Back to Faith

P1030227I’m back to the topic of faith, which I began last month and continued with the second installment a couple weeks ago. I hope to wrap it up today, because it was never my intention to start a series; all this started about with some meandering thoughts about a magazine article.

The first post was a general observation about faith and human nature. In the second, I pointed out that the fervency of our faith is less important than the object of it.

I published the second post late in the evening and then went to bed, but it occurred to me after I laid down that the article might need some clarification. So that’s what I’m going to attempt today.

The story I told in Part II of this accidental series was an actual event, related as accurately as I recall it. I don’t know if either of the men were Christians, but it sticks in the back of my mind that at least one of them was, or at least, he was an active member of a church. In any case, however, a reasonable person might dispute the conclusion I drew. One might wonder, if one or both men’s faith was in Christ, didn’t God let them down by allowing such a terrible thing to happen? Even if neither of them were believers, we all know people who love the Lord but bad things happen to them anyway. Isn’t our faith misplaced in a situation like that? What good does faith in Christ do when it doesn’t protect us from disaster?

I consider these questions legitimate, and I regretted not thinking to address them last time until after genieLampHeartI’d published the post.

By way of answering now, let me simplistically point out that God is not a genie. The Christian faith is not about saying some magic words ending with, “In Jesus’s name, Amen” and expecting God to do our bidding.

God is God. That means He does what He will.

Yes, He considers what we want, and He loves it when we talk to Him and pour out our hopes, fear, and dreams. Very often, when we make a request, He’s happy to give us what we ask for. But one of the biggest benefits of prayer is not in getting Him to do our bidding, but in aligning our wills to His. The more we pray, the more we change. No amount of prayer can change Him to suit us.

The Bible is full of examples of this. (So is the whole history of the world, but for now, I’ll limit the discussion to what we see in the scriptures.) One of the most poignant is found in John 11. Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus was deathly ill, and Lazarus’s sisters sent a servant to Jesus and asked Him to come to heal him. (In other words, they prayed to Him.) But instead of coming to the rescue, Jesus stayed where he was for a few more days. He didn’t go until Lazarus was already dead and buried.

But He loved Lazarus and his sisters! They were suffering, and He could have helped them, but He didn’t! What’s up with that?

He’s God. He accomplishes His purposes, not ours.

But the most powerful example, of course, is the humiliation and agony Jesus went through Himself. He could have stopped that nightmare at any time. But instead, despite His sweat-soaked prayers to the Father to allow “this cup to pass from me,” He allowed this, the world’s most monumental travesty of justice, to be carried out to its horrifying completion. Because God is God.

To question the love — or power — or existence — of God because bad things happen is to assume we know better than He. That every painful thing is bad, and everything we like is good. That we can judge God by our standard.

file0001864884953God is not Santa Claus. Believing in Him doesn’t mean being good and going to church, or being nice so He’ll give us nice things and keep us from evil.

Faith in God means trusting Him even when what’s going on makes no sense at all. It means believing what He says whether or not we understand it. Looking at things from His eternal perspective rather than from our limited, earthbound viewpoint.

I have faith in my car’s brakes to stop me. I have faith in the roof of my house to protect me and the contents from bad weather. I have faith in my marriage of almost 39 years. But faith in God trumps all that.

Despite my confidence, I know brakes fail, buildings fall apart, and marriages end. God won’t allow any of those things to happen unless and until it suits His perfect purposes. But when something horrific does happen, I’ll know He’s got everything under control, just as He did when Lazarus died. Just as He did when Jesus stood before Pilate.

It goes against our human nature to let go and trust–even, as the article in Wired magazine stated (in part I of this series), when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority.

It’s especially hard when things fall apart. We want to take matters into our own hands. But trusting myself more than the eternal, omniscient, omnipotent God is just plain foolishness.

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How is Trusting Robots Like Trusting God?

Once upon a time (circa AD 2006), I began subscribing to Wired magazine. In case you’re not familiar with it, its target audience is young, urban techy types with money and a humanistic world view.

Since those traits describe the opposite of me, it’s surprising that I enjoyed the magazine. What’s even more unexpected is that I enjoyed it for eight years and only allowed my subscription to expire this month. Moreover, I read 80 to 90% of every issue. I didn’t always share the writer’s perspective, but the content was informative and often intriguing.

file0001474680505Take, for instance, the one in the June issue about trusting robots.

I’m fairly neutral on the topic of artificial intelligence. That is to say, I’m not the sort who can’t wait to have the latest new gizmo, but I’m not afraid of technology taking over the world, either. Robotics are here to stay, and I find that fact more interesting than intimidating.

