Friday, September 30, 2011

How to Believe the Absurd

Have you ever thought of a story that you wanted to tell, but the concept was absurd beyond belief? For me, premature marriage stories are that way, but I enjoy reading them. The simple truth is that people simply don’t get married without realizing they are getting married or to whom they are getting married. It is absurd. So stories like this typically end up in historical novels or science fiction. How often have we seen the captain of a spacecraft visit a planet, enjoy the hospitality, and only later realize that he had participated in a marriage ceremony. But we enjoy these stories because of the high conflict as one or both people are trying to get out of the marriage and it doesn’t happen easily.

One way to handle this absurd situation is to make it a marriage of convenience, but that isn’t the same as a person getting married without knowing it. But here’s a really cool thing about the suspension of disbelief: the less you try to explain the absurd, the more readers are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Just look at Animal Farm. It has talking animals and it is no children’s book. Look at Dracula or Frankenstein. They are absurd beyond belief, but readers willingly suspend disbelief. The thing they have in common is that the writers never tried to explain how these things could be in real life, they simply put them out there as if they are and told the story.

I fear that I spend too much time trying to find an explanation for the absurd. There are many things in life that don’t have an easy explanation. Gravity, no one really understands how it works, but that doesn’t mean we don’t accept that it works. When dealing with the absurd in a story, the best approach is to not explain it at all. Do we really care how a warp drive folds space? Do we really care how a time traveler gets from one time to another? What we really want to know is what they do when they get there.

Rather than trying to avoid the absurd, we should embrace it. Rather than trying to explain it, we should treat it as an assumption. When the author and the characters in the book treat the absurd like it needs no explanation, the reader can more easily suspend disbelief. For the space of time in which the reader finds himself in the world of the story, he will accept that the absurd is true in that world because the characters believe it to be true, but when the characters try to explain it, they show that they don’t believe it either. If they are questioning it, then it must not be true because it is simply too absurd to be true.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mountain Moving Faith

A few years ago, I suffered what I considered to be a great loss. Suffice it to say that because of that loss many of the hopes and dreams I had for the future vanished. For weeks, I questioned God about why he had allowed this to happen. Even now, I question why it had to be, though God’s will on the matter has long since been revealed. You know, people say that when God says no it is because he has something better planned. If that’s true, I haven’t seen it, but I will say I learned something about faith.

Many people have the idea that if you ask God for something and have the faith to believe it will happen that it will happen. It’s kind of like the umbrella thing. People have the idea that if you pray for rain and believe it will rain then you’d better start walking around with an umbrella. Well, I can say that I prayed about it. I asked God to give me the thing. I even got to the point where I was convinced that he would give it to me, so much so that for a time I felt better about it. Obviously, he didn’t grant my request or I wouldn’t be writing this post.

The thing is, God knows the future, but he never promised to tell us what it is. Me being convinced that what I wanted would happen—that was all me. Jesus said that if we have just a small amount of faith that we could say to a mountain to be cast into the sea and it would be and yet, I haven’t seen anyone pull that off. The point isn’t that if you have enough faith you can move mountains, but that we’ve already got all the faith we need. The reason we haven’t been able to use that faith to move mountains is because God didn’t want the maintain moved. If God were to tell you that he wanted the mountain moved and then you walked up to it and told it to move, that would be totally different.

Faith is about believing what God says. Much of what God says is in the Bible. When it says he will take care of us, you can bank on it. When he promises a heavenly home, you can bank on it. When it says that he is able to do exceeding abundantly above what we ask and think, you can count on that too. But it never says that he will give us what we ask for just because we believe he will. If he actually tells us that he will give it to us, he most certainly will, but much of the time we’re left in the dark.

There are times when he tells us which direction he wants us to go. There are times that he leaves us with no other choice. But most of the time, we’re left to make the choice that we think best represents the one the Lord would have us make and we trust that he’ll help us straighten it out if we make a bad choice. We have no promise of tomorrow. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

I don’t know why God doesn’t reveal more about what he has planned for us than he does. If I had to guess, I would say that it is because he wants us to trust him rather than putting our trust in the future. I think of those authors who are so convinced that God has given them a message to write down on paper, but when they send it off to an agent it is summarily rejected. But there are other authors who are much more humble and though they never imagined their writing was much better than their peers, God has used it to touch many lives. If God had told them how many people would read their writing, perhaps they would have grown lazy in their writing. I don’t know why God hasn’t seen fit to answer my prayer. I don’t know if he ever will, but I think what he wants from me is to trust him to work it out for the best.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No More Pure Entertainment

Often, we think of novels as a form of entertainment. In fact, people may tell us that the reason they read novels is for pure entertainment and not to learn something. “If I wanted to be preached to, I would have bought a non-fiction book,” one blogger recently stated. So, if entertainment is such an important thing when it comes to writing novels, it might be helpful to consider what entertainment is.

Merriam-Webster defines entertainment as “something diverting or engaging.” What we must ask is what it takes to provide a diversion or to engage someone. Recently, it seems that people have gotten the idea that entertainment has no educational value. Therefore, novels shouldn’t attempt to present the reader with a message. But is that a valid assumption?

In a word, no. Thinking of those things that you wouldn’t classify as entertainment, what things can you think of that “divert or engage.” When you go to church, you wouldn’t normally think of the sermon as entertainment, but it diverts and engages the listeners. At least, you hope it does. Hobbies also divert and engage. A man may spend hours doing a woodworking project. A pianist may spend hours at the piano. These things are entertaining, certainly, but we can’t say they have no educational value or cognitive challenge. It is quite the opposite, in fact. I would like to suggest that it is the cognitive challenge that makes these things entertaining.

