Book Review: The Water Knife

The Water KnifeWell, let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The last thing the scifi genre needs is Yet Another Climate Change Dystopia. And this one comes with the tired sermons about human stupidity and climate change deniers. I was also disappointed that Bacigalupi threw in a gratuitous declaration of one character being gay, when his sexuality contributed absolutely nothing to the story. You’re better than this formulaic stuff, Paolo.

Having said that, the book is a good thriller with very nice character development and a great twist at the end. In my opinion, Bacigalupi is one of the better voices in today’s scifi generation and this story keeps your attention well. So well that I stayed up later than I should have last night because I had to finish it.

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Book Review: Bedlam & Belfry: Intergalactic Attorneys at Law

imageBedlam & Belfry are attorneys with rather low scruples, high ambitions, and devious minds. In some stories that leads to interesting contrivances. In others, such as Bedlam & Belfry: The Musical, they aren’t even relevant to the story. Regardless, the reader should approach this book with thoughts of humor, and nothing at all “intergalactic.”

Most anthologies are of the “Best of” variety, where an editor has the ability to select his or her favorite stories of a particular type. In this case, the author has only written 12 so this collection is both the best of and the worst of. That’s why you find really enjoyable stories such as Bedlam & Belfry go to the Dogs beside such clunkers as Bedlam & Belfry Get Elected.

As in the days when people bought entire albums rather than individual tracks, you don’t have to enjoy all 12 to think the album was worth it. But when you made a mix tape, you only selected a few from the album to make the cut. On balance this book (full disclosure: review copy provided free by Rocketship Press) is enjoyable, but don’t approach it with the lofty hopes raised by reviewers who compare this to Monty Python and Douglas Adams.

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Book Review: Closer Than Close

51walpeh4olby Dave Hickman
Tyndale House Publishers, 2016

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s good, because the cover of the advance review copy that Tyndale sent me is a really creepy eyeball and unfortunately the book cover misleads you about the book’s content. I also suggest you completely bypass the book’s Foreword, because it will paint the book’s author as someone you have nothing in common with, which makes it harder to relate to the content. That’s a shame, because the book does make some good points worth considering–at least in chapter 1 where he actually discusses what the back cover says the book is about.

He makes a somewhat confusing attempt to explain the Trinity in chapter 2, but if you stay with him to chapter 3, you see that it’s not quite the non sequitur that it seemed as you struggled through chapter 2. The truth is that Jesus said in John 14 that we would be in Him and He in us, just as He is in the Father, so trying to grasp the nature of the Trinity is important in understanding the level of union we have with God.

Unfortunately, in chapters 4 and 5 the author is still trying to explain the Trinity, and making no real progress toward helping me understand my relationship with God. It might well be a good book if you enter it with the right expectations, but the blurb for the book left me feeling like a victim of bait-and-switch.

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Why Christian Meditation is Different

When most of us think of meditation, we tend to think of Buddhist monks and other Eastern Mystics. I certainly did, and that has caused me no end of difficulty in trying to develop a habit of Christian meditation.

In the Eastern way of thinking, meditation is not about controlling our mind as much as becoming an outside observer. The frequently-used analogy is that of sitting on the bank of a stream. When an unwanted thought comes in, we are to simply observe it and allow it to flow away. In so doing, we are preventing the thought from becoming too much of an issue so that it will go away as quickly as possible without disrupting our peace.

Perhaps after years of a monastic life that even works.

I have been on a silent retreat for several days now at the Abbey of Gethsemani, trying to calm my spirit and develop better meditation, peace, and communion with God. I spent much time attempting to find a calm center and allow my own mind to quiet enough to hear the voice of God. In the process, I have found that—at least for me—in trying to see those thoughts as leaves that disappear down the stream, they become rather large turds that foul the river completely. As Goll says in The Lost Art of Practicing His Presence, “One of the enemies of Communion with God is a mind busy with other things. It’s hard to hear the voice of God when you’re constantly hearing your own thoughts.”

I read a great deal of Merton, Nouwen, Foster, Guyon, and others, and found myself wondering what was wrong with me. They seemed to have achieved a state of serenity to which I can only dream. And, to be honest, envy.

