Friday, December 12, 2014

The Annunciation (This Week's Sermon)



As we continue our study of Advent, we looked at the Archangel Gabriel's unexpected announcement to Mary: that this young, half-married woman would miraculously bear a child, who would be the son of God.

Here Mary serves as a model for how we should receive God's special grace. I pray it blesses you.



(You can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Last Con



My next book The Last Con is now available for pre-buy. Here's the synopsis:

Former con man Fletcher Doyle is finally home after six years in prison. He’s working hard to restore his relationship with his wife and twelve-year-old daughter, but it’s slow going. He hopes that the upcoming inner-city mission trip will allow him to demonstrate his newfound faith and honorable intentions—that is, if he can keep himself from murdering Brad, the uptight and condescending church leader who also happens to be his landlord.

But within hours of arriving in the city, Fletcher can feel the pull of the life he thought he’d left behind. And when he runs into his old partner, he finds himself blackmailed into doing another job for a mysterious criminal who calls himself the Alchemist.

Between trying to hide his reawakened criminal life from his wife and the ever-present Brad, and trying to keep the Alchemist from bringing it all crashing down, Fletcher is in over his head. When the unthinkable happens, Fletcher will have to call on his years in the game and his fledgling faith to find an ancient treasure—and restore his family.

It is currently available at Amazon, iTunes, and christianbook.com.





Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing Triggers

I had an article featured on the Breathe Conference website this week, about getting into the right frame of mind for writing.





Know Your Writing Triggers
At Breathe 2013, I sat on an authors’ panel. I believe I was the token newbie. I don’t remember much of what we discussed, but I do remember that someone asked us, “What do you read to prepare yourself for writing?” Tracy Groot said Steinbeck, I think. Someone else said they read John Ashbery. 

I said I don’t read anybody. I watch an episode of Breaking Bad. And I have a cigar and a cup of coffee. Then I’m ready to write.
 
I should have felt silly about that, but I didn’t. I know what triggers get my mind in the right head-space and I’m very intentional about using them. I know that I do my best writing on a particular bench overlooking the Capitol building and the Lansing skyline, while writing on this decade-old word processor I bought on eBay. I know that music and surroundings tend to affect how I write.

I like to have a playlist for each novel I’m writing, that evokes the mood I want to tap into, but also one particular song that I can play to sort of Pavlov’s Dog myself into the right head-space in under a minute. For my forthcoming book The Last Con, the song was “Crystalize” by Lindsey Stirling. I heard that song in a bookstore a couple weeks ago and immediately (involuntarily) started concocting new scenes. The problem is that I’ve already turned in the manuscript (it will hit stores in June 2015). For 42 Months Dry, it was all about Matisyahu.

For Playing Saint (which is the drug I’m actively pushing now), watching a little Breaking Bad was the thing that chambered a round for me, creatively speaking. Not that I wanted to copy Vince Gilligan’s style; just that I found myself wanting—needing—to be creative in a sort of uncharted way after forty minutes of that. The writing flowed better when I crank-started the process that way (there’s a pun in there somewhere).

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Urban Legends & Good News of Great Joy



I’ve always had a great interest in urban legends—the kind of stories that are told and retold at water coolers and in cafeterias, always relating the real-life experience of “a friend of a friend,” involving some perfect poetic justice (or injustice), ultra-ironic twist, or unbelievable tragedy. I even have several books on the subject—both simple collections of these tales (I’ll never forget the puzzled look on one parishioner’s face when she saw the book The Baby on the Car Roof on my shelf) and analyses of this particular form of American tall tale and why we love telling these stories (you know, like the one where the family dog kills the neighbor’s rabbit and, not wanting to own up to what he’s done, the family washes, blow-dries, and otherwise repairs the little thing before spiriting it back into its hutch under cover of darkness…only to learn that the rabbit had died two days earlier of natural causes.)

Chalk this up as yet another fun thing that the Internet has pretty much ruined. While plenty of urban legends are now forwarded via e-mail, people are also far more skeptical about these stories. A quick Google search reveals that hundreds of other people have “a friend of a friend” who experienced the very same thing! And, of course, a quick visit to snopes.com can refute even the most delicious too-good-to-be-true story. And yet, new urban legends continue to pop up and old ones continue to be retold, because we really do love our stories. 

One of my favorites has always been the account of a police detective who rose through the ranks of the NYPD. He had a natural talent for evidence collecting and cataloging, which he cultivated over decades, developing his own meticulous systems. In fact, he had never seen a perp go free because of mishandled evidence and he always seemed to spot exactly the right smoking gun at the crime scene (although it was rarely an actual smoking gun). By the time he reached retirement age, this guy was a world-famous authority on the subject. And so he took up a teaching post at a NYU in their forensics and criminology program. Students  scrambled to take classes from this living legend.

