Monday, October 31, 2011

HarperCollins to Buy Thomas Nelson

Sad news. Today, HarperCollins announced that HarperCollins will acquire Thomas Nelson by year’s end. It isn’t really surprising. It wasn’t long ago that another company took over Thomas Nelson in order to whip it into shape so that it would be more attractive to investors. It appears that HarperCollins took the bait. I don’t really have any idea what this will mean to readers or authors. HarperCollins already owns Zondervan, another Christian book publisher. For the company as a whole, it is probably a good thing, since bigger companies have more power.

All the same, it saddens me. I hate seeing so many Christian publishing companies merging with companies whose focus is on things other than Christian publishing. Granted, it isn’t like Thomas Nelson is a church, but it is kind of like so many colleges that started out as Christian colleges but now don’t even resemble a Christian college. I fear that too many people worship the dollar and the power it suggests and have lost sight of what is important.

That isn’t to say that HarperCollins is a bad company, but it seems like we’re trying to take Christianity, put it in nice manageable packages and sell it off to the highest bidder. Your company wants television shows, there’s a module you can plugin. Your company wants textbooks, there’s a module you can plugin. Your company wants to have Christian books, there’s a module for that. Christianity shouldn’t be a module that we can use and then put aside until we want it again. Faith should so permeate our lives that it overflows. It is sad that Thomas Nelson is a module instead of having such an influence that HarperCollins and News Corporation wouldn’t be able to plug it in without having to remove the more unsavory stuff they publish and televise.

As I said, it is sad news.

What Should Be on a First Page

Last week, I mentioned that I sometimes participate in first page critiques. Today, I want to give some of my thoughts on what makes a good first page.

Begin with a Problem

Every good book begins with a problem. It doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but it should come close. Consider how the ultimate Good Book begins. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void.” That’s our hook. God created, but what he created wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t finished. That’s a problem.

But notice that it isn’t a big problem. It would be for us, but for God it isn’t. There’s nothing particularly emotional about the problem. It doesn’t make you cry. It doesn’t make you angry. It is just a simple problem that needs fixing. As is the case with Moby Dick. You undoubtedly remember that the first sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” There are college professors who can talk about that sentence for hours on end. Personally, I find the second sentence more interesting. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” The guy was broke, but he wasn’t particularly emotional about it because that was his way of life. Still, it is a problem that needs fixing.

Put the Audience on Hold

It takes time and words to fully introduce the main problem in a story. It is unlikely that you can do much more than hint at the problem on the first page or even in the first chapter. So the goal on the first page should be to give the reader a reason to stick around until we’ve had time to get them fully engaged in the main problem. In Moby Dick, the initial problem is a lack of money, but that turns into a problem of boredom, both of which is reason enough for a man to get into a boat and go to sea. Neither of which are significant enough to justify a novel. But Herman Melville uses that to hold the reader’s attention long enough to introduce the bigger problems of the story, namely, Ahab’s quest for revenge.

Begin with Action

Explanation is boring. In real life, I have very close friends who have siblings that I know nothing about. One of my friends may ask for my help in doing something that will eventually help his siblings. I can give them help without knowing why they need my help. In a book, we don’t have to know a character’s complete life story to understand the character’s actions. Actually, it is completely the opposite. If we know too much of a character’s story, we may question whether that life story would cause him to act the way we say he acts.

What we should do instead is to put the guy into action and let the reader figure out what might cause him to act that way. We can and should give the reader hints along the way but it is much more believable if we don’t psychoanalyze the character too much. Leave that to the college professors. We can say that a character is a certain way, but if his actions don’t match what we say then the reader won’t believe us. On the other hand, if we say nothing about what the character is like and we let his actions reveal who he is, then the reader has nothing to question.

What do you like to see in a first page?

Friday, October 28, 2011

I've Been Censored

wog - (noun) : chiefly British usually disparaging
: a dark-skinned foreigner; especially: one from the Middle East or Far East

I got censored yesterday. No, not because I used the word above, but because I asked about its use. A literary agent listed the books his clients have coming out, one of which is a Bible for teens with the title WogBook. To say the least, I was surprised to see the term used on the cover of a Christian book. So I looked it up. There is actually a second definition for the word. It is short for polliwog and refers to a US Navy sailor who hasn’t crossed the equator.

I assume the name isn’t using the first definition. I suppose some people might call Jesus a wog since his lived in the Middle East, but this is a book that is being published by a Christian publisher. That leaves the second definition. I suppose someone might compare teenagers to polliwogs, but I think most teenagers would find it offensive for someone to call them a polliwog.

So, I asked about it in the comments, saying that I wouldn’t give a teenager such a book for fear of how they would take it and I expressed how I was surprised that a publisher would go for that title. My comment stayed up for several hours and then it disappeared without comment.

Here is where it gets interesting. I did a little checking and what I found was that the publishing company is owned by the man who created the book. Essentially, it is a self-published book, but the publisher also publishes some other others. That sort of explains the title. The author probably picked the title, for whatever reason, and there was no one to say, “that isn’t such a good idea.” Perhaps he is trying to gain sales from the controversy.

Now I’ve got more questions than ever. I’m not that far removed from the position that author is in. I have published my own books and I have published books by other authors. But I don’t have an agent. That doesn’t make sense. The whole reason for an agent is to shop your work to publishers. When you are the publisher, having an agent just eats into the profits. I may be scratching my head over this one for quite a while. In the mean time, I’ve probably gotten yet another agent upset with me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Connecting or Disconnecting With Your Audience

When you write a book, or do anything creative, you have this idea that your readers will “get it”. Then the reviews come in and they aren’t what you expected. It isn’t going to be the next bestseller. The people you thought would read it aren’t reading it and those who are don’t have anything good to say.

I figure there are two reasons for this type of situation. One is that you failed in your job as an author. Your writing is terrible, but you aren’t willing to admit it. If that is the problem, there’s nothing I can do for you. No one can help you.

