The Inner Life of a Cell
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
It's been too long. I've been in the weeds again, what with the usual holiday happenings, a deadline on the Winter Haven galleys, and a cold I can't seem to shake. But my smarter brother just sent a link I have to take the time share with you.
Some guys at Harvard’s medical school got together with some top-flight computer animation guys and came up with this simply amazing short film, which depicts “unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli.” You have GOT to watch this video. Every image you are about to see is medically correct, even the little walking things, which my brother tells me were only discovered a couple of years ago, and really do move that way. (The article says the main compromise made graphically in the film is an unnatural amount space shown between the various components in the interest of clarity, because in the real world all of this is so densely packed we could not distinguish one function from another if it was shown realistically.) As you watch, think about the fact that this is happening in all of your body’s countless cells at the very moment that your cells are collectively enabling you to watch it happen on the screen. What a wonder!
I am reminded of a Hebrew poem, written nearly 3,000 years ago:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
How wonderful to know, as the Psalmist did, although the Creator is capable of such infinite complexity, even so, when we awake we are with Him. Jesus made this same promise, but note that he expects a response from you and me in return for such Divine devotion: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven." (Matt 10:29-33)
To those who say there is no God, to those who say whatever god there may be could not possibly care about little you and little me, I can only reply: for heaven's sake, watch this video and open your mind. As Mies van der Rohe said, "God is in the details."
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:21 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Monday, December 3, 2007
Research for a novel is always interesting, but that word doesn’t come close to describing my experiences over the last week. While working on background for a story I’m calling Lost Mission, I traveled to the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. There I stayed in the town of San Miguel de Allende (pictured here) and made side trips to nearby villages and cities. In the midst of our nation’s concerns about illegal immigration, more U. S. citizens should travel beyond the usual beach towns and visit Mexico’s interior to learn about the history and culture of our beautiful neighbor to the south. A little less fear and a lot more friendship would go a long way to finding solutions everyone can prosper from, in my opinion. But I won’t get political here, not when there are so many more interesting things to say.
The town where I stayed most of the time, San Miguel de Allende, was renamed in the early 1800’s, retaining the name of the priest who first settled there (Fray San Miguel) but adding the village’s favorite son and one of Mexico’s founding fathers of the Mexican War of Independence (Ignacio Allende). “San Miguel” as the locals call it, is incredibly photogenic. This blog includes a few shots I took there, but go to this link and scroll down to the “Galeria Fotos” near the bottom to click for more lovely visions. Believe me, the images you will see there (and here) are unretouched. Even with nothing but a disposable camera, anyone can take of perfect photograph in that glorious place!
The sense of history in the state of Guanajuato is everywhere. I was honored to visit the little town of Dolores Hidalgo where Father Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Dolores) speech to rally the people and begin the struggle for independence from Spain. Looking at those famous church steps, I had the same sensation of awe I have experienced at the Alamo and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Hidalgo, along with Allende and two other leaders of Mexico’s war for independence, were captured and executed for the cause of freedom, a price every signer of our own Declaration of Independence knew he might be called to pay. (Learn more about Allende and Hidalgo here.)
I also visited the Valencia Hacienda (now a restaurant) in Guanajuato, where the Valencia family lived across the street from their own private cathedral (see photo at left). That’s right: they had their own personal cathedral! The Valencias were among the richest people on the planet at that time, in direct control of 25 to 30 percent of the silver produced in Nueva Espanola, or “New Spain”. When you consider that New Spain accounted for about two thirds of all the silver mined on earth, the Valencia’s wealth defies imagination, easily reaching the level of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet today.
Guanajuato itself has a lovely European ambiance, with pedestrians wandering cobblestone streets lined by limestone and stucco facades, and drivers navigating a strange underground road system created by the miners who originally gave the city its wealth. 48 kilometers of tunnels under the city left the downtown area free of the noise and exhaust that plagues so many other towns. Diego Rivera was born there (on the right is a photo of The Lovely Sue and Yours Truly in front of Rivera’s boyhood house), and a major university is right downtown, which may explain the sense of creativity and energy I felt throughout the city.
The strong connection between my country and Mexico reveals itself in the strangest details. For example, did you know the Mexican Revolution was initially led by Francisco Madero, who studied at the University of California, Berkley? In San Miguel I attended a world class jazz concert along with an elegant crowd of well heeled people from all around the world. This, in a theater marred by bullet holes in its limestone façade, evidence of the firing squads that operated with ruthless efficiency there during Mexico’s revolution early in the last century. What a surreal contrast between that grim reminder of Mexico’s bloody history outside, and the sublime gypsy-swing music of the Hot Club of San Francisco on stage inside! I also had a chance to see Doc Severinsen play with Gil Gutierrez and Pedro Cartas (the classical guitarist and violinist duo known as “Gil and Cartas”). These three guys were awesome together, with beautifully arranged music spanning from straightforward jazz, to moments of classical Spanish guitar, to Django Reinhardt type “gypsy jazz.” I’m listening to one of their CD’s as I type these words, and if you can get a copy, you should listen, too.
All of this in only one week, and believe me, this description barely scratches the surface of the sights, sounds, and people I encountered. Mexico. What a beautiful, amazing, and fascinating country it is! I went south unsure of the final direction I should take with Lost Mission, and came home overflowing with grand ideas and creative energy. Now at last after months of preparation it’s time to do what writers do and . . . write!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:04 AM
What Would Jesus Buy?
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Reverend Billy says the Shopocalypse is coming, and you can color me commie, but I believe he's right. Kiddos, it's time to assume the position underneath your school desks. Grownups, duck and cover, because Halloween is over and you know what that means:
The intercontinental bombardment has begun, with a 673.8 percent increase in junk mail-order catalogues slamming into a mailbox near you. That's right: you my friend are ground zero, and Madison Avenue has an itchy finger on the button. So brace yourself for shopoactive atmosphere everywhere you go, fueled by those holy hymns of yesteryear, Jingle Bell Rock and Santa Baby. Even with the full body protection of a liberal line of credit, you're bound to absorb enough guilt and envy to start glowing in the dark. But don't worry; by the time the bankruptcy is over you’ll be so numb you won't feel it anymore.
Or . . .
You could fire back. Little ones must get their goodies from Santa, of course. But in the past, The Lovely Sue and I have also given Christmas presents to people who really need them (sick people, poor people, orphans). We gave them in the names of our adult friends and family. Then we sent fancy Christmas ornaments to our loved ones. On the ornaments, we used gold or silver paint to inscribe a description of the gift some person got in their name (“Sally with leukemia got a tricycle given in your name—Christmas, 2007”). Through the years we hope those ornaments will be used to deck the halls, and help us and all our loved ones to remember what Christmas really means.
How about your family? Do you have traditions or ideas for keeping Christmas centered on the Christ?
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:34 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Cause For Celebration!
