Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Peasant Girl and Three Kings (This Week's Sermons)

Two sermons for you this week: my final Advent sermon of 2014, about Mary's Song, The Magnificat...





...and my Christmas Eve message about the Magi who came from the East to worship Jesus.



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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Corny Christmas Poem

Here’s a corny little rhyme-couplet style poem I wrote a few years ago. Trust me, the metre works if you make it...



Twas 750...
Years before Christmas and all throughout Judah
There were idols a-plenty (of Baal, not Buddha)

The Assyrian Empire was everywhere feared
Led by Tiglath-Pilesar, whose name was quite weird

King Ahaz had buckled like the belt on my khakis
And the great nation Judah became boot-licking lackeys

They abandoned the covenant and the God who had made them
Looked to Egypt for help, which had been...um...forbaden

Their enemies were mean, they were kickers and spitters
So the people lost hope, like a bunch of lame quitters

The Devil was happy; he was pleased! he was winning!
With the king a big wimp and the people all sinning

And so without hope, they gave in to these Gentiles
As Isaiah had prophesied, a couple of exiles

The South off to Babylon, the North to Assyria
(‘fore that massive Diaspora from Spain to Siberia)

Could there ever be hope again for this covenant people?
It seems the Old Testament is in need of a sequel.

For 400 years, not a peep from a prophet
God withheld the big bomb, not quite ready to drop it

Then about A.D. 1 God said, “Now, let’s get to it—
To reverse the great curse that came down when they blew it”

The arrangements all made and the stage all prepared,
The Virgin conceived and the census declared

And up in the heavens, God let loose with his Spirit
(He doesn’t say “Ho ho ho”—when He laughs, you can feel it)

“On Raphael, on Michael, on Uriel, on Gabriel”
Operation Immanuel will kick off in a stable.

Salvation is coming; Satan’s curse is deleted,
The people redeemed and the devil defeated

Old Satan was cooked—with potatoes and gravy
How horribly embarrassing—to be trounced by a baby

So into the darkness was born a great light
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Friday, December 19, 2014

More Than a Building?


The above toasty holiday image—a promotional graphic for my book Playing Saint—has gotten a lot of shares, retweets, and “Amens.” And I stand by old Rev. Dr. Carlson’s statement. (What does it say about me that I basically used the elderly, inflexible retired pastor as my mouthpiece in the book?) The CHURCH is the ἐκκλησία, the ASSEMBLY of the saints*, not a building.

But here's the thing: Christmas Eve is next Wednesday. And that's relevant to the above image, not only because a bunch of people will be holding burning candles in the sanctuary of my church (right, right—Christ's church, of which I am the pastor), which always makes me a tad nervous, but also because, fire hazard aside, Christmas Eve is always a reminder to me of the solemnity of the church's gatherings.  And, in a sense, (by extension?) of the place where we gather.

I tell my son not to run in the nave of the church. There are things I would say in the parking lot that I would not utter in the sanctuary. Why? It's a sacred place. Does that contradict the idea that the church is the assembly of the people? I don't think so, but you might.

In the Reading Group Guide at the end of Playing Saint, the penultimate discussion question asks, “How important are physical church buildings to your faith? Is a church building simply a convenient place to meet or is there more to it?” 
What do you think? Is our tendency to treat church buildings with added reverence (beyond simple good stewardship) a carryover from superstitious Medieval ideas, some false dichotomy of sacred and secular, an outdated cultural convention, or something biblical?

Extra credit: if sacred, is the place only sacred when it is actively being used for worship and sacrament? Does it make sense to consecrate and de-consecrate buildings?

*Be careful with this whole “CHURCH means CALLED OUT, because ek-kaleo” thing . . . not that there's nothing to it, just be careful. Remember that the root of the English word nice is a Latin word meaning “ignorant” and that ἐκκλησία had come to simply mean “assembly” long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

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....

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Comforting Apocalypse (This Week's Sermon)

This week's sermon is on Our Lord's discourse on the Judgment of the Nations, in which he divides mankind into the sheep and the goats. I start it with perhaps the corniest sermon opening I've ever employed.