Moving back to so-called pure entertainment, I believe that much of what makes it entertaining is the cognitive challenge. Just consider the basic structure of the story. We begin with a problem, to which we find a solution, but that solution is challenged, and resolution is only found by overcoming the challenge. As we follow a character through the story, we readers are thinking about how we would handle a similar situation. This is similar to what we do when we what a friend go through a problematic situation. We question if there is something we can do to help, what we can advise them to do, and what the right thing to do is.

With that in mind, the challenge for the author is to present a story that causes the reader to think. What you don’t want to do is present a problem and then just tell the reader what the best solution is. For example, Betty’s son is on drugs, Betty tries to get her son to stop, her son runs away from home, Betty turns the problem over to God and it all works out. Good solution, bad story because it pretty much goes the way we would expect. It because a challenge for the reader when it causes the reader to reevaluate his view of the world. It isn’t our job to educate him, but we are to present the reader with a mirror and to encourage him to ask himself if he likes what he sees.

Another thing that an author can do to provide cognitive challenge is to show the reader what it is like to live in an environment the reader may never experience. A reader of science fiction, for example, might want to imagine what it would be like to live aboard a starship. The story becomes a framework by which we can allow that to play out. Readers of Christian fiction apparently have a desire to know what it is like to live among the Amish. It isn’t they actually want that lifestyle, as it would force them to give up many good things, but they find it interesting to see what it is like for other people. And not everyone who reads a crime novel wants to be a cop, but the story allows them to imagine what it would be like if they were.

An author isn’t forced to provide entertainment without having something to say. Readers are actually looking for the author to have something to say, but consider what the message is and which form of writing presents it better. Some things are best presented as non-fiction, telling the reader the facts and moving on. But fiction is ideal for encouraging the reader to do some self examination. When the right form is used, the author’s message will be understood, when the wrong form is used, the author will be accused of preaching or of having no substance in his writing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It Just Can't Be

I wrote yesterday about how a Christian book should allow a Christian reader to learn from the failures of the characters so that the Christian will know how to stand when his faith is tried. I can’t help but think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That book showed us some very great failures that were happening in America. Uncle Tom was a Christian—a Baptist, if I recall—but he was a slave. He had a good master, but his master had to sell him. Throughout the book, Tom moved from plantation to plantation, sometimes treated well, but frequently mistreated. He eventually made it back to the good master, but it was too late and he died from mistreatment. People who read that book were able to learn from the mistakes that were made and it helped to bring an end to legal slavery in America.

Some of the slave owners back then were not bad people. Some treated their slaves well. Though we remember the mistreatment of the slaves, many of the people of that day saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. It took a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to help people see that even though they thought they were doing okay, they could do better. Just because some masters treated their slaves well didn’t mean that obedient Christian slaves like Tom wouldn’t die under the yoke of slavery.

We need novels like that. We need novels that work like a mirror to show us things about ourselves that are uncomfortable for us to admit. The beauty of fiction is that it doesn’t come right out and tell us how the author thinks we ought to be, but it shows us characters who are copies of ourselves and through their lives it shows us the problems we may face if we continue on the path we are on. It may be a warning to turn around and go back or it may encourage us to continue in the way we are going.
Someone said that a novel must have something that just can’t be. When the thing that just can’t be in the character’s life is something that is in our life or will be if we’re not careful, fiction can show us how to fix that thing in our own life and world.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What Makes a Book Christian?

What makes a book Christian? In my way of thinking, what makes a book Christian is that it elevates the name of Jesus. Forget all this “Christian worldview” stuff. The real question is, does this book lift up the name of Jesus and promote the preaching of the gospel of the virgin born sinless Jesus crucified, buried, and resurrected the third day for the salvation of the world? Does it promote the mission of the churches, which is to preach the gospel, bring those who accept it into the fellowship, and then teach them what Jesus taught? If a book doesn’t do that, it isn’t Christian.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with that. As far as non-fiction goes, they might, since most of the non-fiction Christian stuff deals with doctrine, church related stuff, or how to grow in the Lord, but when it comes to fiction we see a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit. The typical Christian novel is a romance novel, though some throw suspense into the mix. If you really want the whole shebang, look for an Amish romantic suspense novel. But just because there’s a bonnet on the front doesn’t mean it is Christian by my definition.

A lot of books have the obligatory conversion scene in them. One of the characters, whether a primary character or a secondary character, realizes he is a sinner and prays to accept Jesus. In some books, they don’t even do that much, the author just mentions that they had a change or heart or something. To me, the conversion scene doesn’t a Christian book make and for that matter, I don’t see it as a requirement for a Christian book. For the book to fulfill the definition I gave, the conversion, if there is one, needs to be an integral part of the book. If I could delete the scene without having to rewrite the book, the scene itself can easily be ignored by the read, so it is just a tack-on to a secular book. That’s okay; we need some good secular books.

But likewise, a book doesn’t have to be consumed with a person coming to know Christ to be Christian. As the writer of Hebrews said, “therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.” (Hebrews 6:1) If you’re writing for Christians, there’s not much point in telling them how to be saved, since they’re already saved. What that audience needs is a book that will lead them toward perfection. In other words, it should help them improve their walk with the Lord.

Is that too much to expect of a novel? I think not, but how can we do that? I believe the best way to do that is to show realistic Christian characters who face the same struggles that most Christians face. Perhaps a character who has a basic understanding of how Christian ought to act, but whose faith hasn’t been tested. For example, what about the guy who knows he is supposed to be faithful to his wife, but then he falls in love with a co-worker? What about the guy who is trying to be the man he ought to be, but his wife leaves him for another man? What about the guy who is a new Christian, has become active in the church, and then the pastor runs off with the church’s money? What about the pastor who has built a fast growing church, but then realizes he isn’t saved? And I could go on. The whole point of these types of stories is that the reader is able to examine how he might respond in a similar situation, without having to experience it firsthand. If a reader can learn from a fictional character’s failures, the reader will know how to stand when his faith is tested.

