Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Anne Rice and Inspiration

Thank God for Anne Rice!

Many Christians wouldn't say that, but I do. A few years ago, I was driving to a minister's hike on the Appalachain Trail, listening to her book Taltos on CD. As a pastor, I can't reccomend this book, as it was written during her pre-Christian days and reflects a lot that isn't edifying. But nonetheless, her book inspired me as a writer.

Full of otherworldly creatures ike vampires, witches, et cetera ((click here to see the origins of this wonderful phrase) mingling unnoticed in the lives of human beings, her books made me ask the question, "Why can't a Christian author write something similar?"

That got me out of my non-writing slump and got me started on my book Behold the Giant. (It's a whole other story why that book's not finished, but finished or not, that book and Anne Rice got me writing again after a decade or more of not writing.) So I thank God for Anne Rice!

Another reason to thank God for Anne Rice is because she's come back to the Christian faith that she left behind for most of her life! (Click here to see an article, "Anne Rice: An Interview with the Believer" by Gloria Gaither) I praise God for her return to faith!

Another reason to thank God for Anne Rice is that I've been piddling around with Death Angel and Behold the Giant for long enough. Now that Anne Rice is writing Christian books and considering writing a series on angels, that lights a fire under my butt to hurry up and finish these books! I'd hate for someone who has been an inspiration to me to also become competition for me--someone who already has name recognition, readership, millions of dollars, etc.

So thank God for Anne Rice, who jump-starts my writing a second time!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Like Father, Like Son, Etc...

My Grandpa, Raymond Smith

Recently, I was looking at some old family photos. When I came across a picture of my father’s father, taken when he was just a little younger than I am now, it really surprised me. The physical resemblance was remarkable. When I think about it, there are times when I not only look like my grandfather, but I act like him as well.

Each of us carries with us elements of our parents, grandparents, and great-great-great-grandparents in our genetic code. Sometimes that's good, and sometimes it's not so good. We take the hand we're dealt.

Like every human being on the planet, Raymond Baker Smith was a mixture of good and bad. There were some fantastic things in that guy's personality, and some less than fantastic things. When I remember him, there are some things that make me laugh, and some things that make me angry. I'm sure it will be that way when my grandkids remember me.

What I can say is this: My Dad is a heck of a lot better father than his father was. (Hats off to you, Dad!)

I also hope my kids will say that I am a heck of a lot better father than my father was. (No offense to you, Dad!)

In like manner, I hope my grandkids say that my sons are a heck of a lot better fathers than I was. (Gosh--I just offended myself!)

My point is this: Each of us has the opportunity to do better or worse than our parents. In my family, we tend to improve with each generation. (If we didn't, I'd be worried.) In terms of genetics, we take the hand we're dealt. But in the choices of life, we're the dealers. We choose to improve or we choose to worsen. 2 Chronicles 25:4 says, "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins." This means that in both the good and the bad, God only holds us responsible for us. God doesn't judge us according to our parents, and God doesn't judge our children according to us. Each of us has choices to make, and each of us is responsible for those choices.

So what will it be for you?

Like father, like son?
Like mother, like daughter?


Monday, October 27, 2008

Who's at the Helm?

This is a picture of my 11-year old, taken on our visit to Portsmouth, Virginia, a week or so ago. We saw a lot of the tall schooners that participated in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. My brother gave us a tour of The Amistad, the schooner he crewes on. Here's my daughter posing at the helm. Doesn't she look like she knows what she's doing?

Looking at this picture, it occurred to me--a lot of us like to pose at the helm of our own lives. We like to look like we know what we're doing. We like the idea that we're in control, that our lives will go on whatever course we set. The truth, however, is that each of us is like that 11-year old who only looks proud at the wheel. We have no more idea how to steer our own lives than this cute kid knows how to direct a ship. Isn't it a great thing that we have a Master Helmsman who knows where to take us?

Then another thing occurred to me--in just a few short days, we're going to elect the next President of the United States. We're going to put someone at the helm--someone who can stand proudly and look like he knows what he's doing. But neither candidate has ever worn the presidential shoes before. They can debate all they want about who's the most qualified for the office, but when you get right down to it, whoever wins will be in uncharted waters--at least in his own personal life.

Praise God that whoever wins the election, the Master Helmsman knows how to steer the ship of our nation as well. With all the uncertainty, let's remember as we sail that God won't set us adrift.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Anti-Hero

Link to Flickr Photo

Literature has changed. Gone are the days when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. This is a new day--the day of the anti-hero.

