above list?

The Power of Happy

Yesterday I did a happy little experiment on FacebookI posted a simple sentence: “Tell me about something that made you happy today.” I didn’t know whether anyone would respond. 122 comments later it seems as though I struck a chord. Ask people what makes them happy and they are more than……happy to share it with you.

Here’s what I found in my admittedly unscientific analysis of the results of my little experiment…

Happiness is a powerful and infectious thing.


Once people started posting answers, others couldn’t help but join in. I had people post on my page who had never ever done so before. Others commented that they simply enjoyed scrolling through and reading all of the responses. It was so much fun to bring a little happiness into people’s lives.

Here are the things that brought joy into people’s lives at this little snapshot in time:

  1. People. Far and away it is people, and interaction with them, that brings happiness and joy into lives. People posts were by far and away the majority of the posts. Simple things like lunch with a friend, time with a grandchild, and talking to someone special on the phone made the list.
  2. Events. It was events that came in second. Baseball games, plays, or going to a museum injected some joy. It reminds me that it is far more important to spend resources on making memories than it is on stuff.
  3. Work. Believe it or not, there were quite a few people who posted things that brought them happiness at work. Work is often a good thing. It brings meaningfulness, purpose, and, yes, happiness into our lives.
  4. Health. Exercise, recovery, and appreciation for illness-free bodies were appreciated by quite a few.
  5. Spiritual Life. We are spiritual creatures. As St. Augustine said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” When we recognize the joy our God delivers, it also brings happiness (And, no, joy and happiness aren’t the same thing. Ask me about that some time.)
  6. Creation and Nature. Sunrises, beaches, and “beautiful views” made the list for some people. It’s a reminder that beauty brings joy. Thank God that He is creative. His creativity can be seen everyday if you just look for it.
  7. Affirmation. There were some who simply found happiness in being affirmed for something they had done or accomplished. Why don’t you go ahead and affirm someone today?

Do you notice what’s missing from this list?

Money. There was only one post out of more than 100 that only indirectly talked about money. It seems that happiness in life isn’t derived from money. It is derived more from the people who walk with us on this journey, the events we share, the work we get to do, the health with which we are blessed, a God who gives it all, His beautiful creation, and being affirmed for a job well done.

What’s making you happy today?

When January Goes So Fast You Almost Miss It

Don’t look now, but January is over. Remember how excited you were when the month began? There were all those resolutions, goals, and projects you were going to complete. Now the month is over and very few of them, if any, have been accomplished.

I don’t know if the weather has anything to do with it. But when we lived in Wisconsin, January was the coldest, darkest, longest month of the year. I thought it would never end. But ever since we’ve lived in Florida the month flies by.

It certainly happened to me. There are still things sitting on my desk and lurking in my computer that I wanted to have finished by now (Check this one out! It’s going to be so cool when I finally start using it). The saddest part of it is that there are some organizational things I wanted to accomplish. January is over and I’m still trying to get myself organized.

But here’s what I want to tell you if you’ve fallen behind (and remind myself at the same time):

  • It’s OK. Life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. There’s still time.
  • Calendars are arbitrary. Even though we use January 1st as a time of new beginnings, that’s really a human invention. If you didn’t start what you wanted to on that day, do so on February 1st.
  • Don’t feel guilty. There were most certainly things you accomplished this past month, even if they weren’t all the things on your list. Sometimes life happens and other things take priority.

But now:

  • Consider February a new beginning. There’s no time like the present to start. Do it today.
  • Sometimes the first step is all it takes. Write down that goal. Organize that desk. Complete a small task. Write the first page. Just watch how that makes you consistently move forward.
  • Remember that there are still eleven whole months in this year. Even though calendars are arbitrary, they can be helpful when keeping track of things. You can accomplish a great deal in 11/12’s of a year. So get going.

January is over. But the year is still young. Stop beating yourself up and get started. There are wonderful accomplishments in front of you.

What are you going to accomplish this year?

