Keep Seeking The Things Above


speak, see, hear no evilPaul wrote to the church in Colossae that their relationship with Christ should matter. In chapter two, he said, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why as if you were living in the world, do you submit to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (v 20-21). In other words, “dying with Christ” is not the same as adopting a legalistic life style. I think it’s fair to say, neither is taking up our cross.

Paul didn’t stop with the negative though. He began chapter three with the flip side:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (vv 1-2)

Our relationship with God, then, is to affect what we think about—things above, not things on earth.

Tall order. After all, we live here, not there.

It’s hard to think about where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, when it’s time to fix lunch or to do laundry or to take the car in to get it smogged. Everyday responsibilities can distract. So can everyday pleasures—watching a ball game, going to a movie, enjoying dinner with friends and family. How do we set our minds on things above all day long?

Or do we chalk this up as a nice goal, though an unreachable one?

I actually think the thing that’s working here is a principle I learned when I was teaching at a Christian school: integration. We aren’t Christians and school teachers, or Christians and writers, or Christians and wives (or husbands). Our Christianity infuses all the roles we have and all the activities in which we participate because “Christian” isn’t our religion; it’s our life.

A car doesn’t stop being a car when it’s parked in the garage or when it’s getting gas pumped into its tank. It’s a car from morning to night, on the road or at the curb, in a parking structure or pulled over by a police officer. A car is a car because it’s a car.

In the same way, a Christian should be a Christian because he’s a Christian. There ought to be no “taking days off” when it comes to trusting God, loving Him, obeying Him, or living to please Him. We ought not aim to be Christians at church and businessmen at work, Christians at Bible study and fans at the ball park, Christians at home and greedy shoppers at the mall.

Which isn’t to say we can’t be businessmen, fans, or shoppers. We can. We should be. Jesus said we are to be “in the world.”

That phrase reminds me of the prophet—Jeremiah, I think—writing to the exiles that they should seek the good of the place where they’d been taken. They were still Jews, but they were in Babylon and that meant they were to fully engage in life in Babylon so that the place would be better for their having lived and worked there.

At the same time, Jesus said we’re not of the world. We are not to make the world’s principles our principles—we’re not to see the world the way others see the world. Simply put, that means we’re not to see it apart from Christ. We’re to look at this world as God’s creation, and the people in it as the ones Christ came to save. We’re to look at life—every part of it—as an opportunity to be light to the world and to give thanks and praise to the One who rescued us from the dominion of darkness.

The world operates on principles like take care of number one and the one who dies with the most toys wins and even reduce your footprint on the planet. Paul said in Colossians, these are things which are all destined to perish.

In contrast we’re to concern ourselves with that which lasts. Matthew said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Our purpose, our goal, our driving force in all things should be to advance God’s kingdom and to live in His righteousness.

What does that look like?

It’s easier to show what it doesn’t look like, I think. It doesn’t look like one friend bad-mouthing another. It doesn’t look like engaging in sex outside marriage. It doesn’t look like holding grudges against a friend or family member. These are also right there in Colossians:

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (3:5-10)

Paul does move to the positives. He says Christians are to put on love, beyond all else, that we’re to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, that we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us. And several times he mentions we’re to be thankful: “. . . giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (3:17b)

So what’s different with these things from the “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” things Paul was referring to in chapter two? I think it’s in the mind. We are to set our minds on things above, we are to consider ourselves as dead to things on earth. We’re to lay aside what was a part of our old self as we’re being renewed to a true knowledge of Christ.

In short, where our minds go, our bodies are sure to follow! ;-)

Published in: on May 22, 2015 at 7:03 pm  Comments (5)  
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Exploring Horror Or Exploring Light


300x179xthe-walking-dead-s4-e16-zombies-636-380-300x179.jpg.pagespeed.ic.35AUmep_fuWhen I first heard the term “Christian horror,” I laughed. I thought the person was kidding. I mean, how could blood and psycho-killers and hauntings and demon possession be Christian? Since then I’ve learned that some serious writers—including some Christians—believe horror fiction holds a necessary place in understanding evil, and therefore confronting it.