"What's an anti-hero?" you may ask. It's a morally complex character who wants to be heroic, but who struggles with his or her own inner demons. The anti-hero can be a rascal, a would-be good guy but for all his flaws. Or he can be a villain who has some redeeming characteristics.

In the postmodern era, traditionally defined heroic qualities, akin to the classic "knight in shining armor" type, have given way to the "gritty truth" of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or "noble criminal" archetype seen in characters like Batman is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed un-heroic. (Lawall G, (1966). "Apollonius' Argonautica. Jason as anti-hero". Yale Classical Studies 19: 119–169.)

The anti-hero gives all of us hope. While we long for the days when you could tell the good guys from the bad by the color of Stetson they wore, we are increasingly aware that life isn't always that clear-cut. Moral ambiguity haunts us all. Of course, there are definite rights and wrongs, but they're not always easy to see. The anti-hero gives us hope by reminding us that even though we fail, even though we make mistakes, we can still turn out okay in the end.

The Bible is full of anti-heroes. From the trickster Jacob to Samson with all of his flaws, we see that God isn't done with us just because we've made mistakes. David the adulterer/murderer, who wasn't allowed to build God's Temple because his hands were stained with blood, is still a "man after God's own heart."

Death Angel, the book I'm writing, is about an anti-hero. Karath is a death angel who doesn't like his assignment. Of course, none of the Guardian Angels either like or respect Death Angels, because their two missions are very opposed to one another. Karath questions his own identity and purpose in God's plan, sinking deeper and deeper into depression and rebellion. Will he find a way of redemption, before his inner demon claims him?

Link to Flickr photo

This is actually the question that is asked of us all. Each of us struggles to defeat our inner evil. The apostle Paul said in Romans 7:21-24a (NIV), "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

That last phrase, "Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord" is important. It's only through Jesus that we can know peace. We can't defeat our inner demons--only Jesus can. Personally, I'm not all that interested in stories of anti-heroes who never find redemption. Redemption is what it's all about. And it only comes through Jesus.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Another Lesson from the Skeet Shoot

Follow this link to the photographer's work on Flickr.

While at the skeet shoot last week, the gentleman who runs the skeet range told us that he had cut a new path in the woods to attract deer. Now, I'm a hunter but I learned something new. He said that the deer like a fresh-cut path. They like an easy path. What a great hunting spot, along an easy path! Not only does it draw the deer, but it gives you an open field of fire, uncluttered with branches that might get in your bullet's way.

Then it hit me, how Satan likes to hunt those who take the easy path in life. He cuts the path, knowing we'll follow it. When we're in the open, out of the sheltering trees, he picks us off with ease.

Where are the fresh-cut, easy paths in your life? Are they really safe roads to travel?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pastor Appreciation Day

Here's a picture of me looking very ministerial. The picture was taken by Earl Clore, a retired minister and member of our congregation.

This past Sunday was Pastor Appreciation Day. Not every church remembers this day, but every pastor knows when it is. The fact that every pastor knows when it is makes it really important for churches to remember it. To forget it would be like forgetting your spouse's birthday or forgetting to give your secretary something nice for secretary's day.

Not that getting presents is what matters. Gifts are tokens that express appreciation. Pastors (of course, I'd never say this about myself) often feel under-appreciated and taken for granted. The hours are long and unpredictable. You're on call 24/7. Your motives are misunderstood. You and your family live under a microscope. You're put on a pedestal just so you can be knocked off. So yeah--it means a lot when your church members remember Pastor Appreciation Day and thank you for what you do.

Over the years, churches have remembered Pastor Appreciation Day in a variety of ways. Once, a church I served gave me a beautiful leather-bound 4-parallel-translation Bible. One of my church member refers to this mammoth tome as "The-Bible-That-Kicks-All-Other-Bibles'-Butts." Another year, another church gave me a standing ovation--it cost nary a penny, but brought tears to my eyes. Remembrances don't have to cost anything, and every one is greatly appreciated.

This year, my church remembered Pastor Appreciation Day by presenting my wife and me with a check and a card. "You can either go to some place like Burger King with the kids, and eat like a king; or you can go out just the two of you to someplace like Applebee's." (Of course, we chose the latter.) Then at evening Bible study, one couple (who shall remain nameless) placed a card with a gift in it on my lecturn. This family hasn't even joined the church yet! I was blessed by both remembrances.