This morning I tried something different. Instead of reading from these great contemplatives, I went to the Bible. (Oh, like you’ve never looked for answers in human writing rather than God’s Word!) There I learned that while it may indeed be as simple as letting thoughts flow by once you have achieved skill at meditation, that technique is not described in the Bible for beginners. Rather than a passive practice and hoping for the best, the Bible describes it as a much more aggressive practice. For example, aren’t the words of 2 Cor.10:3-5 just as applicable to our mental state as more external spiritual warfare?

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Our inappropriate thoughts are not things that we simply hope will go away, they are mental strongholds that we must war against. The Bible doesn’t tell us to passively observe our thoughts, but to take them captive! Why, then, should we not take advantage of our mighty power by calling on the name of Jesus to eliminate these thoughts and allow us to commune in peace?

Surely when we are consciously trying to eliminate our own thoughts to listen for the voice of God, the thoughts that continue to interfere are sent to us from the Enemy. Of course he doesn’t want us hearing clearly from God! But James 4:7 tells us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This is not a passive state, but an active one.

In Romans 12, Paul calls us to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” We tend to think of this as a passive thing, since it is up to God to transform us. But did you notice that Paul calls us to “let” that happen? In other words, it doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. God is willing, but gives us the freedom to prevent it. When inappropriate thoughts intrude on meditation, we need to actively reject them to call on God to change the way we think. In Ephesians 4:23-24 Paul tells us to “let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” Again, we see that we have an active responsibility to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in renewing our thoughts. We don’t await a new nature, but actively work with the Spirit to “put on” our new nature.

Yes, these great Christian contemplatives make it sound easy. And after we have practiced as much as they have, it will likely come far more easily. But I believe Goll was right in saying, “Sometimes we have to fight before we can obtain an inner peace and serenity.” Otherwise, why would we need to follow the Ephesians 6:10-18 details for putting on the full armor of God and staying “alert” in our prayers?

Be Better Than the Media

The media, whether traditional or social, portrays an increasingly polarized and intolerant world. For all the cries for tolerance, there is more anger against those with differing viewpoints than I can ever remember. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way–and in fact it isn’t that way in many instances.

I have a friend who I’ve known for nearly 30 years. We come from different religious beliefs (I’m Christian and he’s Jewish) and differ on a number of social issues. And yet… I always enjoy being with him and talking with him, and I have an immense amount of respect for him.

First, let me tell you what happened. Like many, I have become frustrated with some things going on the world, even though they are out of my control. I am consciously deciding to spend less time on social media because of the intense anger that I see from both sides of every issue. I need to rebuild my sense of the beauty in the world rather than let these things (which I can’t control anyway) cause me to begin acting and speaking in ways contrary to the man I want to be.

As a result, I’ve begin spending a fair amount of time on artistic websites, appreciating the creativity, imagination, and skill of people with their drawings, paintings, and photographs. I’ve done some sketching and some watercolors. For a long time several years ago, I was seriously into photography, and greatly enjoyed it.

My friend has taken some incredible pictures through the years, and I mentioned to him that I hadn’t seen any lately. I told him that I was spending more time on beauty in my life, and was missing his pictures. I said that when I win the lottery (yeah, I know, you have to buy a ticket) I was going to get some high quality photography gear and get back into that part of my life. He responded that some physical issues prevented him from being able to get out and do the level of photography that he used to do. I sympathized with him, and dropped the subject so as to not make him more self-conscious of the limitations his current life has.

About a week later, a box arrived at my house. It was a high-end Nikon camera body, a top-notch zoom lens, the original battery and a spare, a high-capacity memory card in unopened packaging, a polarizing filter to get rid of sun glare, and an excellent third-party camera case. My friend decided I needed the camera more than he did. In fact, he was unable to find the original manual for it so he paid to get a new one to include in the box.

He could easily have sold the set for hundreds of dollars. Instead, he bought a new memory card, bought a new manual, and paid for it to be packed well and shipped to my home. I wonder how many Christians I know would even have Jewish or Muslim friends, much less sacrifice hundreds of dollars and go out of their way to do something nice for those friends.

