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Monday, September 30, 2013

Evangelizing Real People

It sounds so easy...convince non-Christians that they're so far from God that only through Christ's sacrifice can they be saved, and they'll realize that they are caught in the depths of sin...and repent.

There's a guy who has a program on JCTV (one of the Trinity Broadcasting channels) who goes from city to city, confronting young people and asking them rhetorical questions..."Have you ever lied? Then you're a liar...Have you ever felt lust toward someone you're not married to? Then you're an adulterer...Have you ever hated? Then in God's eyes you're a murderer."

And, "If God were in Los Angeles and Hitler was in New York, from God's perspective you'd be standing just a couple of feet west of Hitler."

All Scripturally true, but most of this guy's interviewees patiently roll their eyes, and you can see them thinking..."Yeah. Right. I'm a nice person, I'll take my chances, and this guy's a nut."

The fact is that most people think they're OK. Not perfect, but a long way from Hitler, and making their introduction to our faith a tearing-down of their persona just doesn't win many converts.

Why do we do this? Why are we doing something that tends to drive people away?

Two words. I WANT.

I WANT to see someone say the Sinner's Prayer because of what I said.

I WANT to see the souls I win.

I WANT God to notice the fervor of my faith, and its Scriptural correctness.

Get the beam out of your "I", Christian.

The way to win most people to Jesus is by example. He gave us a blueprint for living, for walking the walk. Let your light shine in courtesy to all, in gentleness to all. Let your cheerful generosity to those less fortunate make people scratch their heads and say...

"I WANT to be like that!"

Friday, September 27, 2013

Did Jesus Enjoy Life?

When we read the Gospels, we get a lot of teaching, but surprisingly little emotion from the human side of the Man.

"Jesus wept," of course, the shortest verse in the Bible. And we saw him troubled in the Garden, and angry in the temple courtyard.

But we never see Him smile, let alone laugh.

Was life on Earth just a trial to Him, something to be borne until He could go Home?

I think not. I think He enjoyed the life He lived, for two reasons - one found in Scripture, and one that comes out of my own head.

When he was annointed with oil by the lady with the alabaster jar, and Judas said the oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus disagreed. He said that He wouldn't always be there, but the poor would be.

The inference that can be drawn is that he liked, and was comforted by, the physical and symbolic treatment. If He was indifferent, He probably would have said, "Meh, Judas...good point. We gotta be ascetic, after all. Set an example."

From my own head...if He didn't enjoy life, how could He have claimed to have gone ahead of us into death, and through it to life again?

We fear death for two reasons. First, it's scary. Where do we go?

Second, many of us enjoy life...and even those with the meanest lives get some enjoyment - and we don't want it to end.

It must be frustrating for God. We're like kids playing in a vacant lot with old boards and bricks, and He's got an eternal Disneyland all set up for us - and we're afraid to go!

I think Jesus had to enjoy life - and to enjoy it deeply. He had to show that while He loved the smell of flowers and the taste of wine and the feel of doing carpentry, He could give it up...and there was something better waiting.

If it was easy for Him to walk away, how could we, with our trembling attachments, feel that He knew our hearts?

I think that for those 33 years...He had a blast.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sins and Sinners

Recently I posted a status on Facebook that suggested the Christians should be more concerned with the 18,000 kids that starve to death every day than with fighting gay marriage.

Hoo boy. I got hammered. Christians, it would seem - at least by the FB response - believe that God hates homosexuality, but doesn't mind starving kids.

Obviously, this is lunacy, and I'm sure it doesn't represent the views of most American Christians, but it's still kind of stunning.

Stunning because it flies in the face of something Jesus said. Something about removing the 2 x 4 from our own eye before bugging someone else about the bit of dirt in his.

I'm not saying that God approves of homosexuality. Like adultery, it's a sin.

But from what I understand, all Christians are living in the squalor of sin, every day. We fight it, and fail. We fight harder, and fall further.

Most of us aren't gay.

Many of us are adulterers, by Jesus' definition.

And nearly all of us cheerfully adopt the devil's favorite sin, the sin of pride.

It's pride that allows us to sit in judgement of gays, and look down on them, hating them as God's little hired assassins (for did not Jesus say that he who hates his brother is a murderer?).

But the sin of the gay or lesbian is a sin of the flesh. Something like gluttony.

And our pride is a sin of the soul. What is it they say? Beauty is skin=deep, but ugly goes clear down to the bone?

God help us.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Would That It Were So

"I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadow
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can't take away my dignity
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all"

Those lyrics, from White Houston's song "The Greatest Love", are so uplifting, and ring so solidly with confidence.

It's a pity that it's so very wrong.