The other reason is that you connected with the wrong audience. I’ve noticed this with free Kindle books. People will download the book because it is free, but then they’ll complain because it isn’t a book that they want to read. They’ll claim the author can’t write, but in fact it is more likely that the author just wasn’t writing for them. As an example, consider the Dick and Jane books. They were great material if you were trying to teach a child to read, but if you were expecting a novel, you would think the author was unskilled.

To make it more realistic, if a mystery reader picks up a romance, he is likely to be disappointed, even if it is a well written romance. When something like that happens, ask yourself why a mystery reader is reading a romance. Perhaps it is the title. Perhaps it is listed in the wrong genre. Perhaps you’re hanging out with the wrong readers.

One way to fix the problem is to find a way to connect with the right readers. Or you can go the other way and try to write a book that the people who didn’t like your previous book will like. Why would you do that? Because they are your platform or as Seth Godin describes it, your “tribe”. You may not even know why these people connected with you, but they did.

What advantages/disadvantages do you see to each approach?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I haven't been writing lately. I published a book near the end of last year and then one in January of this year. I thought that would take the (self-impossed) pressure off, since I already had one done so early this year, but I really thought I would complete another or two. But here we are near the end of the year and I'm not sure I'll be able to complete another this year. I've got a non-fiction book well under way, but it needs a lot of work. I have a novel started, but after having let it set, I've decided that my approach is all wrong. I love the concept and the one sentence description is one that would make me want to pick it up and read it, but I've struggled with it for a number of reasons.

One reason may be that I've attempted to make the wrong person the point of view character. Making the events that occur problematic for the character I chose may make him unlikeable. It might look like he is choosing his job over his daughter. I believe I can correct that by having a point of view character who observes and examines the events from some distance. This character would be free to observe the evils of the world without stooping to the level of it.

Another reason is that I don't want to hurt my characters. In this case, I don't want to turn my main character's daughter into the villain, nor do I want the main character to be the villain. But I think changing the point of view character will help with that too. Once I do that, I can distance myself from the villains and I don't have to explain the motives so completely. Who is to say why some people do what they do? But we know people do strange things, even if we wouldn't do it ourselves.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Securing a Church Website

When I wrote Church Website Design: A step-by-step approach, one of the topics I didn't cover was that of a secure website. Since my primary focus was people who were new to church website development, I tried to walk the straighter path. Most churches don't need a secure website because most churches are providing nothing but publicly available information. When all you are doing is providing information like when your church meets, what programs you have, what events are on the calendar, etc. it doesn't make sense to pay the extra money required for a secure website. But that's not to say that no church ever needs a secure website. I am currently in the process of implementing a secure website for our church.

You may be wondering why a church needs a secure website. I our case, it is because we want a means for our Awana staff to access certain information about our clubbers through the Internet. None of it is financial in nature and it is doubtful that anything would happen other than a few families would get more junk mail and SPAM if the information got in the wrong hands, but since children are involved, we don't want to assume anything. We want to keep the information out of the hands of all but people we trust. And by that, I mean our Awana staff, who we know because they are members of our church and because they all go through a background check before we allow them to take on that responsibility. If someone unsavory does gain access to that information, we don't want it to be from our lack of effort.

Once we've identified each person who is to have access to the data, the data is protected by an SSL certificate. That works like this: A trusted person sits down at his browser and attempts to access the website. With some handshaking, the browser determines if it trusts the server. Essentially, it verifies that the server IP address matches the certificate. Once that is done, the server and the browser communicate via encrypted messages. The certificate provides the server's public key.

None of this is of any importance unless your website requires the user login. Anyone can access a "secure" website that doesn't have a password, so the fact that the messages between the sites can't be decoded is of little importance. To secure the website, you need to redirect attempts to access the website through HTTP to the HTTPS connection. And you need a login form as the first screen of the HTTPS site. Because that screen is part of the secure site, the data sent from the form will be encrypted. From a practical standpoint, what this means is that when the server authenticates the password, we can assume that it came from the browser that initiated the session. Because the browser was able to provide a valid userid and password, someone who had knowledge of the userid and password had to type it into the form.

All of that is dependent on us implementing the website without inadvertantly creating a backdoor. That means that every trusted page must check for a valid userid and password, either by making the check each time or by means of a session flag that is set by the page that follows the login screen. It also means that we don't allow the user to enter a password into an unsecured form. Another thing to avoid is allowing the unsecured portion of the site to access any of the secured portion other than a link to the secured login screen. The simpliest of coding mistakes could provide access to more data than we intended.

Most churches will never need a secure website because they are trying to share more information, not hide it away. But when personal information is involved, a secure website may be needed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How Can We Reach the Lost With Novels?

Some Christian authors have the idea that they should be trying to win the lost with their novels. There are other views that I believe are equally valid, but I want to focus on this one view today. The reason I want to focus on it is because even though this is a noble view, this is an area in which Christian authors tend to fail. I've heard authors tell of people who came to know Christ after reading one of their books. I'm glad that happens once in a while, but it quite rare. And when we look at the number of Amish books in the Christian Fiction market these days, I can't help but think it is more rare than ever. Even though the Amish are distant cousins of the Baptists, in that they come from that line in church history that was never part of the Catholic church, they left their roots and teach works for salvation. I question the ability of books that glorify the lifestyle of the Amish to point people to the truth. But I could be wrong. The Bible does say that the Law is our schoolmaster. Perhaps people will see how impossible it is to keep the Amish law and even more so the Law of God.

If the goal is to reach the lost with a novel, what do we need to do in that novel to accomplish that goal? Some authors have the idea that what they need to do is put the plan of salvation in the book somewhere. That's not a bad idea, but it often seems like an afterthought. In Lori Wick's The Princess, there is a young boy (appearantly the only lost person around) that I am convinced was placed in that book just so the main characters would have someone to share the gospel with. That is not the way to reach the lost with a novel.

We make a mistake when we assume that what we need to do as soul winners is to tell people how to be saved. That is important, but we're putting the cart before the horse. The first thing that must happen is that we must bring people to the point of realizing that they need a saviour. You have to get a man lost before you can save him. If we want to see more people saved as a result of novels, our writing has to focus on getting the reader lost.