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)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Open Letter to People who Perform/Lead Music

Dear People Who Perform/Lead Music, 

Let me start by saying thanks. I myself know how difficult it can be to perform/lead music, and I appreciate that a little feedback or participation from the crowd can help validate you and set your mind at ease about your performance/leading.

But hear this: I don't want to rhythmically clap during the song. Honestly, I greatly dislike the whole convention. I don't like it because some pleeb is going to start slapping away on 1 & 3 instead of 2 & 4, and that makes me hate all white people for a minute. And my family and a large percentage of my loved ones are white (as am I), so that causes all sorts of conflicted emotions that I just don't need to deal with right now.

Also, clapping during songs is work, and not the rewarding kind, but the kind of “dig-this-hole-then-fill-it-in” work that inmates are made to do as punishment. Don't get me wrong; I've been drawn in by particularly lively siren songs more than once—songs that blinded me to what was really going on and made me think, “Yeah, I really do want to clap along with this.” But then, after like six repetitions of smashing one of my hands against the other, I'm tired of it. But I know that if I stop clapping right then, I'll look like a total quitter with enormous commitment issues, so I usually try and keep it up for the rest of the song (which can be as long as five minutes!), even though I didn't want to start clapping to begin with and I was just pressured into it.

I'm not suggesting that people who enjoy clapping along with music should not do it; I'm saying that you, as the performer/leader, need to stop doing that thing where you look all expectantly at the audience and start clapping your hands above your head like some kind of maniac until 51% of the group is following suit. Because what do you do then? You stop. You stop clapping, which is understandable, since clapping is work, but now we're all stuck. That's just unfair, man.

Another thing I don't like: standing at concerts. Now, back in the mid-to-late Nineties, I was the first guy down into the mosh pit, but I have since determined that the best way to appreciate almost all live music is by sitting in a comfortable chair, absorbing it (the music, not the chair). I offer as outside evidence the fact that almost all concert halls, auditoria, and arenas, are filled with, that's right, chairs. I expect the Justin Beiber concert or whatever the 2014 equivalent of the Jonas Brothers or Hanna Montana is to be all-standing-all-the-time, but that's one of many, many reasons I would never attend such a concert.

Because here's the thing: the next stop for me on the age-train is 40. And, while my hips and knees are in quite good shape and I am perfectly capable of standing (in fact, I try to use my standing desk half the time I'm working in my study), I'm also somewhat grumpy. And Dutch. Why does that matter? Because I paid for a seat, not an 18” square of floor in which to stand. I encourage others to stand during concerts if they are so moved, but only if they are not positioned between me and the stage.The phrase "down in front!" is a recognizable thing for a reason.

Along those lines (and I can't believe I even have to say this), if your music is failing to elicit the kind of “I just have to move my body” vibe that you'd like, please do not resort to ordering the audience around like some kind of musical Stalin. “Put your hands up now! Now wave them! Then, when I sing the second line of the chorus, clap three times! DO IT!!!”

I remember my affection for a particularly Australian Christian singer dwindling after attending one of her concerts in high school. And I started with an abnormally high amount of affection (i.e. she was my Jonas Brothers, even though that sounds weird). But after two hours of barked orders about what to do with our hands, when to shout what, and (I kid you not!) regular updates/reviews of our progress and how we, as an audience, could do better, I got the sense that the whole crowd felt...well, used. To me, from that day on, that particular singer looked/sounded like this:


I doubt that's what she was going for.

Thank you for your consideration,
Zachary


.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Choose This Day (This Week's Sermon)

Back at my old blog, I used to post my weekly sermons, marking them with the clever tag “This Week's Sermon” (when you have this kind of creativity at your disposal, you know you're going places!) 

Anyway, I'm bringin' it back!

Here's this past week's sermon, from Joshua 24, about choosing this day (and every day) whom we will serve.


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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Shelf-Life

Hey, I guest-blogged on LifeWay's Shelf Life blog today. Here's a slice:

New voice in Christian fiction
Publishers frequently ask me, “what kind of fiction books do we need to be publishing more of?”  I quickly answer them with “quality suspense novels that appeal to all but especially to men.”  Thanks to Thomas Nelson Publishers, we have a new author in this genre.  Zachary Bartels has released his debut novel, Playing Saint If you’re a fan of suspense and mystery then you’ll want to give Zachary a try.  Playing Saint is already garning some nice praise:
“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
I’m happy to have Zachary here to share a bit about his book.  Before he comes, here’s a look at the story.