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Here's great news for those who still believe it's possible to elect an honorable man for our next President. After lagging in fifth place for so long, in the latest Rasmussen poll Mike Huckabee is moving up while the others are slipping down. He’s now in a dead heat with McCain, Romney and Thompson for second place nationally for the Republican nomination. Also, in the latest American Research Group Poll he is only 2 percentage points behind the frontrunner in Iowa, well within the 4 percent margin of error for first place in the nation’s first Presidential caucus. The latest CBS Poll also has him in second place in Iowa and “surging” toward the lead, with nearly two months still to go before caucus night (Jan 8)—plenty of time for Huckabee to bypass Romney.
What’s amazing is the way Huckabee has gained so much momentum with so few resources. Giuliani raised $14 million in the first quarter of this year alone. McCain was “disappointed” to only raise $13 million. Romney raised $21 million dollars! Meanwhile, Huckabee raised less than one million dollars during the same period. In this CNN article from last April on the candidates' war chests, Mike Huckabee was not even mentioned!
Yet here he is, solidly in the running.
As I said before, this guy is a real “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story. Not only does Mike Huckabee have no money to speak of by comparison to the others (and doesn’t that prove he is in nobody’s pocket?); he’s a beltway outsider, by far the most vocal critic of the Republican establishment (except for Ron Paul, of course). Although Mike Huckabee is a Southern Baptist, he gets very little help from high profile evangelicals, in fact most of our evangelical “leaders” (whatever that means) continue to either ignore him or come out in favor of the pro-choice Republican national frontrunner because they think the frontrunner has a better chance of “winning” (whatever that means). Huckabee does not fit into a simplistic red state / blue state mold (he’s passionately Christian and a foreign policy conservative, yet he’s also a fiscal revolutionary and a genuine social liberal in the original best sense of the term). All of this means he should have fallen by the wayside long ago.
Yet here he is, solidly in the running.
While Romney and Giuliani tell us what they think we want to hear, professing strong beliefs today that directly contradict what they said the last time they ran for political office, Mike Huckabee is gaining traction for one reason only: this man tells the truth exactly as he sees it, exactly as he has always seen it.
To those who still say Mike Huckabee can’t win, it’s idealistic to think he could, it’s not practical, I can only reply, "Tell it to the polls."
To everybody else, I say, Don't just sit there; stand against the cynicism! Now is the time to get behind Mike Huckabee with your money and your time!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:59 AM
Labels: Church and State
Interview on Writing
Friday, November 16, 2007
Jon Brisbin was kind enough to ask me to discuss writing and a few related topics over at his blog. I hope you'll check it out. If you want to talk about some aspect of our conversation further, drop me a comment here and I'll do my best to keep my end up. And if you appreciate Jon's interview skills as much as I do, be sure to let him know. He asked some outstanding questions!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:00 PM
THE CURE, The Theme
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Spoiler alert. What follows will give away important parts of the plot of my novel, The Cure, so if you have not read it and you think you might some day, you may want to stop reading today's post right here.
Still reading? Okay, you were warned. Here goes:
I received the following email today from a reader: "I read The Cure and I really did not get the ending. Riley was cured of alcoholism, so why did he have to become an alcoholic again to have to overcome it? I'm all for leaving things to the imagination, but did he get right with God?" Since this is not the first time a reader has asked me this question, I thought it made sense to answer here, where I can send other readers in the future. Following is my reply.
Thank you for taking time to ask this question. It's an important one.
The short answer is, Yes indeed, Riley does end up being "right with God." To understand why, we first have to open up the story a bit more broadly. Jesus did not die and rise to save us from our sins; he did it to save us from our sin addiction, the broken thing inside that makes it impossible NOT to sin. (We were "slaves to sin" as Paul says in Romans 7, from which I chose an epigraph for The Cure.) So when you read about Riley's alcohol addiction, think of the story in broader terms. The Cure is not just about one man's struggle against alcoholism. It's about your own struggle against your particular sin addiction, no matter how it might be manifested in your life.
We know willpower alone cannot save us from our sin addiction, and in the same way, we know there is no cure for sinfulness in technology. We can "cure" gluttony with stomach stapling; we can "cure" pornography with filters on computers, and so forth. But nothing human beings can do will cure us of our sin addiction. This is why Jesus had to die and rise, and why only God's grace is sufficient.
But your question remains a good one: why would a Christian voluntarily accept the urge of alcoholism?
Notice what Riley tries to do about his addiction. He takes the "cure" while he's still drunk on Scotch. Like Riley, the apostle Paul had a "thorn in the flesh," but Paul was wise enough to ask God to remove it. Riley does no such thing. Taking the cure is not a decision he makes with God; it is a choice he makes completely on his own while in the grip of the very thing he hopes to cure. Riley never prays for forgiveness; on the contrary, he prays for "something good to drink." Then the technology kicks in and Riley no longer "needs" to drink, but notice why: it is the technology at work in him. It is not the Holy Spirit. So while the external evidence of his sin addiction is controlled, the internal cause--the thing that made him start drinking in the first place--remains unchanged.
Remember Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. God doesn't just care about murder; He cares about anger in our hearts. God doesn't just care about adultery; He cares about lust in our hearts. Again, Jesus did not come to save us from external sins; He came to save us from the broken thing inside that forces us to sin. And although Riley is no longer drinking, that internal brokenness remains. Riley is not drinking anymore, but he is far from right with God.
We see this in the fact that Riley carries an overwhelming sense of guilt in spite of his sobriety. He often says he feels "weighed down". What does he do about that? He does what any pagan who is scared of hell would do. He works hard to try to make up for all the bad things in his life. He works hard to be "good." But of course, all his efforts come to nothing. Indeed, they are worse than nothing; they actually cause more damage. Hope is suspected of taking bribes, his daughter is pregnant out of wedlock, the town is dying, and all because "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me," as Paul said in Romans 7. Finally, when technology and willpower and good works have all failed, when the town is in ashes, Hope is in the hospital, Willa is dead, and Riley is in jail for murder, at last we come to this (on page 318):
"He thought about the weight that never lifted no matter what he did. Sober, drunk, broke or flush, in love or alone, it did not matter. And suddenly he realized what it was he had forgotten in a clearing choked with carnage seven years ago, the reason for his incapacitating weakness. When I am weak, then I am strong."
Now Riley knows his mistake. He was weak in his alcoholism, but he must allow himself to be weak in an entirely different way in order to accept the strength of God's amazing grace. He remembers what he once forgot: God will give no grace to those who think they're strong. But how can Riley Keep be weak, when he is now sober and the richest man in Maine?
You know what he does with the Communion wine, how he voluntarily accepts his alcohol addiction back into himself, and hopefully now you are beginning to understand his reason.
Riley's drinking started with a spiritual mistake. He needed a spiritual solution. Another Christian might not express that solution the way Riley did. I'm not saying they should. That's the kind of individual decision each person must make with the Lord. But lest we be tempted to condemn Riley's choice in his own case, remember God said "No" when Paul asked for his "thorn of the flesh" to be removed. Remember God explained that Paul was better off with that thorn right where it was. And as much as it hurt, Paul accepted this. In fact, he boasted about it. This is the very event that led him to write those famous words: "When I am weak, then I am strong." The idea for The Cure came to me one day when I asked myself, "If someone had come along with an instant cure for Paul's particular problem, would he have taken it in spite of what God said?"