Creatively Investing in the Future

This weekend I will be reminding people that they are creative. I am providing the keynote address for a meeting of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund Congregational Advocates for the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod in Florida and Georgia. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? It’s a group of people who actively engage their congregations to do some investing that will build church buildings and further the spread of the Gospel.

These are dedicated people. They serve their church and community. This group of people is investing an entire weekend toward learning better how to invest in others. In fact, the theme of the weekend is: Creatively Investing in the Future.

So here’s a little sneak peak at what I’m going to tell them. I will remind them that they (like you!) were created to be creative. They are artists in the sense that Seth Godin has defined it: “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.” And I would add that art changes the one creating it, as well.

So I am encouraging them to ask themselves three questions:

  1. Am I creative? The answer I’m going for is: “Yes! I’m creative” The Creator of the universe has created human beings with creativity in their DNA. He spoke all other creatures into existence. But when it came to human beings He molded us out of the clay. Go look at Genesis 2. You are precious. You are unique. You are distinct. You have a mix of gifts and abilities no one else on this earth has.
  2. Am I making the right investments? Some of the best investments we make are the investments we make in people. It’s part of who we are as human beings to interact with and bring value to other people. Loving people and helping people is an investment we make to improve our families, communities, and the world. How can you more intentionally do that?
  3. Am I looking toward the future? We’re always looking forward. Moving ahead. Taking steps into the great unknown. What that means is sometimes we have to make adjustments as we go. One of the things that the best entrepreneurs do is what they call “pivot.” When something just doesn’t seem to be working, they pivot in another direction. As you look to the future, where can you pivot to be more effective in your vocation or in your family? Don’t ever consider an “end” a “dead end.” There are always different ways of doing things. There are always other opportunities.

How are you creatively investing in the future?

Breaking News: Breaking News Has Lost Its Luster

As you scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed recently, have you noticed all of the breaking news? Trump this! Hillary that! Zika this! Isis that!


You may be too young to remember, but I remember when the Iran Hostage Crisis was breaking news way back in 1981. I remember the most immediately breaking of news that took place on September 11, 2001. Since then, with the ascent of cable news networks, social media, and twenty-four hour news the items that are breaking come fast and furiously.

There is so much breaking news these days that I hardly pay attention to any of it. I have become numb to it. I scroll right past. More often than not it’s just click bait to get me to look not just at a story, but especially at the advertising that accompanies the story.

So what does that mean for those of us who are trying to get a message out into the world? There’s so much static and interference. Distractions are everywhere. Even news that’s supposedly breaking really isn’t. We need to cut through it.

Truly breaking and important news has these three characteristics:

  1. Consistently sincere. If you want people to take note, first and foremost you have to be consistent with your message. More than that, your consistent message ought to be sincere. One of the most sincere writers I know is Donald Miller. He consistently makes himself vulnerable. Vulnerability is the quickest way to demonstrate sincerity.
  2. Consistently honest. Along with sincerity comes honesty. This is one of the most difficult things to do when broadcasting a message. People appreciate honesty, but it takes guts. The most well-received messages are the ones with which we can identify. We identify with people who are similar to us. People see our similarities when we’re honest with our frailties, our faults, our failures, and even the things that make us cry for joy.
  3. Consistently valuable. People pay attention to your message when you have given them something valuable many times before. How is your message helping? Where is your message moving someone forward? How often have you given free, valuable content? When these things are consistent, your message will be received much more readily.

There’s no need to use cheap gimmicks like “breaking news.” Just be sincere, be honest, and provide value. Your message will be well-received.

How do you see to it that your important message is received?

The Weekly Routine I Use to Write a Sermon

It may come as a surprise to you that creativity doesn’t come easily to me. And yet I’m supposed to make creative output each and every week in the form of a sermon. Sundays never stop coming. They occur once a week. And every time they return I have to be prepared with words that inspire and engage. So I have come up with a little system that helps engage my creativity.