But did you notice this part of the article? Speaking of the various studies in which researchers found humans reluctant to put their entire faith in artificial intelligence:

In another study, 81 percent of volunteers chose to abandon a program they were told could predict whether camouflaged soldiers were hidden in photographs, even after feedback revealed that they were making far more mistakes than the computer. The reason? In the researchers’ words, nearly a quarter of participants “justified their disuse by stating they did not trust the automated aid as much as they trusted themselves.” In other words, even when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority, we resist a robot’s help.

What struck me here is the parallel between our unwillingness to trust machines even when we ourselves make more mistakes than the computer, and our unwillingness to trust God. Note how the writer puts it: “…even when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority.”

No, I’m not saying computers are like God. Not even a little bit. I’m only pointing out that our reluctance to trust machines and our unwillingness to fully trust God are similar symptoms of the same aspect of human nature.

If there’s a scientific or theological term for that penchant of ours, I don’t know what it is. But I do know that it can serve us in good stead in ways but cause our downfall in others.

I’m not sure it’s advantageous of us to trust artificial intelligence. I suppose in certain applications, it is. But it’s definitely to our advantage to admit we’re inferior to our Creator and trust Him completely — in every application. Our refusal to do so is not illogical, but predictably human (as these studies demonstrate).

 

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Publication Primer: 15 Points to Ponder

You can’t hang out in writerly circles more than a minute or two without hearing the topic file0001336424447of traditional publication v. self-publication discussed. It’s big; very big. And for a very good reason.

Used to be, it was a matter of pride, vanity (hence the old moniker “vanity press”), and bucks: if you wanted to see your name in print and had the money to see it happen, you paid someone to publish your book. You could be pretty sure no one would ever buy it, and it was also a good bet that if anyone ever did, they’d be sorry. The quality was notoriously bad, from the printing to the binding and usually the writing itself (because if it was worth anything, a traditional publisher would have eventually accepted it), and the cost was notoriously high. The companies producing those vanity books seldom offered editing services, and if they did, their input was minimal. I’ve heard of books being produced with missing pages, upside-down pages, and other glaring errors, with the author having to pay for a re-print if he wanted them corrected. Not good.

file6681269982727Traditional publication is usually defined as publication through a company that pays you to publish your book rather than the other way around. In recent years, traditional presses have been going under at an alarming rate, and at the same time, with the advent of personal computers and easy-to-use writing software, authors are churning out manuscripts like never before. The result is a raging flood of authors seeking publication in a market that’s only equipped to handle a trickle. Not good.

Enter Amazon. On one hand, we might blame this Internet behemoth for the publishing world’s bleak state, as its innovations have changed the face of the industry forever. But it must also be acknowledged that this user-friendly site has made it possible for anyone with a moderate amount of computer savvy to produce a good quality book—print, e-book, or both—for NO INVESTMENT WHATSOEVER. And to sell it online to a virtually unlimited number of buyers worldwide, paying Amazon only a small sales commission for each book sold.

Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Producing a book through CreateSpace, the publishing division of Amazon, is a bit more difficult than waving a magic wand and chanting a spell. But it’s not only possible in the real world, but practical, which is why I’m gearing up to do it this year. Twice.

A writer friend was recently going through the Valley of Despond we all go through uponfile00055331537 having our manuscript rejected by our publisher of choice. I’ve read the book she submitted, and it’s a good one; I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true. From the acquisition editor’s comments, it was apparent (s)he didn’t “get” the story. Since it’s nothing unusual or complicated, the editor was probably too hurried to take the time to see what it was all about.  (See my statement above about the glut of authors vying for the small number of traditional publishing slots.) Understanding that, though, doesn’t make the rejection hurt any less.

I have a great deal more experience trying to get published than succeeding at it. But I’ve been traveling through the writing world long enough and rubbing shoulders with enough successful authors to have learned a few things.  Based on that experience, I offered my friend some words of wisdom. Okay, maybe the words aren’t all that wise, but I thought I’d share them with you all here on Ys Words anyway. There’s nothing new or startling in the list below, but here’s more or less what I told her:

1 – Everyone has his own ideas of what’s good, what he likes, what he doesn’t like. Just because someone in high places doesn’t happen to like your story, that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

2 – Every writer thinks she’s the cat’s pajamas, that her writing is worthwhile and meaningful, and if someone doesn’t understand it, they’re missing the boat. Even if her writing truly stinks.