Granted, most of that responsibility rests on the Holy Spirit, who convicts men of sin, but if we want him to use our book to do it, we'd better give him something to work with. One of the classic questions we ask kids to encourage them to see themselves as sinners is, "Have you ever taken a cookie from the cookie jar when your mother told you not to?" I'm not sure that's the best question to ask, but what we hope to accomplish with that question is to bring the concept of sin down to the level of the sinner. All people see themselves as good people. In a movie script you might get by with a character asking the villain, "Why did you decide to become a bad guy?" To which the villain might reply, "It's more fun than being good." But in real life, we don't think that way. We spend a lot of time justifying ourselves. It's okay that I didn't tell the store clerk she didn't charge me for this; I'm sure she's overcharged me before. It's okay that I passed that guy on the shoulder; he shouldn't have been driving that slow. It's okay that I copied that music without permission; it isn't like I'm going to sell it and I know the song writer would want me to use it. It's okay for people to live together before they're married; you wouldn't even buy a car without test driving it first.

The author who hopes to accomplish soul winning with a novel needs to focus on bringing his readers to the point that they question the validity of their argument that they are good people. Most people are willing to accept that murderers should go to hell (though even murderers find a way to justify themselves). There aren't many murderers who will read our books. So while the soulwinning author might start with a murderer, he needs to twist the story until it points right back at the reader. Sure, he's a murderer, but you don't love your wife. How can you possibly claim you're living up to God's standard? Sure, he's a child molester, but you don't respect your husband. You're not that great either.

How do we do that? That's where the fun begins. What I mean to say is that there isn't an easy answer. It's that kind of challenge that makes writing fun. Generally, I think it happens like this: We start with a basic problem, such as a registered sex offender moving into a neighborhood. Our main character, soccer mom extrodinair, goes to work moblizing the neighborhood to send this guy packing. But that's just what's on the surface. As the story unfolds, we see that the real problem is back at home. Out in the neighborhood, we can have other characters lay the groundwork to establish that the registered sex offender is worthy of the fires of hell. But we slowly begin to reveal that even though the soccer mom has what seems to be good reasons for how she treats her husband (reasons that the average woman would have) her home life checks off all the same checkboxes we had for why the registered sex offender is going to hell. We bring the surface problem to a resolution in some way, but it would be good to leave the home problem unresolved. What we would to do is cause the reader to think along the lines of "Sure, that seems right for the registered sex offender, but what about people like me?"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Gideon Fleece

Some people are critical of Gideon for laying out the fleece. After all, the Lord had already told Gideon that he'd delivered Israel's enemies into his hand. They say that Gideon should have believed the Lord when the Angel of the Lord caused fire to come from the rock and consume the meal Gideon had prepared. Perhaps Gideon did doubt the Lord more than he should have, but it seems interesting to me that Gideon waited until after he had called 32,000 men to battle before he laid out the fleece. I don't know about you, but I know I wouldn't call 32,000 men to battle against a people without number if I didn't have some faith.

I don't think the fleece was about a lack of confidence in God as much as Gideon lacked confidence in himself. He was ready to go fight, but he wasn't sure that he was the right man to be leading these men. The Lord assured Gideon of that by giving Gideon the sign he asked for. The Lord never told Gideon he shouldn't have asked for that sign.But then the Lord did something even more amazing. You don't think you can lead 32,000 men? Let's make it 10,000. Still too many? Let's make it 300. Some churches are larger than that. Using God's plan, Gideon was able to defeat the enemy with just 300 men.

Now once the enemy was on the run, Gideon called for the 32,000 to go after them, but the Lord gave Gideon a managable group to work with. I see a couple of things here. One is that God able to use us even when we're not confident. When we think we have no ability or we're too small, God proves that he is able to deliver us.

Another thing is that I think we need to have more confidence in our ability to do the right thing. I've often heard people talk about how it is wrong to make decisions without consulting God. They're usually talking about things like buying a car or a house, getting married, etc. I think that if we're consistently walking with the Lord, we'll know his will, even if we don't specifically pray about them. It may be that the Lord will let us go on with what we want to do, or it could be that like he did with Gideon, he will show us a better plan. Gideon, after the fleece, was ready to go to battle with 32,000 men. Gideon never asked if that was the right plan. The Lord gave him a different plan, even though Gideon didn't ask. When we know we're moving toward what the Lord wants us to do, there's nothing wrong with going by our own plan until the Lord shows us a better one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Decline of the Church Among Christians

I fear the importance of the church is in decline among Christians. As I was writing yesterday's post, I began to think about why there are so many people who want to call things that are not done as the agent of their local church ministry. I think that part of it has to do with people putting so little value on the church. Many people see the church as all Christians, even though the word that is translated as church in the Bible means "an assembly". This thinking, I believe, makes many people view the church much like what they view Wal-mart. People will typically go to the same Wal-mart every week or so. They may have special ties to the people who work there, but they understand that their local Wal-mart is owned by a much larger company based in Arkansas. If they happen to be running around town and see another Wal-mart, they might stop there instead. As far as they are concerned Wal-mart is Wal-mart. Every Wal-mart provides similar products and services. That's how many people view the church. They'll attend one church because it is closest or because they like the worship service, but if they find another church that has a children's program they like better, they'll start going there instead.

Think about this. There are people who are doing things they want to call ministry who have no real ties to a church. They're all writing their book or working in a parachurch organization and if they decide to drop out of one church and go to another they don't have to change anything about their "ministry". They're free to move from church to church as much as they want. They might find the church that has the most interesting series of sermons going on. They might become southern gospel groupies and follow their favorite group around. But they're still doing "ministry."

Some of you may question what is wrong with that. The primary thing that's wrong with that is that isn't the way Jesus designed the church to operate. The church isn't just an organization that provides services. A church is a body of believers who know each other and are accountable to each other. Because of that, when one member faulters, the others are there to pick him up.

