Thursday, December 15, 2011

In honor of the season, here's a repost of the "Christmas" chapter from The Carpenter.  Enjoy! 


CHAPTER TEN

"We're almost there, Mari."

"I'm sorry, Yosef.  I can't."  She gasped and dug her fingers into my arm.  "Not one more step."

"It's less than a mile."

She glared at me, sweat beading on her forehead.  "Fine, then!" she yelled angrily.  "You can carry the baby the rest of the way!"

What's Wrong with This Picture?

First impressions carry a lot of weight. Although we warn against making hasty judgments ("Don't judge a book by its cover"), the truth is that we do tend to judge things—and people—based on our first impressions of them.

Take this movie I was watching on Netflix, for example: Snow White, a Tale of Terror.  I was in the mood for something unusual, and the evil stepmother was played by Sigourney Weaver (who was admirably creepy in an unorthodox depiction of the most beautiful witch of them all). But any lack of bias I might have had toward the movie itself was destroyed in one of the opening scenes, in which a young Snow White hides from her nursemaid in a graveyard. I do not want to debate the choice of playground locale, which was actually excellent for the genre and tone of the film. But look at this picture and ask why it inspired me to take an hour from my busy day to write this blog:


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What the Blazes? Reflections on my TAG, part 4

So there I was, hiking the Paisley Trail through the Ocala National Forest, about four miles from Lake Clearwater and not a soul around. Only an inch or two of water still sloshed in the bottom of my bottle, the windbreaker tied around my waist was covered with sandspurs, and my back had begun to throb with each step I took through the loose sand of the elusive path. Nevertheless, my spirits were high, as was my voice: inspired by the tracks of a large carnivore, I'd been singing at the top of my lungs for about half an hour, mostly in Hebrew.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What the Blazes? Reflections on my TAG, part 3

After two hours of climbing through burned-out longleaf pine uplands, I was covered in burrs and sandspurs, had consumed half of my water, and was no longer appreciating the lesson in path-finding. So I decided to take a mental break. Translation: I worked on my latest novel, the sequel to Brothers.

Last summer, I hit a snag in the plot about the same time school started; the only writing I've done on the book since August is the "frame story" (prologue, interludes, and epilogue), which you can find published elsewhere in this blog under the title "Temptation." But the novel's main plot line stalled out completely while Yisu was dragging one of his brothers across Samaria,

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What the Blazes? Reflections on My TAG, part 2

So there I was, hiking the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail, which had ceased to be a broad, friendly road and had become a (potentially) snake-infested, elusive, uphill-through-tick-country line in the grass. Here's that photo again in case you've forgotten:


What the Blazes? Reflections on My TAG, part 1

Last week I went off on my semi-annual TAG Retreat. (TAG stands for "Time Alone with God." For a while I was calling it "Get Away with God" but that acronym really didn't have the same connotation.) I chose Lake Clearwater in the Ocala National Forest for this year's excursion into creation because we nature-people feel closest to God in the great outdoors...the outer, the better. But my roommate worries if I go too far into the wilderness all by myself (and since watching 127 Hours, I've been more sympathetic to her concerns), so I compromise by choosing the most remote campsite in a regularly-patrolled campground and then making day-long forays into the woods on clearly marked, well-traveled hiking trails and kayak runs.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Totally Disgusting Mouse Story

WARNING: Those hearing this story have either laughed very hard or gotten totally disgusted. Proceed at your own risk.

Over the years, I have had to deal with mice on several occasions and in several different contexts. One of my professors is fond of reminding us of the importance of context, so permit me to elaborate: there is a huge difference between a mouse in the wild, a mouse in a laboratory, a mouse in a pet store, and a mouse running wild through my house. The first three I leave alone . . . the last is an open declaration of war.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

all the reason

my struggles with sin
begin
whenever i let the loneliness in

to keep it out
i tell myself
i sell myself
a load of doubt
create a story all about
a lonely man
create a friend
for him and then
voila!
he is alone no more

miraculously
i too am free
at least
as long as i can be
alone
with just the two of them
the man, his friend
who live and love alone inside of me
we three
together symbiosis prove
without me they die

without them . . .
. . . just i

ironically
though i know them
they always are
and always shall remain
completely unaware that i exist
a voyeur to their bliss
nor do they know
that they are really . . .
well . . .
unreal

they're real to me
and that's enough
or is it?

can it be
that this is all the reason that i write?
that others who are real to God
(and not to me alone)
might know the man, his friend,
and then
corroborate my lonely love?
for real to me
is not enough
it seems
i must have someone real to love
outside my dreams

this then is fear:
for am i even able
to love someone who's real?
i can't replay rewind rewrite revise undo delete
the words that fail to come out right
i can't control create commit compose correct command
the people of this world
and so i fail
and so begin
my struggles
with sin

whenever i let the loneliness in.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Kindergarten Time Management

Remember that book by Robert Fulghum that was such a best-seller in the 1990s? All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Like most people, I never sat down to read the whole book but I have read numerous excerpts from it.  One thing I don't recall seeing on the short list: time management.  But maybe the concept is summed up in this passage:
Think what a better world it would be if all - the whole world - had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. 
Time Management was a hot topic in the 1990s and has become an industry in the two decades that have followed.  My guess is that our interest in Time Management came about as a reaction to the frenzied activity of the 1980s . . . you know, the decade when the idealistic dropouts of the 1960s suddenly realized there was profit to be made from hard, materialistic labor.  Or maybe the workaholism of the 1980s had something to do with the breaking of the disco fever.  (For anyone who cares, the term "workaholic" was coined in 1968 but didn't really catch on until the 1990s.)


Regardless.  I lived (and worked) through the 1980s, and have tried (and failed) to manage my time in the 1990s and the 2000s and now the 2010s.  Time Management hasn't gotten any easier over the years.  This is odd, because the older I get, the less time I have. You would think having LESS time would make it easier to manage (just as it is easier to manage less hair or fewer kids) but that is misunderstanding the basic problem: there may be less time, but it is moving faster.  Einstein was right: TIME IS RELATIVE.  The older one gets, the faster time moves . . . and no one would argue with the fact that, while it is easier to herd ten sheep than a hundred, it is easier to herd a hundred sheep than ten jackrabbits.


Take a phone list as one simple example.  When I was a kid, I had a handful of friends and all of their numbers fit into my brain.  Then I got older, acquired acquaintances, bought a pocket address book, and wrote down their numbers.  I moved, lost the book, and had to start rebuilding the data base.  My friends moved, and their numbers became obsolete, were crossed out and inked over until the book was useless.  I bought a new book and spent HOURS recopying the information, but the same thing kept happening again and again.  Technology came to the rescue in the form of an electronic, hand-held address book, but it only exacerbated the problem. Before I could use the gizmo, I had to find the time to sit down and program all of my information into it.  Then the batteries needed changing . . . and I didn't have it with me when I needed it . . . and I lost it (did I mention that I frequently lose things?) . . . and by the time I found it again, it was obsolete anyway.  I got a cell phone, programed all the numbers into it, and lost it (actually it was stolen, but the result was the same).  I got a computer, programed all the numbers into it, and then the computer became obsolete so I got a new one and had to reprogram all the numbers into it.  Actually, the sad truth is, it took TOO MUCH TIME and wasn't worth the effort, so I abandoned the reprograming less than halfway through and resorted to Plan B.