A number of years ago, for example, author Brian Godawa posted a three-part apology for Christian horror at Speculative Faith. More recently author and friend Mike Duran has published Christian Horror:On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre.

While I’ve moved from a hard stance against horror (I insisted that the genre existed to accomplish one thing—produce fear), conceding that some writers and readers confront evil and explore how to counter it through fiction, I’m far from holding the view that horror is “must read” fiction for Christians, that to turn away from an exploration of evil is to isolate ourselves from the reality of the world in which we live.

I expressed my thoughts in a post at Spec Faith nearly four years ago, ideas to which I still hold. The following is a slightly revised version of that post.

Author Anne Rice, best known for her vampire fiction and her conversions to and from Christianity, has stated that her vampire books were actually explorations of the spiritual. Spiritual light or spiritual darkness?

Some may say that an exploration of spiritual darkness must precede any look at spiritual light. I suppose this might be one of those areas that differ from person to person, but I can’t help but wonder why we Christians aren’t exploring the light more than we are the darkness.

Corrie ten Boom

Certainly darkness is in the world. Yet when I think of darkness, some of the most uplifting, true stories I’ve read come to mind. Take Corrie ten Boom, for example. Without a doubt, her story contains horrific elements, including the inhuman conditions in a Nazi concentration camp and the death of her dear sister as a result.

But throughout, from the decision to help Jews, to Corrie’s release from the camp and her subsequent commitment to show the love and forgiveness of God to victim and victimizer alike, the story is infused with hope and promise and the sovereign hand of God over all circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming is similar. These young missionaries, so committed to sharing the gospel with a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, died at the hands of the people they wanted to save. More astounding, Jim’s wife Elisabeth and Nate’s wife Rachel returned to the tribe, lived with them for two years, and saw many come to Christ. The forgiveness and love these women lived out in the midst of tragedy and loss is a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness.

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is equally inspirational. Injured as a seventeen year old, Joni has lived as a quadriplegic for forty-eight years.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Despite her disability, she shines the love of Jesus into the lives of hundreds of thousands through her writing, painting, and speaking. She has even put out a vocal recording and starred in the video of her life story. Perhaps her greatest work has been establishing Joni and Friends, an international disability center bringing hope and help to people throughout the world.

Hope. That seems to be a key thread that runs through these stories of triumph over tragedy. The darkness is very real in each one—Joni’s despair, the deaths of the missionaries and Corrie’s sister, the brutality of the Nazis—but triumph dominates the story.

The Hiding Place is not the story about Corrie’s sister dying but about God’s love and forgiveness manifested in an unspeakably cruel place.

Through Gates of Splendor is not a story about five twenty-something missionary men being killed but about the truth in this verse of the hymn from which the title of the book came:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.

Joni is not the story of a seventeen-year-old whose life caved in, but of a God who brings meaning and purpose out of suffering.

You might wonder why I’m taking a look at all these true stories in a post about speculative fiction. I see how inspirational the lives of these three who suffered greatly have been. They personally explored the light in the midst of the darkness of their real circumstances. The result has been phenomenal. They have pointed generations of people to Christ.

Why, then, would a fiction writer not want to adopt this model — an exploration of light in the midst of darkness? Why go the other route and spend pages and pages exploring the dark, even if the light comes filtering in at the end?

I personally (and remember what I said at the beginning of this post about us all being different) find hope and help to be what I want to read. Darkness, I already know. Hope and help in the midst of darkness is compelling. Why aren’t more Christian speculative novels exploring the light?

It seems to me we are becoming fixated with what is true to the human experience, and as a result we are not setting our “mind on things above” (Col. 3:2). Do we think we know all there is to know about God, so we don’t need to focus on Him as much as we do the depravity and corruption sin causes?

Darkness will be a part of fiction, I believe. But I also see there are two ways of looking at it. In one case, stories seem to explore the darkness, in the other they seem to explore the light that triumphs over the darkness. This latter type is the kind of story I like to read and I want to write.