Friday, September 23, 2011

When God Doesn't Answer

Have you ever asked God for something and he didn’t give it to you? Of course, you have. I encounter many authors. Most have been praying for years that God would help them get a publishing contract. There are couples who have been praying to have children. There are singles who long to meet the love of their life. There are people who pray for healing that doesn’t come. Whatever the need, they’ve prayed and questioned why God hasn’t met that need. Can’t he see how much pain it is causing? They’ve listened to the sermons on why God doesn’t answer and questioned whether they are asking for the wrong reason or if it is because of sin in their lives. They’ve knelt at the altar. They’ve cried themselves to sleep. They’ve spent hours in prayer and read their Bibles from cover to cover to find an answer. How long?

While asking out of lust or asking for something when our relationship with God isn’t where it should be can prevent us from receiving the fullness of God’s blessing, I highly doubt that is the reason God hasn’t answered in the situations I’ve described. Surely, if a person has spent this long asking God for something, God has had plenty of time to point out anything that might be preventing him from answering the person’s prayer or to tell the person that he is asking for something he shouldn’t be asking for. Even though people like to explain unanswered prayer away by saying that prayer is more about changing the petitioner than it is about persuading God, there comes a time when the petitioner doesn’t need to make changes in his life and yet God still doesn’t answer. That’s frustrating (believe me, I know), but it’s true all the same. Just look at Hannah. It wasn’t sin in her life that prevented her from having children and there was nothing wrong with her desire for children.

God looks on the heart, while man looks at the outward appearance. (I Samuel 16:7) We often think of that in terms of how we treat others or in our airs of goodness versus what God knows of us, but it is true of other things as well. Often, when we pray, we have this picture in our head of what life will be like when God grants us our request. That picture is based on what we believe about who we are and what we want to be. God looks at who he knows us to be and what he wants us to become. His picture looks very different. I would imagine that Hannah just wanted to be a mother. The Lord had bigger plans for her and her son. Samuel became God’s mouthpiece and anointed both King Saul and King David. Mothers are a dime a dozen. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one (and some of them need to be), but mothers like Hannah are very rare.

Unfortunately, Samuels are rare also. Just because God hasn’t given you a child yet doesn’t mean he is waiting to raise up a Samuel. It may be that he looks at you and knows that if he were to give you the thing you asked for you wouldn’t handle it well. Look at the number of people who get divorced. Approximately one-third (1/3) of the people who get married end up getting divorced. While the odds are pretty good that if you get married you’ll stay married, that figure tells us that 33% of the people who get married wished they’d never gotten married. Or to put it another way, 33% of the people who once thought they’d found the love of their life have decided that they were wrong. As painful as it is for a single person to go through life alone, such a person is better off than the person who goes through a divorce. By not giving a person what he asks for, God may be protecting that person from pain that he would experience if God gave him what he asked.

But it’s hardly as simple as that. God has the ability to change things. If we aren’t the kind of people who can handle what we’re asking for or if what we’re asking involves people who aren’t prepared, God has the ability to change them into the people they need to be. And that’s what we hope he is doing, but it takes time. God seldom reveals his time clock, but he knows when the time is right. His timing is perfect.

So what are we to do? If you’ve been asking the Lord for something for a long time and he has been silent, keep asking. Until he clearly tells you that he isn’t going to give you what you ask, keep asking. You recall how that David fasted before his son died, but afterward he went on about his business. But if the Lord has made it clear to you that he isn’t going to give you what you ask, give up. Whatever you do, don’t get ahead of the Lord. It may be that he will eventually give you what you ask, but wait for his timing or it may end in failure.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why Pray When God Knows Our Needs?

If God already knows our need, why do we need to pray? Some people have said that our prayers unleash the power of God, but consider Isaiah 65:24, “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” That day isn’t here yet, but it doesn’t look like our prayers are necessary to unleash God’s power. God’s power isn’t on a leash. He can answer our prayers before we pray. God knows our prayers before we do. God wants the best for us. What then is the purpose of prayer, since we aren’t telling God something he doesn’t already know and we aren’t asking for something he doesn’t already want to give us (assuming we’re praying a prayer he will answer)?

It all goes back to the Garden. When Adam sinned, he decided he didn’t need God. Ever since, our natural thought is that we can get by without God. If God were to give us everything we needed and/or desired without us asking for it, we would think we were God. Think about it. If you decided you wanted an ice cream cone and one appeared in front of you, you would think that it was something you had done. People in the psychic community would call this apportation. But how many of them would attribute it to God? No, they would attribute it to something the mind is able to do or to some spirit, perhaps that of a dead ancestor.

When you want to receive credit for something, wait until people realize they can’t do it without you and ask for your help. God doesn’t want us taking credit for the things that he has done. Effective prayer requires us to recognize that God has the ability to solve our problems when we do not. Though he sometimes blesses us anyway, we’re more likely to receive what we ask when we have reached the point where we will praise him for the blessing he gives us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Praising God When We're Crying

How do you praise God when life is tough? That was our discussion in Sunday school last Sunday. Our adult Sunday school classes are studying the book of Job and last Sunday we looked at the passage in which four servants came one after the other to tell him of the loss of his livestock, his servants, and his children, but we’re told that he worshiped God and didn’t charge God foolishly. It is here that we see that well known statement, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)

I think a lot of people get the wrong idea when we talk about praising God in the hard times. People look at 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and conclude that we should thank God for whatever happens to us, even the bad things. That may be easy enough to do with some things. “Thank you Lord for my car not starting this morning; I could’ve been in a wreck.” But how do you thank God for taking away your financial wealth and for killing your children?

First, let me point out that there is always something to thank God for. God sent his Son to die for our sins. Whatever happens to us during this life, we can thank God for that. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy about God allowing hardships in our lives. And let’s stay away from this hogwash about how God doesn’t cause our hardships, but he allows them to happen. Do we really care whether God did something himself or just chose not to prevent it? The result is the same; we are suffering and God could have prevented it. As Job said, “the Lord hath taken away.”