Plan B looks like this: two dozen sticky notes and pieces of scrap paper stuck to the refrigerator.


Oddly enough, this works for me better than all the day planners and palm pilots and cell phones and iPads in the world.  It is HARD to lose a refrigerator.  (It is also hard to carry one around with you, I will concede that.)


But back to TIME management.


I have a form of ADD known as OOSOOM.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I function well as long as I can see everything I need to remember.  As soon as I put something away, it is lost forever.  (Okay, "forever" is a bit of an exaggeration.  But it is lost for MONTHS or possibly YEARS, depending on how often I move.)  Email is the best way to reach me because I keep it on my computer desktop.  My land-line telephone answering system flashes a red light at me whenever a call is waiting.  Cell phone?  You must be kidding.  Until they begin surgically implanting the things, they are just too easy to lose. (Did I mention that I tend to lose things?)  I don't carry a cell phone, iPod, iPad, or anything else that will fit into a purse.  For that matter, I don't carry a purse.


My mom used to say, "If your head weren't attached, you'd lose it." My mom was absolutely right.  Fortunately, my head IS attached, which just goes to show you how smart God is, so THAT is where I have kept my daily and weekly schedules for the last forty years.  Until recently, storing events and appointments in my brain has always worked fine for me because I have a fairly spacious brain.  (Please resist the temptation to comment on my choice of words here, those of you who know me best.)  Unfortunately, as my brain has gotten older, it has developed a few cracks, and every once in a while something falls into a crack and gets lost.  Or maybe it is just that the sheep have been replaced by jackrabbits.  Sheep are too big to slip into cracks, but jackrabbits are wascally. (Just ask Elmer.)


My best friend carries a day planner.  She writes EVERYTHING into it.  It goes EVERYWHERE with her.  It works for her.  After forgetting two or three important meetings, I tried her system.  (Do I have to tell you the result, or did you already get the picture from my phone list fiasco?)


I believe that time is one of the things God invented and created just for us.  It is a gift.  Like all of God's gifts, it is meant to be used for his glory and to further his kingdom.  But, mismanaged, time doesn't feel like a gift so much as a curse.  Responsible stewardship of time keeps evading me, and I find that terribly frustrating.  I tried taking some Time Management seminars, but these classes usually make me want to scream.  The teachers always have a cut-and-dried, tried-and-true, it-worked-for-me-and-will-work-for-you system to sell.  Folks, I know you mean well, but one size does NOT fit all.  Especially if the client suffers from ADDOOSOOM.  


This past week, the theme of Time Management as Good Stewardship kept cropping up and smacking me in the figurative face, so I asked God to help me.  Actually, I asked him to clean my bedroom and do my laundry for me, but I think he decided to pass on that one.  Instead, he sent me to the Dollar Tree.


Yes, the Dollar Tree.


Free advertisement: as most schoolteachers know, the Dollar Tree is the most wonderful place on earth. Everything in the store is a dollar.  Some things are fabulous bargains: newborn onesies for $1. Tshirts for $1 (okay, in size 5x, but still...).  Brand new hardcover books for $1.  Best of all, teacher supplies . . . bulletin board displays, stickers, charts . . .


Charts.


My bedroom door . . . a new kind of feng shui.
Yes, I did it.  I bought one of those kindergarten "helper" charts, the kind where the teacher lists who is going to be line leader and who is going to lead the Pledge and who is going to feed the hamster.  This one had blank spaces for the tasks, though, so I wrote in things like "clean bathroom" and "schoolwork" and "take trash to curb."  I also wrote in how long I plan to spend on each task, and assigned each task to a specific day of the week.


I know this was from God, because there was only room on the chart for six days' worth of work.


The Job Chart is now pinned to my bedroom door, where I can't help but see it.  (And it's hard to lose a door.)  AND IT IS WORKING.  I accomplished more in three hours this morning that I had in the whole week that preceded it.  As for those appointments that slip through the cracks, right above the Job Chart I have a dry-erase calendar for the month.  It takes me about five minutes each month to set it up and then, as appointments arise, I write them in.  Portable?  No.  But REALLY important things get written on the back of my hand before I leave the house.  (It's hard to lose the back of your hand.)


I doubt I'll ever be able to market my system to the general public, but it works for way God designed me to function.  And isn't that really the key to any success in life?  We talk about Time Management as though time were something manageable, but it isn't.  Time marches on at the rate of one second per second, one hour per hour, one day per day . . .  We don't need to manage TIME; we need to manage OURSELVES.  According to psychologists, most of who you are was firmly formed by the time you entered kindergarten.  So I'll agree with Robert Fulghum on this one and go with a system that worked for me way back before my life got filled with things that blink and beep and get misplaced.


Hey, it's almost time for that cookie and nap!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Know One When I See One


Task: turn THIS into a 12x20 shed.
The team jumped out of the rental car, eager to begin serving, but a little nervous at the same time.  Was this the right address?  Where was the shed we were going to help build?  Most importantly, where was the skilled carpenter we were supposed to be assisting?  As the five of us stood in the driveway waiting for our leader to arrive, we were all thinking the same thing: Day One of our mission trip to rebuild Alabama homes destroyed by the April tornadoes was off to a slow start.  A communications mixup had resulted in five enthusiastic but unskilled Asbury students being sent to a construction site with no tools, no blueprints, no building materials, and — hard as it was to fathom — no carpenter.  For an hour we labored heroically, moving things here and there, pounding rusty nails out of splintered boards, and making suggestions to one another, but the truth was hard to ignore: we were in ‘way over our heads and we needed a leader who knew what he or she was doing.

Salvation arrived in the form of Randy, who apologized for the confusion, loaded us into the car, and led us to another job site.  Within minutes of our arrival, we knew exactly what to do.  Randy had sized us up and given us a task perfectly suited to our limited skill set.  Each of us knew his or her designated role, and we completed our assignment quickly and efficiently even though Randy had to leave to attend to other duties.  The rest of our week went smoothly, and we left Alabama feeling that we had accomplished our mission.  What made the difference?  We had been served by a leader.


Leadership can be hard to define, but it is easily recognized.  I know a leader when I see one.  Leaders are the people who know what to do in a given situation, and are able to communicate that vision in such a way that others can, and will, follow their instructions.  Leaders inspire trust.  Leaders take the time to get to know their team well enough to help each person on the team achieve success.  Leaders serve.


Randy was our leader for only a short time, but in that time he was able to transform our group from five aimless, confused individuals into one focused, confident team.  Randy was the man with the plan, and he shared that plan with us in a way that made it ours.  Although he left us the freedom to work out the details on our own, he didn’t abandon us.  Randy checked in periodically to see if we needed anything and he made sure those needs were provided for.  Everyone smiled whenever Randy pulled up to the job site.