When faced with trials, a Christian's decisions must never be made on the basis of what's easiest, or least painful, or less of a struggle. Christians are not called to easy, painless, struggle-free lives. This is the meaning of the sentence on page 326 of The Cure, just before Riley drank the Communion wine and took the urge/thorn back into his flesh:
"He had begun to remember crosses to be lifted up and carried, and follow me, and follow me."
So, dear Reader, now that you understand these things the way Riley understood them, I hope The Cure will help you think about the meaning of your own particular sin addictions, whatever they might be. In your struggle for holiness I hope this story helps you think of your sinfulness as an opportunity to be weak before the Lord. I hope it reminds you not to try to cure yourself. I hope you will remember you can't do that, except maybe on the surface. Deep down where it matters, like Riley Keep you are utterly powerless when you try to be strong, but if you have faith enough to let yourself be weak, the Lord will make you strong enough to do more than just survive the trials of life; if you let yourself be weak, you will boast about the triumph of the Lord's amazing grace in you.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:33 AM
WINTER HAVEN Sneak Peek!
Thursday, November 1, 2007
More on how to get your copy of Winter Haven below, but first, here’s the back cover blurb:
Answers are impossible
Athol Dickson’s “powerfully imagined” River Rising received rousing acclaim from numerous publications including Booklist (who chose it as one of the top 10 Christian novels of 2006), Publishers Weekly, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was a finalist for Christianity Today’s Best Novel of 2006, and received a Christy Award for Best Suspense Novel.
His next novel, The Cure, received rave reviews from critics like Library Journal, and readers alike. Now he entertains and enthralls readers once again with a mystery that goes beyond the surface of everything we know and see . . . .
Thirteen years ago, Vera Gamble’s brother, Siggy, ran away from home in Texas never to be seen again. Now his body washes ashore on the tiny island of Winter Haven, Maine. His only surviving kin, Vera travels north to claim the body—and finds herself tangled in the impossible: Her brother hasn’t aged a day since last she saw him.
Determined to uncover what happened in those lost years, Vera soon discovers there are other secrets haunting the island. As legends of lost colonies and a witch bent on vengeance come to life amidst a forest where no creature dares to live, Vera is hemmed in by unearthly fog and distrusted by the locals. Her only help is the mysterious owner of a grand but dilapidated mansion poised on a rocky cliff. Will Vera survive her desperate search for answers, or will her quest become yet one more dark Winter Haven legend?
If you want to be one of the first people on the planet to read Winter Haven, just send me a private email by clicking on “Contact Me” on the far right of the navagation bar above. Please be sure to include all of the following in your email:
1) Your name.
2) Your blog’s address (sorry, copies not available for those who don't blog).
3) Your mailing address (P.O. boxes are fine, but street addresses are better)
4) Your promise to read Winter Haven in the near future, and blog about it.
Remember: I need to hear from you no later than November 14, 2007.
Thanks, and happy reading!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:09 PM
Labels: Winter Haven
Work, Pray, Love
Monday, October 29, 2007
Long ago I learned that C. S. Lewis’ personal motto was “laborare est orare,” or “to work is to pray.” Recently I learned his motto’s source. The original is from St. Benedict, who said, "Orare est laborare, laborare est orare" ("To pray is to work, to work is to pray"). Before I knew the first half of the original quote, I thought of Lewis’ motto only in terms of work being like prayer. Now I understand the connection is much deeper.
For the Christian who thinks of them properly, work and prayer are not merely alike; they are one and the same.
When faced with work I do not want to do, it helps to remember the first work ever, which was Creation itself. It helps to remember the first work given us in the Garden of Eden, and Paul’s admonition to Colossian slaves to work for their earthly masters even when their masters were not watching and would not know. "Work," said Paul, “with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not for men.” It helps to remember the (all too rare) moments of communion when I have sensed God's pleasure with my meager efforts. In the midst of these memories, I realize why Benedict and Lewis placed such emphasis on this idea, and although work is often difficult, although that difficulty was God’s curse for the first sin, I remain deeply grateful work was still allowed.
Even in a fallen world, work and prayer are one if done with God in mind. Work connects my spirit with the Lord’s. In work I sometimes give my best reflection of God’s image and likeness as Creator. In the beginning, work was creation. It remains so today. Creation is a gift, a flowing outward, the opposite of consumption. Pagan gods devour the earth; Jesus Christ sustains it with the perpetual gift of Himself, constantly creating everything. God's work is never done, and so may it always be with me.
Unlike prayerful petitions for my own sake or for others, unlike even prayers of thanks, when I work for God’s sake (although the work might be most menial) I return something of myself to my Maker. This is why the Lord commanded work in Eden, and why He let us take it to our exile. Because "God is love," work in imitation of His image, work for His sake, is not just a form of prayer; it is also love.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:34 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
This Is the Air I Breathe
Friday, October 26, 2007
The view from my window these last few days has been ugly. I live directly in the smoke plume of one of the wildfires ravaging Southern California. Ash falls from the sky day and night; the rising sun is a dim red ball I can stare straight at without blinking; my eyes water and my nose burns as the air conspires to choke me, and the mid-day light has a sickly yellow cast that makes me feel like I’m on another planet, maybe Mars. But as much as I wish this wasn’t my home, it is.
Yesterday I went searching for a gas mask. Seriously. And as I searched, I kept thinking about that popular song by Michael W. Smith. Maybe you know it. The first lines go like this:
This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
I realized the ugly air I had been breathing for the last few days was much like the social and spiritual atmosphere we inhale all the time. Drugs. Adultery. Poverty. Greed. Waste. War. Pornography. Divorce. Sexual confusion. Aborted babies. Pedophiles. Rapists. Racism. Misogyny. Materialism. Hedonism. Cancer. AIDS. Apathy. Terror. Pollution. Lies in the press. Lies in the street. Lies from the pulpit. Lies everywhere. This is the air we have been breathing for so long we hardly even notice anymore, even as it chokes us.
Searching for a gas mask, I thought about the last few posts here on this blog, and the concern expressed by a few people who contacted me to say, “Athol, we need to work on this a different way. We need to clean the air one heart at a time. The solution isn’t laws or politics; it’s Jesus and Jesus alone.”
I understand why they say this. For many, it’s a reaction to the mistakes of the last two decades, when Christians pursued political solutions with all the fervor of an old time revival preacher who has forgotten the point of his sermon in his zealousness to convince the crowd. Since Christians turned to politics in the late 1970’s the air quality has gotten only worse. We set out to be a light on a hill, and ended up looking like just another wildfire. But there is terrible irony in this reaction to that mistake. More than a quarter century ago, after helping to inspire Jerry Falwell and others to found the Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer wrote these words in A Christian Manifesto:
“The old revivals are spoken about so warmly by the evangelical leadership. Yet they seem to have forgotten what those revivals were. Yes, the old revivals…in this country did call, without any question and with tremendous clarity, for personal salvation. But they also called for a resulting social action.”
