Category Archives: Reading

A Walking Eyeball?

The instructor for my Wednesday Bible study could be described with one word: evangelist. Her heart and soul is filled with desire to bring others to Christ, to the point of overflowing. She sincerely loves Jesus like few I’ve ever seen.

I am simultaneously inspired, envious, and saddened at my own lack of the same.

Unlike her, I don’t feel the same pull to evangelize to non-believers. As such, I can’t help but ask why. Am I lacking in my own faith? Am I not focused enough on his voice and his word, so in the end he has no (or little) use of me?

Some of you will be rolling your eyes at me, I’m sure. Me questioning my strength and faith is nothing new, and some of you have expressed (for years), that I’m silly to doubt my faith.

Let me assure you that I don’t doubt my faith. My questions derive from my need to strengthen it. How can I do that if I don’t ask questions and seek out where I’m weak?

So back to my question. Am I lacking in something, because I have neither the gift nor desire to win lost souls to Jesus?

Or do I have neither, because Jesus has other plans for me?

One thing I love about both Jesus and Paul are their surgically sharp use of exaggeration and rhetoric to make a point.

In this case, how Paul describes the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Because of its imagery, verse 17 in particularly has always stuck with me: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” The first part makes me think of Mike Wazowski in Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.”

Silly imagery aside, it’s the perfect vehicle to make a point, or as Rush Limbaugh used to say, “Being absurd to illustrate absurdity.”

Paul was illustrating the absurd notion that all our gifts should be the same.

Thus proving my own absurdity for believing I (and my gifts) are lacking, simply because my life, gifts and desires don’t mirror others.

So what then are my gifts? What does Jesus intend for me to do if it’s not to evangelize to the lost?

All I can do is ask where my passions point toward instead of where they don’t.

In the simplest terms, I love the Bible, God’s Word. And what I hate is when people (Christians especially) twist scripture to mean the exact opposite of what it says, or when they ignore certain passages in favor of others in order to give themselves license to act a certain way.

That’s not to say I shouldn’t point the lost to Jesus. Quite the contrary. That is the ultimate goal of all within the Body of Christ—of which I’m a part. I’m simply not an evangelist whereby that’s my main and singular goal. Perhaps my job instead is to encourage and help those who do.

So does my passion make me an apologist instead, perhaps even a critic?

I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t know ten percent of what I should about scripture… I know just enough to be dangerous. Yet lately I’ve been in a studious mood both with the Bible study as well as reading non-fiction by those far more knowledgeable about scripture than me.

Or maybe I’m not an apologist so much (at least not yet) as I am a student. Either way, that’s where I belong in the Body as of now (because that could always change). And who am I to argue with God that I’m an ear instead of an eye—figuratively speaking?

Brain Food

Everyone approaches Jesus a little bit differently. Some approach him with the heart, others with the head. Many of us use a combination of both, which is important, I think. The most important part of God’s law, after all, can be summed up with “Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”

I can appreciate those who search for and find Jesus with their heart. I, however, am not one of those. That’s not to say I’ve never felt God’s presence, or that he’s never comforted my heart when I needed it. He most certainly has. Yet I still seek him with my head first. I long to know him as much as I enjoy feeling his presence. I want him to teach me all about himself, and for him to show me all of his creation and how it works.

So when I saw the book at my church by Lee Strobel called “The Case for the Real Jesus,” (Zondervan, 2007) how could I, in my insatiable intellectual curiosity, not pick it up?

This one addresses five attacks on Christ’s identity, namely that the resurrection never happened, Jesus never considered himself the Messiah, the early church suppressed other, equally valid and important gospels, that scribes tampered with the Bible, and how Jesus dying on the cross for our sins is a “barbaric concept that would make God guilty of cosmic child abuse.”