What we see in Job’s reaction is that even though he mourned the losses he suffered, he recognized the sovereignty of God. In other words, he recognized that God had the authority to do with his life as he pleased. Job also did not make foolish assumptions about why God had done what he did. Job didn’t say that God was just being cruel.

But just because we recognize that God has authority over our lives doesn’t mean we have to like what he does. Sometimes, I think that is the whole point. In the good times, it is so easy to forget that it is God who provides for us, but when life is so hard that the tears won’t stop, we fall to our knees and cry out to God. Think of Peter walking on the water. He walked a ways and began to sink, but he turned back to the Lord and they walked together to the ship.

God doesn’t take pleasure in our tears, but our tears may serve a greater purpose. We shouldn’t, however, assume that because God has a greater purpose for our suffering that he wants us to ignore it or to put on a happy face about it. As someone said, how would we know that God could solve our problems if we didn’t have problems? When we’re hurting, I think he wants us to go to him with tears in our eyes and ask him to fix it. It think he wants us to ask him why he allowed it to happen. He may not give us an answer, but he wants to be the one we turn to in hard times. He wants us to realize that he’s the only one who can fix the problem.

When a couple loses a child, they aren’t going to thank God for taking their child. That is unrealistic and it doesn’t fit with scripture. Scripture has so many examples of people who are unhappy with their situation. The question is, when you’re unhappy with your situation, do you take it to God and are you willing to accept whatever answer he gives you or do you take the attitude that God is either mean, or weak and then try to do something on your own?

There are so many examples in scripture where God was doing something or told someone that he planned to do something, but at the request of a righteous man he stayed his hand. At the request of Abraham, for example, the Lord spared one of the smaller cities in the plain of Sodom and Gomorrah. At the request of Moses, the Lord didn’t destroy Israel and start over. We don’t have to be happy about what God is doing. We don’t have to hold our tongue about what God is doing. But we do need to remember that God is God and he does as he pleases.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sanctuary Cities Bill

Is it just me or is the so called Sanctuary Cities Bill misnamed? My understanding of the bill is that it found prevent Texas State money from going to cities that prohibit officers from asking detainees about their immigration status. From the name, you would think that the bill attempts to establish Sanctuary Cities, but it actually does the opposite.

To be honest, I don’t like the idea of cities trying to get around state and federal law by telling their police officers not to ask about immigration status. But I’m not so sure that I’m opposed to the concept of Sanctuary Cities. In the Bible, Sanctuary Cities were established for people who accidentally killed someone, so that they would be protected from the avenger of blood. Today, that kind of sanctuary isn’t needed because all people who kill someone are given a day in court to see whether it was murder or not. But the immigration issue is not so cut and dried. By the letter of the law, an alien who is in the country without the proper paperwork shouldn’t be here, but when you look at the individuals involved you hear stories of people who are having trouble obtaining the proper paperwork for one reason or another and yet they have family members who are citizens of the USA. It’s hard not to feel for these people, even though we know they are breaking the law.

So, why not have Sanctuary Cities? I suppose it would have to be done at the national level. Instead of having some cities that tell their officers not to check the immigration status, what if we followed the example from the Bible and set up a number of cities where illegal aliens would be allowed to live while they are making their way through the red tape. As long as they remain in that city and don’t commit any major crimes, the status of their immigration would not be an issue, but if they were to leave that city without the proper paperwork, they could be detained and sent back to their country of origin.

I can understand the desire to have police officers enforce all the law, not just part of it, but I think we also need to balance that with compassion.

Is God Love? How Do We Know?

The atheist who stopped by my blog to tell me that “God is not love” got me thinking. In writing, we talk about how we should show, don’t just tell. That’s nothing new. God knew that a long time before we did and yet, we have this statement in the Bible that says, “God is love.” I thought it might do us good to take a closer look at that.

The statement appears not once but twice in First John 4. It is in verse 8 and again in verse 16. In verse 8 is says, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” In verse 16 it says, “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”

In context, what we see here is that John isn’t trying to tell us that God is love. John writes this in such a way that we see that he took the statement “God is love” as a known fact. It is similar to someone saying, a green leaf is not the sky because the sky is blue. What John is saying is that we know that those without love are not saved because we know that God is love. On the other hand, a person can’t dwell in love without dwelling in God because God is love.

When we extend the context farther, we see that John doesn’t leave us without evidence to support his assumption that God is love. Look at First John 4:9, 10. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins.” If you have any doubts about God being love, put that in your pipe and smoke it. How many fathers do you know who would ask their only child to die the death of the cross (even knowing he would rise from the dead) in order to save the life of a murderer facing the death penalty? Most people would say, “he did the crime, he should pay the price,” and they wouldn’t be wrong in saying that.

Even more than us, God recognizes that those who commit the crime must pay the price. God’s glory is so great that no sinful man can stand before God and live. Just to look at him would kill us, but he wants a relationship with us. He wants us to be able to see him face to face. He wants that so much that he sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins. Literally, Jesus took on our sins, as if he had committed those sins, and died for them, so that we could take on his righteousness. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The What If Game

Do you ever do the what-if thing? I’m currently working on a book that may have a target audience of 130,000. Just imagine if all of them purchased the book. Even at $1 per book, that would be a lot of money. Considering the nature of the book, $1 is actually on the low side. And if I sold that many copies, I’d have publishers and agents beating at my door trying to sign me. I know it isn’t realistic, but what-if.

But what would be more realistic? I happen to know that the 130,000 number may be over inflated because it is the number of times a particular piece of software has been downloaded, not the number of people using the software. Let’s suppose that the average user has download the software five times. If so, the number of users is 26,000. That’s not quite as impressive, but I wouldn’t mind selling that many copies. If the price is set right, I could make a nice sum from that. What-if?