Did you catch the irony? Some of us today, reacting to the ugly air in spite of decades of Christian political action, want to forget politics and focus only on revival. But the largely ineffective Christian political action they’re reacting against was itself inspired by revivals that also failed to clear the air. It seems our mistakes are self-perpetuated.
Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to see things as “this,” or “that,” but seldom both. We are pendulums doomed to swing back and forth between partial solutions, never stopping at a balanced middle place. The apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead,” and Jesus was talking about mutually supportive principles when he said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” Faith…and works. Love…and obey. In these areas, the proper Christian life is not an either/or proposition. God’s holy Presence dwells in the balanced middle place that includes them both. There, and there alone, the air is clear.
Our nation desperately needs a new political direction. Our neighbors desperately need faith in Jesus Christ. It is not one or the other; it is one, because of the other. “Faith without works is dead,” might just as truthfully been written “Works without faith is dead.” To argue one over the other makes no more sense than fighting wildfires without gas masks.
So this time, let us rise up at the primaries to ensure a godly choice for president in 2008, and let us also rise up in our pulpits, streets, schools, homes and offices to boldly preach the undiluted Gospel. Seriously. Pray for the right president, and pray for the right preachers. After swinging back and forth too often, this time let it be the balanced middle place. Let it be revolution and revival, by the grace and power of the mighty God we serve.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:29 PM
What Terri Wrote
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Terri Blackstock does not blog, but recently I saw a copy of an important email she sent to several friends, and asked if she would offer something similar here. To my delight, she graciously agreed. Terri is always doing something gracious. For example, although we had never met, soon after the publication of my first novel she took time out of a busy book tour schedule to have dinner with my wife and me, along with my mother who was a big fan. I will never forget the encouragement Terri offered me as a writer that night, the amazing humility she displayed by treating me, then a one-novel author, as if I was a peer, and the powerful sense of God’s guiding hand I felt as she spoke of her recent decision to risk a well established writing career for the (then) very risky proposition of Christian fiction. Writing for houses such as HarperCollins, Harlequin, and Silhouette, thirty-two Terri Blackstock titles had been published and 3.5 million books in print when she decided to switch to Christian fiction. At that time the Christian fiction market was untested, and the quality of the novels available was mostly very poor. It was a huge risk for her career, a true leap of faith. But Terri felt a calling and obeyed. Since making that decision, she has sold 2 million novels and over thirty titles that explore faith in Jesus Christ, many of which have been number one best-sellers. Her latest book, True Light, reached number one on the Top 50 of all Christian books the first full month it was in stores, and Night Light was the winner of the 2007 Retailer’s Choice Award for General Fiction. You can learn more about Terri’s journey by reading her testimony on her website. But first, here’s what Terri wrote…
* * *
I'm currently teaching a Bible study course on some of the kings and prophets in the Old Testament. The northern kingdom of Israel allowed leaders to come and go and lead them into sins so serious that they were throwing their children into fire to sacrifice to the god of Molech. (To me, abortion is the same kind of offense to God.) God gave them chance after chance to repent, yet they followed their leaders into worse and worse sin. Eventually, the people paid the consequences, when their men were slaughtered and they were marched out of Samaria--losing everything they owned-- and moved to an Assyrian area. God said, "Ephraim is no longer a people." But in the southern kingdom of Judah, they were able to buy some time when Hezekiah began to reign. He led the people into righteousness and destroyed all their altars to false gods, knocked down the Asherah poles and the high places, and made the priests consecrate themselves and the temple so they could worship again.
We need to pray that God will raise up a Hezekiah for us, and we need to pray it like we believe it, not just roll over and accept the candidate the media is salivating over. I, for one, am about to donate money to the Huckabee campaign, because he is a godly man who will not lead our country into more sin. I like what he believes and what he stands for, and I like the fact that he has the judgment to at least hold the line on abortion in this country by appointing Pro-Life judges. Of all the candidates, he's the only one I've seen so far who has the moral fortitude to do that. I’m also very impressed with his performance in the debates, and think he has what it takes to win.
I'm looking at the character of the man. Has he kept other covenants in his life, for instance with his wife? Then maybe he'll keep his campaign promises. Is he Pro-Life as a political stance, or does he believe deeply in his heart that killing babies is wrong and has to be stopped? If he does, then maybe he can make an impact on that. Does he truly and honestly worship Jesus Christ, or does he just say he does because it's politically expedient right now? And if he does truly worship God, then maybe he'll look to Him for guidance for our country.
Some would say that I’m a one-issue voter. I’m not. There are several issues that are extremely important to me. The abortion issue is not one of those issues. It’s the foundation on which any candidate I consider must stand. You must understand, if a man or woman believes that it’s okay to kill babies, that tells me that their judgment is severely impaired. They are not fit to run our country.
I'm not giving up in the primary season. We can choose whatever candidate we want. There were enough of us Christians to elect George Bush in the last two elections. We can elect Huckabee or any Hezekiah God raises up between now and the primaries. We can win again if we stand up for our issues. We have an incredibly strong voice, and we've proven that it can be louder than that of the media. Some of you say we have to pick a candidate who can win against Hillary. We did pick a candidate who won against Al Gore and John Kerry. We got to choose because there were enough of us! If we had a candidate who represented our values, why couldn't we do it again, even if the media said it was impossible? They thought it was impossible last time. What have we won if we get a man with the same basic values as Hillary? So what if he's a strong leader, if he leads us further into the pit?
I love America and the Church, and I don't want to see us follow the path of some European countries in which Christianity has all but died, because they let the world have its way in their elections. America has been set apart, protected, blessed ... but if the Bible is a warning to us, and we can learn anything about God's nature by his dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, we will pay severe consequences for our country's moral decline. I refuse to roll over.
Unless something changes drastically before my state’s primary election, I’m voting for Mike Huckabee.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:36 PM
Labels: Church and State
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Guess who is going to post on What Athol Wrote tomorrow? Here are a few hints:
> One of the top selling authors of Christian fiction in the world.
> Does not have a blog.
> Does not want a blog.
> Does not like to blog.
> Has decided to "come out of hiding" just this once, to speak out about the 2008 Presidential elections.
Think you know who this is? If so, feel free to post your guess in the comments, and then tune in tomorrow to see if you were right. And just to make things more interesting, let me say right here in print that there will be a prize awarded tomorrow to someone somewhere for some reason. :)
In the meantime, here are links to a few quick excerpts from various interviews and debates, for those who haven't had a chance to see Mike Huckabee in action. Check them out, and see if, like me, you don't find yourself feeling like you're watching a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here's a man who truly believes, as that movie's script says, "The only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes." Except as the movie also teaches, when we truly believe that, those causes are not really lost at all....
The most pressing moral issue.
On being "Communicator in Chief"
Don't ask, don't tell.
