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.