Also, I can't overlook another member of our church who has taken it upon herself to be a blessing to the entire group of local pastors that gathers at Antioch for breakfast on Wednesdays. She made goodie bags for each one of us, full of all kinds of useful and encouraging things.

Then there are the ones who recently took us out to lunch at a local restaurant. (You know who you are.) God bless you!

I'm aware that my readership is mostly members of my own church family, so through this blog I want to say "thank you" from the depths of my heart.

But many of you aren't members of my church, and worship elsewhere. I'd like to encourage you to remember your pastors. Thank them for their service to God. It goes a long way toward strenthening a pastor during those long hours. Even if you've missed Pastor Appreciation Day, you can make their day any day. Click here for a link to an article in Christianity Today, "8 Ways To Encourage Your Pastor."

Thanks for reading my long-winded combination of a thank-you-note and shameless plug for pastors. I'm so fortunate to serve such a caring church. I hope your pastor too(if that's not me) feels the same way.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lessons from the Skeet Shoot

Last Sunday afternoon, the men's group at our church had lunch and then went out to shoot some skeet. (Yeah--I know--I love this church!)

We had a short devotion just before shooting, based on Romans 3:23 - "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." The word sin is actually a target-shooting word, and means to miss the mark. We sure had a lot of "sinning" going on at the skeet shoot later that day!

We talked about some things that cause us to miss the mark of God's glory in our lives. They are some of the same things that caused us later in the day to miss the skeet we were aiming at.

1 - Taking our eyes off the target
2 - Being distracted by what's going on around us
3 - Not taking our time to do what needs to be done, the right way
4 - Not breathing correctly. (If you're not a shooter then you might not know that your breath has a lot to do with your accuracy. In life, we need to be able to stop and breathe--relax and focus.)

Each of us has targets we aim at in life. Each of us misses the mark. Each of us fails (as our score chart would later indicate). The good news is that "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)." He didn't wait until we got it right. He didn't wait to see if we'd hit our target of His holiness, because He knew we never could. Instead, He stepped in between us and our mistakes, bore the brunt of our wayward shots, and died for us. By so doing, He gives us his perfection and eternal life.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some Father-Son Time

Here's a picture of my 6-year old son with his fishing rod last night. (I apologize for the picture quality, but it was taken with the camera on my cell phone--not the best for difficult lighting.) We went fishing at a local lake from about 9 PM to midnight. I had recently gotten some new lures, and wanted to try them out. Most of my fishing experience has been with either cut bait or live bait, so lures are something new for me. I figured an evening with a 6-year old would be a perfect occasion for testing out some new lures. No squirming worms or wriggling minnows to disgust a little fishing newbie. Just Dad, Son, some fishing rods, and the night.

Before you ask, I'll tell you. We didn't catch a thing.

Actually, I didn't expect to catch anything. Not with my inexperience with fake bait, along with the fact that it was a new fishing spot for us, so we didn't know the best placest to cast our lines. I hoped to catch something, but wasn't really counting on it. For me, it was an evening of father-son time. And I got what I wanted.

For my son, things were a bit different. His 6-year old mind had probably concocted all kinds of scenarios where he would land a shark or whale or octopus or something really exciting out of Ruritan Lake. To catch nothing was a huge disappointment for him. He expected something more.

It occurs to me how similar it is with us and God sometimes. God just wants to spend time with us, teaching us and loving us. But we expect something else. We're looking forward to some "religious" experience that leaves us with that tingling feeling all over. Some "I saw the light" experience that will transform us from fishers of minnows into fishers of men. And we're disappointed when our time of worship at church, or our devotion time at home, is lackluster. Sometimes we're like my son, who pouted a bit about not getting what he expected out of the experience. I imagine God in the same position I was in last night, saying, "But I thought it was all about just being together, you and me."

Which really is what it's all about.

When he woke up this morning, my son gave me a huge hug and thanked me for taking hiim fishing last night. It took him all night to figure it out in his sleep, but he really was glad that we just had the time to spend together.

May we figure out the same thing that my 6-year old now knows.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Learning to Walk Straight

Our beloved Dr. Brown, deacon and chiropractor extraordinaire, has been picking on me for months because of my fat wallet. He says that it's not good for my back, and could give me a wallet sciatica. <--- em="">Click here to learn more about that.) Unfortunately, my wallet isn't fat because it's crammed full of the green stuff. It's fat because it's not only a wallet--it's also a calendar, notepad, and organizer. Finally, the good doctor had had enough of my fat wallet, and lovingly gave me a new wallet. A chiropractic wallet made of ultra-thin, ultra strong stuff that helps arrange your back-pocket items in a slim trim kind of way. (Of course, the chiropractor would also advise I carry it in my front pocket, not the back.)