Now I should prevent some who claim Christianity from getting upset with my “heresy” and refusing to read further. Let me rush to assure you that I wish my friend would become a Christian–and he knows that. Those who claim to follow Christ have no choice but to adopt two of his key teachings:

  • “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  • “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’* The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Jesus said that we are to love everyone else as much as we love ourselves, and that He is the only way to reach God. So it’s impossible for Christ-followers to accept a “lots of roads lead to God” attitude, and it’s equally impossible for Christ-followers to unlove others so much that they don’t want to see them accept Jesus.

But.

Did you know that it is not your responsibility to convert people? The Bible talks about us planting seeds and watering them, but it also says that only God can bring the harvest. Jesus himself said, “For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.” So how should we live with people who disagree with us, even after we’ve given them our best “come to Jesus” pitch?

We love them. We pray for them. We don’t expect them to live according to Christian principles.

That doesn’t mean we agree with them on everything. That doesn’t mean that we condone things that are wrong. That doesn’t mean that we compromise our principles. But we love them through it all.

My friend dramatically portrayed a beautiful picture of what Judaism means. What picture of Christianity do the Jews and Muslims around you get from how you treat them?

Why You Should Celebrate Maundy Thursday

Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a faith tradition that never celebrated Maundy Thursday. It was relatively late in life before I even heard the term for the first time, and my first thought was, “What’s a Maundy?”

It turns out that the word “maundy” comes from the latin word for “mandate.” The celebration comes the day before Good Friday, because it commemorates The Last Supper. And when I realized what it means, I realized how poor my faith tradition was without this holiday.

Evangelical churches tend to focus on The Great Commission as Jesus’ last words to the Church. (That’s especially true of Baptist churches, because it means we get to dunk ’em.) But Maundy Thursday reminds us of Jesus turning the tables on theology before His death and resurrection. John 13-17 tell the story of The Last Supper, and I’m afraid that all too often we just think of that time as the beginning of the ordinance of Communion. But nearly the whole of His words and actions that evening revolve around this statement in John 13:

34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

From the time of Moses to this very moment, the Jews’ commands had been centered completely on the Law and following the rules without fail. In these three lines, Jesus turns that upside down and says that from that point forward theology should be based on His love for us and our response to that with love for each other. It was the new mandate that we remember on Maundy Thursday.

As we think of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter, we’re missing a lot if we don’t also remember His mandate on Maundy Thursday. These days the Church is not known for its love of Jesus or each other. In other words, we’re not following Christ’s last command in human form.

Valentine’s Day is about agape, not eros

There are many stories about the legend of St. Valentine—and they conflict greatly. The one thing we’re most certain of is that God healed an official’s daughter when Valentinus placed his hands over her eyes.

Not particularly romantic, is it?

Today, Valentine’s Day has become all about romantic love. Greeting card companies, candy makers, florists, and jewelers (just to name a few) are delighted. But let’s face it, romantic relationships already have things like anniversaries to celebrate annually.

The Greeks have three words for love, and all three appear in the Bible. Eros is the word for romantic love, phileo is the word for brotherly love, and agape is the word for a surpassing, sacrificial love. Now that’s something we need to celebrate!

Valentine’s Day is a difficult day for some people in our society; people who are not experiencing romantic love. Our warped view of Valentine’s Day makes it something that actually causes pain to some people—people who are frequently among the most loving people in the world!

How unfair!

Our world doesn’t need more people who are in love, our world needs more people who love. There are single people in my life who are incredible people, and share love without limit. Valentine’s Day should be a day of celebration of their love, because my life would be immeasurably poorer if they weren’t in it.

I can’t afford to buy flowers for all of you, but I want you to know that on this Valentine’s Day I’m thinking of you, I’m celebrating you, and I’m thanking God for you. Today is not a day for you to think you’re missing something. Today is a day for you to be reminded that I love you, and I would be missing something without you.

The $1.6B Lottery

{Note: This post is significantly longer than usual.}Powerball image
The recent Powerball jackpot seems to have been the topic of conversation at every gathering for the past week. It was at my office, several places on Facebook, at my parents’ house, and…yes, even in my car with my wife.

$1.6 billion. Think about that. Can you even grasp that much money?

