Buddhism – The Search for Nirvana

Let us be clear that I am not promoting one religion over another in this series of world religions and cults. However, I am presenting these from the point of view of a Christ follower who subscribes to His teachings and offer of salvation as the only way to true Life with God. So why present other religions? Simply to refute the idea that Christians are closed-minded. Plus, I believe strongly that each Christian, in order to be an effective witness, must study these other teachings in order to be ready to engage intelligent conversations with people we might come across in our living. Each Christian, before he became one, dabbled in many pieces of religions and belief systems before Christ found him. We were all deists and naturalists and evolutionists and atheists before we turned to Christ as our only mean of salvation. In an effort to continue our weekly discussion about world religions, we’re going to contribute to the conversation with information about Buddhism and the dangers that accompany its belief system.

A brief history. Siddhartha Gautama was born a Hindu in 560 B.C., near India in what is now Nepal. Determined to solve the riddle of life, he left his palace, his wife and child, shaved his head, wore a yellow robe and wandered the countryside as a beggar monk. He studied Hinduism but found no satisfaction. Then he starved himself until he was a walking skeleton, thinking he could find salvation through self-denial. Finally, he sat under a tree for 40 days and 40 nights and swore he would not move until he found what he was searching for. Accordingly, Mara – “The evil one” – tried to make Gautama give up his quest.

At the end of 40 days he experienced the highest degree of God-consciousness – nirvana – literally, the “blowing out” of the flame of desire and the negation of suffering. He felt he found salvation. From then on he was known as Buddha or “enlightened one.”

He preached and taught about the meaning of life and his way to nirvana. He founded the Sangha – an order of monks. By the time he died 45 years later, many thousands had adopted his teachings.

However, many of Buddha’s teachings were rejected as heresies by the dominant teachers of Hinduism. Buddha denied that the Vedas and the Upanishads were divine writings, that they were of no help in finding nirvana. He also denied that man has an atman (soul), which is part of the Brahman (world soul), and that the present world is maya (unreal). (For more information on Hinduism, click here.)

Buddha rejected other Hinduism concepts such as, he emphasized ethics over ritual. He rejected the caste system, and taught that enlightenment was open to anyone, not just Brahmin males. He challenged all the indifferent gods/goddesses, saying they were essentially unimportant in the quest for enlightenment. However, he did accept reincarnation and karma. You could be reborn as a human, animal, hungry ghost, demon, or even a Hindu god.

Buddha said that we are to suppress cravings of the flesh by following what is called, “The Middle Way.” This could also be called, The Noble Eightfold Path: This consists of eight ways of righteous living. Right viewpoint, right behavior, right occupation are amongst them. Buddha said whoever could follow this would reach nirvana. He said life in this world is quite real. Unlike Hindus, Buddhism offers a precise definition of man’s problem, along with an exact “plan of salvation” for everyone.

A popular form of one branch of Buddhism in the west is Zen – A discipline with the goal of experiencing enlightenment through meditation (reaching Satori). “Look within your, you are the Buddha.” After World War II Zen made significant inroads into the west: Tina Turner, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford.

Buddhists deny God’s existence or say that He is irrelevant. They say that Jesus was a good teacher, but less important than Buddha.

Many people of many different religions say that Jesus was a good man or a good teacher. This demotes Jesus to nothing but a mere human, and not God. To do this is to reject God fully. He is an extreme God who will only accept your full devotion; not a part of it. Many may whine and say this is asking too much. But if you flip this idea on its head and look back a couple thousand years in history, it’s clear that Jesus gave us His full devotion by dying on the cross for our sins for those who choose to accept His offered gift. As I’ve stated previously in another post, if you ask me, He isn’t asking for enough.

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A “Brave” New Movie *Spoiler free*

First off, I get to call bragging rights. Pixar fans: I saw the Pizza Planet truck for the first time in the theaters. Yes, it is in Brave, believe it or not.