Another thing is the issue of doctrine. In real ministry, the organization the person is a minister of has the authority to discipline that person. If that person, as an agent of the church, writes something that is inconsistent with the church's beliefs, the church has the authority to remove that writing and exercise discipline in other ways. When a novelist is writing independently from the church, that authority doesn't exist.

We need to get back to the understanding that the church (a local visible body of baptized believers) is central to our ministry. It's fine for us to go off an write novels an such, but that isn't ministry. Ministry requires us to work within our church. We need to be actively involved within our church. So much so that if we were to change churches that it would require us to change much in how we are serving the Lord.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When is Writing Ministry?

Here's an interesting question: Is Christian writing a ministry?

I've heard people talk about writing as a ministry, though I've never thought of my books in that way. I've been involved in other things that I thought were ministry, including our church's website, which involves a great deal of writing, but I've never seen my novels in that way. Nor do I consider this blog a ministry, though I often write about some of the same things I write about for the church website. For a while, it didn't make sense. I began to question whether it was a matter of opinion. But it turns out that it isn't. It turns out that the distinction I made between this blog and the church website is correct, even though they are similar.

In the course of responding to the topic on another blog, I looked up the term ministry and minister. Though many authors call their writing ministry because they see it as something they are doing for God, that is an incorrect understanding of the term. Before we get into that, let me ask you, when you put your offering in the plate at church, is that ministry? We expect that the money will be used for ministry, but is the act of putting your money in the plate ministry? Most people would say that it is not, even though that act is being done for God. Therefore, not every act done for God is ministry. Ministry requires something more.

When we consider the definition of ministry, a minister is a person who acts as an agent of either a governmental or religous body. The Prime Minister of a country is the agent of the state. He may report to the parliment, the king, or even the people, but he is an agent of someone. When we look at ministries within a church, what we see is that those who minister are hired by or elected by the church. The church body has the authority to overule the minister. In some cases, the minister is an agent of an association or a denomination. The thing that makes one's work a ministry is that it is being done on behalf of another.

Looking specifically at writing, when is writing a ministry and when is it not? Suppose a person is writing Sunday school literature for a church or for the publication department of an association or denomination. Because he is doing that as an agent of a religious organization, it is ministry. But if he writes a devotional book and sends it off to a publisher, it isn't ministry because he is doing it on his own and not as an agent of a religious body.

I'm sorry if some of you novelists find this upsetting because you want to call what you do a ministry, but unless your church has elected you to write novels, your writing is not ministry. Just because what you do isn't ministry doesn't mean that it isn't important or that you aren't serving the Lord by doing it; it just isn't ministry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I Should Be Better Than This

I wish I were more like my parents. Not in every way, but certainly in this. If you've met my parents, they're your friends. That doesn't necessarily mean that you are their friend or that you even remember them, but they're your friends. It doesn't matter who you are. You could be a waiter at a restaraunt, a visitor at their church, or someone they were standing in line with at Target. They're your friends.

Now, I do have a little of that in me. Enough to realize it has its problems. There are people I think of as friends who don't remember who I am. Unlike my parents, I'm not as quick to assume that people will remember me. I don't walk up to some people and start talking to them like they're old friends, even though that is often the way I feel about them.

But what really bothers me about me is that there are some people I just don't like. It isn't that I hate them, but they rub me the wrong way. I'm not even sure I can put into words why that is, but I've noticed with some of the people I encounter online that just seeing their name is enough to make me cringe. I find that I've rejected what they have to say, even before they say it. There is one particular person that for some reason I've gotten the idea that she thinks too highly of herself. For some reason, I've gotten the impression that she cares more about selling her books and services more than she cares about people. It could be envy on my part, since somehow in her do whatever it takes to sell books approach she has made friends with some influential people in the publishing industry. All the same, I avoid her as much as possible, so I won't say something I'll regret.

I'll probably meet her in heaven some day and we'll have a good laugh about it. But I can see that there are things about me that aren't what they should be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bad Copy

The text you put on the back cover of a book can make or break the book sales more than any other element. I wish I could say I’m an expert at writing back cover copy (BCC). I can’t, but I’ve seen some examples that are sure to kill the book sales. I don’t want to name names, so I’ll provide an example that I’ve modified to protect the guilty.
Gail has just accepted a dream job working for fashion designer Heather Long’s company. Unfortunately, she learns her ex-fiance, Dave, is working for the same organization. On her first day, Gail finds her new boss strangled with a bolt of wool fabric. Gail now questions whether this is what God intended.

Gail and Dave quickly realize their love is stronger than ever. But with Dave the prime suspect in the murder, Gail must discover the truth before they can begin a life together.

Last season’s fabrics, many unforgettable characters, a dog name butch, and Uncle Fred who has found his second adolescene make this a fast-paced romance and a page turning mystery.

It actually starts out well. It follows the pattern “on the way to success, something prevents it.” In this case, on the way to the dream job, Gail runs into her ex-fiance. If it had stopped there, this would be great. There’s got to be a lot of conflict between Gail and Dave, or so you would think. Unfortunately, the second paragraph kills the tension. Gail and Dave realize they are still in love. So now, all of the conflict rests on the murder and Gail must solve the mystery because Dave looks guilty.

What I would like to see happen here is that instead of quickly discovering that they still love each other, they accuse each other of the crime. In the process of their bickering they bring out their old argument. Of course, by the end of the book, they will have resolved the old argument and found the murderer, but we don’t need to mention that on the back cover. But as it is, the book seems very boring because there simply isn’t enough conflict in the storyline.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

Weither you like it or not (and I’m sure you don’t) bad things happen. That has led many people to ask the question Why do bad things happen to good people? Imagine this scenario: your saintly mother has always been eager to help those in need. She has given countless hours of her time in the church where she is a member. Her kindness is renowned. Then the day come when she calls you on the phone and says, “the doctor says I have cancer.” Why do bad things happen to good people?