3 – No writer is in a good position to judge his own writing honestly. See above.

4 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage and can recognize quality when they see it; if they find fault in it, chances are it’s not very good.

5 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage, and every time they see a proposal, they expect it to be more of the same. They take a quick look, and if nothing pops out as being exceptional, they make a snap judgment as to the whole thing.

6 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every good writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s wrong.

7 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every lousy writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s right.

8 – Remember #s 2 and 3 above? We all need outside feedback from people who know something, not just people who know and love us.

9 – Caveat to the above: see Point #1. Don’t take anyone’s opinion too seriously; nobody’s God but God.

10 – The one who quits is finished. There will be no more chances for the writer who won’t take them.

11 – Being traditionally published is better than self-publishing. Anyone can self-publish, but being traditionally published is validation that you actually deserve to be published.

12 – Self-publishing is better because you have complete control. You can write what’s on your heart in your own unique style and not worry about having to please a publisher. Moreover, instead of getting a small royalty from the publisher, you keep the bulk of the earnings and give a small royalty to CreateSpace.

13 – Traditionally published books are more prestigious and are overall better quality than self-published works (except for the self-published books that are better quality than some of the traditionally-published ones).

14 – Traditional publication is a great learning experience. But now that it’s becoming easier and more profitable, self-publishing is a good option for those books that are not quite mainstream.

I didn’t tell her this next one, because she’s been around the block enough that she didn’t need me to. However, I’ll add one more point for these purposes:

15 – Generally speaking, writing is not a money-making proposition no matter how you do it. In both cases, the hardest part is selling the book once it’s produced. In both cases, the author who makes millions at it is the exception, not the rule. Write only because you can’t not write, not because you need the income.

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Taking Sides

Cretaceous ClayI’ve been making good progress on my WIP this week, and that makes me happy! The last chapter of my first draft draws near at long last, and I’m experiencing that burst of energy that comes when the finish line is in sight.

But I thought I’d pause for a moment and whip out a quick blog post. I ran across something interesting this morning in an e-book I’ve been reading and wanted to share it before I lose the note I jotted it on.

The book is has the interesting title of Cretaceous Clay and the Black Dwarf. Just released this spring, it’s written by a Twitter friend I met a few months ago, Dana Allan Knight. And it’s a little hard to describe.

Kind of a mix between the Jetsons and Sherlock Holmes (except the detective wears a trench coat and fedora like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) with some elves, dwarves, and biotic creations thrown in, along with a little magic and supernatural intrigue. I can’t decide if it’s intended for a Young Adult audience, but it’s clean, containing no sex, graphic violence, or profanity.

I also can’t decide if I like it. I enjoy certain aspects of it, but the writing isn’t all that great and I keep editing it mentally, which tends to distract me from the story.

Amazon has it listed under “religious fiction,” and I’m not sure of that, either. It does touch on some important themes, though I wouldn’t call any of it religious. This morning, however, I ran across a sentence that seemed to describe solid Christian doctrine—but I’m not at all sure the author Screen shot 2013-05-25 at 5.11.07 PMhad anything in mind beyond the immediate, and inconsequential, context. The sentence hit me between the eyes, though, so I hopped up, grabbed a pencil and piece of scrap paper, and wrote it down.

Here’s the setting: the protagonist (Clay) has opened his home to some of his friends who are temporarily displaced. The guests included two little children, Hope and Faith, along with their mother. The girls shared a bed with another guest, Clay’s fiancé, Jasmine, and they kept her up much of the night with their thrashing around. As Jasmine (who’s eager to marry Clay and have a dozen children of her own) described how they couldn’t lie still, she said, “Faith forced me to change sides, but it was a great night.”

All the statement meant, of course, was that the girl kept moving onto Jasmine’s side of the bed so she had to get up and go to the other side; and despite all the interruptions to her sleep, she had fun sharing the bed with the little ones. But—probably due to the frame of mind I was in as I read—I saw it as an allegory. That is, when we come to Christ in faith, he takes us out of the devil’s domain and places us in God’s kingdom; our faith requires us to change sides.

How about the other half of the sentence? Again, I’m sure I manufactured this subtext because of my frame of mind. But it made me think of the scriptural truth alluded to in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8 and elsewhere, that the time we currently live in is, spiritually speaking, nighttime. Of course we look forward to the time when the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:1-2), but while it’s still night, we can rejoice in Him. Dark though it may be, we can have a great night.Screen shot 2013-05-25 at 5.11.41 PM

Until I ran across this statement more than halfway into the book, I’d thought the whole story rather silly. Maybe it is all rather silly, and perhaps I just imagined the awesomeness. But I’ll be looking for other awesome things to jump out and grab me as I continue.