On the ecology.
Attaining energy independance.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:27 AM
Labels: Church and State
Should We Give Up?
Saturday, October 20, 2007
In next year’s elections, it looks more and more like we will be presented with a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, both of whom are “pro-choice.” Any third party option virtually guarantees the Democrat will win. Think about that. Then think about the fact that two Supreme Court justices will likely be replaced by our next president. We were so close to overturning Roe v. Wade. Now it looks like that hope might be lost for another generation. With a growing sense of desperation, my wife and I have been begging the Lord to raise up someone to lead this country. We will never cast our votes for a politician who thinks killing unborn children is a basic human right. That means we may not in good conscience be able to vote in the next presidential election.
Over a quarter of a century ago in A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer said when there are no true ideological differences between candidates, democracy is dead. I fear that day is very near.
But the last seven years have taught me I cannot be a one-issue voter, not when there are so many other looming disasters. The rise of Muslim terrorism, a radically polarized and impotent legislature, ill will in nearly every nation on the planet, bitter divisions among Americans themselves, the vast gap between the rich and poor growing quickly wider just as millions of Baby Boomer Americans are entering their retirement years with no savings and no health insurance, spreading challenges to the fundamental right of every child to be raised by both a mother and a father, rampant fiscal irresponsibility at both the governmental and personal levels, an ongoing suicidal dependence on oil, religious freedom in this country on the ropes…the list goes on and on and on.
Fortunately, in these desperate times I think the man we need is right under our noses. Please, please, please, go to Mike Huckabee’s site, and read every word of his positions on these issues. Read about Huckabee’s experience in two terms as the Republican governor of a state with a Democrat controlled legislature. Compare Huckabee’s straightforward and clear statements about what he plans to do, to the vague position statements you will see on Mitt Romney’s site. You probably won’t agree with Huckabee’s ideas on everything (I don’t), but you will find that Romney’s position on the issues reads like public relations, while Huckabee’s position statement reads like an action plan.
As you read, also consider this: the evangelical kingmakers in this country have already decided Mike Huckabee is unelectable against Hillary Clinton. The Southern Baptists’ Richard Land has said it. James Dobson has said it. Mark DeMoss (former Jerry Falwell consultant) has said it. Yet they also say they wish they could support the man. Their reason for this paradox? As this article puts it: “They can’t support him because no one is supporting him.” In other words, in spite of the fact that evangelicals are the largest cohesive voting block in this nation, they have already given up on the idea that one of us can be elected.
I would like to send a message to the kingmakers that they are wrong, that we should not give up, that we should have some faith for crying out loud, that democracy is not yet dead and there can still be a real choice in 2008. Do you believe that’s possible? If you do, I strongly suggest that you get busy right now. Talk about Mike Huckabee on your blogs. Often. Talk about him at your churches. Send his campaign as much money as you can. (Even $20 says “I’m with you.”) Call and email Richard Land, James Dobson and every other evangelical leader you can think of to say, “Let’s support our own.”
It’s either that, or like them, we have already given up.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:25 AM
Labels: Church and State
Agape, Even If By Force
Thursday, October 18, 2007
It was uncomfortable, but I read Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto yesterday.
If you have not read this book, I strongly recommend that you get a copy and do so right away. We’re talking about a pillar of the Christian intellectual community, who wrote statements like this:
“…since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God.”
“…at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.”
These are startling words from a conservative evangelical, although as Schaeffer points out, we of all people have inherited a mantle of revolutionary responsibility directly from the founding fathers. And as one reads Schaeffer’s words, they take on more impact when it becomes apparent that here was a true prophet. He predicts the continued rise of courts that overstep from neutral judicial interpretation of existing law into the realm of making law, by actually commanding the legislative branch (!) to create new laws in conformance with court opinion, and in defiance of the will of the majority of the people. (Consider the recent Massachusetts court decision recasting the basic definition of “marriage,” and then demanding that the legislature create a law to support its ruling.) He predicts the rise of science as a form of religion, with its own dogma that brooks no contradiction. (Think of the plight of those who dare to question global warming science, and are publicly compared to Holocaust deniers.) He predicts a blurring of the lines between “conservative” and “liberal,” until there seems to be little difference and therefore little true democratic opportunity for change. (One thinks of “conservatives” who are supposed to be fiscally responsible, yet cannot be trusted to control government spending, and “liberals” who are supposed to advocate the rights of the weak and underprivileged, yet openly support the very same forms of American eugenics that led directly to the real Holocaust.)
Remarkably, Schaeffer predicted all of this over a quarter century ago.
Way back then he also warned that the Moral Majority movement would probably fail. He offered a scathing indictment of evangelical leadership’s inept responses to a rising tide of secular humanism in the century prior to the Moral Majority’s founding, and gives little hope of a change now without a change in tactics.
Fortunately, from beyond the grave Schaeffer offers clear guidance on what to do next. He calls for the Christian use of force to resist the evil consuming our freedoms. That’s right, he calls for force. But he draws a distinction between force and violence. In that regard (and in many others) he sounds very much like Rev. Martin Luther King, as quoted in the wonderful compilation of sermons, A Knock at Midnight:
“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail. We will go into those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity.” (Martin Luther King, sermon, “The American Dream,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.)
One thing that struck me again and again in A Christian Manifesto, is the power that comes from Schaeffer’s calm voice in combination with his absolute refusal to compromise the truth. This is such a contrast with the strident tones and rampant non-constructive hyperbole so commonly adopted by some evangelical leaders, and the wishy-washy responses to humanism offered by others. Here was a man who knew how to project the love of Christ while simultaneously speaking the truth boldly, an ability I fear we Christians have nearly lost. Think about our many pitiful attempts to be “relevant” as you watch this excellent video, and if you’re wise, after you’re done laughing you might cry a little.
Dr. King was taken from us in 1968, and Dr. Schaeffer’s book was published in 1981. It’s long past midnight now, and they're done knocking. Is it too late?
I think brother Martin and brother Francis would say that depends on you and me.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:29 PM
Words of War
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Love poetry, hate war? Then you should visit Gary Brown's newest blog, The Heart of War. Be warned: this is not easy reading. But what Gary has written is important, I think, because the juxtaposition of such lyrical language with the horrors of the subject matter lends a desperately needed freshness to the message. In our jaded culture, when the distance afforded by the Internet and the evening news makes war too easily watched and too easily ignored, Gary's work may remind you of the outrage lost along with innocence. That's a good thing, even if it hurts a little. Here's a sample, used by permission:
Destined to be someone’s three-limbed
poster child for peace,
for nothing and
they made me their
one man parade,
a lifetime limping billboard for
the strangers who
will never know
who’ve now moved on,
forgotten the cause which prompted them
so many years ago
to plant a mine
along my path
Without a foot,
without a leg,
without a way to class again,
where pain and sorrow
taught me long,
other people, too.