I have a friend who emigrated from India. He believes in karma. The concept of karma is that if you do good to others then karma will draw good things to you, and if you do bad to others then karma will draw bad things to you. People who have a belief like that are certainly going to ask, Why do bad things happen to good people? But let’s rephrase the question and ask, Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Unlike with karma, which people seem to think is just the way the world operates, this new question recognizes that there is a being behind the events that some people have interpreted as karma. It isn’t karma that brings good things to people, but God. If that is true, then we can also say that it isn’t karma that brings bad things to people. Nothing happens without God’s permission. Nothing bad happens but what God knew it would happen and chose either to bring it on a person or chose to allow it to take place. That tells us who is controlling these things, but it doesn’t answer the question Why do bad things happen to good people?

It Is the Nature of the World

Ever since Adam sinned, the world has been cursed. That curse changed the nature of the world in such a way that bad things happen. If we forget the concept of good and bad people for a moment and just consider the person who is living in this world, that person is going to face problems. Many of the problems of this world have nothing to do with whether a person is good or bad, they just are. If a river floods and takes out a town, it will destroy the houses of both the bad people and the good people.

God has Bigger Plans

But isn’t God in control of the flood? You might ask. Couldn’t he have spared the houses of the good people? Why do bad things happen to good people? Yes, he could have spared the houses of the good people, and sometimes he does. But more often than not, God uses the bad things that come into our lives to prepare us for things that will come later. Most of what we learn comes from those things we experience. Think of the elderly couple who have put away enough money to last them the rest of their lives and to provide their children with an inheritance. If you ask them, you may discover that in their youth they had a time when their expenses exceeded their income and no one would help them. Or consider the child who turns 18 and demonstrates that he is prepared to take on the responsibility of adulthood, rather than staying under his parents roof for another ten years. It is likely that his parents expected him to sort through many of his own problems, rather than stepping in at every turn. In a similar way, God allows bad things to happen to good people because he wants us to grow to maturity.

God Wants Us to Recognize That He is in Control

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because they cause us to recognize our own weakness. Imagine a father is mowing the yard on lawn tractor and he has his son sitting in his lap. His son has his hands on the wheel. “Look at me, Mommy! I’m driving!” It isn’t until the father turns loose of the wheel that the son realizes that he wasn’t doing as much as he thought he was. The same is true for us and our heavenly Father. As long as life is going well, we don’t understand how much God is doing for us and how much he is protecting us from. But when he allows bad things to come into our lives, we begin to see that we need his help.

I think it is interesting that when Jesus allowed Peter to walk on the water, he did it while the storm was still going on. He knew that Peter would see those waves coming and falter. He knew that Peter would cry out for help. On another occasion, Jesus and the disciples set out in a ship and Jesus went to sleep. A storm came up while Jesus was asleep. Have you thought about why Jesus would go to sleep when he knew a storm was coming? He could have kept them from sailing into a storm. Instead, he went to sleep. That forced them to face the storm alone, until they came and got him.

Or why did he allow Lazarus to die? He could have gone sooner. He could have healed Lazarus from where he was, as he did on other occasions. Instead, he waited until Lazarus died. He allowed a family he loved to suffer grief. Why do bad things happen to good people? Jesus allowed this bad thing to happen so that he could show them that he is the resurrection and the life.

What to Do When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Look for the Good When Bad Happens
We don’t like bad things to happen. We question why things are the way they are, but God doesn’t allow bad things in our lives without a purpose. Look for that purpose and it will help you to accept what has come your way.
Show God Your Heart
So often, we feel that we shouldn’t complain about what God is doing in our lives. God knows that some of the things he allows in our lives is painful. There’s no reason to try to hide that from him. Instead, tell him about it. Tell him of your anguish. At the very least, expressing your feelings to God will help to relieve the hurt you feel. But it may do more than that. It could be that God is waiting for you to ask for help before he shows you why you are experiencing what you are. It could also be that God is waiting for you to put your burden on him before he handles it for you.

It is very likely that whatever you are facing will last a while. It may be months or years for you to get through it, but express your pain openly to God and he will be there to see you through it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is It God Who Answered That Prayer?

How do we know that it is God who answers prayer? I don't mean that there might be someone else who is listening to prayer, but when we receive something we've been praying for, how do we know that it has come by the will of God and not by some other means? In a recent discussion on this blog, one of the readers mentioned a particular person receiving something she had been praying for the next day after she asked her friends to pray about it. The reader seems to think this proved that God had given this thing, but how can we possibly know if it was from God or if the act of asking her friends for prayer informed her friends of her desire and that is why her friend did what he did? We want to credit God with using our friends to answer our prayers, but we can't say that everything our friends do is the will of God. And if we receive something we ask for, can we take that as validation of the thing we intend to use it for?

There are many times that there is no clear answer. If you ask a friend to pray for you and then the friend provides the thing you want, there doesn't appear to be proof that it is also an act of God. People who believe in God won't take much convincing to believe that God used your friend to provide for your needs. Someone who is skeptical of prayer will say that the friend heard of the need and wanted to help . No matter which one you side with, it all hinges on what you believe.

Hide in the Closet

If you want to know that it is God who has answered your prayer, don't tell anyone else what you are praying for. Matthew 6:6 says that when you pray you should go into your closet and shut the door. "And they Father which seeth in secret shall reward you openly." Though there is nothing wrong with people asking other people to pray for them, but if we want to be sure that it is God who has answered our prayer and not someone else, he should be the only person we tell. Then, when a friend who has no idea that we've been praying for a thing comes to us and gives us the thing for which we've been asking, there is no doubt but that God heard and answered our prayer through the friend.

Ask For Something Only God Can Give

When you use a credit card or write a check at the store, you are required to sign your name. By doing so, you are telling your bank that you are the one requesting that they give the store the given amount, rather than someone else. The reason you are asked to sign your name is because you sign your name differently than anyone else. It is difficult for someone to match it, but it is a very simple thing for you. If you want to verify that your prayer has been answered by God, ask him for something that only he can provide.