I’m on page fifty-three so far, and it’s feeding my brain. Hence the title of this entry. Lee Strobel, like me, approaches God with logic, rational arguments and digs for concrete, verifyable evidence for Jesus. His approach is similar to Dennis Prager, another one of my favorite biblical/religious scholars, but that’s a side topic…

Strobel takes nothing on faith alone. Everything he believes—or chooses to believe—must be verifiable. Like his other books, he brings us along on his journey of discovery, to ask the difficult questions knowing that such a journey could end up changing all his notions of who God is. That’s a hard road to travel, because few people want their beliefs—especially long-held beliefs—to be proved false.

It’s often a matter of pride, that fear. Who likes to admit they’re wrong or perhaps been deceived? I know I don’t.

Yet I also know, like Strobel, and even in Matt Walsh’s book I discussed in a previous entry, the truth matters more than anything. It does not change or become a lie simply because we chose to ignore or disbelieve it.

So do any of the above attacks against Jesus and Christianity have merit? You’ll have to take that journey of discovery yourself. As of now, for me, my brain is full. It’ll be hungry for more in the morning, I’m sure. Luckily, unlike real food, brain food doesn’t add literal fatty pounds to my belly.

A Smorgasbord

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I posted an entry. Where did the time go?

My mind has been kinda… full, I guess you’d say. From editing short stories for “Havok Magazine” and chapters submitted by two writers groups, taking some online courses on writing and focusing on God as I write, beginning a bible study on the book of Daniel, working full time, and all other typical daily routines, I don’t suppose I should be surprised I haven’t been keeping up here.

Yet I have been trying to write a daily paper journal. That’s been fun. A change of pace. I still have good handwriting, too!

The nice thing about keeping a paper journal is I don’t have to worry about self-censoring, because I know no one will read it. At least not until I purposefully show someone. Or after I’m dead.

I don’t do that much, here, either, but that’s because I know you, my readers aren’t going to call me names for voicing an opinion you don’t like. I appreciate that, so thank you!

Quite a few years ago, I kicked myself off social media for an entire year. I ended up writing over 250,000 words. Talk about productive! With all the current upheaval of social media, I’m thinking it’s time to do it again. Taking every Sunday off has helped my peace of mind, but I think it’s not enough anymore. It’s a terrible place at times, and I too often feel depressed or at least anxious after spending a few minutes there. God’s way of telling me to walk away, perhaps?

One thing I won’t quit is this blog, though. I like it here, and I still long to put my words out there. I just need to be smarter about it. More focused.

I’m also reading more. For fiction I’m reading Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive, Books 1-3.” I’m 450 words into the over 3400 word story. It’s a good thing I read fairly fast!

For non-fiction, I go back and forth with Matt Walsh’s, “Church of Cowards” and Dennis Prager’s, “Rational Bible: Genesis.” Both are meaty books, so I take those in small doses.

What books are you reading?

Seek Thee First…

Every Monday evening, I participate in an hour-long Twitter chat using the hashtag “healthyfaith.” One person hosts and asks 10 questions either about a certain religious subject or a particular chapter/verse of the Bible.

Last night’s was about meditation and how Christians should view/practice meditation vs how the world views/practices it.

The short version is while eastern meditation (which many in the Western world have embraced) relies largely on emptying the mind, for the Christian, it’s the opposite. We must instead focus and fill our mind with prayer, worship, scripture, and God himself. Because if we empty our mind, something will eventually fill it, and that something may be something that should not be there.

I also mentioned during the discussion that I don’t take enough time to meditate on God’s word, prayer or praise. I make daily time for my friends and family, why then do I not do the same for the Creator of the universe and the one who died to save me from my sins? Shouldn’t he be first on my mind in the morning, throughout the day, and the last thing on my mind as I search for sleep?

Apparently God isn’t finished teaching me this lesson. A few years ago, I purchased a book called “Morning and Evening: The Classic Daily Devotional” by Charles Spurgeon. Based on last night’s chat, I figured it’s time I set at least fifteen minutes each day with God and God alone. Reading (and pondering) the morning lesson in the book would likely be a good start.

Because God loves symmetry and likes to poke at me to prove how well he knows me—in this case by teaching me the same lesson over and over again, I bet you can guess what the subject of this morning’s devotion is.