Sweaty years of stumbling as
the object of sad eyes,
the target of a taunt,
the last in line
have roughly led me to a place
where God’s embrace
of fierce gentility has gripped me so
I can’t let go;
for I am not the first child He has
rescued from the
of someone seeking
Copyright (c) 2007 Gary Brown. All rights reserved.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:42 PM
Labels: Church and State
The Importance of Imagination
Monday, October 15, 2007
While discussing that certain yearning, which makes us want to write, the novelist Jim Bell just turned me on to a little essay by John Piper called, "God is Not Boring." There is simply nothing I can add to Piper's words, except, "Wow."
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:16 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Weaving In Jesus
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Blame this on Mark Bertrand. I try not to spend too much time writing about writing in these posts, because I hope people of all walks of life will be interested in the site. Also, I was going to spend the afternoon working on a novel. But then I read Mark's post on the state of Christian fiction today in which he linked to an interview I did, and I had to comment. One thing led to another, and the comment grew too long to post on Mark's site (it is his site, after all) so here it is instead. If you are a Christian writer or artist, what follows may be of particular interest. But even if that's not your line of work, it shouldn't take much imagination to apply some of these thoughts to your corner of Christian life.
So whether you're a writer or an artist or not, you might want to go read what Mark wrote, and perhaps the comments of his readers there, then come back to consider this:
All five of the points in Mark's blog strike me as important, and well made. I had not thought about the issue raised in number five, but it does ring true. Even the Christian authors I know often hesitate to admit a preference of one author over another for fear of causing offense. This is probably a function of good Christian charity to some extent, and to that extent it should be valued, although Mark's right to imply it sometimes gets in the way of constructive criticism. As the genre continues to mature, I suspect it will sort itself out.
It seems to me the elephant in the room is what a Christian novelist ought to do about Jesus, whether the author is published by a Christian or a secular house. And as Christian authors, we have to rigidly separate two concerns when it comes to “steering” stories toward our worldview. First there is the question of whether we should steer stories toward Him at all, and if so, then we have the question of how it should be done.
Regarding the first question, all great music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, motion pictures and novels communicate something fundamental yet ineffable about life as the author understands it. Some artists do that more transparently than others, but once the basics of craftsmanship have been learned, the communication of ineffable truth is precisely what separates great and timeless art from the merely entertaining or the decorative. Since life is short and every artist will produce a limited number of works in his career, it seems to me self-evident that the truth communicated should be the most important one the artist knows. If the artist is a Christian, yet he does not speak the truth of Christ somehow, he is like a doctor who has discovered the cure for cancer yet chosen to limit himself to cosmetic surgery. I will never understand how any Christian artist could paint or sculpt or dance or compose or film or write with anything but the gracious love of Jesus Christ as his underlying theme.
So, it seems to me the next question applies: not if a Christian author ought to point his readers toward the gospel, but rather, how?
Regarding this I think we should first of all remember Paul’s words: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.” This means one novel might prepare the human heart to receive the gospel, and another might explain it. Some people (glossing too much onto the oft-quoted Mystery and Manners, I think) seem to believe a novel should serve only the former purpose, and it is somehow bad art to attempt the latter. This is nonsense. Consider The Last Supper. Consider the Sistine Chapel. It may require an artist who is a consummate master of his form to get an unbeliever to accept it, but the gospel can and should be spoken via every kind of art, including novels.
Also, Mark makes an excellent point on this score when he writes, “We have unique visions and we seek to implement them in various ways.” While God is one, every Christian knows Jesus in a unique way. It makes sense that every Christian author will write about Jesus uniquely. Some will bury Him deep; others will place him front and center. Who are we to say one approach is superior to the other, so long as good craftsmanship is there? It’s certainly naïve (or perhaps supercilious) to suggest a Christian novel is inferior to the secular variety because the underlying Christian message is not altogether underlying. Consider Robert B. Parker for example, whose serial protagonists, Spencer and Stone, almost never fail to moralize on feminism or on psychiatry, which Parker sometimes seems to treat like a religion. I disagree with Parker on both subjects, yet like millions of others, I thoroughly enjoy his work and read it anyway. If Parker (and dozens of other ABA authors I could mention) can get away with overt presentations of their belief systems, why can’t a Christian who is writing at the same level of skill do the same? I believe the Bible, so I believe the answer is, because “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Yet Paul often preached the gospel plainly, and so should any novelist who feels the call to do so.
None of this should be interpreted to mean Christian novelists are exempt from good craftsmanship. Christians of all people must attend to quality, because slip-shod work reflects directly on Jesus’ reputation among unbelievers. As with any theme in any novel, if the gospel is there it must be essential to the story, woven in from the outset as the very heart of the thing. This is the true message of Mystery and Manners, and it is not a Christian fiction issue in particular. It is Creative Writing 101.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:50 PM
...Let Man Not Separate
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
If only it was true. Christianity Today published an article this month entitled “What God Has Joined,” which blesses divorce on the basis of “emotional neglect,” among other things. I wish I could agree with it, because I am a divorced person who remarried. Unfortunately, the author’s scholarship is flawed, which should come as no surprise since he disagrees with two thousand years of generally accepted church doctrine.
You might want to read the article before continuing here, but when you get to the reference to Exodus 21:10-11, remember to suspend belief for a few minutes, until you come back to read this letter I just sent to the editors of CT:
To the Editors:
According to The Barna Group, Christians abandon marriage in the United States at a rate equaling or exceeding that of unbelievers. David Instone-Brewer seeks scriptural support for this in Exodus 21:10, stating, “Exodus says that everyone…had three rights within marriage…food, clothing, and love.” He equates a lack of love with the “emotional neglect” so commonly cited as a basis for divorce today. But the Hebrew word he creatively interprets as “love” in that verse is not translated that way in any well-known English translation. Nor is it rendered as “love” elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, according to The Englishman’s Hebrew Concordance, the Hebrew word does not even occur in this same form elsewhere in the Bible. That alone should warn us not to base such a far-reaching application upon the verse, but there’s more. Instone-Brewer applies Exodus 21:10-11 to “everyone,” but the woman in the contemplated relationship is a concubine—essentially a slave—who was sold to her “husband” without any choice in the matter and thus cannot be accurately compared to a modern person who freely chooses marriage. Also, with the words “if he marries another woman” the Exodus passage specifically addresses polygamy in particular, and takes pains to exclude monogamous relationships. Although his entire argument is built upon these verses, Instone-Brewer fails to mention any of this.
Sadly, in divorce and many other difficulties millions of North American Christians base choices on the amount of pleasure or pain involved in a decision. As a divorced person myself, I sincerely wish it was that easy. Jesus warned us there would be crosses to bear if we follow Him, and even Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” the Lord would not remove. The hard reality of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is evident in the disciples’ stunned reaction: “…it is better not to marry.” Along with every other sin, our God of mercy will forgive divorce of course, but divorce is still sin in most cases and it is always caused by sin. Rather than joining the Pharisees who sought an easy way around the Bible’s teaching, we should focus on the plain sense meaning of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19:3-11, and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength to do the hard work of healing our marriages.