So the wait is over, and the weekend was a good one. Sarabeth and I saw Brave and loved it. It was worth every penny. The critics are being hard on it because it’s not as somber as Toy Story 3 or as “inventive” as Wall-E. Well, I did get choked up a couple of times, and you know what? It was actually refreshing to spend an hour and a half in the familiar territory of a good old fashioned Disney fairytale. So the only reason one would be disappointed with Brave is if one is expecting the edginess of The Incredibles or the sophistication of Ratatouille. Brave is a brand new fairytale; nothing less, nothing more. Go into it expecting that, and you will be more than pleased.

So let’s address some issues about the themes in the movie. If I weren’t familiar with Pixar and I were a parent, I would be quite hesitant bringing my child to see Brave. The trailers make it look like Merida, the main character, defies her parents and gets away with it. True, she does defy her parents, but she suffers great consequences for it. Parents need not be concerned. This isn’t The Little Mermaid where the princess disobeys her naïve and racist father and lives happily ever after with prince charming. As far as themes and lessons go, I prefer my kids watching Brave any day.

Now let’s talk about the feminist issues in the movie. There are none. Who started the rumor that this was going to be all about feminism? And who planted the idea in people’s minds that all Disney movies are feministic? The only gender-switching I see comes from the Shrek franchise over at Dreamworks and I don’t see people complaining about that. In fact, Pixar has gotten sued multiple times by feminist groups because they don’t meet their agenda or taste preferences. Brave is not a retaliatory response in compliance with the feminist movement. It’s simply a story about a young woman who would rather see the world and explore it before settling down and getting married. She is all girl, and – I think – a great role model for the love-sick vampire-craving adolescents today. Brave shows that you don’t have to have prince charming in your life in order to be content.

If anything, Brave is more about the relationship between mother and daughter than anything else. And there’s enough action and suspense that young boys will embrace it, regardless. Even for a fairytale, it comes at the right time. Merida’s mother, though good intentioned, does not listen to her daughter, or even hear her out. I think she’s a perfect representation of today’s media-saturated mother, who ignores her kids by keeping her nose in her i-pad or talking more on Facebook than to her kids. If that’s you, then let this movie hit home for you. Let it open up your eyes to what your missing in your child’s life, and let it teach you how your child needs you to listen and be apart of their life.

I can go on and on about Brave. As soon as we walked out of the theater I told Sarabeth that I want to go back and see it again right then. It was just so satisfying as a movie. As soon as we got home I made sure that there was room in my Pixar collection for Brave. It will be a very fine addition, which I look forward to revisiting many times. And the soundtrack? As usual with Pixar scores, it’s breathtaking. And even the new songs by Julie Fowlis (and Mumford and Sons) are a perfect mix of Celtic lore and contemporary pop.

I only had two complaints about Brave. The first one is kind of petty. I just wished they would have shown more of the bear Mor’du. He was awesome and ferocious, like the cave troll in The Lord of the Rings. But, being an animated movie (primarily) geared toward kids, I can understand why his screen time was limited. The second complaint is best summed up from this review I read here:

Still, while Brave is admirable for dazzling visuals, excellent voice work, and honorable themes, some scenes work better than others. There’s a surprisingly implausible sequence in which Merida must create a diversion so somebody can sneak into her family’s castle — funny, but poorly executed. On matters of love and freedom, the movie turns downright preachy, failing the “show, don’t tell” test.

When die-hard Pixar fans come to this scene, they will realize a particular truth about Pixar: They preach, but never with words. This is the first time Pixar has broken that rule, and it is a bit disheartening. But really, it’s a three to four minute sequence, of little consequence to the film as a whole.

See Brave. Take your kids (not suggested for four or younger, as some scenes even had me on the edge of my seat, and Sarabeth jumped at least once). It’s a great movie for the family in which every member can walk away having been taught a valuable lesson unique to each family role. And the cool thing abut it is, when it’s over, you’ll feel like you really were running through a Scottish forest and were given an extensive and intimate tour of a real-life castle (don’t be surprised if you sniff your fingers to see if you can smell the granite from the stone walls). The animation is that dazzling and life-like.