While that helped organize my credit cards, library and other membership cards, money, and so on, there still remained the problem of the notepad, calendar, and organizer. That's where the cell phone came in.

My cell phone contract ran out just a couple of months ago, so we were on a month-to-month plan. With a 2-year contract we were able to get a discount on a new phone, and since the old phone was experiencing multiple serious problems, this seemed like the time to make a change. This is the LG UX 380, a cheap little phone that has everything I need. It has a digital note pad, voice recorder, calendar, MP3 player for all those audio books I like to listen to, camera, video camera, and I think it even has a kitchen sink. So by replacing my old messed-up phone and bulky wallet/organizer, Doc Brown <--- em="">Click for his website) should be a lot happier with me.

Of course, it means I need to make some adjustments in the way I do things. I'm having to learn a whole new system of calendar-keeping and note-taking. I'm shifting from post-its that I used to stick in my wallet, to voice messages. You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks? It's not true. Any of us can learn new patterns at any age. And by learning these changes, it's helping me learn to walk straight.

If you're like me, then you know that we need to learn to walk straight on the inside, too. There are all kinds of things that throw us "off kilter" <--- em="">I love words--click here to see the origin of this phrase.) Bad habits cause us to spiritually walk or stand in crooked ways. Sometimes we need to learn new ways of doing things, so we can walk straight again.

In your life, what's your thick wallet? What old bad habits do you need to change so you can stand straight? How are you going to make those changes?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Harvest Time

A quick visit to the stores these days will show that harvest time is nearly here. Everywhere you look, fall colors are in fashion. Go to your local craft store and you'll see bundles of wheat, scarecrows, Halloween and Thanksgiving items. The year keeps cycling, and it seems like it goes faster every year.

The church year goes through its cycles as well. It begins with Advent, then moves on to Christmastide. After that comes Ordinary Time, followed by Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. Pentecost lasts until Advent, when the year starts again.

We get used to annual cycles, based on holidays and special events. Even the most modern of us is not completely divorced from the agricultural cycles that governed life for centuries of human existence.

Church growth is cyclical as well. This is not something that I read in a book by one of the church growth gurus. It's just something I've noticed over the past fifteen years of ministry. The church growth cycle follows an agricultural pattern.

In the wintertime, farmers mend their fences, take stock of everything they have, make necessary repairs on their homes and barns, et cetera. They also prepare the ground for planting. They do these things in the wintertime because the weather doesn't permit them to do much else, and because they're too busy to do much of this stuff the rest of the year. Churches, too, take stock of themselves during the wintertime. Beginning with Christmastide, churches tend to have in-house visioning retreats, manage their membership lists, and so on.

In the spring, farmers plant their seeds. In the spring, churches begin to plant the Gospel in the hearts of those who attend only for Lent and Easter. Internally, they begin to plant seeds with preparation for summer activities like Vacation Bible School, youth trips, and so forth.

The summer is a boom time for farmers. While everybody else is vacationing, many farmers find themselves far too busy to take time off in the summertime. In the same way, larger churches gear up in the summertime, with all the activities they've been planning since spring. At our church, summer is definitely one of the busiest times.

Fall brings the celebration of harvest for the farmer. Crops are gathered in and taken to market. At every church I've ever served, fall has been the time for new members. Of course, people join churches throughout the year, but in my observation, more new members join during the fall than during any other time of year.

Many years ago, a deacon was upset with the diminished church activity during the summertime. "Everybody's on vacation," he said. "I'm worried because church attendance is down." I calmly reminded him that this is what you can expect in the summer. People go on vacation, so attendance will decline. On the other hand, activities perk up. Since activity gears up and attendance goes down, that means fewer hands doing more work. Summer seems both busier and leaner. "We haven't had a new member join in months," the deacon told me.

I simply smiled and told him, "It's not harvest time yet."

And sure enough, in the fall they came in droves--right on schedule.

Have you noticed that your life tends to operate on an agricultural cycle like this, even if you're not a gardener yourself? Winter tends to be the best time for introspection. Spring prepares you to plant seeds and begin new works. In the summertime we have the most daylight, so we're reminded to work hard and play hard. Fall brings harvest and reward for your work.

What harvest does God have for you this fall? How are you seeing the things God has been building inside you come to fruition? And most importantly, will you give thanks?