I Don’t Like Being Bullied, Intimidated, Or Maligned


Friendly_InternetI wish I had a better sense of humor. I don’t think anyone handles criticism better than InsanityBytes. She routinely writes blog posts about the unkind things people say that end up in her spam folder, and yet she treats them with lightheartedness (see for example “Lost In Spam” or “Back Talking Spam.” She makes some astute comments along the way, so she makes me laugh all the while making me think. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll be more like her.

In the meantime, I’m stuck not liking it when someone bullies me via the Internet (or in person), says things to try to make me back down from an opinion I hold, or vilifies my character. I’m pretty sure, of the three, I’m bothered most by the latter.

The little issues I faced recently have made me think about people who face real opposition, continually—the kind that restricts their freedom (such as being sold into the sex trafficking trade or married off to an Islamic terrorist) or threatens their life (such as Christians in Iraq or Sudan). Ultimately I’ve thought of the Lord Jesus Christ and those men and women who formed the first Church.

Jesus was bullied and intimidated and maligned. The Jewish leaders singled Him out because they were jealous of Him. That was Pontius Pilate’s assessment of things when Jesus stood before him and he wanted to release Him (Matt. 27:18). No, the crowd said. Not that man. Crucify Him and release Barabbas. Why did they turn against Jesus? Because the Jewish leaders, motivated by their envy, convinced them to.

I think jealousy and envy are behind a lot of bullying and intimidation. The Jewish leaders didn’t like it that this upstart carpenter didn’t bow to their rules or back off when they challenged Him. They didn’t like it that He did things they couldn’t do—like heal lepers and restore sight to the blind or raise dead people back to life. Mostly they didn’t like the fact that people followed Him and basically wanted to make Him the king.

After all, they were the leaders. The Jewish people were theirs to rule, for all practical purposes. Sure, sure, the Romans were over them, but when it came to the day-to-day things and anything having to do with religious law, the Council of seventy elders, led by the High Priest, was in charge.

So they tried to trap Jesus into saying something or doing something for which they could legitimately arrest Him. They didn’t realize they were dealing with the perfect Son of God. They were never going to catch Him in a sin.

Finally they resorted to lies, claiming outlandish things such as that He blasphemed. In other words, they maligned His character. But they’d been doing that for days and days, even accusing Him at one time of being in league with the devil. They said He was a drunk, a party-er, a Sabbath-breaker. Anything He did, they tried to turn into a reason to have Him arrested.

Jesus’s followers experienced the same treatment. Peter and John were thrown into prison though the rulers and elders and scribes had no charges to bring against them. After all, the only thing they’d done was heal a lame man and preach about the resurrected Christ. The Council released them the next day but threatened them and ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Yep, that’s straight from Intimidation 101: “Stop what you’re doing, or I’ll make sure you stop for good!”

But what did Peter and John do? In this instance, they answered the leaders by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19b). Then they joined a prayer meeting.

It’s interesting to think about the fact that they didn’t have the end of the story. They didn’t know if they’d be killed the next day or if God would miraculously save them. So they joined their companions and prayed:

Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29-30)

Clearly we can see on this side of the events that God answered this prayer. Peter and the other disciples did in fact speak with boldness, and God did continue to heal through them and produce signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.

Of course, Peter was arrested again and miraculously saved, but eventually, according to Church tradition, he died for his faith. We could look at the Apostle Paul and see a similar trajectory. Preaching and healing, followers, leaders in opposition, arrest and/or death threats. He was kicked out of towns, stoned and left for dead, beaten. In Greece he was forced to escape alone and head for Athens. In Damascus he got away in the middle of the night by hiding in a basket lowered over the wall.Inernet

Yes, the early Church knew a thing or two about being bullied, intimidated, and maligned. I may not like being treated badly, I may not like being misunderstood, but really . . . I sure haven’t “resisted unto death” yet.

It would help if I grew a sense of humor about such things, but it would also help if I followed Peter and John’s examples: choose to do what God says rather than giving in to intimidation; and pray.