Yep, it’s about finding God where we set him aside (or lost him). One example he gave was, “Did you lose Christ by neglecting the Scriptures? You must find Christ in the Scriptures.”

He also says, “Take care, then, when you find your Master, to cling close to Him.”

So here I am, reading, studying, pondering. Giving him a moment of my time so that I may learn to cling to him, never again to let him go. We’ll see how long it lasts… but at the very least, I’ll know where to find God if I lose him again.

100!

I just received a notification that my humble blog has reached 100 followers. In today’s online world, that number may seem anemic, perhaps even something to avoid bragging about.

Considering I write more than market this blog, 100 followers is more than I expected.

So now I have to find a way to thank each one of you… perhaps share one of my short stories? A series of devotionals I wrote for my church? Reader’s choice?

I’ll let you decide.

The Superior Storyteller

As a writer, I often wonder, am I telling my story (fiction or real) in a way that people will both understand and embrace? Especially as a Christian who wants to relay certain truths (without the sermon), storytelling is my avenue by which I feel called to do it.

Sharing stories isn’t new. It seems to be ingrained in every human, perhaps even in our DNA. Storytelling goes back to cave-dwellers before written language. Scribes wrote down a leader’s accomplishments many times in the form of a story, sometimes true, often embellished to make said leader appear larger-than-life, and thereby worthy of being followed.

The Bible itself is full of stories. Whether you believe they literally happened the way they’re written or not is–as far as stories with a point go–irrelevant. Because the truth (or message) of that story is what matters. Many of Jesus’ words also took the form of stories, because he knew his audiences. To simply say, “don’t steal,” wasn’t enough to drive the point home. By creating characters who stole, and showing how those characters had to face sometimes devastating consequences, the listener (or reader), can better relate to the story, remember it, and hopefully apply the lesson to his/her own life.

I’m reading “Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine to Aquinas,” by Curtis Chang. The author also talks about telling stories, but on a macro, societal level. On page 29 he says, “The one who can tell the best story, in a very real sense, wins the epoch [or era]. History is replete with examples of epoch-defining power gained by superior storytelling.” He then goes on to use examples of the Nazis (negative), and the American civil rights movement, namely Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and his “I have a dream” speech (positive).

To use a cliche “the pen is mightier than the sword,” in many cases this is true. Hitler wielded words that turned Germany from the biggest loser in WWI to a world power in only a few decades. Dr. King wielded words that gave minorities a bigger and more influential voice in American society and politics. Their speeches often included narrative that, as Chang put it, “[took] every thought captive.”

As a storyteller, I and others like me sometimes forget the impact our words can have on others. Too often we think our words will never matter. While we may never spur a new epoch in our history, what about that those who take our words to heart, and in turn influence others who do change the course of history?

If you’re not a writer, and have no desire to be one, nevertheless, tell your stories. Show others the lessons life (or God) has taught you, so they may avoid the mistakes you’ve made, and instead enjoy more success.

Be a superior storyteller; take people’s every thought captive so that those who might otherwise lead them astray can’t.

Beatitudes and Woes, The Anthology

First off, to everyone, both new and regular vistors, welcome! Pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage and have a seat!

Now before we get into the meat of this post, I recommend you read Rebekah Loper’s entry and first installment of this blog tour. She describes best the humble beginnings of the anthology as well as the anthology itself, and I don’t want to repeat what you may have already read.

You’re back now! Great!

For my story, I was lucky enough to pick the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, KJV)

I’ll admit to some trepidation over writing a story about that verse, because I never studied what “poor in spirit” actually meant.

So I brought out my handy-dandy study Bible, and it referred me to this verse among others:

Isaiah 57:15: “The night and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy one says this: ‘I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.'” (NLT)

As one who has to work hard at being contrite and humble, this was double the challenge!

After three complete rewrites (and a lot of prayer) where nothing but the first paragraph made the final draft, I finally completed my story called The Promise:

Cantis promised his parents to take care of his ailing twin sister, Cathrin, before they died. In order to do that, he must take her through unknown and dangerous territory where Marauder ambushes are frequent and deadly to get her the help she needs.