There are other “Randys” in my life, people who inspire my trust because they know where they’re going and how to get there, people who motivate me and energize me and make me want to go with them.  Leaders.  There are also Drivers, people who come up behind me when I’m working and try to push me in another direction.  Usually all they do is knock me off balance and irritate me; certainly they don’t make me more effective or successful.  They are the tornadoes in my life: demanding, capricious, intrusive, and destructive.  If they have a plan, I can’t see it.  When the Drivers pull up, I don’t smile; I grit my teeth.


I think Drivers are Leaders out of their element.  Leaders can’t really lead if they don’t know where they’re going; all they can do is pretend to lead, and that turns them into Drivers.  Jesus summed it up in two words: “Blind Pharisee!” (Matthew 23:26)  If I am going to be an effective leader, I need to have a destination clearly in mind.


Am I a leader?


My mother will tell you that I was born a leader.  Indisputably, I was a bossy toddler.  I was a pushy preschooler.  I was an extremely unpopular kid, and I suspect it had something to do with my Driver personality.  I don’t want to be a Driver, and I’ve worked hard to grow out of those habits, but maturity is a slow process at best.  


Lately I’ve noticed that people are following me, usually when I least expect it.  Perhaps that is the key to effective leadership: just go where God leads, and don’t worry about trying to drag others along. If they come on their own, that’s not because I am a great leader, but because Jesus is.  My task at that point is simply to do what Randy did: look behind me periodically and offer assistance where it’s obviously needed.  If people start smiling, I’ll know I’m on the right track.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Was Methuselah a Wash-out?

The Geezer
When I was a kid, the saying "old as Methuselah" was commonplace.  Even people who never went to church or read their Bibles knew that Methuselah holds the record for the longest tenure on planet earth: 969 years, to be precise (see Genesis 5:27).  I used Methuselah as a joke in one of my novels (Brothers) and have been surprised at the number of people who don't get it because they've never heard of him.

The Bible doesn't really have much to say about the man, except that he lived 969 years and that he was the father of Lamech.  The rest of his story has to be deciphered by mathematicians.

I don't know why, but I always assumed that Methuselah was a good man.  Maybe I made that assumption because of his age.  Surely in that many years, the geezer managed to acquire more than the usual amount of wisdom, right?  (I apologize to anyone who is offended by my use of the term "geezer." I have great respect for geezers, so much that I will even refer you to their official web page: http://geezer.org.  At his age, Methuselah should be referred to as The Geezer; if anyone ever earned the right, he did!)  Or perhaps I figured that his longevity  was a reward for a life well-lived and pleasing to God.  Maybe his God-fearing father (Enoch) had a positive influence on him.  Or maybe he learned a lot about God by listening to Great-great-great-great-great-grandpa Adam, who was only 627 when little Methy was born. (Adam lived to be 930, so the two of them had 303 years to get to know one another.)

Today, however, I am forced to question some of those assumptions.  You see, I've done the math.

According to the fifth chapter of Genesis, Methuselah was the father of Lamech, who was the father of Noah.  Lamech was born when Methuselah was 187.  According to Genesis, Methuselah lived 782 years after Lamech was born (Genesis 5:26), and Lamech lived 777 years (Genesis 5:31).  Doing the math, that means that Methuselah lived five years longer than his son.

Noah was born when Lamech was 182, which would make Grandpa Methuselah 369 at the time (Genesis 5:28-29).  In case you were curious, Noah never knew Great-(times-seven)-grandpa Adam.  His was the first generation to be born after Adam's death. 

Noah's Ark
Maybe a lot of people have forgotten Methuselah, but everyone has heard of Noah.  He was the Flood guy, the one who built the cute little ark that gets painted on nursery walls.  (This is a real strange choice for decor, in my opinion, since we are surrounding our babies with pictures of a catastrophic event that wiped out 99.999999% of earth's population, but that's not really the point of this blog.) (And actually, the ark was neither little nor cute.  Check out  http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/topic/noahs-ark for a much more realistic picture of Noah's Ark.)

Anyway, back to Methuselah.  Can you guess how old he was when the Flood struck?  Do the math: Noah was 600 at the time (Genesis 7:11) and we've already established that Methuselah was 369 when Noah was born, so 369 + 600 = 969. 

Which raises the question: Exactly when and how did Methuselah die?  He was 969, we know that much.  Did he die earlier that year, and THEN God sent the Flood?  Or was The Geezer swept away like everyone else? 


Jewish tradition holds to the former explanation, citing the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jashar as evidence that Methuselah was a righteous man and so God delayed the Flood until after Methuselah had died a natural death.  Neither of these books, however, were (or are) considered part of the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible) and so they do not have the authority accorded to the rest of Scripture, which is totally silent as to the precise manner of Methuselah's demise. 

So what?  Does it really matter?

I think it does.  Genesis 6 makes it clear that the earth of Noah's day was filled with evil people.  The exact language used is, "The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5) and also, "God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways" (Genesis 6:12).  But it also adds, "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD" (Genesis 6:8).

I confess, my knowledge of Hebrew is limited.  However, studying this passage I find the words "all," "only," and "every" used by the translators to describe the prevalence of evil in the pre-Flood culture.  The Hebrew words used for these concepts were "kol" ( כל ) and "raq" ( רק ).  "Kol" means all, the whole, the totality, everything.  "Raq" is an adjective of limitation or restriction, meaning (in this context) that their thoughts were limited or restricted to evil thoughts -- no other thoughts were possible for them. 

I would suggest that "all" in this case means "all" and that "all" includes old Methuselah.  I don't buy into the Jewish tradition that he was given special, preferential treatment just because he had known Adam.  I think The Geezer was just as bad as everyone else.  And THAT matters.

Why?

It matters because it means that age alone is NOT sufficient to make a person wise . . . that hanging around spiritual people is NOT enough to make a person spiritual.  Methuselah, for all his longevity, didn't make the cut.  He was a wash-out . . . literally.  The author of Genesis doesn't mention Methuselah's righteousness, doesn't mention God's special favor toward him, doesn't mention Methuselah being taken by God before the Flood, and it is only logical to assume that these things aren't mentioned because they weren't true.  One could argue that the Bible also doesn't mention Methuselah's death in the Flood, but neither does it mention the names of the other people who died; it simply says every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out, except Noah and those who were with him on the ark (Genesis 7:23). 

Methuselah's demise is a warning to me as I grow older.  I don't expect to live to 969 . . . I don't expect to live to 96, for that matter . . . but I have passed the half-century mark and am in danger of succumbing to the temptation to rest on my laurels.  Nor am I the only one.  In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen reflects on this same issue, asking the question, "Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?"  His answer is a sobering one:
As I entered into my fifties . . . after twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.
Noah found favor in God's sight, and so God warned him of the coming Flood and told him how to build the ark.  Noah believed God and took action, and so God called him "righteous" (Genesis 7:1).  This, by the way, is the same spiritual principle at work throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New: God doesn't call the righteous, but the UNrighteous.  It is when we heed His call and believe Him that He declares us to be righteous (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 10:4-10; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23).