Groaning – A Reprise


This world is groaning. It’s the weight of sin that causes it, and it’s been going on for … well, since Eve believed Satan over God.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we as human beings aren’t more aware of the groaning than at any point in history. Terrorism has people across the globe on heightened alert. War and rebellion are tearing nations apart. Famine is on the increase, and the economy of the rich countries is in a shambles. Add to all this the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Japan, and most recently, Nepal; the tornadoes and flooding in the Midwestern US; snow storms on the East coast in the winter and hurricanes in the summer; and don’t forget the tsunami that devastated an already devastated Japan.

We’re groaning.

Professing Christians are leaving the church. Government—democratic government that was supposed to have the necessary checks and balances—is self-serving, if not corrupt. Marriage is being redefined. In other words, civilized institutions are crumbling.

We’re groaning.

The weight of sin is too big. Drug addiction isn’t lessening. Anxiety isn’t disappearing no matter how much we medicate. Neither is depression. Interpersonal conflicts haven’t ceased. In fact divorce is still a growing problem no matter that so many people now practice at marriage before making “lifetime” vows. Abuse continues or perhaps is on the increase. Child slavery and sex trafficking are problems that seem without end.

We’re groaning.

Worst of all, who can we trust? The person we love the most is the person who shatters our hopes and betrays us by their unfaithfulness. Our leaders are tarnished, our celebrities are in and out of rehab. Our pastors are selling get-rich religion or everybody-goes-to-heaven credos fabricated from their own minds.

We are indeed groaning.

Should I go on to mention cancer or AIDS or the fears of a worldwide pandemic? I suspect it’s not necessary.

At every turn, we’re groaning.

As God did during any number of crises recorded in the Bible, He is standing with open arms saying, Your way leads to destruction. My way leads to life.

Over and over stiff-necked people ignored Him or shook their fists in His face, denying His right to rule. So it seems, we’re doing today.

We think if we just get the right person in the White House, if we only raise taxes or cut spending, if only we’d pass an arms deal with Iran or give more aid to Israel, if we would only put boots on the ground and take care of ISIS or withdraw from the Middle East and let them fight their own battles, if only we’d pass this piece of legislation or that, solve one key problem then another, use this green technology or drill for oil there, then, at last, the world will come round aright.

Personally we think, if only we could marry this person or get out from under a bad relationship, if only we could get hired for that job or get the promotion we had our eye on, if only we could live in a better neighborhood, had a nicer car, could afford a good vacation, didn’t have to work such long hours, had kids, didn’t have kids, if only things were different, life would be better.

In that foolish thinking, we are ignoring the One who wants us to fix our eyes on His Son.

“See to it,” Paul said to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of this world, rather than according to Christ.”

The philosophy and empty deception of our day says we can solve our own problems, that we don’t need anything outside ourselves. We have the power within us.

And yet, with all this great power within ( :roll: ), we don’t seem any closer to bringing the groaning to an end. We’re looking in the wrong places.

There isn’t a chemical high or an alcohol-induced haze that will mask the pain long enough, there isn’t a movie or video game or concert or ballgame that will distract us sufficiently, there isn’t a better relationship that will heal our shattered heart.

Except the one God offers through Christ Jesus. He is our Hope, and He is our Salvation.

In Him the groaning will one day come to an end.

This article is an updated and revised version of an earlier one published here in September 2011.

Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context. I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after, John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too. He answered with an analogy.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

“But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to garments and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before—the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have with that interpretation is that the new-on-old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe departing from tradition is not a bad thing if it fits the context of the passage. This way of looking at the passage is also consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (8)  
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The 2015 Clive Staples Award


2014CSA_Small copyI guess this is the day for announcements.

Since its inception I’ve headed up the Clive Staples Award For Christian Speculative Fiction. This year the organization sponsoring the award is taking the lead (yea!)

Today begins the process of picking the best Christian speculative novel published in 2014. All the information you need to know is below, but I want to point out the first item on the timetable: Nominations will be open for only two weeks. In other words, there’s not a lot of time to make a decision or to read the book you’ve heard such good things about. The time is now, people! Now!