He soon learns firsthand what it feels like to be “poor in spirit,” and to depend on God when all seems lost.

Intrigued? Will he and Cathrin, avoid being caught, robbed–or worse–killed by Marauders? You’ll have to read the story to find out!

But it doesn’t end there! Since my story is only the first of thirteen, I guarantee if you like mine, you’ll love the rest.

Although the official release date is July 13th, you can pre-order the Kindle edition for a mere $4.99. There will also be paperback and hardcover editions available soon!

Something else to add to your calendar: all the authors and our illustrious editor, Travis Perry of Bear Publications will be hosting a Facebook Party on July 13th for the book’s official release. Come and join the fun where you can ask questions of the authors, answer trivia, and perhaps win a prize or two.

Since I doubt Rebekah or I have whet your appetite enough, check out the next stop on this tour written by RJ Conte who “writes realistic, issue-driven fiction that explores human nature and the depths of the soul, while pointing readers to their Creator.”

Agendas in Stories. Good or Bad?

When I first started writing, specifically Christian Fiction, I went to many Christian writers conferences. Out of all the classes I attended, one piece of advice was stressed above all others: Don’t preach. At the same time, many agents and publishers ask one question about the story: What’s the main message or take-away?

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. As I’ve written previously, stories matter, not because of the message, per se, but because they’re engrossing, entertaining, and sometimes terrifying. Stories immerse us into worlds and cultures we’ve never experienced, and give us characters we can love, hate, and everything in between.

Should all stories contain a message? No, but I also think few stories don’t have a message, however subtle. Like it or not, writers can’t help but bring their own biases, and yes, agendas to their stories.

For instance, I wrote my first novel because I was frustrated with the current selection of stories in my favorite genres. At the time (the early 2000s) I found little to no Christian science fiction, and few science fiction stories where God played any role at all. Most science fiction, in fact, was by and large hostile to any religion or idea of a higher power beyond a Force or ethereal Universe.

As I was silently lamenting my frustration, a little voice in my head said, “Then you write it.”

I doubt I’m alone in writing certain stories out of similar frustrations.

Plus it’s difficult to find stories without some message, even (perhaps especially) a lot of classics: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I could name a hundred others.

While many of the messages the authors sought to convey shined through, I doubt many readers would call them preachy. The plot, setting, and characters always came first.

All that said, a few days ago I saw the following conversation on Twitter (with permission):

“The best stories have no agendas. They’re not shoving social justice down our throats or giving us a limited narrative to make us learn. They just grip us with their excellence and beauty, the thrill of their surprises and the poignancy of their narratives. #books #writer” ~ Jessi Lyn Robbins (@jessilynrobbins)

And:

“I think I can safely say I’ve never learned anything from a book that set out to make me learn a lesson. Well, maybe I learned never to read anything else by that author.” ~ Gillian M Kendall (@GillianMKendall)

Does that mean I disagree with them both? Based on what I’ve written so far and my response below, you might think so:

“It depends on the story and how it’s written. I read a book where the MC struggled with clinical depression. I used to silently scoff at those who suffered (I’m a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of person). I’ve never scoffed (silently or otherwise) at sufferers since.”

Ms. Robbins graciously responded: “From the sound of it, I’m not sure that book has the kind of agenda I’m talking about. It sounds like it’s extremely well-researched and well written with serious subject material that made you really feel something. Agenda books are not written like that. They’re not genuine.”

To which I added: “Perhaps. I agree too many books have “social justice” agendas. They make me leery of reading newer books. When I want to be preached to, I’ll go to church. Then again, if someone wants to add a message, write it in a way that I find it on my own. Don’t bust my head open with it.”

So no, I don’t disagree with either Ms. Robbins or Ms. Kendall. They both are expressing the same frustrations I have with so many newer books. The authors writing agenda-driven stories haven’t learned the lesson that I learned so many years ago: Don’t preach.

Their — and my — complaint is when the agenda or message becomes more important than the story. Too many seek to convert the reader through intellectual and emotional force instead of inviting the reader to see a different point of view through the plot and characters.