Jesus warned that there is a future judgment coming upon the earth "as it was in the days of Noah" (Matthew 24:37-39) and that we need to be ready for it.  Don't be a wash-out . . . don't make the same mistake Methuselah made and assume that you are safe because you've been around for a while and know the right people.  While the sentimental side of me likes the story in the Book of Jashar that shows Noah and Methuselah working side by side to warn their neighbors of the coming disaster, the scholar in me shakes her head and reminds me that Methuselah probably watched Noah building that boat for 100 years and scoffed along with the rest of them until it was too late for the old geezer to get on board.

One final thought: "Geezer" was once spelled "guiser" and meant someone who wore a disguise, someone who went about in the guise of someone or something he was not.  You can't fool God by wearing a mask.  Not even The Geezer could do that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pinky and the Wolf

Long long ago, in a neighborhood far far away (New Jersey) . . .

I had a pet hamster.

My hamster, whom I will call "Pinky" (name changed to preserve his anonymity), lived in a habitrail. He liked to climb up into the "petting box" and scratch at the lid until I would open the box and take him out to play with him. I was always happy to do this, because Pinky was a teddy-bear hamster with long, fluffy fur, and he didn't bite.

I also had a pet dog, an Alaskan Malamute named "Lobo" because he looked just like a timber wolf. Lobo was a thief. It wasn't my fault - my boyfriend's mother used to give the dog a cookie to get him to drop whatever he'd stolen, so he quickly learned that the best way to get a cookie was to steal something. Lobo would snatch things off the counters and tables, shake them a few times to announce that he had them, and then run around the house with them in his mouth, chewing and growling until he got his cookie. (Since I refused to give in to his terrorist tactics, Lobo seldom returned my possessions in one piece.) Lobo was quick. Not only would he snatch things from tables, but sometimes he'd even grab them right out of a person's hand if he thought he could get away with it.

One day I was sitting at the dining room table working on a project, and Pinky was crawling around in his habitrail, which I'd set on the table beside me. After a while, Pinky climbed the tube up to the petting box, looked over at me, and then began to scratch at the lid. I set down my project and reached over to open the box, and then I noticed something. Sitting just a few feet away was Lobo, ears perked. He licked his lips in anticipation and thumped his tail against the floor twice, tensing his leg muscles as he prepared to pounce.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Alexandros Megos

I am fascinated by Alexander the Great, so fascinated that — one of these days — I am going to write a novel about him.  I know Mary Renault already did a fantastic job of this with her series, but it bothers me that Alexander died without having fulfilled his dream of reaching the ends of the earth.  So I plan a sequel.  It's all written out in my head already, and will appeal to sci-fi buffs (I hope).

No one has had a greater impact on history than Jesus, of course, but Alexander's contribution shouldn't be minimized.  Sadly, Alexander isn't really studied much nowadays, and although his exploits have been required reading in military academies for centuries, most people know very little about him.  (Oliver Stone's fanciful movie Alexander did little to enlighten the general population.)  Ignoring his battles and strategic genius for a while, I'd like to acquaint you with a few

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Spiritual Tats

Several of my friends have had in-depth discussions with me about this Law versus Grace thing and know my heart-attitude on the subject. Some of them think I'm on the right track ("spiritual growth"), some of them think I'm heading backwards ("Pharisaical legalism"), and some of them just think I'm weird and they're waiting to see what crazy thing I'll do next ("Dee's gone off the deep end again").

It usually comes up when I get invited to dinner.  "Want to join us at Sonny's this Saturday? They're having a special on baby backs!"

"Sorry, sounds like fun, but I don't eat pork anymore."  Or shrimp.  Or catfish.  And I don't go to restaurants on Saturday.  I used to say, "Sorry, I can't," but that isn't strictly true.  I can, but

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 8: Surpassing Righteousness

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."  (Matthew 5:20)

Bill Gates, 2011's 2nd Richest Man
As I mentioned in an earlier lesson, this statement is the moral equivalent of saying, "Unless you are richer than Carlos Slim and Bill Gates . . ."  Jesus SEEMS to be saying here that no one can get into heaven. Period.

Just one verse earlier, however, he said that anyone who set aside the least of the commandments would be called "least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).  In that case, even a lawbreaker can get in.  He'll be "least," but he'll be in.

So which is it?  Verse 19, or verse 20?

Both.

Please don't make the mistake of thinking that Jesus was so stupid he could contradict himself in the space of a breath and not realize it.  Please don't compound that error by assuming Matthew was also stupid enough to include such gibberish in his gospel.  And, while you're at it, don't

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jesus Never Claimed to Be God

I hear this one a lot. "Jesus said he was the SON of God. He never claimed to BE God."

These people have a point, actually. If you go to a concordance and comb through the New Testament, you will not find one single verse where Jesus says, "I am God."

"I love thee . . ."
Likewise, if you read "Romeo and Juliet," you will not find one single verse where Juliet says, "I love you" to Romeo. Nor will you find one verse where Romeo says, "I love you" to Juliet. (I know... I've done this. If you don't believe me, go to http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/ and use the "find" function on your computer to scan the entire play for yourself.) In spite of this, no one questions the fact that these two kids love each other -- perhaps not too wisely, but definitely with great passion! That's because everything else they say and do shows their love for one another.

So, simply pointing out that Jesus never said, "I am God," proves nothing. Instead, you have to look at what He said and did... in CONTEXT.

Sermon on the Mount Part 7: How I Love Your Law

Psalm 119 is a love song! "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long." (vs. 97)
This is the theme of the entire psalm - the longest chapter in the Bible - being IN LOVE with God's Law.

The Law has gotten a bad rap in the church lately.

"Oh, we're not under the Law," people say. "We're under grace! Don't be so legalistic!"

We're missing the point.

True, we are not UNDER the Law. To the one who has been set free by Christ, the Law is no longer an oppressor. Instead, it has become

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 6: Abolish vs. Fulfill

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17-20)

The first sixteen verses of the Sermon focus on what it means to be a disciple.  In this passage, however, Jesus shifts gears for a moment and turns the focus back on himself.  "Do not think..." he begins, and then proceeds to state very clearly a message that flies in the face of an all-too-common teaching today: the idea that Jesus lived according to the Law and this means we no longer need to; or in the more extreme version of this teaching, that we no longer should, that it is somehow sinful even to try to keep God's Law.

"Legalism" is the word most often used to attack those who believe the Law should still be kept.  "Cheap Grace" is the phrase frequently shouted as a counter-attack.  Somewhere in between lies the truth, so let's wave a white flag long enough to go looking for it.

What does it mean to abolish something?  And what does it mean to fulfill something?  Since Jesus said he came to do one and not the other, it's probably a good idea for us to

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lessons from the Tour Guide

The kingdom of heaven is like . . . a kayak tour.

No, it isn't in the Bible, but that's only because there weren't any kayaks in ancient Israel. There are, however, kayaks aplenty in Florida nowadays and—after leading tours for six years—I can state with confidence that, if Jesus had ever taken a kayak tour, He might have used the experience for one of His parables.