Disclaimer: There is some rude humor, but I wouldn’t deem it as inappropriate or offensive. Let’s just say a lot of guys lose their kilts and are running away from the screen.

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The High Art of Storytelling

So Brave comes out this week… finally! Sarabeth and I don’t go to the movies often, but it’s our annual tradition to go to each Pixar release. This is going to be a good weekend.

Now, as an avid Pixar fan, I do have a confession to make. For the most part, whenever I see a Pixar movie for the first time, I’m sort of… let down. But over time, with each viewing of a certain Pixar movie, I appreciate it more and more for what it is. I think it’s because their stories resonate and they age like fine wine. Ratatouille, for instance, didn’t keep me plastered to my seat with a big goofy grin the whole time. But it stuck with me days after viewing it. There were themes and deep issues that the movie provoked me to revisit. But I now consider it one of the finest films ever made. Wall-E bored me the first time I saw it. But after seeing it a few more times, and really digging into what the movie is trying to communicate (it’s not about going green), I now consider it one of the finest films as well.

It’s misleading when Disney markets Pixar films as being “the best comedy of the year,” because Pixar films aren’t just out to get a few laughs like competing animated movies. Heck, they’re not even trying to preach any sort of message. They’re just setting out to do what any good movie ought to do – tell an original and compelling story that is so effective that it will become a part of the viewer.

Story is to movies as location is to buildings. Story, story, story. Everything else is secondary. When the newborn Pixar Studios set out to make the world’s first computer-generated animated movie, the compliment they feared the most was, “The animation was astounding!” No. Hang the animation, as wonderful as it is. The guys at Pixar new they had truly succeeded with Toy Story because audiences around the globe absolutely loved the story.

This has been a good year for Sarabeth and me. I had been searching for an agent to represent my book, The Man in the Box, since 2009. I signed a contract with BlackWyrm Publishers a month ago: Three years and hundreds of rejections later. It was my passion to tell stories and my supportive wife that refused to let me give up. And every Pixar movie has played a role in teaching me how to tell a story.

Now, I know this isn’t anything like creating a cutting-edge feature film, nor will The Man in the Box make it to the New York Times bestseller list (though with your help, it could). But the point I’m trying to make here is this: We can do nothing great on our own. Did you know that Steve Jobs had the Pixar building built in such a way that if anyone wants to get from any point of the studio to another, you have to cross the lobby like everyone else? The reason for this seemingly obsessive idea was so that camaraderie would be encouraged and artists who wouldn’t normally talk to writers would bump into each other and exchange ideas. Unfortunately authors don’t have this advantage, and for the most part, we work alone. I have done everything I can to make my book, The Man in the Box as exciting, unpredictable and engaging as possible. But I know it’s still not perfect. So even as I write this there is an editor pouring over it somewhere. She has got her work cut out for her.

But we will be working together to make it the absolute best story we can possibly deliver to you. In the coming months I will be posting snippets of The Man in the Box for you to enjoy (or criticize). But I will need encouragement. I will need as many of my readers to join The Man in the Box Facebook page. There is little information about the story right now, but I will slowly and surely be revealing more and more. If you join, you will be alerted about contests to win free copies, favoritism for your blog, etc.

Oh, and any writers out there, I have included this list especially for you. I just came across it a few weeks ago, but I am convinced it is the purest piece of gold any writer could possibly attain in his possession. I don’t know if it’s official or not, but it is Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Do your readers a favor and follow these rules religiously. And go out and see Brave! We’ll discuss it next week.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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Islam: Allah is One and Christ was Just a Prophet

Here is a heavy topic for our conversation concerning world religions. Any viewing of the news is pregnant with the fact that Islam is a very controversial topic. So what is Islam? What are their beliefs? Can Christians and Muslims peacefully coexist? Hopefully we can answer some of these questions here.