But then a change in policy required that all professors must have a college degree, which this man did not. He thought about stepping down, but he found teaching so very fulfilling that he quietly enrolled in night classes at another local college. All was going well until his third semester, when he walked into his first day of Forensics 101. The class was small and the prof had everyone go around the room and introduce themselves. When it was his turn, he introduced himself and “Bill Strickland,” hoping to remain under the radar. With a chuckle, the professor asked, “I don’t suppose you’re related to the William Strickland who wrote our textbook?” to which he could only reply, “Actually, I am the William Strickland who wrote the textbook.”

I think most people who repeat this apocryphal story do so as sort of a critique of the “policy-trumps-common-sense” regulations we often encounter in life, or for the “squirm value” of putting ourselves in that professor’s shoes. I mean, how do you lecture on a book to the guy who wrote it, let alone give him grades on the content? 

But when I think about that story, I can’t get past the humiliation of the professor-turned-student (humiliation in the original sense of the word—a reducing to a lower position). I hate the thought of him having to set aside his hard-earned status and position and go back to the beginning of the academic line. Even though the guy’s not real, I’m offended on his behalf and maybe even a touch angry. Isn’t the whole idea of organized society that you climb the ladder by hard work, talent, knowledge, skill, etc.? Even though it would mean that the urban legend (and, thus, the professor himself) would cease to exist, I wish he would appeal the university’s policy and demand he be grandfathered in, in light of his obvious credentials.

And yet, I didn’t have the same thought last night as we were setting up our nativity scene. Why not?  The humiliation (again, in the original sense of the word) was far beyond the minor slight experienced by the professor.  Many people have gone from being teacher to student, often many times throughout their lives. Countless others have set aside position and status and chosen to “start over” in one way or another. But only One has set aside the glory of eternal adoration and perfect, omnipotent majesty to become a helpless human infant. (“I don’t suppose you’re related to the Jehovah who created the cosmos?” “Actually, I AM the Jehovah who created the cosmos.”)

It’s one thing for an expert to endure elementary classes because of his love of teaching. It’s another thing altogether for the King of Kings to become the Suffering Servant of All , knowing he will be hungry and homeless, mocked and humiliated (both definitions of the word), and ultimately suffer and die for those who assumed they should be his teachers, because of his love for us. And, while I do feel a certain sense of offense and anger on Jesus’ behalf when I read about the finger-wagging Pharisees talking down to Our Lord . . . and while I feel a tremendous amount of heartbreak and indignation when I read about the sham trial and illegal torture and execution of Jesus, the real beginning of it all is the baby who grows in the womb of a peasant girl and is born in the lowest of places. 

And for that reason, I shouldn’t find myself bothered by stories like the criminology expert who endures Forensics 101, as I put myself momentarily in his shoes. In fact, every opportunity to lower ourselves is an opportunity to be like Christ. A couple weeks ago, I preached on Jesus’ teaching that we should humble ourselves in the presence of God and man, knowing that He will lift us up. And Jesus didn’t just teach this; he lived it. How can you follow in his footsteps today, to show the world that God the Son’s voluntary lowering of himself has raised you up to heavenly places?

Thank God that the too-good-to-be-true tale of His coming to earth as a baby is not some “friend-of-a-friend” urban legend. Thank God that each of us can relate directly to Christ Himself, who calls His disciples “friends.” This Christmas, let us resist the world’s attempts to make the incarnation just another legend. Instead, let us be changed and inspired anew by Our Lord’s willingness to set aside his glory as we ourselves humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. Because we really do love our Story.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advent Begins (This Week's Sermon)

This past Lord's Day marked the beginning of Advent. In this sermon, we begin looking at the lead-up to our Lord's birth and how it can help us to prepare the way for the Lord in our own lives.

I pray this sermon profits you, challenges you, and reminds you of our God's amazing grace.



(You can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Danny Sat Quietly in the Pew...


“A thought-provoking exploration into the power of faith and the reality of evil. Filled with memorable characters and tight writing, Playing Saint is an impressive debut from an author to watch.”
STEVEN JAMES, bestselling author of Placebo and The Queen


Click here for a gallery of Playing Saint promotional posters.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Yet Another "Lost Gospel..."

Reflecting on the relic-mad culture of his day, Luther famously observed that there were enough "nails from the true cross" floating around to shoe every horse in Saxony. Today, we might say that there are enough so-called "lost gospels" floating around to paper every wall in Taylor Swift's gorgeous new $3.5 million LA mansion!

I know what you're thinking: why bring Ms. Swift into this? It's not because I am a "hater" preparing to "hate-hate-hate," but because these so-called discoveries are consistently unveiled and promoted with a decidedly "TMZ" vibe. I mean, seriously, why not just get A.C. Slater to host the accompanying schlockumentary? (What do you mean A.C. Slater's not a real person? That's what they want you to think! Conspiracies, man...conspiracies.) Anyway, Slater's real name escapes me at the moment, but I'd bet 250 lost gospels (converts to $0.73 US) that he's made a report about Taylor Swift's newest house, although he may see himself as above reporting on the latest "lost gospel" non-story, which allegedly blows the lid off Jesus's sex life and Mary Magdalene's divinity.