Have a great night.

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Thinking About Grass

IMG_1094Okay, be honest: what was your first thought when you saw the title of this post?

The word grass can conjure a number of mental images, from the summery scent of a freshly mown lawn to the giddy feeling that results from smoking a different kind of grass. When some homeowners hear grass, the first thing they think of is work. I suppose the impression that first comes to mind depends on your personal interactions with the stuff.

As for me, I’ve never had intimate communications with the smoke-able variety and so can only reminisce about the mow-able type. Some of these memories were imprinted as recently as yesterday (when these pictures were taken), so this would more accurately be called contemplation, I suppose, not reminiscence.

When I was a kid, my dad mowed the lawn with a gasoline push mower. I remember him catching the clippings in a deeply chlorophyll-stained canvas bag attached the mower. He’d empty the bag into a wheelbarrow, then dump the wheelbarrow at the back of the yard, where the piled clippings rotted with earthy green smell.

My grandpa, as I recall, had an electric mower, but he didn’t have as much grass to cut. All he had to mow was the tree lawn in front of the house and a tiny area in the backyard, as most of the back was taken up with my grandmother’s extensive flowerbeds. Not much mowing to do, but a lot of weeding! Yard work was fun in those days, because we kids got to play while someone else was doing the work.IMG_1099

I’ve done a little mowing, but I usually leave it for the menfolk because I don’t do well with power equipment. If I use a hungry machine, I’m afraid it will end up eating one of my feet, or at least a few toes. For the same reason, I prefer to hand-weed the garden rather than use the rototiller.

Here, Craig mows close to an acre. A large portion of it is weeds rather than grass, but we use the general term grass to describe the lawn; it’s all green, and that’s all we care about. This time of year, when everything alive is excited about the warming temperatures and lengthening of the days, the grass grows quickly. Not only does it need to be cut more often than it does in midsummer, but it’s heavy and lush. And so we rake it.

Raking an acre of grass isn’t as bad as it sounds, because Craig blows it into windrows with the mower, like a farmer does when he cuts a hayfield to be baled. So, rather than raking the whole yard, we only have to gather the grass from long strips. I’ll sometimes let Craig get half the mowing done, then go out and start raking. By the time he’s done, so am I, and it works out nicely.

IMG_1095So what do we do with all this fragrant, fresh-mown grass? Mulch the garden with it, of course. Since we don’t use lawn chemicals, it’s the perfect solution. Putting the grass to good use makes the effort of mowing it seem worthwhile.

One small problem: in the spring when the grass grows quickly and we have to rake, we don’t have much in the garden to mulch; but once the weather is warmer and the bulk of the garden is in, we don’t have enough grass clippings to make raking worthwhile. Now, however, the grass is abundant and the garden is in its toddlerhood, and we mulch everything in sight, like these little onions in their snuggly bed of grass. What clippings remain when everything’s thickly mulched, we spread on the garden to be tilled in at planting time.

I love the sweet, green, summery smell of grass. I also love a warm evening when the lowering sun casts long shadows. The rest of these photos aren’t about grass, necessarily, but they give a glimpse of the homey beauty of our freshly-trimmed yard in the slanting rays of an evening sun.

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Hey, Y’all (Contemplations on “You” Plural) (Part II)

file0001217628885Remember that post I did awhile back about the need in the English language for a plural form of you? Well, I’m finally getting back to that thought. (And, like last time, the images illustrating this post are random things that came up when I searched for free images for “you.” So don’t waste your time trying to make sense out of them.)

This being somewhat of a grammar issue, I asked Granny Grammar to take over. But she wouldn’t touch it. Says it ain’t polite to discuss politics or religion in public, and since this deals with both, she wouldn’t even consider it.

Umm…. what does this have to do with politics and religion, you may ask? Good question. Bear with me, and ye shall see.

As I mentioned in that previous post, the lack of a plural form of you in modern English can lead to loss of clarity. Sometimes it can create misunderstanding, for example, as to what God is saying/who He’s talking to in the Bible. (Ah, that’s where the religion comes in.) This is one, though not the only, reason why I use the King James Version in my personal Bible study: it’s the only version that retains the nuances of meaning lost through updating the old thee’s and thou’s.