We know that not all of the users will buy the book. What if 5,000 bought it? Depending on how the book is priced, I could still make enough money from that to make it worth my effort. What-if?

But what if it is a complete flop? What if I put hundreds of hours into this book and no one wants it? What-if?

That’s the problem with writing books. It is always a risk, but we’re dreamers. Sometimes, I think it is helpful to imagine what if I could sell 130,000 and make $15 each. That would make a nice retirement fund. It’s that kind of thinking that will convince you that the effort you’re putting into it will pay off in the end. It sure beats thinking that you’re spending hundreds of hours writing something for four or five people who will complain about what you did.

But you also have to be realistic. If the book is needed, you’ll have no trouble selling it to a few hundred people, but you still may not sell it to several thousand. You’ve got to keep your costs under control. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. It’s not such a bad thing to write an excellent book that is read by a few hundred people. When you think about it, most churches are smaller than that. We would happily put that much effort into preparing something for church, so even if our book is only read by a few hundred people, it isn’t a bad thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Reason to Fear

An atheist stopped by my blog the other day. He seemed to think it was important that I be told that “God is not love.” He had a long list of adjectives to describe what he saw God as being in the Old Testament, one of which was jealous. I couldn’t agree with all of the adjectives he used, but I could agree with that one because God describes himself as jealous. He wants our worship and doesn’t like it when we worship something else. My atheist friend appeared to think that was a bad thing.

To me, that is at the very heart of sinfulness. Compared to God, man is nothing, but so many people have this idea that they are so special that it would be wrong for God to tell them what to do. God made man from the dust of the ground. You can’t get any lower than that. We are dirt. Break us down into minerals and we’re worth less than $5. If we could see all of the Universe, we’re just tiny specks on a tiny planet near a tiny star in a tiny galaxy. What arrogance for us to think that God has any reason to listen to us. That would be like a roach telling us that we should let him stay in our house. The simple truth is that God has the power to create us and he has the power to destroy us. No wonder he tells us to fear him.

Part of the problem is that people don’t stop to think about just how big God is. The problem isn’t limited to atheists. Prosperity preachers have the same problem. While they talk about him being big enough to give people great wealth, they don’t stop to think that he might be big enough to have bigger plans than just giving us whatever we want. But God is God and he does what he pleases. If it pleased God to wipe us off the face of the earth, he could and would do it. Fortunately, it doesn’t please God to wipe us off the face of the earth. What pleased God was to provide a solution for our sin problem.

Maybe Christians are partly at fault. We spend so much time talking about how much God loves us and wants to have fellowship with us. Maybe we should spend more time talking about how God is disgusted with the sight of sin. Isn’t that what the Old Testament shows us? God laid down the law, as he had a right to do, but the Jews disobeyed and as a result he killed many. He sent many into captivity. These were his chosen people. If his chosen people couldn’t escape his wrath, how much more the gentiles.

It isn’t our place to decide that God is wrong to be jealous and all the other things we may say of him. It is our place to accept him for who and what he is. We want to turn God into a pussycat that we have no reason to fear. But God is a God of wrath, who sends fire from heaven. Though Jesus has opened the door so that we can boldly appear before God, God is a God to be feared.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Many Copies of a Book are Sold, On Average?

Steve Laube recently posted an article on average book sales. The figures he posted are interesting and yet, most authors never sell that many books. Across 10 authors and 51 books, he came up with a figure of 12,455 copies. Someone else came up with a figure of 5,000 copies. Most of the one million books published in the United States each year will never sell more than 100 copies. Why the differences in numbers?

One thing we have to ask when trying to find the average is what we really mean by the average. As you are probably aware, there is more than one way to calculate an average. The most frequently used method is to calculate the mean. This is done by taking the total books sold and dividing by the number of titles. This is what Steve Laube did. But the mean has little meaning when a few books have very large numbers and the rest are smaller. For example, if we have three books with sales of 5,300, 7,000, and 1,000,000, the mean will be 337,433. We wouldn’t tell an author who has written a book that he will probably sell 300,000 books, based on those numbers. Steve Laube tried to get around the problem by removing the very high numbers and the very low numbers. The problem with that is that it is arbitrary to decide where the cutoff point is. Also, as so many industry professionals tend to do, by focusing only on the major publishers, Steve pretends that more than half a million books published in the United States don’t exist.

The median is a better method of calculating the average in a situation like this because it more accurately represents the typical case. That is usually what people are asking for when they ask about the average book sales. They realize there are some books that sell much larger numbers and some books that much smaller numbers. It eliminates the problem of the extremes because it finds a midpoint at which half the books sell less than the median and half sell more. Given the three books mentioned above, the median is 7,000. But here again, we have the question of whether we should include the half-million books that are selling less than 100 copies. If we do, our average is likely to come out at 100 copies per book, nowhere close to Steve Laube’s 10,000 or the other fellow’s 5,000.

Industry professionals typically leave out the lower half-million because the vast majority of those books are self-published and poorly written. Industry professionals are going on the assumption that by the time a book makes it through the filtering process of obtaining an agent, publisher selection, and improved editing and marketing the book has a much better chance of success. They aren’t concerned about books they wouldn’t publish. For them, that makes sense, but the rest of us have to decide which books we should include in the average.

If you are considering self-publishing, there’s no doubt about it, you must include the half-million self-published books in your figures. While you may be convinced your book is better, you have no way of knowing, since you haven’t read all most of those books. But you can help yourself out by focusing only on those books that fall within your genre. Comparing a children’s book to a computer book is like comparing apples to oranges. But if you are seeking a publisher, don’t assume you can use Steve Laube’s numbers. Until you have a contract in hand, you will have to include the sale of all those people who also don’t have a contract. I don’t know what that number is, but I do know there are a lot of books that are sitting on the shelf and will never be published.