The tours I lead are guided, on-the-water excursions around parts of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 150,000+ acre federally managed refuge adjoining the Kennedy Space Center.  They are rated "beginner level" so anyone is welcome to join one of the tours.  By my count, I've taken approximately 5,000 people paddling.  I've paddled with a woman in her nineties and I've paddled with a six-week-old infant. I've paddled with people from Japan, China, Germany, Israel, England, and New Jersey.  I've paddled with people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, diverse sizes and shapes, diverse languages and creeds.  I've even paddled with people who

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 5: Salt and Light

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled by men.  You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 5:13-16)

So many sermons have been preached on these verses.  We like these verses.  The metaphors are cool, aren't they?  I mean, who doesn't want to be "salt" and "light"?  Well, okay, in our culture, "salt" has become a bad word, but "light" is still good, right?  (Why am I suddenly thinking about potato chips?)

In the ancient world (or any culture which, unlike ours, eats real food rather than processed "food"), salt is a good thing.  It is something without which a human being cannot live ... a true salt-free diet is actually fatal!  Salt not only keeps a body functioning properly, but

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Church Talk 101: What Does It Mean to Be Blessed?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...  (Matthew 5:3-6)

So, what does the word "blessed" mean?

Some Bible translators use the word "happy" here instead of "blessed," though the two words are not perfectly synonymous.  A person can be happy without being blessed, and a person can be blessed without being happy.  One difference between a blessing and simple happiness is

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 4: Persecuted Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.  
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.   
Matthew 5:10-12


Ready to review the process again?  If you want to be truly blessed, the first thing you must do is make a commitment to follow Christ -- not merely believe in Him, but follow Him (Matthew 5:1-2).  Then, comparing your spiritual state to His, recognize your spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3).  Not only is the world a corrupt, fallen mess, but so are you -- mourn that fact.  When your heart is broken, Christ Himself will come alongside you and fill you with His strength (Matthew 5:4).

Now that you have the power to change things for the better, submit that power to God's authority and control; don't try to play God, but do what Jesus did and allow God to work His will through you (Matthew 5:5).  Seeing Him in action should

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 3: Mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.   (Matthew 5:7-8)

Before tackling these verses, let's review the first few steps of the blessing-process again (Matthew 5:1-6).  First, make the commitment to follow Jesus.  Then, take a moment to compare yourself with him and admit that you are spiritually bankrupt.  Allow that fact to break your heart so that Jesus can come alongside you and fill you with his strength. Submit to his authority; let him be the one to decide how that new-found strength should be used.  Under God's guidance, practice righteousness until you not only develop a taste for it, but also thirst for it to the point that it becomes your biggest craving (even more than chocolate).  Jesus has promised

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 2: Hungry

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
                                                                                             (Matthew 5:3-6 NIV)

In Part 1, we looked at how the Beatitudes outline the process for living a blessed life.  The first step is to recognize that we must come to Jesus admitting that, compared with him, we are spiritually bankrupt. In short, we have nothing to offer him.

This realization should evoke in us an emotional response, and I'm not talking about joy.  Who wants to admit to being poor?  If we've been kidding ourselves that we have it all together ("I'm okay, you're okay") or that we will be able to improve with just a little more effort, and then we suddenly realize that we are NOT okay... I don't know about you, but

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 1: Poor in Spirit

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:1-3 NIV).
These words open the message that has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, which spans three entire chapters of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus spells out what it means to live as his disciple.

Jesus made a point throughout his earthly ministry of meeting people where they were...he traveled to Samaria to speak to a social outcast, he dined with tax collectors, he taught while sitting in a fishing boat. Yet in this episode of his life

Saturday, May 14, 2011

LifePointe Ministries

LifePointe Ministries - LifePointe

As part of reDEEfining my life this year, I am stepping out in faith on a new career path.  After nearly twenty years as a school teacher, I've retired and taken a position on the staff of a brand-new church "plant."  My first task as a Plant Team member with LifePointe Ministries has been to use my writing skills to help communicate the pastor's vision.  Please check out our website!

The career change has been a real roller-coaster, by the way. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's the Point?

He's a real nowhere man, 
Sitting in his Nowhere Land, 
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody. 
Doesn't have a point of view, 
Knows not where he's going to, 
Isn't he a bit like you and me?....                 
                   ("Nowhere Man," the Beatles, 1965)

I still remember what it was like to hate God and to hate the very idea of church.  That hatred began as a small seed of doubt when I was about eleven years old.  I was not raised in a Christian home, but I didn't realize that at the time, probably because I spent so much time in church.  My mom had bought me one of those Bible Story sets that you see all the time in doctors' waiting rooms (right next to the Highlights magazines) and I had read it all the way through ten or twelve times by then.  I remember having some questions, like "Where did Cain's wife come from?"  My mom couldn't answer the questions, but that didn't bother me because

Monday, May 2, 2011

Am I the Only One?

I open facebook this morning and am bombarded with: "Hallelujah, praise God, Osama bin Laden is dead, that sick twisted man, what a great day...."  And the first thought to run through my mind is, "Jesus wept."

Amidst the rejoicing that our team has scored a point in this war (and I am glad of that) let us not forget a few things:

God created man in His image.  ALL men.  Even Osama bin Laden.
God does not desire that any man should perish.  Not even Osama bin Laden.
Somewhere, the people who loved Osama bin Laden are weeping.
Satan is not among those who weep for Osama bin Laden...he is rejoicing that he managed to pull one of God's image-bearers into the Pit.

So today, I will choose to weep with my Father rather than rejoice with Satan.
Am I the only one?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Church Talk 101: What is a "Disciple"?

It's a word we hear thrown around the church a lot, but I wonder if anyone really knows what a disciple is. The common consensus seems to be that if you are going to church fairly regularly and trying to lead a decent life and believe Jesus is the Son of God, then you are a disciple. In other words, "disciple" has become synonymous with "believer." But God's word implies a much deeper level of commitment. Webster's includes in its definitions "a convinced adherent" and I like this one. "Convinced" means you really do believe with all your heart; "adherent" means you are sticking to what you believe as if you were glued to it.

There is also the root word which implies that a degree of discipline is involved. Being a disciple is not a passive state of being. Rather it is active and proactive and demands time, sacrifice, and determination. There are no accidental disciples. This is why Jesus warned those wanting to become his disciples that there was a cost attached to that commitment: "Take up your cross and follow me daily" (Luke 9:23).

Disciples are also, in the classic Jewish sense of the word (and let us never forget that Jesus was raised as a Jew and lived in the culture of Judea), committed to serving their Rabbi (which term translates to both Teacher and Master) with the goal of becoming exactly like him. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our goal is to become exactly like Jesus. To help his students achieve this goal, the Rabbi required obedience from his talmidim (disciples). Not only were they his students, but also his servants. As Jesus reminds us, "The student is not above his teacher, nor is the servant above his master" (Matthew 10:24).

The end result of discipleship is a mature believer capable of taking on the role of rabbi for the next generation of talmidim. Every "graduate" of a discipleship program should continue to grow in knowledge and in faith so that he or she can in turn lead other students closer to Christ. That is what Christian discipleship is really all about. "Go and make disciples of all nations" is much more than a command to evangelize. It is a commitment to lifelong growth.