I need to add a postscript, which was not part of the letter since it was already running long.
Nothing I have written here should be interpreted as a suggestion that Christian women should cohabit with physically abusive husbands. Far from it. If you are in that situation, my advice is simple: get away from him! But whenever someone treats a Christian like an enemy, it seems to me the commands Jesus gave will apply to the relationship. We must love them, which is to say, we must forgive them, which is to say, we must remain engaged with them. “Turn the other cheek” should not be taken literally in a physically abusive situation, but the metaphor does carry meaning that extends beyond the lips and into actions.
In short: a physically abused wife must keep her distance, but physical separation is not divorce. And short of adultery or an unbelieving spouse’s abandonment, if we don’t stay in a spouse’s life, if we cut ourselves off from all possible reconciliation with a divorce, then “I forgive you” becomes just an empty story told to make ourselves feel better, instead of the extension of Christ’s sacrificial love on earth it ought to be.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:58 PM
When Negative is Positive
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Negative space is in your life, whether you know it or not. Is that a negative thing? It depends on whether you use it, or it uses you. Negative can be positive. To explore what I mean, let's think like artists.
In the visual arts, “negative space” is sometimes thought of as the background in a painting, or the empty air within and around a sculpture, but it can also be the foreground, or a blank area within the subject itself. It is any portion of the work that stands back or does not immediately call attention to itself, in order to define the primary subject in some way. Although casual observers of art rarely give negative space much thought, one of the first things one learns in art school is how vital it is to the success of the work. You can easily see why by looking at the painting, “Joseph Accused of Potiphar’s Wife” by Rembrandt, pictured here:
Negative space is hard at work in several areas of this image, but the most obvious example is the looming darkness in the upper half. See how Rembrandt uses it to sharply define the central figure’s much lighter head in silhouetted contrast, making it immediately clear that Joseph is the focus of these events. Notice also how that mass of vague darkness seems to press down upon him with a heavy weight, the utter lack of detail lending a psychological sense of impending doom. Then over on the right, see how Rembrandt partially absorbs Potiphar into the blackness of that negative space by painting him in darker tones, as if to tell us he is part of the impending doom. Note how Potiphar seems unaware of this looming darkness, how it seems to draw him in.
But also consider how Rembrandt uses negative space within the central details of the scene, on the bed, which he has washed with the lightest tones of the entire painting. There is only slightly more visual information here than in the looming darkness above, yet the effect is completely different. Thinking of the meaning of this scene, the action taking place, consider what that lack of detail implies, the emptiness of it in that particular place on the painting. Notice also how that stark clean whiteness defines Joseph’s hand, which points to it. Consider the implications of the way this white negative space acts upon that gesture, in comparison to the way the black negative space acts upon Joseph’s foe, how one character both acknowledges and is defined against the negative space, while the other ignores it and is absorbed. Finally, consider what Rembrandt might be trying to tell us with the fact that Joseph is defined by both the darkness around his head, and the brightness around his hand.
Holy: adjective. To be sanctified; set apart.
All of us experience the unknown, the unexplained and unexplainable, and every life includes moments, spaces and experiences that seem to have no understandable form or detail. Negative space for some might be a person. For others, it might be a job. Some might find it in their loneliness or boredom, others in the endless demands of many people or the frantic pace of life. A problem that appears to have no solution, a loss, an illness, an addiction, an inescapable commitment: the ways it comes upon us are as countless as the people in the world. Some of us fade into it, becoming more and more a part of it. Others stand out much more clearly because of it.
How do you encounter the “negative space” in your life?
Do you try to focus only on the central subjects, ignoring the negative space, pretending it is not there? Do you let it loom above you like a heavy weight, acting on you in ways you have not noticed? Are you fading into it?
Or do you gesture toward it somehow? Do you let the formlessness accentuate the details of your life? Be it dark around your head or bright around your hand, do you give it adequate attention, and in so doing, find your proper definition in this life?
Every true artist knows negative space must not be avoided or ignored. It is not a waste of canvas. On the contrary, negative space is absolutely essential to the work. How can the subject be set apart unless there is something to be set apart from? It must be acknowledged and considered well. It must be used, or it will use you.
But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:24 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
What is Excellence?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I’m thinking about excellence these days. Some time ago I posted the opinion over at Charis Connection, which I still hold, that some Christian authors should slow down a little, in order to pay more attention to craftsmanship and creativity, or to put it another way, in order to do more excellent work. This advice applies to every Christian who rushes through life unnecessarily.
The quality of our work reflects on Christ; it’s just that simple.
Paul makes this clear in several places, such as here and here. Our work, like our lives, must be excellent, so unbelievers will see it and praise our Father in heaven.
But excellence in some kinds of work demands speed. In fact, wherever profit is considered, work is usually gauged not only on the elegance or consistency or correctness of our work, but also on how quickly it is done. “Time is money” as they say. Other work must be done quickly because the nature of the work demands split second decisions. This means we can’t say slowing down to pay attention to craftsmanship and creativity is a certain path to excellence. Often excellence is achieved through a proper compromise between quality and other important considerations. So what exactly do we mean by that word, "excellence"?
According to the Bible, the answer has to do with results. More than anything, that is how God judges excellence. We see this in the parable of the talents. We see it in the numerous exhortations to “bear fruit.” When Paul compares a life well lived to an Olympic athlete racing for the prize, it is fair to assume he means first prize. God cares about results.
If a senior pastor of a church felt called to start more new outreaches and ministries than anyone else in town, how would his work be judged? By the effectiveness of those outreaches and ministries, right? Did unbelievers move closer to Christ? Did unbelievers trust in Christ? Did Christians grow in Christ? Those are the kinds of results-oriented questions one would ask to determine if a pastor is doing his work with excellence, or not. As Christians, all of us are called to minister among the people God has placed in our lives just as surely as any pastor ever was, so we should gauge the excellence of our lives by asking similar results-oriented questions.
We are not always allowed to know the results of our lives, but the results still matter to God. There is a famous story about a person who served as a missionary all of his life in a small village somewhere (China, I think) and died, believing he had failed because few if any of the people in his field had trusted Christ. But when his replacement came, people trusted Christ by the hundreds because of the example this “failure” set, both through the excellent way he served as a missionary (which got the people watching) and just as importantly, through the way he died. So while this missionary never knew his excellent work yielded results, it was still measured in results. Again, many of us will never know the full results of our work in this life, but we must still live with the ever-present knowledge that our results will be judged by a Master who has invested a gift in us, who expects a return on His investment, and who knows exactly what our results were. If we grant that idea the serious attention it warrants, we will not fail to do our very best in all that is required of us.
This does not mean God views excellence as a matter of big numbers. He does not. Notice in the parable of the talents that there are two servants who fail to earn as much as the one who gains a five talent return on the Master’s investment, but only the servant who does not put his talent to work is called “wicked”. The other servant, who gained only two talents instead of five, is given exactly the same praise as the one who gained five, because in the Master’s eyes he did just as well. The servant who was given five talents doubled the Master’s investment, and so it was with the servant who was only given two, and whether the gain was five or only two, in the Master’s eyes, both were equally praiseworthy. From this we learn that excellence is defined as getting the best results within the circumstances God has given.