To say that this is complicated is an understatement. At best, we can compare our book to the books most similar to ours, though that is hard enough. But we can’t find a simple average number of books sold.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sin Against God

The Bible says that every sin is a sin against God. How can that be? We see an example of that with Joseph. When he refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, he asked how he could commit this great sin against God. We know that’s what it says, but we question how what goes on between two people could be a sin against God. It might be easier to understand if he had said it was a sin against Potiphar, but he didn’t; he said it was a sin against God.

One way in which it is a sin against God is that it fails to recognize that God is in charge. If God says adultery is wrong and we decide it is okay, then we’re saying that we have more right to control our lives than God does. If your boss told you to do something but you decided you wanted to do something else instead, he just might be upset with you.

Another way that it is a sin against God is that it breaks the fellowship with God. God is holy. In fact, that appears to be his foremost attribute. God is not able to look at sin. When we do unholy things, he isn’t able to have as close of fellowship with us as he would like to have.

Also, even though Joseph may not have been aware of it at the time, Joseph was in the place God wanted him. Had Joseph committed that sin, he may have made it difficult for God to use him as he intended. God may have had to have found another person to deliver his people.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Catch the Overflow

My cup runneth over” is an expression we sometimes use in reference to the blessings of God. God blesses a person so much that they just don’t know what to do with all he has given them. What a wonderful thing it is when the Lord blesses us that way.

The thing about a running over cup is that the excess spills out over the side. It may run across the table and if you don’t catch it quickly, it might soak any papers you have lying there or it might spill onto the floor. If you had another cup sitting there, you might be able to catch the excess in it.

God’s blessings aren’t much different than that. Sometimes, we look at the lives of people and see that God is blessing them, but when we look at the people around them, we see that they too are benefiting from the blessing that God is giving to that person. If God is blessing a mother, her children and her husband are also receiving a blessing, as is her church. Anyone who happens to interact with her, even if it is someone she encounters at the grocery store, may be in a position to catch the overflow of that blessing.

If you want God’s blessings, hang out with people God blesses. Spend time with people that God wants to bless. When he chooses to fill their cup, you can be there to catch the excess.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Boy Power

Why are there girl power movies, but we don’t see boy power movies? So many books and movies have a theme in which a young girl does things to show that she’s able to do just as much as any boy can do. They’re usually cute stories that encourage girls to see how special and beautiful they really are. There’s nothing wrong with that, but why aren’t their movies for boys like that? And what would one look like if there were?

I think part of the problem is that there is a tendency to lower the bar. While people say that girls can do anything that boys can do in order to encourage girls to live their dreams, they downplay many things that boys can and should be doing so that it looks like girls don’t have as far to go. That might help to encourage girls to take charge, but it has the opposite effect on boys. Tell a boy that something he’s doing is easy enough a girl could do it and it no longer seems like it is worth his time. Tell a boy that something he does that we wouldn’t encourage a girl to do isn’t really that important and he won’t do it.

Girl power movies are designed to promote a girl’s self worth and to encourage her to pursue her dreams, whatever they may be. If we were to write a boy power movie, it wouldn’t be so politically correct. Instead of fighting the airbrushed pictures that magazines tell girls represents beauty, a boy power movie would have to take on a bigger challenge. Consider the attitudes we would like to encourage in boys. At the top of that list is responsibility. I don’t mean we want them to take responsibility for their actions, though that is important. One of the great problems today is that young men aren’t being taught to take responsibility for their families.

Look at the number of young men who will get a girl pregnant and then won’t do their part to help raise the child. Look at the number of men who allow their wives to be the spiritual leader in the home. While it is important for mothers to teach their children about God, fathers have the responsibility of seeing that their families are in church and are learning about God. A father should be an example to his wife and children in Christian service. Children should have memories of being at church and working beside their fathers so that when they grow up they too will take on those responsibilities.

And young men need to be taught to be gentlemen. They should learn to treat women with respect. They should learn that a man should never hit a woman. A man should offer women and his elders his seat. Men should open doors for women and otherwise make her life easier. A man should never use bad language in front of a woman (or anywhere, for that matter), even if her mouth is filthy. A man should stand up when he shakes hands. (That’s one I need to work on.) A man should remove his hat when he is inside.

Perhaps the most politically incorrect of all, young men should be encouraged to lead. In all the effort to tell girls that they can do anything, I think we’ve forgotten to tell boys they have a responsibility to be the leaders in their families, in their churches, and in their communities. Some step up the challenge because it because naturally to them, but boys need to learn that leaving it to the girls is not the best option.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where Are The Educated Women?

I keep hearing that women are more educated than men these days. From what I hear, colleges have more women than men. I have no reason to doubt that, since the numbers don’t lie, but then I saw an interesting picture. It was of some Engineering interns at a particular company. In this picture, there were fifteen young men, but only two young women, who had worked for the company during the summer months. Now before you start talking about sex discrimination, let me say that from what I know of the company, that isn’t likely. The only reason I can think of why there weren’t more women in that picture is because there were so few qualified women who applied.
So here’s the thing: though there are more women than men attending college, when you look only at the hard jobs, it appears that men still outnumber the women by a substantial number. In other words, while there are a substantial number of men who don’t act like men, it is still men who are accepting the great challenges of life. That’s not to say that women couldn’t do those jobs if they put in the effort, but there is something about how women are made that most of them avoid the challenging tasks while men are made in such a way that they crave the challenge.
The ratio of women to men on college campuses is probably a meaningless statistic. All degrees are not created equal. Look at the more difficult fields of study.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Men Understand Love Better Than Women

Some people may disagree with me, but I think men understand love better than women. Take for example, the cases where a man loves another man and a woman loves another woman. Two women that love each other will go shopping together. They’ll call each other on the phone. They’ll visit together. They’ll talk about their kids and their husbands. But when men love each other, you see none of that. Oh, two men might occasionally have reason to shop together. They might go on a hunting or fishing trip together. They might sit around and talk about their kids and their wives. But that isn’t love. Most men would do those things with just about anyone, whether they loved them or not. If hunting is his thing, what man would pass up a chance to go? Who cares who he is going with?