In the Church, we are all students of the one Teacher; we are all talmidim of the one Rabbi, Jesus Christ. We should be committed not merely to study the Word, but also to live by it. In short, our goal should be to become exactly like our Rabbi.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Unleavened Bread

It was inevitable.  As soon as I removed the cloth that was covering the loaves on the communion plate, one of my friends asked, "You got any syrup to go with them pancakes?" 

They weren't pancakes, but some loaves of freshly-baked unleavened bread. I had baked them earlier that morning. (Well, actually, I'd cooked them on my pancake griddle, but that's beside the point.) 

I've been privileged over the years to share communion with many different people and in many different congregations, each with its own traditions and interpretations of what communion means and how it should be served.  This was the first time, however, that I had hosted such a meal, and I'd given careful thought to assembling the elements of the meal. 

For me, there is no question that the first communion, known as "the Last Supper," was celebrated with unleavened bread.  The biblical reason for my belief is this: Jesus and his disciples were sharing a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19). The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which began with Passover and lasted a full week, was a time when God commanded that no bread with yeast be made or eaten (Exodus 12:14-15, 23:15, 34:18, etc.), and the fact that He established this as an "everlasting ordinance" for his people tells me that Jesus and his followers were eating unleavened bread at the Last Supper. In other words, when Jesus told us to "do this to remember me" (Luke 22:19), the bread in his hand was unleavened bread.  For that reason, I believe that when we "do this," we should also be eating unleavened bread.

There is a symbolic reason for this as well.  Biblically, yeast is often used to represent sin. The holiest of the Temple sacrifices - the burnt offerings, guilt offerings, and sin offerings - were never to be mingled with yeast (Leviticus 2:11, 6:17).  Jesus himself used this metaphor when he told the disciples to beware of "the yeast of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1), and Paul also warns against "the yeast of sin and wickedness" (1 Corinthians 5:8).

As I was making the bread, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the symbolism involved.  First, the ingredients are simple: wheat flour, olive oil, salt, and water. 
wheat flour: In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks of his coming death and compares it with a grain of wheat (John 12:24).  In order for wheat to become flour, it must not only fall to the ground, but must be totally crushed, just as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 53:5, 53:10).
olive oil: Olive oil was used in the bread offerings presented to God in the Temple (Leviticus 2:4).  Olive oil was also used to fuel the Temple lamps and thus symbolizes Jesus as the Light of the World (John 8:12).  Furthermore, olive oil was used to anoint kings (1 Kings 1:39), reminding us that the bread we are eating is the body of our King.
salt: Most people are familiar with the statement Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount: "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). He also told his disciples, "Have salt in yourselves" (Mark 9:50) when comparing salt with peace, and Paul compared salt with grace (Colossians 4:6).  What fewer people realize is that God commanded that every sacrifice brought to Him be salted (Leviticus 2:13).  [An interesting historical note: the Romans routinely flogged those condemned to crucifixion and followed the flogging by dashing salt water into the open wounds; thus, Jesus also was salted before his sacrifice on the cross.]
water: Until the other ingredients are mixed with the water, they are separate, dry, and inedible. It is the water that turns them into bread. Jesus referred to himself as the source of living water (John 4:10-14, 7:37-38) and said that his followers need to be born from water and the Spirit (John 3:5).
Not only are the ingredients of unleavened bread significant, but so is the process of making the bread.  This hit me really hard as I was kneading the dough, stretching it out (as Jesus was stretched out on the cross), and pounding it flat (as the nails were pounded into his flesh).  After cooking the bread on the hot griddle, I wrapped it in a cloth and laid it in a stoneware bowl (Luke 23:53).  Later, as my friends and I shared in breaking the bread, I was struck by the fleshlike texture of this bread; it didn't crumble, it tore

This whole process, from start to finish, involved me personally in the death of Christ in a way no other communion ever has.  I hope, in the future, to give others the opportunity to share in this experience by inviting them to bake the communion bread with me.


Friday, April 22, 2011

The End of a Matter...

When I first began to follow the Lord, I took as my "life verse" Psalm 69:6

May those who hope in you
   not be disgraced because of me,
   O Lord, the LORD Almighty;
may those who seek you
   not be put to shame because of me,
   O God of Israel.

For eighteen years, I tried to live by these words; I tried to be the best Christian I knew how to be.  A few years ago, though, God knocked me down a few flights of steps (spiritually speaking) and I began to see the audacity of my goal.  At that time, He also gave me a new "life verse," one of His choosing rather than mine: Ecclesiastes 7:8

The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
    a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.

I confess, until that moment I had never thought of "patience" as the opposite of "pride," but the more I considered it, the more I began to see the truth of the relationship between impatience and pride.  The patient spirit acknowledges God's timing in everything; the proud spirit knows what it wants and wants it NOW.  I've always known that I struggle with pride; I've always known that I struggle with impatience; but until I took this verse to heart, I never realized that the two were actually the same thing.


For a few months now, I've been wrestling with impatience.  Wrestling?  Well, that may be putting it too mildly.  I'm more giving in to it than wrestling with it.  I'm positively sick with it.  I've been waiting SO LONG now, you see.  It's time.  Why can't God see that?

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning."  Amen!  I just want to get to the end.  Now.  NOW.  The beginning has been dragging on too long.

That word -- "too" -- causes me a lot of trouble.  It is definitely a proud word, an impatient word, a judgmental word, a covetous word.  "Too."  Think about it.

That is taking TOO long.
You are spending TOO much time on that.
I want some TOO.

I'm like Goldilocks, wanting what I want and wanting it now, rejecting what I have because it is TOO this or TOO that.  And in the process, I am leaving behind a wake of half-eaten and broken things; the only future I am building for myself is a nap in the belly of an angry bear.

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning."  Why?  Could it possibly be because the end comes in God's timing rather than my own?

My friend likes to eat raw cookie dough.  I prefer to wait until the cookies come out of the oven...and then some.  See, I like my cookies crispy, but not burned.  If I leave them in the oven too long or at too high a temperature, they turn to black rocks fit only for the trash...a MAJOR disappointment.  If, on the other hand, I take them out too soon, they are soft and chewy.  Edible, but not satisfying.  Even when I bake them to within a few seconds of burning, if I eat them before they've thoroughly cooled, they are soft and chewy.  For me to REALLY delight in a home-baked cookie, I have to be PATIENT.  And then, yes, the end is FAR better than the beginning.

According to God, my life is like a home-baked cookie.  I need to be patient and wait for the end of the matter, or I will be less than satisfied.  My biggest problem is that I can smell the cookies in the oven, and they smell SO good that I just have to nibble now.  In my pride, I convince myself that they are ready now.  It doesn't matter how many times I've made the same mistake; I manage to convince myself that THIS time the cookies are going to be crispy, and I worry that if I leave them in any longer they will get burned.  I've missed out on a lot of good cookies through impatience; I wonder how many other delights I've robbed myself of through my proud impatience.