Be Specific

It is tempting to pray a generic pray that is rather vague about what we need. Then we might end it by telling God "not my will but yours." That may sound spiritual because that's what Jesus said, but it does nothing for us when we're trying to see God's power to answer prayer. Jesus had a very different situation than we do. Being God, he could have at any time stopped on his journey to the cross and said, "that's it, I'm done, I'm not going any farther." He qualified his request in the garden by saying, "If it be possible." If his prayer had been simply "take this cup from me" it would have been over, but he completed the journey. We aren't in that same situation. We aren't God. If we ask for something outside his will, he isn't obligated to give it to us. But when we're specific in our prayers and God gives us exactly what we've asked for, it gives us evidence that he hears our prayers and he blesses us.

That's not to say that we should say something like, "Lord, show me that you answer prayer by giving me $1,234,567.89 tomorrow at 10:11AM." It isn't that God isn't able to do exactly that, but we shouldn't try to manipulate God. Rather, when we find ourselves in a position that we're praying for something anyway, let's be specific in our request so that we can see that it is God who answered our prayer. It is still up to God whether to answer our prayer or not and in the way we ask or not, but when he answers it in the specific way we ask we are able to see that he is strong on our behalf.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Let's Not Be Christian Psychics

Yesterday, I wrote about how psychics may be able to believe that they are telling people the truth. I also told you about some techniques that you could use if you wanted to do the same thing. Given the idea that anything any random occurrence that appears to have a pattern must have an external influence, these techniques will always work to “reveal” psychic phenomena. But we don’t want to become psychics. Personally, I see them all as performers, some of whom believe their own press. But the bigger danger is that we may attempt to apply these same techniques to Christianity.

Some atheists would tell us that the logic of Christianity is just as flawed as that of the psychic. Allow me to demonstrate. Ten people are diagnosis with a disease that we know has a mortality rate of 60%. In other words, we would typically expect six of the ten to drop dead from the disease. But we start praying. After we’ve prayed, it is discovered that one was misdiagnosed and he doesn’t have the disease. Five of the patients survive the disease and four drop dead. It must be God, right? Well, it could be, but no statistician would even blink if you told him those results. But usually it involves an even smaller sample. One person is diagnosed and the church prays about it. If the person finds out he was misdiagnosed, we attribute that to God answering our prayer. If the person drops dead, we say that God chose not to answer our prayer. If we aren’t careful, our thinking concerning God looks very much like the thinking of a psychic concerning ghosts.

If our only argument for Christ is based on answered prayer in the midst of unanswered prayer, we don’t have much of an argument. Before we can look at that situation, we first need to know that the assumption that God is and God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him is acceptable. The proof of that is all around us. The atheist would have us believe that the Universe formed from completely random events. In this, they are similar to the psychic. The psychic says that no pattern is ever random. The atheist says that everything, even patterns that look like they have an outside influence, is random. Neither extreme has any basis in fact. A better understanding is that order exists because someone put it there, but not everything we perceive as being ordered as significance. The fact that we have plants and animals should be enough to tell us that God put them here, but a cloud that looks like a rabbit probably isn’t a sign from God.

Once we can take God as a given, we can then look at how he answers prayer. Given how powerful he is, it is reasonable to accept that God knows every prayer. If he answers prayer at a rate that is right in line with what is typical, it tells us something about God, but it is no longer a basis for saying God doesn’t exist. Whereas, if all we have is the rate at which prayer is answer then it would have to come into play. But it becomes an interesting question as to why God would answer prayer at a statistically insignificant rate. In one study, people actually did worse in the group that had people praying for them. It could be that God didn’t want to dignify the study with a response.

Whatever the case, we don’t have to rely on randomness to prove God. We see God in the order of the Universe, not the randomness. The order is so abundant that is can’t be attributed to randomness. Let’s not be like the psychics and draw upon whatever comes to mind, but let’s do as the scripture says and test the spirits to see if they are from God.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Psychics Sleep At Night

Recently, I’ve been giving thought to psychic phenomena and paranormal events. By that, I mean what people often attribute to things like the ghosts of the dearly departed. There are people who claim to be able to serve as a medium by which a person can communicate with their dear loved ones. There are a couple of things that interest me about these things, one is the technique by which people think they can achieve results and two is that they are attributing their results to something without having a means to verify it.

Let’s look at the second one first. Let’s suppose a person walks into a house and sees a rocking chair moving on its own. As he is watching the chair, suppose the front door swings shut without him touching it. What is the cause of these things? It could be the wind, but let’s suppose it isn’t. Let’s suppose it isn’t anything we would normally check for. Can we now say that it must be a ghost? Some people would say we can, but there’s a problem with that. Until we have some means of knowing the abilities of a ghost, we can’t accept that as more than a theory. It could just as easily be a time traveler who went back where he came from when he heard the door open. Or it could be something we’ve never thought of. The lack of evidence for it to be something else is not proof of the existence of ghosts.

The first one gets even more interesting. I’ve watched videos of psychics on talkshows and such. They are either very good liars and performers, or they really believe what they are saying. Most of them don’t seem demon possessed, which is what some of the psychics in the Bible were (not that I would recognize demon possession if I saw it). How can it be that these people believe what they say? The answer is in the technique. Psychics seem to base their operation on one simple, but flawed, assumption; any event that seems to have a pattern where one isn’t expected must be caused by an external force.

One technique that is used is the use of white noise generators. A noisy fan is turned on, presumably because ghosts are able to manipulate existing noise, but they can’t actually speak. A person then records that white noise, listening for anything that sounds like words. When words are found, they are enhanced to make it easier to understand what is being said. These words are then interpreted to mean something. In this case, rather than following Occam’s Razor and accepting that these words are probably from the random combination of sound, the psychic attributes them to a ghost who is struggling to communicate. From that point of view, I think I can understand why they have convinced themselves that it is true.