Well, no. It's a pity that it's BS moto crap that gets way too much air time.

The lyrics base loving yourself on action - on independence, on living as one believes, on having a certain baseline store of dignity that can't be taken away.

But if you don't live up to those...what then? And there is no guarantee that one can live up to ideals like that.

Failure or success may depend on you in a footrace, but not in most of life. The rest of the world has a pretty big vote, and your best, full efforts may fall short, and you may never have had a real chance.

You can live the way you believe, and in most cases society will leave you alone. But would you live as you believe in a prison cell, or in poverty? Would you make your family come along for the ride, living as you believe?

Finally, yes, they can take away your dignity, and your self respect, and everything else. Anyone can be broken. Anyone. I was taught how to do it, and I know.

The greatest love doesn't come from heroic poses, or sloganeering, or even a successful life lived on one's own terms.

The greatest love is Jesus' acceptance of ourselves, fragility, brokenness, inconsistencies, compromises, and all. It's the only love that admits defeat, and in so doing makes the soul invincible.

The greatest love died on the Cross for your sins, and especially for the kind of moronic pride that's expressed in the song quoted above...and rose three days later to slam death to the mat. Permanently.

That doesn't need a motivational song. It just calls for humble gratitude.

Friday, September 20, 2013

When Christian Love Backfires

Someone recently said to me, "I hate it when someone says, 'When God closes a door He always opens a window.'"

That was startling. It's a well-known and innocuous statement, and I had trouble seeing how it could cause offense. "Why?" I asked.

"Because my brother was in the WTC South Tower on 9/11. The stairwells were blocked. He jumped. Some window."

Actually, his language was understandable more vivid.

There was nothing I could say. That expression about God opening a window has long been one of my favorites, and hearing that take on it was both distressing and eye-opening.

"Well," I ventured, "under the circumstances maybe the window was the best of a bunch of bad options."

"Yeah. Thanks a lot. I'm sure he had time to thank God for it, on the way down."

I thought to say that his brother was in God's palm on the way down. Glad I didn't.

"God closed the door on the rest of Adrian's life. And the only window was a jump into, what, Heaven? Someone, some Christian, tried to tell me that."

I almost tried to tell him that. That was the second thing I was glad I didn't say. What I did say was, "I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Thanks. You know, I had to identify him."

"That must have been horrible." Something I could not even imagine.

"It was." He looked at me. "You're a Christian, too, yes?"


"Thanks for not trying to feed me any of that 'God loves my brother, and he's safe with Jesus' crap." He paused. "I think Adrian's still somewhere, and I'll see him again, but I'll always wonder where God's love was on that day."

I shook his hand in silence, and he walked away.

What would you have said?


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review : "How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing - A Field Guide for Authors" by Rachelle Gardner with Michelle DeRusha

Someone needed to write this nook, and we're lucky that Rachelle Gardner wrote it.

Ms. Gardner is a seriously important literary agent, who has, for the last several years, written one of the most informative blogs for writers around. I speak from experience - I learned a lot from her.

"How Do I Decide?" opens with an introduction to the world of traditional publishing and self-publishing (with cogent explanations of vanity presses, subsidy presses, and the like). The world of self-publishing can be confusing; here one may find clarity.

Next, the meat of 'how do I decide' is addressed with a checklist of factors that may or may not be important to an aspiring author. If you answer the questions honestly, you'll come through with a clear idea of what method may be best for you.

Next, Ms. Gardner compares and contrasts the advantages of tradition publishing vs. those of self-publishing. They're deeper and more telling than one might expect.

A huge advantage of traditional publishing is that of quality control - a book will go through an editorial process that's designed to put the best possible product on the shelves. First it goes through the agent, who will offer suggestions for improvement. After it's sold it goes through an editor at the publishing house, where more changes will probably be requested. These 'filters' take 'control' away from the author - but the use of fresh eyes will catch things many authors will miss.

The same goes for the physical production of the book. From cover art to typesetting, the publisher takes responsibility. and has a vested interest - and experience - in putting out the best product.

The advantages that self-publishing offers are control and flexibility, with a bigger downstream 'cut' of the profits than a traditional publisher could ever hope to give. The self-publishing author is not beholden to anyone concerning content or production, and can maintain a consistent artistic vision through writing to production and marketing.

A very welcome addition to these chapters are the inclusion of the first-hand experiences of several authors, from both the traditional and self=published worlds.

Finally, there's another checklist, to help make a final decision on which way to go...and the advice, get going.

The last chapter contains resources for both types of publishing. It includes independent editors, and cover and format designers for those who want to self-publish, and links to how to find an agent for those who prefer the traditional route. Also provided are books and websites that can provide help in understanding the publishing world.