OK, do I sound sufficiently exercised? ;-) Hope so. We really do have a great list of nominations so far, and anyone can add books that aren’t on the list yet.

So without more blathering, here’s everything you need to know about this year’s award.

RealmMakerslogo

Realm Makers is excited to promote this year’s Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction. We will announce the winner as part of the Realm Makers Awards Dinner on August 7th.

Similar to last year, the final winner will be decided by a panel of judges, so the award becomes a hybrid of “readers’ choice” and panel judging, which combines popularity and critical acclaim in the process. We’re very excited to be able to recognize the book that earns this honor, and therefore, the Faith and Fantasy Alliance is once again committing sponsoring funds to the cash prize that will go to the winner.

The nomination period is upon us and will be conducted via an online poll. If you would like to nominate a book for this award, please read the guidelines below before jumping to the poll.

Nomination qualifications

Eligible books must be all of the following:

  • Containing themes consistent with a Christian worldview, whether implied, symbolic, or overt.
  • Published in English.
  • Published between January 1 and December 31 of the current contest’s year. (For example, for the Clive Staples Award held in 2015, entrants must have been published between, Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014.)
  • In the science fiction/fantasy/allegory/futuristic/supernatural/supernatural suspense/horror/time travel category, or any sub-genre or mashup of these.

Nomination guidelines

  • Authors, agents, and publishers may not nominate books with which they are affiliated. Likewise, book authors or affiliates may not campaign for votes on behalf of their books. A conservative number of social media posts to make readers aware of the voting process is welcome. The contest committee reserves the right to disqualify any entry if it is determined a book’s affiliates have campaigned for votes.
  • Readers may only nominate books they have actually read.
  • Ebooks and books in hard-copy print are both eligible

Nomination instructions

  • Add between 1 and 3 books you’d like to nominate. Please include the Title, Author, and Publisher (indicate “self-published” if that is the case.)
  • Submit your answers

After the nomination period is over, the award committee will tabulate the votes and declare the semi-finalists.

Readers’ Choice Semi-finalist Voting

Voters will be eligible only if they have read two or more of the books nominated. We want this to be a selection by readers of Christian speculative fiction, not just the fans of particular authors.

Below are standards to consider.

Standards for Clive Staples Award books

  • Quality writing style and mechanics
  • Believable and well-developed world-building
  • Depth of characterization
  • Well-structured, original, and interesting plot
  • Deftness of integration of the worldview into the story’s plot and characterizations

Contest time line:

5-15-15: Reader nomination period begins

5-29-15: Reader nominations close

6-1-15: Semi-Finalists announced; second round of Readers Choice voting begins

6-8-15: Readers Choice voting closes

6-15-15: Finalists announced

7-7-15: Winner announced at the Realm Makers Costumed Awards Dinner, cash prize awarded

Thank you for lending your voice to help us choose the best speculative fiction out there. Spread the word that the contest is open, and good luck to all you authors.

To participate in the nomination process, record your selections (up to three) on this survey: CSA Nomination Survey.

Power Elements Of Character Development


PowerElementsCharacterDevelopment[1000][1]I’m excited to announce that the second volume in my Power Elements Of Fiction series, Power Elements Of Character Development is available as a Kindle ebook. It took me longer than I anticipated to get this book put together and published, so it’s with some sense of relief and joy that I can announce its release.

Here’s the little blurb describing the book:

Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.

If you’d be so inclined to share this post with anyone you know who writes fiction, I’d be ever so grateful.

Love Is . . .


512px-Homeless_ManSome while ago, in the atheist/theist Facebook discussion group I’m in, someone asked how we defined love. Interestingly, the atheists who answered said love was a feeling. Christians who answered said love was an action.

I don’t want to make too much of the difference because only a small sampling of each answered the question. But it has started me thinking a little more about what we mean by love. After all love seems to be a pretty popular subject with, well, just about everyone except maybe eight-year-old little boys.