Let me give you an even larger number: $2.4 billion. That’s how much money people have spent on tickets for this jackpot. The Multi-State Lottery Association (note that Powerball is separate from individual state lotteries—which are receiving huge amounts of money in ticket sales on their own) keeps about one-third of what’s spent on Powerball tickets, so the only reason they’re paying out $1.6B is because they have received over $2.4B. Money people have poured out of their pockets to buy tickets—just in the past two months since the last jackpot!

Most of the discussions have revolved around, “What would you do with the money?” Looking at the $2.4B number, my mind goes somewhere else: “What could you have done with the money?” Imagine what a sudden infusion of $2.4B could do for your favorite cause? People have only paid half that much to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and that amount is worldwide, not just in the U.S., and the people have gotten over 2 hours of exciting entertainment for their money.

What did people get for the money they spent on lottery tickets? Everyone knows that the odds are better that you’re going to be attacked by a shark in Kentucky than that you’re going to win the jackpot, so what are they getting that is worth giving away their money for?

It seems to me that people are paying money to get hope; to buy the opportunity to dream. Sure, that hope is based on a 1 in 292,200,000 chance, but hey…it’s still a chance, right? More importantly, people paid $2.4B for the right to dream the answer to, “What would I do with the money?”

What does that tell you about the state of contentment in the United States?

When we read Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, do we get the feeling that he would buy a lottery ticket?

4:10 How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. 11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

“But I only want to win so I can give the money away to support good causes.”

Really? Let’s think about what happens to the money. The MUSL has already scraped 33¢ off your dollar for its own overhead and to give to the government. For this jackpot, that means that 67¢ of your dollar is going to the lottery and government. Of the amount that goes to the government, much of it is absorbed simply for the overhead of the government itself and the overhead costs of the organizations that receive the money.

“But that money goes to education!”OliverLottery

Really? Ask a teacher how much better funded he or she is. Ask how much of their embarrassing salaries they have to spend on school supplies that the local districts can no longer afford to pay for. In nearly every state that has a lottery, state spending on education has decreased.

Some amazingly lucky person wins the 67¢ you donated. IRS immediately withholds 25%, and the full federal tax of 39.6% is due when you file your taxes. So, of your original dollar the government has taken another 26¢ in taxes, leaving 41¢.

But wait, the state gets their tax dollars on your winnings too—even though they already got their cut of the first 33¢. In Kentucky, your winnings are taxed at 6% which is another 4¢ from your original dollar.

Putting all of that together, of the $1 you spent a full 63¢ is essentially free tax money you are donating to the government.

If you only want to win so you can give the money away to support good causes, you can either give $1 directly to that good cause (and get a tax break for the donation) or you can play the lottery and give only 37¢ to that good cause.

The Real Itch

It seems to me that for the most part people are buying the right to dream, because they believe that a huge windfall will solve their problems. How sad.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that poverty is real and it is not a happy place. But if you’re poor, is it better to spend a dollar for the right to dream or to spend that dollar on food? If you’re not in poverty, is it better to spend $20 on lottery tickets or to buy $20 worth of groceries and give them to someone who is?

Will it solve your problems? It hasn’t for the vast majority of past lottery winners.

“The National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that as many as 70 percent of Americans who experience a sudden windfall will lose that money within a few years. People handed a hefty check also usually experience erratic emotions ranging from elation to resentment to anger, according to the NEFE” (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/17/18323470-what-could-happen-to-you-tales-of-big-lottery-winners)

“I had to adapt to this new life,” Hayes said. “I had to endure the greed and the need that people have, trying to get you to release your money to them. That caused a lot of emotional pain. These are people who you’ve loved deep down, and they’re turning into vampires trying to suck the life out of me” (Ibid.)

Why pay for the right to dream (and risk all the bad things that happen if you get what you’re hoping for), when the Bible gives it to you at no cost? In his most famous sermon, Jesus said, God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus said that His followers could go beyond dreaming about earthly solutions, and count on eternal solutions from God. Our problems on earth, bad as they may be, are temporary. Heaven is a promise to those who follow the Jesus who said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” Heaven is immeasurably better than we can even imagine!

You want to talk about a party? The best music ever? The most happy, carefree people ever? The lottery can’t offer that. Jesus can.