So if you're reading this, do me a favor, please.  Ask God to give me patience.  I can smell the cookies, and they are going to be DELICIOUS if I can just force myself to wait a bit longer.  God willing, I will even be able to share these cookies with my friends.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Best Friends (but Not Forever)

I've noticed something.  Maybe you have, too.  The authors of the four gospels didn't like Judas Iscariot.  None of them had anything good to say about him, and John flat-out called him a thief.

I think that's the reason we get him all wrong.

This became obvious to me last week as I was lunching with my friend Robin.  She was surprised to find that, reading Beloved Disciple, she actually liked Yehudah Ish-Kerioth.  She started thinking that maybe she was wrong in identifying him as Judas, because he was a fun guy with a sense of humor and Yeshua (Jesus) hung out with him more than anyone else.  "No," I assured her, "he's Judas, all right."

"Well," she said, "then that's just one more reason to like this book. I never thought of Judas that way before."

Few people have.  Why is this?  After all, the Bible is clear when it says Jesus was betrayed by a close friend.  He himself quoted the psalm that prophesied this tragedy: 
Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:9)
I don't know about you, but I like my close friends.  I even like my not-so-close friends.  That is (in my opinion) the definition of friendship.  I can't say the same for all of my acquaintances, nor my family members, nor my students.  But my friends ... them, I like.  So if Judas was a close friend of Jesus, it makes sense that Jesus actually liked Judas.  In my mind, that makes Judas a likable guy.

Betrayal is a funny thing (not funny-ha-ha, but funny-strange).  It can only happen where trust exists.  Where there is no trust, there can be no betrayal.  Some people think (because of the way John worded his gospel) that Jesus knew right off the bat which one of the Twelve would betray him, and that Jesus chose Judas as his betrayer, and that he never really got close to Judas emotionally because -- after all -- Judas was a scum bag.  If this were the case, however, there would have been no betrayal.

Let me use a parable to get this idea across.

Jim was low on cash.  He owned an expensive painting but he knew that, in the current economy, he couldn't sell it for even half of what it was worth.  "If only someone would break into my house and steal it," he reasoned, "then I could collect the insurance."  Jim was no idiot, though.  He knew he'd have to involve the police and that whoever stole the painting would have to be caught.  Otherwise, the insurance company (and the police) would suspect that Jim had stolen his own painting.  So Jim, being no idiot, decided he needed a new friend.  He started hanging out in all the wrong places until, sure enough, he became acquainted with a man who was known as only marginally honest.  He bought the guy a beer and invited him to go fishing, and within weeks the two of them were inseparable.  Jim's other friends were leery of Bob, but since Jim vouched for him, they tolerated his presence at their get-togethers.  No one was really surprised, however, when Jim's valuables disappeared ... around the same time that Bob left the state.  "He betrayed me!" Jim said again and again.  "Well," his friends replied, "next time maybe you'll listen to us."

Betrayed?  Hardly.  Yet this is the way so many of us have been trained to view the relationship between Jesus and Judas.  Now, I don't think I'm contradicting the scriptures here.  Jesus DID know who was going to betray him: one of his closest friends.  And he chose all twelve of them knowing that one of them was going to turn on him; he chose twelve men who had the capacity for betrayal, and he allowed himself to become emotionally attached to every one of them, accepting the fact that one of them was going to turn against him.  Many articles and commentaries have explored the possible reasons Judas had for betraying Jesus, but few have asked the more important question: why was it Judas and not one of the others?

At the Last Supper, each of the disciples asked Jesus who the betrayer would be.  "Is it I, Lord?  Is it I?"  I wonder how many times, earlier in their friendship, Jesus had looked into each face and asked, "Is he the one, Father?  Is he?"  Obviously, toward the end, Jesus knew it was Judas.  But did he know this -- would he allow himself to know this -- right from the start?  Or would that have negated the prophecy by turning a betrayal into something less painful?

I honestly think the whole betrayal thing started out as a misunderstanding.  Jesus said or did something, Judas misunderstood, and the rest is history.  Why do I believe this?  Think about it ... how many times in your own experience have two good friends become enemies overnight over a simple misunderstanding?  Do you think maybe this is the reason Jesus tells us to go first to the one who has wronged us?  To avoid a misunderstanding turning into a war?

I cannot think of another thing that's as painful as betrayal.  And yet, most betrayals could be averted by clear communication.  It is when we rush into reaction -- as Judas did -- that a misunderstanding escalates into something that destroys relationships, destroys marriages, destroys ministries, destroys careers, destroys reputations ... destroys lives.

I don't know you, but I do know this.  If you are ever betrayed, it will be by someone you love, someone you like, someone you trust.  You can easily avert that betrayal: just stop having friends. (Hermits are never betrayed.)  If that seems like too drastic a measure, then try Plan B: when someone you love says or does something that you don't understand, go to that person.  Listen more than you talk, and find a way to work it out.  Don't let a misunderstanding cause you to throw your best friend under a bus and then hang yourself.  Don't follow the example set by Judas ... who, by the way, was a great guy.  He had some issues, but don't we all?  Don't we all?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thank You, Cecil Murphey

In just a few hours I will be driving halfway across the state to attend the Florida Christian Writers Conference.  This experience was made possible by a man I've never met, but whose books I have read (without even knowing it): "the man behind the words," Mr. Cecil Murphey.

I'd like to publicly thank Mr. Murphey (or Cec, as he refers to himself in his writing) both for this opportunity and for sending me a copy of his latest book, Knowing God, Knowing Myself.  Right now, when I should be packing or getting some sleep, I am staying up WAY too late to read it.  I keep saying, "Just one more chapter," but one has turned into forty-three.  At least they're short!  Cec ends each chapter with an aphorism, something to take away and meditate on.  I decided to end my reading tonight with the chapter called "Beginning Again," because it is so timely given my circumstances. This chapter's nugget of wisdom is:
God, remind me that today I can choose to redefine my life. Today I can start again.
Cec has done this in his own life several times, once after returning from six years as an African missionary, and once after a fire destroyed his home and everything in it. "In the process," he writes, "I realized that any of us can start over anytime we choose. But few of us make that decision."

I think God is talking to me.  Again.  (It never ceases to amaze me, that the Sovereign and Creator of the entire universe would bother to talk to me.)  I may be half a century old, but I'm not dead yet, so I'm not finished yet (as Pastor David Uth reminded me last weekend). Like Cecil Murphey, I can choose to start again.  I can "redefine my life."

Hmm, I sense another blog in my future...  ReDEEfining My Life.  Stay tuned for further developments!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Camel Game

This one's going to be REAL short.

Have you ever read one of those studies on stress?  You know, the studies where they list all sorts of life events and assign a stress point-value to each one?  Well, right now, I am going through four or five of the "biggies" simultaneously and my stress meter is seriously in the red!  I'm not dying, divorcing, having a baby, or getting married; otherwise, you name it, and I'm probably going through it.

At least I've figured out why.