Just like there are a myriad of ways to skin a cat, there are many ways to produce a sermon. Here are the steps I take most every week:

  1. I ruminate on the text. Monday is my “day off,” so on Tuesdays I look at the text. I read it slowly. I look at it in the original language. I peruse a few commentaries. I may even chase down some Bible dictionaries or word studies.
  2. I pay attention to ways the text is speaking into my life, and the life of my congregation that particular week. For instance, this past week the text was the story of the ten lepers Jesus healed, with only one returning to give thanks. I happened to run across a video of teachers thanking their students for inspiring them to get out of bed every day and go to work. It made a very real emotional connection. And it applied perfectly to the text.
  3. I write down on a piece of paper with a pen the theme of the text. It always starts with the words: “Every member of Ascension will…” Sometimes its an enabling proposition. Other times it’s a persuasive theme. It’s focused on a faith goal or a life goal. Something about pen to paper makes my creative juices flow.
  4. I write down at least two (usually more) ways the goal will be achieved. There is always a key word, like “blessings,” or “promises,” or “values.” The key word is the way the sermon will move toward the central theme.
  5. The sermon is always centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. If that’s not the point of the sermon, there’s no point at all in preaching it. I keep it in mind throughout the process.
  6. I type out a manuscript. Ideally, the manuscript includes the following: It has an introduction that draws people in. It centers on the theme. There are key words that move the action along. Illustrations make connections with the hearers. The Gospel is at the center of it all. It concludes with a way for people to remember what was said.
  7. I practice with the manuscript, but allow myself the freedom to deviate. I don’t want to be tied down if and when I am moved in the moment to expound on something or go in a slightly different direction. But I’m always thankful to have the structure of the manuscript on which to fall back.

What structure is there to your creativity?

You Have a Book Inside of You, Don’t You?

Since I published my book a couple of weeks ago, I have encountered any number of people who want to do the same. There is the guy who’s half finished with a novel. There’s another man who said he has about five books written but has never taken the step of publishing them. Then there is the woman who says she’s had an idea for years but has never taken the time to sit down and write.

A photo by Lacie Slezak. unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

I know what it took me to put a book together, write it, and publish. There’s no doubt that it’s a serious and time consuming undertaking. But there’s also no doubt that most anyone knows how to put some thoughts together and write them down. Usually it’s just excuses that keep people from doing something they’ve always dreamed of doing:

  • I don’t have the time.
  • I’m not a writer.
  • I’m stuck.
  • I’m not creative enough.
  • My idea is dumb.
  • No one will take me seriously.

For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to write a book. I know the above excuses are true because they were mine. But I looked every one of them in the face and made the determination that I would write a book no matter what stood in my way. So I answered each one of those excuses:

  • I made the time by writing early mornings, evenings, and weekends.
  • I studied writing, read about writing, and followed good writers to hone my craft.
  • When I was stuck I had an outline that kept me going.
  • I used creative exercises I learned from here and here and here.
  • The thought that my idea was “dumb” was an obstacle only in my own mind and one I leapt over to begin the creation of my book.
  • The more I wrote, the more people took me seriously. Now that the book is published people see just how serious I was about doing this.

The guy who’s half finished with a novel spoke to me about it at a conference I attended last week. As we parted ways I said to him: “500 words a day. That’s all. Finish it.” He thought about it and said, “Yep. I better get back to it.”

I hope he does. The world needs his art.

When are you going to start writing your book? (P.S. I’d be happy to help you.)

Why Not? Is a Great Question to Ask

Why not? is a great question to ask. The sister of one of my good friends asked it years ago. When she was a child she asked her mother if she could take dance lessons. Her mother said, “You can’t dance your whole life.” As a result, she didn’t take dance lessons and never became a dancer.

As she reflected on that episode from her younger years, the woman said: “I now wish I would have said, why not?” Indeed, why not?

Has anyone told you that you can’t do something? I hope your response was, “Why not?”

Why not?

What is it that you should say “Why not?” to today?