 “What on earth possessed you to write about that?”
I was recently asked that question by someone who totally didn’t catch her own pun. Being a Baptist pastor, it took all of my restraint not to point it out so we could celebrate it together; I mean, puns are like little gifts from above, little reminders that God loves us. Anyway, I passed that up and instead took a moment to stop and think about it. Which is actually kind of weird, considering how many times I’ve been asked variations of this same question.

Click here to read the rest of the post. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Eavesdropping at Panera & Paper Clothes

The other day, I heard a group of college girls arguing about how many times one can wear a shirt before it needs to be washed. The apparent leader of the group was adamant that after a single wear, a shirt was dirty—end of story. In fact, she said she’d worn a shirt a second time without washing it once and felt simply disgusting. The others had more lenient standards: two or three times (depending on activity levels) or even five, as long as there were no visible spots on it.

I know what you’re thinking: why was I eavesdropping? Better question: why were they so very loud? Anyway, this was all going down at Panera and while they were discussing this, I spilled some soup on my shirt. Which would be ironic if I didn’t get my clothes visibly dirty almost every day.  I’ve rarely been faced with the conundrum of whether a shirt I’ve already worn is still clean. Nope, it’s got food or dirt or coffee on it and it goes in the hamper at the end of the day.

I’ve heard stories of women wearing paper clothing in the ‘60s and I’ve seen examples of some of these dresses still around today, in thrift stores and such. These women must have been a lot more careful/less clumsy than me or those would have all been one-use garments. I thank the giver of all good gifts for the advent of the washer-dryer, which means my clothes can be clean again each time I dirty them (unless I get paint or grease or permanent ink on them, which I do frequently enough).

This (the staining and washing of clothes) is a picture that Scripture uses rather frequently: us staining our clean linen robes (which represent righteousness) with our impossible-to-extract stains. We do it every day, and there’s no detergent offered by man that can make us clean. Only the blood of our Savior can remove the stain of sin and replace it with the perfect righteousness of Christ. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Is 1:17)

And that’s great news! We’re new creatures—we’ve been made new and we’re being made new. Christ took on our sin-stained robe at the cross and gave us his perfectly-clean and spotless robe in exchange. Which is great . . . until we stain the new one. And that’s the challenge and the tension of the Christian life, isn’t it?

We know that we are removed from sin (as far as the east is from the west, according to the Bible), and yet we remain sinners. We are wearing white robes, and yet we stain them every day. Even our worship and service is stained by sin. And when we repent of it, even our repentance is contaminated by yet more sin! According to the prophet Isaiah, “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteous acts are as filthy rags” (64:6).

Have you ever had a child offer a selfish, transparently false apology, just because they were ordered to or they knew they had to in order to stave off punishment? Kids aren’t great at faking sincerity, so you can usually see right through them. Ever had someone thank you for the ...er...interesting meal you made them? (Translation: “nice effort, but I wouldn’t feed that to my dog.”) Yeah, our prayers are tainted with that same selfishness (and we're all the more unable to mask it when addressing a God who sees our hearts), and yet He hears or prayers, accepts them, and moves his arm to answer them! Not to be polite, not because it's easier to just overlook the stench of sin (a Holy God could never do that), but because his Son Jesus mediates on our behalf. The Holy Spirit within us directs our praise and prayers toward heaven and there the son removes the stains of sin and presents them perfectly pure and holy to God.

Yes, we stain our robes, but his mercies are new every morning in washing them, even as we find ourselves being made more and more like him. In a sense, Christians are like construction zones (although I’m sure the Holy Spirit would never use those annoying orange barrels), in that you can see what’s being created more and more until the day arrives that the project is complete and we enter into His presence.

Yes, sin still lives in us, but it isn't exactly living in us. It's dying in us. Not much longer and it will be dead and gone forever—a fading memory in our past, while the present and future are filled only with Christ.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Skeleton in a Suit and Tie Tells Us What We Ought to Buy

Okay, that's a little obscure, isn't it?  It's lyrics from a song called "Social" from the best part of the Nineties, which fits because A.) It's Halloween, and B.) this post is about social media.