So maybe the real A.C. Slater of the "lost gospel" community is actually Simcha Jacobovici (I don't care who you are; that's a fun name to pronounce), an “Israeli-Canadian investigative journalist” who seems to make his living by discovering ground-breaking, game-changing, paradigm-shifting nothings. Wait . . .  “investigative journalists” are people who make things up to try and generate controversies out of thin air and use those controversies to line their pockets. Right? Or, hold on. . . I might be thinking of something else.

Artist's rendition of Jacobivici's "sexy Jesus."
Actually, I'm just assuming that's what this is.
Jacobovici, the man behind the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” debacle of 2007, is now doubling down on that whole gong show with The Lost Gospel, in which he unveils some real iron-clad evidence, which proves, not only that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene (whom he, according to ancient Gnostic codes, affectionately called "Eminem" because of her initials), but that early Christians considered her a diety. Here's a news story with pretty much all the same information as all the other news stories on the topic (not the Eminem thing).

So what's the lost gospel this time? An ancient Syriac manuscript, housed in the British library, called Joseph and Aseneth. (You can read a translation of it here.) It's basically like a DVD extra to the Book of Genesis, explaining why the patriarch Joseph married Aseneth, a Gentile and the daughter of a pagan Priest. The manuscript in question dates back to the sixth century, and it sort of romanticizes and fictionalizes the back-story, expanding two verses into twenty-nine chapters, and explaining away any character flaws in the biblical heroes—not unlike much of today's biblical fiction. It’s easy to understand why someone would try and explain such an unlikely marriage, because the two famous half-tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh) are the result of the union between Joseph and Aseneth.

According to Jacobovici, though, this document (which is by no means newly discovered) “describes [Mary Magdalene] as a co-messiah, co-deity, [and] defender of humanity.”  All without ever using the words Mary, Magdalene, messiah, or anything else that might indicate that the author was headed in that direction. What's that? Oh, because it's in code. Right.

Mario Lopez!  Slater's name is Mario Lopez.

Anyway, it's not like Jacobivici and Wilson just decided arbitrarily to turn an apocryphal expansion on Genesis into a suppressed Christian Gospel, they assure us. No, no, there is an accompanying letter (written more than five hundred years after the earthly ministry of Jesus) claiming that Joseph and Aseneth has some hidden meaning. What hidden meaning? We don’t know, because the letter was (dun-dun-DUUUUHHHNNNN) cut off! Censorship, man. Censorship. One might be tempted to wonder why the person censoring this sensitive information wouldn’t just, ya know, burn the whole letter, but whatever…

Not to be thwarted by the complete absence of anything substantive, Jacobovici and his writing partner Barrie Wilson, went ahead and just made up the hidden meaning. And—wouldn’t you know it?—it happens to support Jacobovici’s earlier zany theories! There's some luck! And he acknowledges that it looks a little too lucky. “Someone might say to me, why are you finding so many great things? Why nobody else?” he said to the Daily Beast. His answer: because he's not a Christian, so he doesn't think inside a "Christian box." Side note: he's also free from the "logic box."

I feel I should mention that the man who actually translated the text for Jacobivici and Wilson, while trying to find some sort of silver lining here, has tried to distance himself from the wacky theories. And who can blame him?

I mean, if you can find a coded story about Jesus, his wife (and her status as a goddess), and their two children in a document that doesn't even hint at that stuff...well, that says more about you than it says about Jesus or Joseph or anything else, except maybe the state of pseudo-scholarship today and its role in pop culture.

But we can't entirely blame guys like Jacobivici for the continual recycling of this stuff. If no one was buying, they wouldn't be dealing. People don’t know the first thing about the Bible today. And yet, we’ve sunk to the point where spending five minutes perusing a Wikipedia article makes them feel like an expert on any given topic. Blogs (yeah, you’re reading one now) and other forms of instant online communication and social media reinforce the notion that all of my silliest thoughts and theories should probably be read by everyone without being vetted by anyone. The Lost Gospel is a byproduct of that cultural shift, as it infects areas of life that we would have hoped would be immune to it (religion, academia, etc.)

Here's where I'd normally kick the theory to the curb with a well-placed snarky assessment. But Rev Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England (who apparently has a gift for deliciously understated responses to overblown situations) already crafted the perfect one-liner response to this alleged lost gospel: “It’s not lost, it’s not a gospel, it’s a very naughty marketing campaign.” (I wouldn't dream of insulting you by pointing out the Life of Brian reference).

But even if we were to grant the supposed hidden meaning, why on earth would we think that a coded Jewish work from the fourth or fifth century would be a more reliable source about the life of Christ than the Gospels, which were written in plain language and much earlier? Maybe there's another reason people don't want to deal with the Jesus of the Bible.

Hmmmmm....