A case in point: let’s look at Deuteronomy chapter 9, where Moses is addressing the nation of Israel on the cusp of their entrance into the land God promised to give them. If you don’t have a KJV Bible handy, you can read it here.

Moses points out how God supernaturally protected and provided for them for the past file3281246664325forty years, all for the purpose of bringing them to this very place. It starts to get interesting from the grammatical point of view in verse 10. When Moses talks about the people’s responsibility to remember God and keep His commands, he uses singular pronouns: When thou (singular; the plural would be ye) hast eaten and are full, and have built nice houses, verse 12 – when thy (singular; the plural would be your) personal wealth has multiplied, verse 13 – beware that thine heart (singular; the plural would be your) not be lifted up and thou forget the LORD thy God, verse 14…

This singular you continues all the way through until the last part of verse 19, where it shifts back to the plural for the rest of the chapter. Moses tells the people, in essence, that if each of you, as individuals, do these things, it will affect all of you — the entire nation.

Historically, this is directed to the nation of Israel in the time of Moses. But it reveals a principle that applies to everyone, everywhere. That is, God’s plan isn’t for a nation to carry the people on its back; rather, the individuals are responsible for the health of the nation.

Ah, that’s where the politics comes in! Quite so. When we understand and believe God’s word, it affects our lives as citizens, not just our religious lives.

But there’s more. The same principle is seen in the next chapter. Moses puts the responsibility of remaining humble before God on the individual (verses 4 through the first half of verse 7); their individual failures to do so drag the whole nation into rebellion and bring consequences upon all the country (the second half of verse 7 through verse 24). Again we see that the individual is responsible for the nation, not vice versa.

We miss all this if we think of all those “you” pronouns as plural. How easy it is to point the finger! To think you (plural) need to do this or that; I’m okay just the way I am.

It might be comforting to think that, but often, God’s thoughts run contrary to popular thinking.

Perhaps what we do, or the relationship we have (or don’t have) with God, isn’t such a private matter as we’d like to think. The decisions we make as far as our personal behavior and freedoms might not be wholly personal after all. Perhaps it’s not just my life I need to consider, but how my choices affect the whole nation.

Or maybe I’m reading something into this that isn’t really here. What do you think?

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A Serious Subject

file0001327025014People look forward to Easter because it’s a sign of spring. Whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), it represents hope (of better weather to come) and light (longer days) and beauty (spring flowers and all around more color in the world).

I take the spiritual aspect of the season with the utmost seriousness. It’s not a matter of flowers and bunnies and new finery, but genuine resurrection and new life–which is a heavy matter indeed!

But there’s another facet of Easter people don’t talk about as much, and I’m serious about it too: marshmallow Peeps.

I don’t care about jelly beans. Most chocolate bunnies aren’t fit to eat (and the rest are too expensive to justify the cost). Cadbury Creme Eggs are so sweet they make my teeth hurt. But Peeps? Ahh…. Peeps…..  Peeps are the real Easter candy.

My earliest memories of Easter involve shopping (I’ve always hated shopping) for a new Easter dress (which I seldom liked but was committed to wearing every Sunday for the rest of the year) with a stupid Easter bonnet that I couldn’t wait to take off when I got home, and even stupider white gloves. The agony! Why do parents do such things to their children? The only thing that made it worthwhile was the basket of Easter candy. And the only thing that made the basket worthwhile was the Peep.

Yes, a singular Peep. My mom was of the opinion that sweets were bad for the health and should be avoided as much as possible. It wasn’t wholly practical to deprive her children of candy entirely, but she doled it out with the greatest of care. At Easter, though, we got a motherlode (to our eyes): a pittance of jelly beans, a little bit of chocolate, and one Peep.

I used to take tiny nibbles of that poor little thing, prolonging its agony/my joy over as long a time as possible. The idea of eating a Peep in one sitting was, when I was very young, an extravagance that never occurred to me.

Because I made my annual Peep last as long as I could, it was inevitably stale before I finished it. At some point, I realized I liked the stale parts best. Nowadays, when I get a package of Peeps (a whole package!!!!), I pull them apart and sit them around peepsthe kitchen to dry. As when I was a kid, I make them last as long as possible. But now, I eat a whole one at a time, though (such gluttony!), and make the package last as long as I can, rather than nibbling each Peep into a gradual, sugary oblivion.

But I only buy Peeps at Easter. Peeps are not to be shaped like ghosts or Christmas trees. They shouldn’t be white or pink or purple. Peeps are yellow. Peeps are peeps. They’re one of the joys of Easter, and should be reserved for Easter alone.

I’m serious.

 

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