Twelve years ago, a pastor with whom I was working told me, "You have a lot of performance issues, Dee. God is going to break you of them."  Break is the operative word here.  As a teacher, I have been complimented many times for my "flexibility." The problem is that flexible people are hard to break.  What's that Chinese proverb about trees? "The tree that does not bend with the wind will be broken by the wind."  You probably also know the expression, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."  Over the years I've had a lot of near-death experiences, emotionally-speaking, and so I've gotten stronger.  Flexibility + strength = someone who is really REALLY hard to break.  God's been gentle over the last decade...maybe too gentle.  My performance issues are still there, in droves.  (You'd think that writing The Voice would have opened my eyes to both the problem and the solution, but it didn't.)  Anyway, I've come to the conclusion that God is playing the camel game with me this year.

Maybe you are old enough to remember the camel game: the one where you kept putting straws into its basket until it snapped in half.  Schaper Toys marketed the game, called "The Last Straw," in the mid 1960s.  That camel was NOT flexible, even if he was held together with a rubber band!  He was hard plastic and when he got overloaded, he fell apart.

Sadly, whenever God gives me as much as I can handle, that's exactly what I do: I handle it.  In order to break me, then, He will have to give me MORE than I can handle, and I think He's really close at the moment.  If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I am not enjoying the experience.  Of course, that's probably because I keep trying to handle the load.  ("Bring it on, Lord!")  As I sit here reading the cover of the "Last Straw" box, which promises Fun and Laughs for Everyone, I am not having fun or laughing.  Then again, if I am the camel in this metaphor, maybe I'm not supposed to be having fun.  I do hope God is enjoying the game, though.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Time to Kill

 There is a time for everything,
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build...    (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, NIV)
Many years ago, long before I knew God or had written anything of significance, I helped plan and run a sci-fi/fantasy convention for fans of the "Darkover" series by Marian Zimmer Bradley.  I've forgotten most of what went on at that convention, but a few things managed to stick in my brain, many of them quotes from a panel of writers who participated in a Q&A session with the fans.  If memory serves, the panel included Ms. Bradley and also Katherine Kurz and Anne McCaffrey...all of them favorites of mine at the time.  I can't recall who said what (we're talking more than 25 years ago), but some of these gems still spring to my mind on a regular basis and have influenced my own writing.  For example:
Of the harp and the violin, which is the greater instrument?  The violin.  Why?  Because the harp cannot sin, while the violin can sin but chooses not to.
Having attempted to play the violin when I was younger, I had to agree with part of that statement. (The violin can definitely sin in the wrong hands!)  I myself never had any better luck with the harp, but I admire those who can play it, which is probably why I taught Katan to love the kinnor. (Like Yochanan, who is arguably the most autobiographical of my characters, my hands have little skill at drawing music out of inanimate objects; most of my own music comes from my voice, although I have learned--like Yosef--to make joyful noises on my "flute," an antique alto recorder.)

The comment that most affected me was one I am fairly sure was made by Ms. Bradley, who caught my attention by criticizing one of my favorite writers, Robert A. Heinlein:
I lost all respect for Heinlein when I read the end of Podkayne of Mars.  Podkayne should have died.  By allowing her to live, he weakened the story and destroyed its believability for me.  I hate killing off my characters, but sometimes it is simply necessary.  The writer who cannot kill a character when the plot demands it, is no writer at all.
Writing fiction is a godlike endeavor.  In my opinion, it is the closest thing to pure creation that a human being can achieve.  All other forms of art take what already exists--clay, paint, stone, fabric, metal--and shape it into a new form; only fiction writing creates worlds, peoples them with characters created in the author's own image, and then maps out a destiny that the characters are doomed to follow to its bitter end.

Douglas Gresham, executor of C.S. Lewis's estate and co-creator of the Narnia movies, warns about this when he speaks about the moral responsibility that writers have.  I was privileged to hear him at a conference two years ago, but his words sometimes haunt me:
When we read a story in which a damsel has been tied to a tree and is about to be eaten by a dragon, before we rejoice in the fact that a prince is about to ride to her rescue, we must ask ourselves whose fault it is that she needs rescuing in the first place!
He points out, and rightly so, that the imagination of the writer is a formidable weapon for good or for ill.  Is it right, I often wonder, to create a character for the sole purpose of doing him in?  In spite of this moral dilemma, I have made the conscious choice to follow the advice of Ms. Bradley.  When it is necessary to the plot, theme, or character development in one of my stories, I kill the characters.

In my own defense, I will point out that some of the bloodshed in my novels is unavoidable.  Since I write historical fiction, it is not always my idea to kill the characters.  I mean, I wasn't the one who decided to chop off Yochanan's head: blame that one on Herod Antipas.  If I had been plotting that story, I would have allowed Yonni to ride off into the sunset and sit at Yeshua's feet until the end of his days.  (I am forced to admit, however, that it wouldn't have been as good a story; as Yeshua himself pointed out, "it is inconceivable that a prophet should die anywhere other than Jerusalem.")

I can't pass all of the bucks onto God, though.  I confess, I have killed off an awful lot of people just because they were in the way.  Real life may allow for 628 facebook friends, but just try to keep track of all of them in a novel!  And make them three-dimensional!  It's bad enough that Jesus chose TWELVE disciples.  To have him juggling a large family as well...brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins...and FRIENDS...it gets positively overwhelming.  Some of them simply had to go.  So, if you are squeamish about such things, don't read my books.  (You might not want to read the Bible either, because an awful lot of people die between those covers, and most of them are women and children.  But that's a topic for another blog.)

Sometimes I laugh and tell myself that, when I get to heaven and meet these people (the ones I didn't simply fabricate) they are either going to laugh in my face or beat the tar out of me for the things I said about them.  Please, understand that my novels are just that: works of fiction.  Because of that, I take the moral risk of doing things to the characters that I would never dream of doing to real people.  But I want you to understand that I get very little pleasure from their pain and suffering; it hurts me to torture and kill them, and sometimes I mourn for them to the point where I cannot eat.

I used to feel the guiltiest over Yoshiah bar Zebdi, a little boy whom I created for the SOLE purpose of drowning, just so it would give me a deeper motivation for some of the traits I had decided to develop in Yakob and Yuannan.  At the moment, however, I am filled with remorse about something I haven't even written yet.  You see, I refuse to kill a character I don't love.  A few months ago, I realized I was going to need someone to die, and so I wrote him into the story.  Now, before I can take him out of the story again, I need to fall in love with him.  I need to make him REAL.  (If I don't care about him, neither will my readers; if I don't love him, neither will they.)  And so I am making him lovable, writing all the little things that make him a real, lovable, LOVED person.  And the whole time I am doing this, I know what's coming and it is killing me to know this and be powerless to prevent it, but I NEED him to die for the greater good of everyone in this story.

There is a time to kill.

When I read the Bible and God is wiping people out left and right, I look at it differently now.  When I read the newspaper and God is allowing people to die in all sorts of tragic and "senseless" ways, I look at it differently now.  I have a feeling God has the same rule I have: He won't kill someone He doesn't love.  There is a greater good and only He knows what it is.  If He doesn't care about them, how can He expect us to?  And He wants us to care.  Oh, how He wants us to care!