When two men love each other, you know it because they work together. Some men will spend a whole day helping a friend repair his car. Some men will take the a Saturday and use it to help a friend move. It may not be physical labor. Some men will help a friend with a computer problem. Some will take the time to drive a friend to the airport.

You might look at that and say that it shows how much the man loves his friend. Not meaning to split hairs here, but I would say that those things are love. Actions don’t show love. Actions are love. The Bible makes it very clear that love is a choice and an action. So many people have degraded love to nothing more than a feeling. If they even consider the action, they seem to think that the action is motivated by the feeling. But love isn’t a feeling. You don’t have to feel anything toward a person to love that person. When you do things for people, there are feelings that come. You would miss them if they died and all of that, but those feeling are just feelings, they aren’t real love.

There are even stronger feelings when a man loves a woman, but love isn’t in what you feel. Love is in how you treat people. So, when the Bible says that husbands are to love their wives, that doesn’t mean that a man has to force himself to feel a certain way, it means he should do things for her. It means he should put her needs ahead of his own. I think most men understand that, even if they don’t do it. But women need to get that too. Don’t go thinking that just because a man doesn’t bring you flowers and chocolates every night he doesn’t love you. Look instead at what he does to support the family. Does he go to work every day? Does he wash the cars, check the tires, and keep them running? That is love.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Dollar Coin

I saw a video that ABC News put together the other day that talked about how the US government is spending a lot of money to make dollar coins but people aren’t using them. They’re even building a new warehouse to hold them. So maybe they’re making too many of them right now, but from my perspective, it seemed like an odd piece. I use the dollar coin all the time. Many vending machines have prices that are near or over a dollar, so anytime I buy something from a vending machine I use the dollar coin. It may be true of men more than women, but the dollar coin is easier to use because it is easier to find a dollar coin in a front pocket than it is to retrieve a dollar bill or a credit card from a billfold.

I think this is just another case where the news media is failing to paint the whole picture. They have a point they want to make. Picking on the dollar coin is fun because seems to show that the government is wasting money even as they make money. But give it time. In a few years, those extra coins may very well be put to use. Vending machine prices aren’t going down. Some people have suggested that all vending machines should have credit card readers on them, but that’s not only costly, it is dangerous as well. Pass your card through a vending machine card reader and you can’t be sure who you’re giving your personal information to. But a dollar coin is easier to use and you aren’t giving personal information to anyone.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Poor Man's Wisdom

While looking into the word nevertheless for yesterday’s post, I came across an interesting story in the Bible that I felt would make a good post by itself. It comes from Ecclesiastes 9:12-18.
This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me: There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

I immediately thought of how this passage applies to writing. No matter how brilliant your writing is, if you don’t have a platform, people will doubt what you say. On the other hand, there are some real idiots who have written books filled with garbage that people read because the author has a platform.

Of a related nature is how this relates to modern Christianity. I’ve heard a lot of sermons from many different preachers. I’ve heard pastors of small country churches with fewer than fifty members that were more true to the word of God than some of the sermons I’ve heard from popular preachers. But so many people will ignore people like that because they don’t have a large church or make a lot of money. Instead, they’ll turn to the guy with a large church and a few bestselling books. Modern Christians have become a bunch of hero worshipers. Instead of testing what preachers say against the word of God, they are rewriting the word of God because some rich preacher with big teeth or more questions than real answers tells them it doesn’t say what it says. We would do well to measure wisdom by truth rather than by how much money a person has.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Nevertheless is a word that appears 97 times in the King James Version of the Bible. It’s an interesting word because it ties two thoughts together with the second thought being related, but doesn’t obviously follow the first. The word first appears in Exodus 32:34, “Therefore now go, lead the people unto [the place] of which I have spoken unto thee: behold mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them.”

In context, this verse comes just after the people sinned by making a golden calf. You recall how they danced around it and said it was God. Moses went to atone for the people. Moses even went so far as to say that if God didn’t forgive them, he might as well blot Moses out of the Lord’s book. But the Lord said he would blot out those who sinned against him. The purpose of the nevertheless here seems to be that the Lord is telling Moses to go ahead and lead the people to the promised land and the Lord would lead them, but don’t take that to mean that the people won’t be punished when the Lord shows up. Verse 35 tells us that he did just that.

Another example is I Samuel 15:35, “And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.” Here it paints such a sad picture. Saul’s sin resulted in Samuel pronouncing a curse on him. It wasn’t Samuel’s desire to do so, but he was the Lord’s prophet. In that day, he lost a friend.

Psalm 31:22 gives us a beautiful example. “For I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications when I cried unto thee.” How often have we felt like God was no longer listening? That’s how David felt, but he came to realize that the Lord heard his supplications.

Jesus used the word in Matthew 26:64. “Jesus saith unto him, thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, hereafter shall ye see the son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” This was at Jesus’ trial and the high priest asked him whether he was the Christ. Essentially, Jesus said, “you said it, not me, but I’ll tell you this. You’re going to see me sitting on the right hand of God and coming in the clouds.” He hadn’t told them that, but it was true all the same because who other than Christ would be sitting on the right hand of God and coming in clouds?

Nevertheless is such an interesting word. It’s like strong conflict in a nutshell. Just reading the Bible passages that use it provides some very interesting reading.

Friday, September 2, 2011

God and Umbrellas

Someone once questioned whether we can claim to have faith if we pray for rain and don’t carry an umbrella. As I indicated in yesterday’s post, just because we pray for something doesn’t mean God has to give it to us and yet, he wants us to make our requests known to him and he often gives us what we request. That causes me to question whether we should measure our faith by whether we carry an umbrella or not.