Stories should be an invitation, not an invasion, because the former shows trust in the reader whereas the latter does not.

UPDATED: “Moby Dick” was written by Herman Melville (I accidentally attributed it to Charles Dickens).

An Update on Story Matters

If you haven’t read my previous entry, yet, I recommend you do before continuing (http://almarquardt.blog/2018/10/22/story-matters/).

I have since discovered that the last books will be completed by another author.

In the meantime, if you enjoy fast-paced epic fantasy with science fiction elements, and with deep, colorful characters struggling to find their way in worlds they never before imagined, I highly recommend you check them out. The first novel can be picked up on Amazon for a mere $0.99.

To find out more about Brandon Barr and his “Song of the Worlds” series, check out the attached link.

My thanks to Brandon for writing such a fabulous and memorable story, and to #BrandonsBuddies for taking up the torch on his behalf.

https://www.facebook.com/EpicFantasyFanatics/posts/569164893515956

Or if you don’t use Facebook:

http://epicfantasyfanatics.com/brandons-buddies/

Story Matters

An author recently posted on Facebook asking for feedback on one of his series. Unable to turn down an opportunity to read a book in one of my favorite genres (two actually. The series is a combination of sci-fi and fantasy), I eagerly accepted.

I ended up loving the story and characters, and the author graciously sent me the other two in the series as well as a prequel novella.

In one of the emails, he mentioned that he was pushing the release of the final two (out of five) due to an illness. I was bummed, but I also know the importance of one’s health takes precedence.

Yesterday, the author posted that his cancer had returned, and the doctors gave him about two months to live.

My completely selfish response was what you might expect. I thought, “Oh, no! I’ll never read the rest of the series now!”

As you also might expect, I mentally berated myself for thinking such a thing. I did post a comment saying that I would pray for him and his family, but it felt hollow as I typed.

Do I want him healed, or if not, that his family experiences God’s strength and comfort? Absolutely. But my prayers still feel tainted by my selfish and silly desire to read the final books, when a man is dying and a family is soon devastated. What’s an incomplete series compared to that?

Or am I wrong?

I heard a story years ago where a woman dying of cancer wrote Stephen King. She asked him to tell her what happened at the end of his “Dark Tower” series, because she wouldn’t live long enough to read the remaining — and as yet unreleased — books.

Sadly, he couldn’t answer, because even he didn’t know at the time.

Studies have found that those who read fiction are statistically more empathetic. Understandable when you think about it.

When reading about fictional characters, we learn their thoughts, motivations, loves, hates, fears and desires. Something we don’t always see or get in real life, because few of us lay ourselves bare with the exception of a scant few — if that. As we read, we place ourselves in the shoes of the characters, and we can’t help but correlate their experiences, thoughts and feelings into our own life and those around us.

To give an example, I’ve never been clinically depressed. I didn’t understand how debilitating it can be, and I used to quietly scoff at those who did. Until I read “Becoming Olivia” by Roxanne Henke. The book is about Olivia who has a great life, but can’t shake the depression that seemed to come out of nowhere.

After reading it, I will never again scoff at anyone who suffers from depression again.

Now it may seem at this point that I changed subjects on you. First I talked about selfish prayers, then I jumped to how stories make us more empathetic.

What both illustrate is the importance of stories in our life. They not only entertain, but can convey certain truths. Stories, like most other arts engage us emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. They can also live beyond the creator’s own life. Plus we never want the story to simply stop with no end in sight.

We are built to both create and listen to or read stories. They’ve been used since the advent of language to remember our past as well as convey truth. Even non-Christians know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and Jonah and the whale (although technically, it was a fish). Whether they literally happened is always up for debate, but their messages still stand many millennia later. The same goes for Dicken’s “Oliver Twist,” and “A Christmas Carol,” Shakespeare’s plays, many Greek tragedies, and countless others.

Stories matter. My selfish response and a dying woman’s letter is evidence of that.

Still, I do hope God will ignore my selfishness behind the words of my prayers, because I never want to see a person die so soon, and his/her family left to pick up the pieces.