Namely, my social media. Know this:

1. I got on Pinterest against my own better judgment, expecting it to be full of nothing but recipes and makeup tips and for the woman-man ratio to be tilted toward the feminine more than the last two Christian writing conference I went to.  But here's what I learned: Pinterest is straight-up FULL of men pinning pictures of guns, cars, gadgets, sports stuff, and of course pretty girls (which reminded me that of course Pinterest is heavily populated by men--they were the original pinner-uppers).  Anyway, I've got like seven boards going and I find the process to be insanely cathartic, if time-sucking, muck like Flair was on the good version of facebook in like 2005 (also: remember Flair???). If you want to check out my boards, they can be found here.

2. A few months ago I had started #another100daysofrandombandnames on Twitter (see my first #100daysofrandombandnames here) and then let it fizzle out after only fourteen.  Well, now I've got them scheduled up through fifty. Make sure to check my Twitter @AuthorZBartels every day for the newest, greatest randomest (I know that's not a word, or a coherent concept) band name.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Make a Book Signing Interesting

A month before my book came out, the events coordinator from favorite book store in the world (Baker Book House in Grand Rapids) contacted me to ask if I would be interested in doing an in-store event for Playing Saint after it came out.

I was sort of torn; while my buddy Ted and I had done an event there for our book Kinda Christianity, which went fairly well, I had the standard fear of being the sad author sitting all alone behind a folding table with a stack of my books. They've actually done a great job of promoting it and a few carloads of my parishioners are making the trip, so that's covered, but that still leaves the question: in the Internet age, how do you make a book signing worth the trip?

I've been thinking about that for a few weeks now, and I think I think I've put together an odd enough agenda, as well as a decent assortment of prizes (beyond copies of my own book) to make it fun, funny, and memorable.  However, if you have any additional ideas for what elements would really make a bookstore event, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

If you're anywhere in the vicinity, you should totally come. Pics to follow.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Your Creepiest Story Contest (+ giveaways)

If you haven't picked up a copy of Playing Saint yet (and why wouldn't you have? The ebooks is on sale for $2.99 until Halloween), you should probably go buy a copy right now. Or, if you're the kind of person who who'd rather win keep on entering until he/she wins, here are some opportunities to win the book:
  • Or this Trick or Read giveaway that Thomas Nelson is doing. (Click here to enter.)

  • And, if you reside in or near America's High Five (that's what we're calling Michigan  these days), you could come to my in-store event on October 30 at Baker Book House. I will be giving away books and other stuff and the event will feature assorted hijinks (click here for details).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

BlogTalk Radio Interview

I continue to be very excited about my debut novel Playing Saint, which is now available at bookstores everywhere and at pretty much any online bookseller you can think of. I'm going to be sharing some of the early media I've done on the book over the next few days. I'm ecstatic about the chance to spread this story and this message:

To kick it off, here's an interview I did with Burke Allen on BlogTalk Radio, in which we talk about the modern megachurch movement, secret Vatican operatives, relics, and the theology of the cross.



Check Out Books Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with Allen Media Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

This is a New Thing That I Do

When I'm bored, I make little doodles of John Calvin as a deadly ninja assassin.


Admit it; you do it too...right?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Four Point Five

So, the publicity team at HarperCollins excitedly sent me the following review last night, from RT Book Reviews.

“Bartels’ debut novel is a page-turner from the very beginning.  His excellent use of foreshadowing and his glimpses into the past create a story that readers can’t put down.  In the vein of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, Bartels weaves the supernatural into the natural in ways that are gripping and realistic, adding a shocking surprise that will leave readers stunned. ★★★★½” —RT Book Reviews

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Don't Be a Blockhead

So my last post was a little swipe at the boringness of football season, so maybe I'm trying to cosmically make up for that here. 
My church is having a "Kickoff Sunday" this week, celebrating the return of Sunday school, choir (oh yeah, we still have a choir), and our Wednesday evening activities. In order to try and cement this into their collective minds, I have been running at a football each Sunday morning, while announcing the date and festivities, only to have my lovely wife pull it away at the last minute, causing me to fall down, just like sad-sack comic strip character Charlie Brown.
Some have expressed concerns that I was going to break a bone if I kept this up. Others have politely hinted that, at some point, the congregation at large will begin to doubt my intelligence if I continued falling for the same gag. Hopefully all the bruises have been worthwhile and we will have a great turnout on Sunday. 