Do I recommend this book? Yes. Unequivocally. I wish I'd read it before I started to pursue publication.

Any criticisms? A minor one - I would have liked to see Ms. Gardner weave some of her own experiences into the narrative. I had the sense of a lot of wisdom and experience hovering just outside the pages, but not fully tapped.

You can buy "How Do I Decide? - A Field Guide for Authors on Amazon, by clicking here. It's $3.99, on Kindle. If you don't have a Kindle you can download a Kindle reader, free, for your PC.

I was given a free copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

Monday, September 16, 2013

What God Demands of Us

God's pretty straightforward. He wants something, He says so.

I'm sure He enjoys hosannas and joyful praise. I'm sure He gets a charge out of Bible Study, and being able to quote chapter and verse for any occasion.

But that's icing on the cake. You want to do something for Him...you visit prisoners, you care for the ill, you help the poor. "You do it for the least of these, you do it for Me."

What that means, practically, is that you don't walk past a homeless person without offering some kind of care...even if all you can give is your attention, and the understanding that this person is as much an heir to the Kingdom as you are.

It means that you don't look at inmates as people who should simply be warehoused, preferably until they die. Maybe you can't face a prison visit...but you pay attention to local politics and support officials who strive for rehabilitation, and care of the prisoners' souls.

No matter what they did, because in God's moral economy, we're all a lot closer to Charles Manson than we are to Jesus.

Jesus said Love your Neighbor as Yourself. He was probably not joking.

Paul said that he could work miracles, but without Love, it would be worth nothing.

That Love has to reach out, otherwise it just stagnates, a theoretical construct. If the Love we offer God is theoretical, will He be theoretical for us? Wouldn't blame him.

Thinking about all of this my first thought is, I don't want to. I want to look past the homeless, because they make me uncomfortable. I want to feel self-righteously superior toward felons, because I'm a really nice guy. I don't wnt to rehabilitate them; I want to take pagan pleasure in their sufferings.

But that's just not allowed. I can't change the reluctance in my heart, but I can change my actions, and I can resolutely refuse to indulge in the thoughts of self-righteousness and disdain. I can say, No.

It's an uphill fight. It always will be. But, as the Japanese say, ganbatte.

Please continue trying to do your best.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Tragic Legacy

It's hard to imagine that 9/11 was twelve years ago. That's about half a generation, a sixth of a lifetime...

But for the families of the victims, it was as yesterday.

It remains close for another group of people, as well...American Muslims.

Since that day, it's been pretty much open season on Muslims. One of the biggest accusations leveled against President Obama is that he's a Muslim, as if that were somehow un-American.

Christian TV is littered with interviews of authors and pastors who want to expose the 'evils' of Islam. A prominent TV cleric spoke of 'sweeping away' the Mosque of Mullah Omar from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The actual number of serious Muslim-bashers is relatively small, but they gain and maintain momentum through the active and tacit support of...us. If we turn away, if we block their Facebook posts, they'll get the message. But most of us aren't doing that. We may not listen, but we don't turn them off.

The fact is that the 9/11 hijackers were anything but Muslim. Sure, they professed to be...but their actions went against every tenet of Islam. Their actions were an obscenity, and were seen as such by the vast majority of the Muslim community.

The viciousness has spilled over...Sikhs, who are as much Muslims as are Presbyterians, have also been targeted because males oif that religion wear turbans and beards.

Which goes to show just how deep the thinking has been.

Would we, as Christians, want to be judged by the actions of the Crusaders...or for that matter by the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church of today?

What can you do? Refuse to be caught up in blind hatred. Simply say 'no' to the requests that you give active or tacit support to the haters.

Without an audience, they'll pack their bags and go away.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The End of the World Blues

Listen to much Christian radio, watch much Christian TV, and you'll get the message...surely these are the last days!

There are signs and wonders, and there are codes in the Bible that will tell you the day, and the hour!

Odd. Jesus Himself said, explicitly, that He didn't know when He'd be back. Only the Father knew, and He wasn't telling.

Part of the desire to have things end soon is the same desire we have when we want to get to the end of a good book...we want to see what happens at the end.

And we want verification of our faith, the Living Proof that it's all true, without - inconveniently - having to die.

Nothing new, really. Around 1914, the letters 'PCR' appeared carved in a brush-covered hillside above Santa Barbara, California, sending the residents into a panic. They thought it meant "Prepare for Christ's Return!"

Alas, it was just an advert for Painted Cave Resort. Sigh.

And the first half of the 19th century was alive with millenialist fervor. Hellfire and brimstone were circuit preachers' stock in trade, as they tried to bring in the harvest in the waning hours.