From time to time I mention the commandments Jesus identified as most important, and both mention love: first we are to love God, then we are to love our neighbors. Here’s how Matthew records it:

One of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)

From the context and from the story that Jesus told, recorded in Luke, explaining who a neighbor is—a story we call the Good Samaritan in which a man takes care of a mugging victim—it seems clear that on this level, love is not a feeling.

It is possible to have a loving feeling for the neighbor who gives you flowers or invites you to dinner or who washes your car for you unexpectedly. It’s possible to become best friends with a neighbor, and in that case, there are likely emotions attached—the brotherly love we experience when we care about someone.

But love your neighbor as your self? That seems to go beyond the average, warm, caring response to a person in your community.

And the story Jesus told put the neighbor tag on the man who acted on behalf of a stranger—in all likelihood, a stranger who despised him. Although Jesus didn’t specifically say the mugging victim was a Jew, he was on a road in Jewish territory. I’m guessing the Samaritan wasn’t thinking, I bet that’s one of my countrymen. I need to help him. Rather, he saw a person in need. Not a countryman. Not a man with religious views like his—or different from his. And certainly not a man who deserved what he got because he foolishly walked into a trap.

The Samaritan took care of the wounded man, put him on his own animal (which meant he was now walking), took him to an inn, and paid for his extended care. He even promised to give more money if needed.

Remember, this was the story Jesus told as an illustration of neighborly love.

This kind of love seems to be all action, not emotion. In fact the action takes place without relationship. There’s no clear idea that the mugging victim was conscious during the entire time. He might have been. But whether he was or wasn’t, whether he was grateful or wasn’t, whether he promised to repay the Good Samaritan or didn’t, never factored into the way the neighbor acted.

He wasn’t doing a good deed in hopes he’d receive a good deed. He wasn’t repaying a good deed that someone had done for him. He wasn’t even paying one forward. He acted, regardless of the consequences to him personally, because someone needed help.

Of course, the tendency is to think, well, OK, I can commit to helping strangers out in dire trouble. If I’d been at the train crash site in Philadelphia, I’d help. Or if I saw someone fall onto the subway tracks, I’d help. If I came across a man trapped in his car by the cement truck that overturned, I’d be part of the rescue team.

Most of us won’t ever encounter those kinds of extreme circumstances, so are we off the hook? We don’t have to love the way Jesus was talking about because we aren’t coming across mugging victims.

We are coming across people who are different from us, though—maybe different in age or gender or culture or language. Or religion. The challenge that Jesus’s story gives us is to love the people around us who we wouldn’t “naturally” love, who don’t engender the emotion we normally associate with brotherly love.

Because we don’t have a lot of dealings with people who are different than we are, perhaps the first act we can take is to pray. We may spot a homeless person or see someone of a different ethnicity, we may watch a gang of high schoolers strolling down the sidewalk, and we can pray. It’s possible God will show us what we are to do next. But even if He doesn’t give us something more to do at that moment, we’ll soon discover a shift in our hearts. It’s hard to pray for someone and not care about them. Praying changes us, changes our attitudes.

We might even find that suspicion and anger and fear and mistrust melt away in the presence of God’s love which He infuses into our hearts. Who knows but our action might turn into emotion. Love has a way of becoming more than what we expect.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 6:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Increasing And Decreasing


CBS logoHuman nature seems to push us toward selfishness as I noted in “The Scientific Discovery Of The Sin Nature.” If in doubt, watch CBS’s 60 Minutes video for yourself. Here’s an excerpt:

Lesley Stahl: Sounds to me like the experiment show[s] they [the babies who were the subjects of the experiment] are little bigots.

Paul Bloom [Yale researcher]: I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. (emphasis added)

The Bible doesn’t equivocate when it comes to human nature. We are self-deceived and wicked at our core—primarily because of our bias to favor ourselves. We want to win, to be noticed, admired, loved and praised. We want our fifteen minutes of fame, and if we can stretch it out to a half hour, all the better.