But can we apply the same to mediums? Why do they believe? The way mediums work is that they begin say words and phrases that come to mind. “I’m seeing the color blue. This may have been a favorite color or it may have been something this person wore. I’m also hearing a letter. It could be the letter G or maybe J. And there’s something about the chest. Could this person have died from a heart attack or maybe had lung cancer?” Before long, the person who has asked for help is thinking about a friend or relative who liked the color blue, was named Jim, and smoked all his life. On the surface, it looks like simple flimflam, but these mediums seem to think they are helping people. If we assume they are sincere, I think we have to consider that these psychics believe that what seems to us to be random words actually came through from the other side. They believe this because those words had some connection to the person for whom they were doing a reading. They know that a ghost may not come through every time (who can control a ghost?), so a failed reading doesn’t bother them any more than a missed sale bothers a salesman. But when the words that come to mind have meaning to someone in the room, they call it a success.

So how do we know they aren’t right? Actually, we don’t have proof that they aren’t right, though the evidence seems to make it highly probable that they aren’t right. Either they are wrong or anyone can talk to the dead. The real problem with their thinking is that it is circular logic; ghosts can communicate through the first thing that comes to mind, therefore when I throw out those things that come to mind and it seems to be communication, it must be a ghost that is doing it. While I can see how mediums can follow that logic and be able to sleep at night, circular logic never proves anything.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Not What You Would Expect

I’ve watched some of these British cooking shows that look into the inner workings of restaurants and I kept hearing about Michelin stars. I thought, “that’s odd, in the UK Michelin is some rating organization for restaurants, but over here it is a tire company. Imagine my surprise when I looked up the Michelin Guide and discovered the tire man that is the Michelin tire company’s trademark. It made me wonder, how does a tire company become the symbol of excellence for restaurants.

Michelin guides were started as a means to provide travelers with information about the area they were traveling through and I’m sure they were also meant to keep the Michelin name in front of the owners of automobiles. Michelin’s goal was to sell tires by placing an advertisement in every car. To keep that advertisement in cars, they had to turn their guide into a trusted resource. The only way to do that is to be very selective in which restaurants they recommended. It wasn’t enough to just list the restaurants in the area, they began placing stars beside the names of those of higher quality.

I look at the publishing industry today and I see a lot of books being published. There’s over a million in the US each year. The publishers would like us to believe that their books are better than the self-published stuff, and yet, the publishers are just trying to sell their own books. I can’t help but wonder if what will eventually come out of this is that someone who doesn’t appear to be connected to the publishing industry will develop some kind of guide that will help us weed through all of these books. has done that to some extent, but it is in their best interest to encourage the sale of all books. There may be someone out there who will benefit not from the sale of books but by providing an accurate listing of the best books.

I also think about how it is that credibility doesn’t come from what we say we are but what we do. Who would have thought that a tire company could judge restaurants, but they do. We may tell people that we know what we’re talking about. We might have several English degrees. We might think that gives us the ability to judge books. But when we look at results, maybe it isn’t someone like that who will have a proven track record of finding the best books. Maybe it is a company that we wouldn’t expect.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Get Real (Photos That Is)

One of the things I do is Church Website Design. If we can say there are rules to follow, the number one rule is probably, Content is Key. But the second rule should be something like, Use Pictures of Your Own People. And if I might go a step farther, use pictures of you own people participating in the activities of the church. How often I have looked at church websites and seen images of people that I knew the web designer had pulled off of a stock photo website somewhere. They are nice pictures with high quality and a lot of smiling faces, but they look like stock photos.

I know what these designers are doing. They either don’t have access to photos of the church or they don’t like the photos of the church. When you look at the church and you see a bunch of old white ladies and what you would like to see in the church is a mix of many races, you don’t like the photos of the church. So a web designer will find a picture of some people who look like what you want the church to be, not what it is. So you see photos of people with many different shades of skin color, but you don’t see very many people who are older than their twenties and thirties.

But there’s something real about a church when you can look at the website and see people who are actually part of the church rather than people from who knows where. Someone who has never been to that church can look at the pictures and get an idea of what to expect. Those pictures will give them an idea of the size of the congregation. They will give them an idea of what ministries the church has. They will give them an idea of what clothes people typically wear. It can be uncomfortable if a visitor walks in wearing a suit and he is the only one. So, use photos of real people doing real things.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Below the Surface

Shirley Jackson’s classic short-story The Lottery is memorable, to say the least. It is also a good example of why authors shouldn’t pay attention to bad reviews. When The Lottery was published in 1948, most reviews were negative and many readers canceled their subscription to the magazine that published it. But it is also an example of how fiction can be used to present a message.

As soon as we say a story has a message, the tendency is for people to think we’re talking about preachy writing, but the whole purpose of fiction is to present some kind of theme. Unlike non-fiction, in which the message is right there on the surface, the best place to put the message in fiction is below the surface. We do that by having a surface problem that we’re willing to talk about and a subsurface problem that is only spoken of in whispers. In The Lottery, the surface problem is this traditional gathering. Some people don’t see it as being so important. Some people are late, for one reason or another. The wooden markers have been replaced with paper. People just don’t see traditional things as important as they once did. We can all identify with that because we see traditions of the past falling by the wayside and we may wonder if anything will last.

If Shirley Jackson had wanted to preach to us, she could have said a lot about dying traditions, but that wasn’t the message of The Lottery. It takes us a while, but as we near the end of the story we come to realize that this lottery isn’t the kind of tradition we want to be a part of. This lottery is an annual sacrifice that is believed to help with crop production. The message isn’t encouragement to hold onto the old traditions. Shirley Jackson said:
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
As she presents that message, Shirley Jackson doesn’t bring the story to a complete solution, but she points the reader to the first step to making it stop. The victim of The Lottery, as she faces her own death, takes that step by expressing how unfair she thinks it is. It appears that the lottery will continue, unless someone else is willing to take a stand against it.

That is what we should hope to find in a story. We don’t want it to preach to us about how to solve the surface problem. The characters may even fail at solving that problem, but the characters need to demonstrate that they have changed by taking that first step toward solving the deeper subsurface problem.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Who Sends People To Hell?

Who sends people to hell? Is it God or Satan?” That’s the question I heard one of the kids at church asking another adult. It’s a question that I think many people are afraid to answer. Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever asking that question when I was growing up. Back then, my theology was simple; trust Jesus and go to heaven or reject him and you’ll go to hell. I had enough information to know the answer back then, but I don’t know that I really stopped to think about it. What I do remember is seeing the tracts showing angels throwing people over a cliff into a flaming pit.