Either way, no regrets. After all, pratfalls are funny. Always have been, always will be. 
 
But have you ever thought about the theological ramifications of this recurring gag? Not surprisingly, I have. And not surprisingly, I'm going to share my insights. Let's just start here: you can’t pin all the blame on Lucy because Lucy can’t help it. Look at the above graphic; she’s taking no joy at all in what she’s doing. It’s just her nature. If you look into dark void of the soul of Lucy Van Pelt, you’ll see nothing but a fierce hunger for nickels, for affirmation of her own beauty, and for making Charlie Brown fall down in front of a lot of people. And, while it’s easy to blame Chuck himself for being such a stupid kid (albeit a “good man”),falling for the same trick again and again, we should be careful not to be too smug. Because we do the very same thing.

Sure, it's pathetic (and kind of a blockhead move) for Charlie to fall for the same old lie (“This time, I’ll actually let you kick the football”) for like fifty years of newspaper run, but you’ve got to remember that in those fifty years, Charlie Brown did not age. Therefore, he (ostensibly) gained no actual wisdom. What’s our excuse?  

Ultimately Satan only has one lie. He uses the world’s values and the desires of the flesh to prop it up, but “This time, it will be different” has been his mantra from the beginning. “Yeah, God said that you would die if you ate that fruit and every single thing he’s ever said has come to pass, but this time, following the appetites of the flesh will end with you gloriously kicking the game-winning field goal (or something equally satisfying).” “Sure, the last time you gave in to rage, bitterness, lust, drunkenness, or covetousness, it ended with a rift between you and God—a rift that damaged more than one relationship and grew until you finally repented, but this time will be different. This time, we’ll keep it under control. Just a little bit of hate, a little glance, a little taste. It won’t end with a huge, painful fall onto your back.”

It’s easy to frown and shake our heads when we see the obvious manifestations of this behavior, for example, when addiction blinds people to reality. The gambler who thinks this time she’s due for a pay--out while she spends the mortgage money, the alcoholic who insists he can have just a couple shots and keep it under control. But the fact is that all of us tend toward Charlie Brown stupidity when it comes to our own pet sins. Everyone. Even the Apostle Paul describes his own feeble struggles against his Charlie Brown mentality:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-- this I keep on doing.   Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God-- through Jesus Christ our Lord!  (Rom 7:15-20, 24, NIV)

Not only does the apostle artfully and fully describe the problem in that passage—he also identifies the solution: Jesus Christ, who gives us the victory. As we lay there on our backs, looking up at Lucy, it’s easy to say to ourselves, “Next time, I’ll remember how badly this ended, how awful I feel, what damage was done.” But we won’t. The solution is not to keep doubling down on our inner Charlie Brown, giving him more and more responsibility. It’s to saturate ourselves—our thoughts, the firstfruits of our time, our attitude and motivations—in Christ. 

Did you spend less than ten minutes praying that you would not fall to temptation today? If so, you may as well have put on a yellow T-shirt with a black zig-zag because you’re setting yourself up to go down in the most sad-sack possible way. Has it been two weeks since you’ve really been in the Word? May as well shave your head to go with that T-shirt and start embracing the sort of “Everything In touch I ruin” ethos of old CB.  Because, in our own strength, we will fall again and again, while continually chiding ourselves for stupidly believing Lucy-fer’s lies. 

But if we are in Christ, we can rejoice with Paul, as he proclaims, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me!” That verse is so often ripped out of its context. Paul was not talking there about living out his dreams, being victorious and successful, or “making it” from a worldly perspective. To get the context right, just go back a few verses, and read these words: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things.” (Phil 4:8).   

We are to have the same mind in us as Jesus—the same grace, love, holiness, and forgiveness. How can that happen when we are so prone to fall for that same old stupid lie? The answer: Thanks be to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us the victory. We can do all things in him!