The problem for the Christian is that when we push ourselves forward, we are actually stealing the limelight from God. He’s the star, after all, the One who deserves the accolades, who produces the show, who works behind the scenes to hold it all together, who assembles the cast, who writes the checks, and who takes center stage. So when the curtain comes up for the credits, for whom is the applause greatest? The actor playing the page who carried the king’s sword, or the king himself?

Clayton_Kershaw_(8664742364)We live in a celebrity culture. Consequently Christians often flock to “famous Christians,” like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin or Russel Wilson or Clayton Kershaw. And isn’t it a good thing when people of all stripe, even people of other religions or people of no religion, recognize a “famous Christian” for their talent and intelligence and good deeds?

That’s what the Bible seems to say. We are to let our light shine so that people see our good works (Matt. 5:16). It’s the last part of the verse that I think 21st century Christians seem to have trouble with: “… that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (emphasis added). The goal isn’t that they might glorify the Christian, but that they might glorify the God whom we serve.

John the Baptist articulated the principle well. One of his disciples was troubled that the crowds were leaving John and flocking to Jesus. Here’s his answer:

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27-30)

In other words, John’s popularity was a gift from God. But he was not the Messiah. He was the second, the best man, the squire. Understanding his role, he rejoiced to see Jesus get all the attention. That’s what he lived for. To decrease, that Jesus might increase.

In some ways, it seems a person must first increase to get to the point that he can decrease. I mean, if John didn’t have a following, would he ever have been able to say, I must decrease?

But what about the widow who gave her last coin in the temple. She had no following, and she was still willing to decrease that God might increase.

I think our current Christian culture has it wrong. We should not be working to be known so we can make God known. That’s upside down. The widow gave to God because she knew God deserved her very last coin. As a result, God spread her fame down through the ages, to every tribe and tongue where the gospel is preached. She wasn’t after fame, but God gave it to her as a result of her willingness to decrease.

I think too of Boaz and the anonymous relative who could have married Ruth. In that day, a widow had no protection unless a relative of her deceased husband married her. She was also tied to the property her husband may have owned. So Boaz, wanting to take Ruth as his wife, first had to find out if the relative who was closer would step up and do the right thing.

Boaz started by asking the man if he wanted to buy the property which had belonged to the deceased. The relative said, sure. OK, Boaz said, but you know, of course, that means you’ll also have to marry Ruth. Oh, the man answered. Forgot about her. You know, on second thought, this marriage and property purchase isn’t going to work for me after all. It would jeopardize his own inheritance, he said—something about the child of their union would be known as belonging to the first husband, and his land reverting to that side of the family at the jubilee.

It’s a bit too legal and technical for me. But I bring it up because this man who wanted to guard his inheritance is no longer remembered by name. Boaz, however, and Ruth are both recorded in the ancestral record of the Messiah. The one who wanted to increase, didn’t. The one who cared for the widow, who served and protected a foreign woman in need, received recognition throughout the ages.

He must increase. And I must decrease.

My devious mind immediately goes to the idea that, yes, the way for me to get noticed, like the widow Jesus praised, like Boaz, is to put Jesus on display. But that misses the point. God can use even that wrong attitude, as Paul says in Philippians, but the right perspective is to see the way things really are: God, the high and exalted King; I, the servant holding the edge of His train.

Shockingly, this life is really not about me. It’s about God—serving Him, loving Him, listening to Him, abiding with Him, and above all glorifying Him. Seeing Him increase.

Discussions And Winning


Roulette_in_Las_VegasI’ve been on the Internet long enough to have involved myself in a good number of discussions. I’ve gotten myself banned from a couple sites for being contentious, and have had a fair share of mud flung in my direction.

From where I sit, having learned a thing or two along the way, I think people enter into Internet discussions for one of four reasons. Some people take part by dropping their explicit opinion without reading any other comments and without returning to engage any opposing views. In other words, they drop their opinion and run. They are like drive-by shooters.

Others want to be the wise professor, showing all the other peons, er, people, what they know.