Revelation 20:12-15 makes it very clear. The dead, small and great, stand before God and are judged according to their works. “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” There’s no question; God is the judge. It is God who condemns. It is God who commands that they be cast into the lake of fire.

Matthew 10:28: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul and body in hell.”

I think part of the reason that some people don’t like to answer this question is because they don’t like the way it makes God look. They want show him to be a loving God who will harm no one, but here he is—in the New Testament, mind you—throwing people into a lake of fire. I’ve heard people question why we should fear God and they try to redefine the word fear. Sadly, I think they’re failing to see the big picture. God isn’t a pussy cat, he’s a lion. His word isn’t a stick pin, it is a sword. He isn’t just good, he is perfect. Think of the glory of the sun and how dangerous it would be if you were to be close to it. Now consider that God’s glory far exceeds that of the sun. The brightness of this glory is brighter than the noonday sun. Though it is not God’s desire for people to go to hell, sinful people cannot stand in the presence of a holy God, but they have to go somewhere. God has prepared a place that is outside of his presence. He prepared it for the Devil and his angels, but people who reject Jesus will go there also.

For me, it is comforting to know that it is God who sends people to hell and not Satan or even Peter. God doesn’t make mistakes. After the judgments are done, people aren’t going to look around heaven and see people who shouldn’t be there and they aren’t going to look for someone who should and discover they got thrown into the lake of fire. It is comforting because I know God doesn’t want to send people there. He has delayed his coming because he wants more people to go to heaven. I don’t know how much longer he will delay. He may delay for many years or he may come today. All the same, he wants many people to be saved.

Have no doubt, it is God and God only who sends people to hell, but that is a good thing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Christian Believing Strange Things

One of my friends believes in ghosts. He claims to have seen things like doors closing unexpectedly, etc. I’ve seen things like that too, but I’ve never attributed it to a ghost. I figure there was enough of a change in the airflow to cause the door to close. It really don’t take much with some doors. What would be interesting is to see a locked door come unbolted and open all by itself. I still wouldn’t attribute that to a ghost, but it would be interesting.

The sad thing is that this friend of mine is a church member and he’s ready to attribute a door closing to the working of some undeparted dead person. There is no logical reason to believe that. The Bible does say that spirits exist, but it makes it clear that when we die we go to one of two places—heaven or hell. There aren’t human beings waiting around because they have unfinished business. If there are spirits haunting a house, those spirits would have to be from among the angelic beings—either those who follow God or those who follow Satan. But can a spirit cause a door to move? Apparently not. When he rose from the dead, one of the ways he proved he was not a spirit was that he ate with them. Although, I don’t know that it really matters.

It fascinates me that so many Christians are quick to believe the absurd. It’s almost like they turn off the absurdity filter in their mind. Atheists would tell us that we’ve all done that, but there’s a big difference in believing in Jesus, for whom there is a ton of evidence, and believing in the Locke Ness monster, for whom there are some pictures of a stick. It is almost as if people think one belief is as good as another. That is why it is so important that we do more than ask people to believe in Jesus just because we say they should, but to point them to the evidence. Encourage them to be skeptical and then overcome the skepticism with the evidence.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Suspension of Belief

No doubt, you’ve heard of the Suspension of Disbelief which is the concept of a reader willingly accepting during the space of a story something that we know to be absurd or extremely unlikely. A superhero who can blow a building down with his breath, for example. But what if we turn that around? Is there such a thing as the Suspension of Belief?

I think it’s interesting that we discuss the Suspension of Disbelief but not the Suspension of Belief. On the surface, they seem like similar concepts—perhaps even the same. If a reader can be caused to suspend his disbelief in a superhero, could he not be caused to suspend his belief in something like God? If you believe in God, I’ve already raised your hackles. Weird, isn’t it?

And it isn’t just belief in God. The same could be said of one’s politics or one’s commitment to their favorite sports team. Even within the space of a story, it is easier for a person who believes in God to believe that the Easter Bunny exists than it is to believe that God doesn’t exist. I find that very interesting and something worth our attention.

I think that part of it is that when we attempt to remove something the reader knows to be true, such as God or his position on a hot topic like abortion or the definition of marriage, the author appears to be taking an argumentative position. The reader knows God exists, so any author who says otherwise is probably an atheist promoting his own agenda. The reader would be understandably upset, but why would that same reader be able to read a story about Zeus or one of the other pagan gods and willingly suspend his disbelief? Why would he be able to read a story about Santa Claus?

For one thing, while the Greeks and Romans worshipped those gods as the highest beings, people who serve God know that God is above those gods. We can treat them like all other fictional characters and if they did exist, God would still be above them. Another reason is that it is easy for us to accept that there are things about our Universe that we don’t know. Christians readily accept that there are angels and demons, even though most of us have never seen them. Atheists may reject the notion of angels and demons simply because they are spoken of in the Bible, but many atheists are willing to accept the possibility of highly intelligent aliens, even though we’ve never seen them.

To give you a practical example of what I’m talking about, I was watching a television show in which one of the characters is supposed to be able to communicate with the dead. (Yeah, I know that’s not a very Christian thing to be watching.) I don’t believe people are able to communicate with the dead. I realize that the Witch of Endor talked to Samuel, but she seemed more surprised than anyone about that and God made a special allowance for that. If the mediums are actually communicating with anyone, I think they are communicating with evil spirits who are claiming to be the spirit of the deceased person. But I digress. The thing is, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and for the sake of the story accept that this person could see whatever message the dead person was sending her, but when the actor said something along the lines of “I talk to the dead and I’ve seen a lot of things, but demons don’t exist,” that disturbed me. While I could suspend my disbelief in her ability to talk to the dead, I could not suspend my belief that what God has told us about the existence of demons is true.

As storytellers, we need to be aware of that. We can add the impossible to our stories, but we cannot remove the proven.