Scripturally...we simply don't know when it's going to happen. There is no Bible code, just as there is no Da Vinci code. There's no secret conspiracy of which we can become a part.

Our job is, boringly, still the Great Commission.

Bring people to the Cross, where and when we can.

And pray that we have as long as possible to do it, to save as many as possible. For to wish otherwise is kind of like being on a sinking ship, and hoping it sinks fast so you can enjoy the spectacle from your seat in a lifeboat.

Of that, one suspects God might not approve.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Gates of Mordor

In my head I hear Louis Armstrong.

"And I say, to myself...
what a wonderful world!"

I love the yearning, hopeful quality of that song. I wish it was the world we lived in.

But today, 18,000 children starved to death. A child died between when you started reading this, and now.

And there goes another, whose mother is weeping...if she's alive.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, everyone's torqued out over Miley Cyrus' behavior at some awards show.

We don't live in a friendly Purple-Dinosaur-Hug world. We are encamped at the gates of Hell. But don't despair...

...because so was Jesus. He lived at a time when torturing people to death was routine, and 'blood sports' involved being eaten by lions, not a bunch of guys with long beards and funny Southern accents.

Eaten by lions. Think about that for a minute, and think of a few thousand Roman citizens cheering...uh, for the lions.

Jesus met his end in a particularly brutal crucifixion (all of them were bad, but his was a standard deviation or two worse). All of the Apostles save one died violently, too.

Their lives were a lot closer to the flames than most of ours. But they looked into the abyss, and they didn't blink.

I rather suspect that this is what God expects of us today. Not following the prosperity gospel, not working out our own salvation 24/7, not asking Him to make our in-laws bearable.

But charging the very gates of Mordor, for all that is, and could be, good and decent.

Facing down Hell, even though our knees are shaking, for the cause of Heaven.

Where do you start? Sponsor a starving child, or family. Take a few hours a week to read to an eledery blind person.

Buy a bag of groceries for the homeless shelter in your town, or medical supplies for the free clinic.

It gets you in the game.

I won't guarantee the safety of your heart. Might get bruised. See enough, and it might get broken. You may leave a part of yourself behind, cold and lifeless in those dark precincts.

But you have to die to be reborn, anyway. Might as well get it over with.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

No Shades of Grey

So "Fifty Shades of Grey" is being made into a movie.

And we're getting Facebook ads for other "Adult Romances".

The hell with that. I'm a reader as well as a writer, and I'm not going there.

As far as I'm concerned, sex is a private matter. For real people, and for characters in books and movies. Houses have walls and doors and drapes for a reason.

Beyond that, sex in fiction is entirely unnecessary. Period. Full stop. The author has control over what the characters are doing, and placing them in visible physical intimacy is simply designed to titillate. And it works.

And beyond that, sex can't realistically be portrayed, because it's a very individual experience for each couple. Most attempts to represent physical intimacy glamorize the act, setting up unrealistic expectations in people who are old enough to know better.

Or they cheapen it, making the reader feel as if a bath in methyl-ethyl-ketone would be appropriate after reading.

Yes, I know that 'arty' types will say that I'm a prudish reactionary. Yeah? So what? My wife says I'm one of the finest minds of the seventeenth century.

And other arty types will say that authors have to break barriers, push the envelope. Sure...uh, but why? What literary purpose is gained by disguised pornography?

Sure, I've read the Song of Solomon. And, frankly, parts of it are kind of embarrassing. Anyone else out there willing to admit that?

I don't think that God made a mistake when He invented sex. But I think we really messed up when we decided to put it on display.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On Being Needed

This weekend my wife built a fence.

A colleague at work was in need of a more secure yard for her dog, and Barbara volunteered to help her. She gave her labor, and a roll of  chain link fencing we had that was surplus to our needs.

My contribution to the project was rolling up the fencing material and putting it in the car. I also hunted down a few tools, and prepared a lunch.

The fencing material alone weighed over a hundred pounds, and she and her friend had to set posts, and wire the fence up.

It's not that I'm lazy - well, I am, but not that lazy. But my help wasn't needed, and wasn't wanted, because I am still pretty sick and tire quickly.

Still, it was a strange feeling. I have a PhD in structural engineering, and have done a lot of construction, from fence-setting to large-scale concrete work. I used to be the go-to guy for this sort of thing.

I watched her drive off with mixed feelings. And I watched the cell phone, wondering if she'd need me after all.


And that is a good thing. Barbara increased her confidence level another notch. She gauged that she could do the work on her own, and she was right.

Have you ever tackled a project on your own, where you think maybe you'd need help but still wanted to try it? How did it go?