Some percent of people care more about winning than they do what it is they are discussing. Consequently, if they are corrected or challenged in what they say, they must find a way to attack back, to gain points for the ones they lost.

Finally, there are some people who actually want to engage in give-and-take, to consider a subject from a different perspective, to learn even though they may continue to disagree. They may even discover they have far more common ground with those in disagreement than they had once presumed. In short, they are willing to engage in a discussion without the need to win.

I have to admit, I’m a fan of this latter type of interaction. I like learning new things. I like having my own assumptions and beliefs challenged. It forces me to examine where I stand and see if it’s actually firm enough to hold me up.

More often than not, I come away from those kinds of discussions with a firmer conviction. Sometimes I’m forced to do some homework—to search out answers to a question I hadn’t thought of before or know little about. That also is a good thing—a very good thing.

But the “discussions” that devolve into gamesmanship in which one party cares more about winning than about considering both sides of a question, or about the people with whom they’re dialoguing, bring out the worst in me. As my family can tell you, I don’t like losing. I don’t like eating humble pie. I don’t like people calling me names or laughing at my expense. My instinct is to fight back, to prove I know just as much, can be as snarky as they, can take them down a peg.

In short, I’m tempted to adopt the “discussion is about winning” mindset.

It’s a temptation, sadly, because “everyone’s doing it.” The desire to win has become far too prevalent in western society. We want our sports teams to win (I sure do!) We want the singer we voted for to win. We want our political candidate to win. We want to beat the other driver in a race to the next red light, and we surely don’t want to let that jerk in ahead of us.

The bottom line, I guess, is pride. We want to come out looking like we did something (picked the best team, the best singer, the best candidate). We want to outshine the next guy, even when we don’t know that guy and will never see him again. It’s our own ego we are trying to satisfy.

Ego, I think, is what drove those teachers in Atlanta to cheat for their students. In fact, CNN reported that during former Georgia District Attorney Michael Bowers investigation, “he heard that educators cheated out of pride, to earn bonuses, to enhance their careers or to keep their jobs” (emphasis mine). Ego drives gang members to tag their turf and protect it. Ego drives businessmen to pull shady deals so they can climb over their buddy as they ascend the corporate ladder. Ego drives soccer moms to brag about their kids’ accomplishments even as they conveniently forget to mention the problems. Ego causes church leaders to play the number game—how many converts, how many baptisms, how many attendees.

And why shouldn’t ego be a growing factor in today’s society? From the moment kids can walk and talk, parents and TV and educators and most every other adult they come in contact with, tell them they can do whatever they put their little minds to. Unfortunately, “Just win, baby” actually hasn’t turned out to be much of a winning formula.

Some people believe it and spend their lives trying to get to whatever goal they desire and believe they deserve, regardless of the methods required to do so. Others who learn they aren’t the winners their parents said they were, live vicariously through their own children or through their favorite golfer or race car driver; others steep themselves in the gaming community and make all parts of life about winning. Including Internet discussions.

As long as we live with the idea that discussions are about winning, we doom ourselves in two ways: we will stop learning about other people and what they think—a dangerous circumstance in our ever shrinking world—and we will devalue compromise.

Once, in the US men of government were considered great statesmen if they could work out a compromise. If two sides saw an issue in opposing ways, a statesman was the person who helped both sides to come together and agree on something workable; though neither side got all they wanted, both sides got some of what they wanted.

Apparently we no longer value the role of a peacemaker. Rather, we want a litigator who can take the matter to court and WIN. Ah, there it is again. This passion to come out on top.

No wonder Jesus sounds so radical to our culture. He said things like, The last shall be first, and the first last. And, Love your enemies; do good to those who misuse you. And take up your cross daily, and follow me.

Our culture says things like, The one who dies with the most toys wins. But Jesus said, Store up your treasure in heaven where moth and rust can’t get to it.

I don’t think a person can turn on and off the desire to win. I think God needs to do something in a person’s heart to give life a greater meaning than just elbowing out the other guy. I think God needs to do a work in a person’s heart to make them care more for others. Even in Internet discussions.

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