When we have a problem that causes us to worry, whether it be a lack of rain, the desire for a child, or the health of a loved one, Philippians 4:6,7 tells us that we can make our requests known to God and he will give us peace. Sometimes that peace comes from God giving us the thing we asked for. I’m sure the church had a lot more peace when Peter showed up at the door than when they were praying for his release from prison. We might fault them for being surprised that he would show up, but they were probably hoping he would be released the next day or sometime that week. They weren’t expecting an angel to set him free.

God often answers prayer in unexpected ways. We usually association a pay increase with a job promotion, but a few years ago the Lord gave me a pay increase through a layoff notice. The department I was in was laying off, but the department I was working for still needed me, so after I received a layoff notice from one department, the other department hired me at a higher salary. It was disconcerting when I got that layoff notice. I thought I was trusting God and here I was without a job. He provided, just as he said he would, but it wasn’t the way I expected.

When we pray, we should do so with the attitude that while we’re telling God what we would like to happen, it is ultimately his decision as to whether he gives us what we want and how he gives us what we want. A simple example is a parent with a child. Parents like giving their kids things, but a child may ask for something that would be harmful or the parent knows it would be better to wait because something better is coming. God has a more complete understanding than any parent, so it shows no lack of faith on our part to request something and still question whether God will give it to us or not. Our faith should be that God will keep his promises, not that we will receive everything we request. If God promises that he will give us the thing we request, that is one thing, but he doesn’t always do that.

One thing that God has promised is that it’ll be okay. We make our requests known to God and things may not work out the way we thought best, but it’ll be okay. Maybe he takes a loved one from us rather than returning them to health. As painful as that is, it’ll be okay. We may ask for something that seems good, but we don’t get it. It may be that not receiving it will give us better things in heaven. We, of course, have no way of knowing that, but God does. But that doesn’t mean we should quit asking. We should ask in our limited understanding and trust that God in his infinite understanding will show himself strong on our behalf. Often, that means he will give us what we ask for, but it the decision is best left in his hands.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Getting God To Do What We Want

Often, when people talk about prayer, what they really want to know is how to get God to do what they want. There have been a number of studies that have attempted to see if prayer could be used for medicinal purposes. The result has been mixed. Some studies indicate that people come through surgery better when people are praying for them while others indicate they don’t or even do worse when people are praying for them. But no matter what the study results show, the goal of the prayer was to get God to do what we want. And that’s just a little silly, when you think about it. God is bigger than the Universe. Our expecting God to do whatever we want is similar to an ant walking across our kitchen counter asking us to put out some sugar for him, when we’re more likely to squish the little creature, and rightly so. We are nothing compared to God. And yet, the lines of communication are open between us and God. Jesus did that for us on the cross. The Bible encourages us to pray. What then is the purpose?

Some people have said that prayer is more about getting us in line with God than it is about getting God to do what we want. In some ways, that makes a lot of sense. Imagine if the ant asked for sugar and we could tell it, “I’m not going to put any on the counter, but I spilled some syrup by the stove this morning that I haven’t had time to clean up. If you guys will clean it up, that would be great.” Ants don’t listen when we tell them such things, so we squish them, but if they could, it would be similar to our asking the Lord for something and him pointing us in a different direction. But this theory on prayer has its problems as well. Consider the mother who is sitting at her baby’s hospital bed, anxious to know whether he will live or die. Only an idiot would go up to her and say, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” It might surprise you how many well meaning people will approach a single purpose who longs for a spouse only to say, “Marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The problem with this theory is that it implies that whatever state a person is in, no matter how much pain it may cause him, he should be happy with it because it is what God wants for him. He should pray, but only to help him learn to accept the hardships God has dumped on him.

We seem to have a problem. Prayer isn’t magic, though some denominations teach that it is. You can’t buy a book of prayers that have worked for other people and receive what they received by praying their prayers. Putting the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of every prayer doesn’t force God to do what we want, though I’ve heard people say they thought it did. God does what he pleases. But prayer has little purpose if it doesn’t change things. Oh, sure, we can offer up thanksgiving. We can offer up praise. We can confess our sins and say we’re sorry. All of that can take the form of prayer, but that’s usually not what we’re talking about when we talk about prayer. If God is going to do what he is going to do anyway, what’s the point of asking him for anything? God knows our needs, so we might as well learn to be happy with whatever he gives us and skip all the bellyaching.

The funny thing is, there are plenty of examples in the Bible where people prayed and God granted their requests. There are also examples where they didn’t receive what they asked for and even some where they regretted that they received their request. To be fair, there are examples of people who prayed and God gave them a better understanding of the situation. Going on these examples, there’s more to prayer than just aligning our desires with God’s or requesting the things we need. There really is some degree of getting God to do what we want and it is significant. But God is neither a person we can trick or a puppet on a string. So just what is this thing we call prayer?

Consider Philippians 4:6,7, “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The phrase “be careful for nothing” here means, “don’t worry.” The opposite of worry appears to be that we make our requests known unto God. And verse seven does indicate that the result will be peace, but we shouldn’t take that to mean that the only thing God will give us is peace. It doesn’t say, “ask God to give you peace concerning this,” it says, “let your request be made known unto God.” God wants us to ask for things.

I see it like this: What the Lord is saying is “it’ll be okay.” He wants us to make requests of him. He doesn’t promise that we’ll always get what we ask for or that we won’t face hardships, but it’ll be okay. If we believe we’re going to heaven, then even death isn’t final. We may lose a loved one in this life, but it’ll be okay. But there’s more to it than that or there would be no need for us to make our requests known to God. What the Lord is looking for from us is trust. He wants us to trust that everything will work out in the end, but he also wants us to trust that he will take care of us in this life.