There is another kind of result to consider. That is the result in us. We’ve all seen high profile pastors lately who showed impressive results in terms of the numbers, led thousands to Christ and enriched the spiritual lives of thousands of believers, but ended up as failures spiritually. It’s hard to believe God would call their efforts “excellent.” Imagine how Jesus’ parable would go if we added a fourth servant, who used his talents to return a hundred times the Master’s investment instead of only double, but did that by investing in some dishonest scheme. God expects his people to work the fields for the right reason, and in the right way. Many people care about the excellence of their work mainly because they want bragging rights. God wants us to care because of Him, and Him alone. Then He will have the bragging rights, about us. This means another hallmark of excellence in God’s eyes is the spiritual growth and prosperity of those who do the work, because in God’s eyes, we too are a result.
So…should some of us slow down to do better work, or not? It seems very possible God wants many Christians to give more conscious attention to the craftsmanship and creativity in what we do, be it a job, a life role as a parent or spouse, or even just while enjoying a hobby. But if so, surely it is not for the sake of craftsmanship or creativity, since those are merely means to an end, and are not results in themselves. The real issue when we think about the pursuit of excellence in any part of our lives is better addressed by prayerful reflection on questions like these:
- Have I balanced this thing I want to do properly to accommodate my other obligations?
- Have I balanced my other obligations properly to accommodate this thing I must do?
- Am I focused on delivering the kind of results the Lord demands from me in particular?
- Have I fully used every gift and resource God has given me in pursuit of the results He demands?
- Does this part of life draw me closer to the Lord, or push me further away?
- And above all: am I focused on results for the Lord’s sake, alone?
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:56 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
WINTER HAVEN - Trapped
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The novel is in the editor's hands now, so I had time to post another Winter Haven scene for you. Look for more between now and when the book is published in the spring.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:05 AM
Labels: Winter Haven
Matthew 2:1-8 CAREFUL WHAT YOU WORSHIP
Saturday, September 15, 2007
It seems strange, in this portion of the story, that the Magi and Herod both say they wish to “worship” Jesus. In them we have a master politician sold out to the Romans while pretending to be a Jew, and a group of gentiles with a foreign religion who share the Jewish hope of a messiah. What exactly would such people mean by "worship"?
The word they use is proskuneo in the Greek, from pros, meaning “forward to” and kuon, meaning “dog,” and carries the meaning “to fawn,” as a dog licking his master’s hand. Note the similarity in sound and meaning to the English word “prostrate”. Proskuneo is also the word used when Satan offers “all the kingdoms in the world” if Jesus will only worship him, and when Jesus replies by quoting the Torah’s warning not to worship anything but God. One of the Ten Commandments makes the point as well, saying, “You shall not bow down to…or worship” idols. The Hebrew for “bow down” here, shachah, means “to lie prostrate” and is closest to the word used by the Magi, Herod and Satan. But “worship” here is abad, which is translated elsewhere as “serve.” And in the original Hebrew version of the Torah passage Jesus quotes to Satan, the word “worship” is yare, meaning, “fear.”
Our “worship services” in church tend to define how we think about this subject. Yet for the most part, what we do in church has very little to do with fawning, lying prostrate, serving and fearing God. To get an idea of what the Bible really means by “worship,” we might start by looking outside the church, to the parking lot, where a car awaits that someone can barely afford, yet they are willing to give up almost anything if that’s what it takes to make the payments for that latest model. Or we might look around us in the pews, to our spouses or our children, for whom we will give anything, endure anything, and forgive anything. We might love careers that occupy our every waking thought. We might pin our hopes and joy on a win by our favorite football team.
Note how passionately we worship these created things. Consider how instinctively it comes to us, how natural it feels. Human beings were born to worship, just as we were born to breathe. We all worship something with all of our heart and soul and strength, even if that something is only ourselves. And when Jesus responds to Satan’s offer with the Torah quote mentioned above, his answer is not limited to that single verse; he is referring to that entire passage, which is a fine description of the way we worship. We love these things with all that we are. They stay in our hearts day and night. We think and talk about them constantly. We surround ourselves with them, or with symbols of them, in everything from the clothes we wear to the things we keep in our homes. We are constantly aware that they are not completely under our control, and that makes us careful to respect their importance in our lives. And at the bottom of everything, we do all this because we fear the emptiness that would remain without them. This is what it means to worship.
Herod, of course, means to do no such thing. He intends to kill this newborn king, because he deems the child a threat. But carefully note how he will rid himself of Jesus: he will do it by professing worship. How many of us do the same? How many of us strike out at the Lord by merely acting the Sunday morning Christian, when really all our heart and mind and strength are given to something else?
The Magi are less obvious. It may well be they are sincere. We know they came a long distance “from the east” to adore this child. They are “overjoyed” at the prospect of finding Jesus. And they risk their lives to protect him from King Herod, by failing to report his whereabouts as commanded. It seems the Magi’s intentions are good, but how many of us claim to worship Jesus when in our heart of hearts we merely hope to gain a favor? We are like the millionaire’s relations, only interested in him because of his money. It may be no coincidence that we derive our word, “magic” from the Magi’s title. Magic is our use of the supernatural. Miracles are the supernatural’s use of us. One difference lies in our intentions. The miracles of peace and true contentment will always come from sincere worship of the Lord, but magic yields only disappointment.
For example, Jesus promised that we could ask for anything in his name, and it would be given. Some see magic in this promise, as if by adding, “in Jesus’ name I pray,” to a list of requests, we cause the Almighty to comply. But Jesus’ name is not a magic word, of course. When we speak about a man’s “good name” we mean his reputation, or the things he stands for. It is the same with Jesus. When he says “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” he means, “ask for what I would ask for, and it will be yours.” He means, “Align your wishes with the Lord’s, and He will satisfy.” He means, “Give me the full use of you, and miracles will come.”
Everything on earth ends, all of it is meaningless in comparison to the glory of the Lord. How ironic it is—how insane, really—to resist complete dependance upon God, when He alone will last. Yet all the fleeting world around us argues on its own behalf every single moment. We are so immersed in the lies we often do not even see them in ourselves. How can we resist the crazy impulse to bow down to created things? How can we find wholehearted love of God?
True worship cannot be entered through the power of positive thinking. There is no formula, no incantation to shift our heart’s truest desire from mere idols to the one true God. The solution is not magic; it is miraculous. The heartfelt love that leads to miracles is itself a miracle. It is given, not obtained. If you want to worship God more wholeheartedly, you must ask the Lord to make it possible, and He will begin a change in you, He will draw you, and He will free you from all those lesser gods. Then you will be free, indeed.
Next time we will move on in Matthew’s story to explore hidden links between the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus’ way of entering the world. We will find guidance for our daily lives in those connections.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:37 AM
Labels: Bible Studies