Islam has gained thousands of converts in North America, especially among many professional athletes. It is the youngest among major world religions but it is still one of the largest. It is so missionary-minded that it is seeking to convert western countries, not just African and Asian countries, and it claims 1 billion followers in countries around the world. Islam originated in what is now Saudi Arabia. The country which boasts of the most Muslims – 120 million – is Indonesia. There are millions more in parts of Eastern and Western Europe and in the Americas. To put it differently, 1 out of 6 people on earth subscribes to Islam.

A brief history: Mohammed, born in Arabia, city of Mecca, A.D. 570. His parents died when he was young. His uncle, Abu Talid took him in at age nine. He held a strong belief in monotheism (one God), and it is believed he absorbed much of his teaching from the Talmud. Although, it is unlikely he learned about “the one true God” from anyone who understood the Bible. Mohammed developed the Qur’an (Koran) – holy book of Islam. Mohammed was married to a woman 15 years older than himself. She bore him several children. He spent much of his marriage in solitary meditation.

According to Islamic legend, the archangel Gabriel came to Mohammed, 40, in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca. “Read in the name of thy Lord,” he said, and instructed Mohammed to to teach by the pen as the Lord did.

Because Mohammed couldn’t read or write, the Qur’an is his reciting of revelations given to him. Mohammed preached in the market places in Mecca. He never claimed to be divine but insisted that Allah had called him to be a prophet. He hated the idolatry and immorality of Arabs who lorded their riches over the poor.

On July 16, 622, Mohammed fled to Yathrib, a friendlier city to the north where he became the religious and political leader of the city. Soon Meccans organized an army to destroy Mohammed and his followers. The fight ended in 630, with Islamic forces triumphant. Mohammed destroyed every idol in Mecca’s main temple or, Kaaba, except the Black Stone (a sacred meteorite enshrined there). Mohammed declared Kaaba to be the most holy shrine in Islam. That is where Muslims direct their prayers. During the next 2 years Mohammed strengthened his position as the leading prophet and ruler of Arabia. He united tribes into a vast army to conquer the world for Allah. He died in 632.

The Qur’an is 4/5ths the length of the New Testament. It includes 114 Surahs (chapters). In it, the ideas are credited to God, but dictated by Mohammed from his disciples who heard his oral teachings. Muslims claim that it is copied from an original in Arabic, which is in Heaven.

Here are the six doctrines of Islam which every Muslim is required to believe:

God – There is only one true God, Allah. He is all-seeing, all-knowing, all powerful.

Angels – The chief angel is Gabriel. There are two fallen angels named Shaitan and Jinns, whom are demons.

Scripture – The are four God-inspired books: The Torah, the Zabur ( the Psalms of David), the Injil (Gospel of Jesus), and the Qur’an. But Muslims believe that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures. So the Qur’an is Allah’s final word to mankind. It overrules previous writings.

Mohammed – The Qur’an lists 28 prophets. Last and greatest is Mohammed.

The end times – On the last day the dead will be resurrected. Allah will be judge and everyone sent to Heaven (sensual pleasure) or Hell (for those who oppose Allah and his prophet Mohammed).

Predestination (aka kismet) – The doctrine of fate. “If it is Allah’s will.” God has determined what he pleases and no one can change what he has decreed.

How the Qur’an contradicts the Bible:

  • God is one, period. Anyone who subscribes partners is committing the sin of Shirk. This is directed against the Trinity and that Jesus is God.
  • Allah is transcendent (all powerful) and relatively impersonal. The name “Father” is omitted to avoid the idea of Father and Son, and a personal Father, as the Bible boasts so proudly of.
  • The Qur’an denies that Jesus is the Son of God. He is ranked far bellow Mohammed.
  • The Qur’an says that Christ never died on the cross. Muslims say Judas died on the cross. Everyone was fooled! (Or it was Simon of Cyrene.) Or Jesus was taken down in a comma and He later revived and traveled elsewhere where He died.
  • Surah declares that each person must take care of his or her own sins. Earn salvation by following the 5 Pillars. If he doesn’t make it, that’s his own fault. “Whoever goes astray, he himself bears the whole responsibility of wandering” (Surrah 10:109). Like Judaism, Islam places on each person a terrible burden of responsibility. This is directly contradictory to what God the Father says about our sins. We can’t deal with the punishment of our sin without relying on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus’ Gospel is less burdensome than Mohammed’s, and praise the Lord for that!
  • In regards to sin, humans are born with hearts that are clean slates. Sins can be overcome by acts of the will. The Bible teaches that we are all born with evil hearts and that only the power of Christ’s death and resurrection can empower us to overcome sin.
  • Regarding salvation, Allah doesn’t love those who do wrong, and each person must earn his or her own salvation. The Bible teaches clearly that God loves the world and everyone in it, and that no one can earn their own salvation. Instead, each person must put their trust in His Son Jesus Christ if he or she wants salvation from their sins.

Loving in the West, Oppressive in the East

It is easy for us in America to accept Islam as a peaceful religion. Islam in the west is often identified with love, tolerance and justice. But in the east, Islam is political. Everyone in Islamic societies, including non-Muslims, must conform to Islamic laws, economics, politics and customs or suffer heavy consequences.

Historically, in countries where Islam is strong in political power, people of all rival religions are either wiped out or, in the interest of “tolerance” and “open-mindedness,” permitted to exist as second-class citizens. Christians are persecuted in Muslim countries, though not all. This is part of an effort to force people to submit to Allah. For instance, right now in Sudan, thousands of black Christians are enslaved to Muslim Arabs. The Qur’an gives them the right to make slaves out of “infidels.” The Islamic law is most strict in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It is more lenient in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Muslims in the West enjoy freedom and democracy. They are protected by legal status as the minority.

In 1,500 years of Islamic history, it has yet to be proven that democratic values and Islam can comfortably coexist. Islam is a religion of self-reliance and self-effort.

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Toy Story 3: The Wilderness of the Playroom

Being an emotional guy (it comes with the territory of being a writer), it’s rare that I don’t cry in movies. I seek out unity and beauty in storytelling, and when all the pieces flow together like a great symphony, I’m a goner.

Now, it’s fine to let the floodgates open in the privacy of your own home, but poor Sarabeth and I had no idea what sort of emotional toll was waiting for me at the theaters when we went to see the latest Toy Story installment.

Those who have seen it know what I’m talking about. During the closing scene, when Andy is giving all of his beloved toys away, Sarabeth, being more of a rock than I am, turns to me and can practically see the entire movie screen in my wet eyes and drenched cheeks.

“Are you okay?” she asked. I could only nod my head, not fully convincing her that I was. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, probably thinking, “I married such a sissy.” Needless to say, we had to wait until the lights came back on in the theater to make a safe and somewhat dignified departure. (Recently I asked her when she had seen me cry the hardest and she said it was during Toy Story 3. I personally thought it was when we watched My Dog Skip.)

To make myself feel better, I googled the question, “How many men in their 20’s cried during Toy Story 3?” The vast number of confessors helped restore my masculinity. But why such an emotional response? I’m sure there are many answers to this question: Nostalgia; saying goodbye to childhood; leaving Andy; we’re all just a bunch of saps… I would like to propose another answer. I think somewhere deep down we envy Woody’s loyalty. He’s not perfect by any means, and he could be faulted for a lot of things, but his biggest fault could be his steadfast devotion to others. And it’s not even his loyalty to Andy that we envy, it’s his loyalty to fulfill what he was meant to do – to be played with. But the passage of time had stripped him and his friends of that opportunity.

We have all been caught in the wilderness. With an abundance of motivation and a large supply of talents, we’ve been stopped in our tracks and refused permission to proceed with our goals. Maybe you’re waiting for your adoption papers. Or you don’t have the funds to invest in your talents. Maybe the economy turned your dream job into a nightmare. Or you’ve got plenty of love to give, but no one to give it to. These are all situations where we should feel most at home with many characters from the Bible, particularly the Israelites who were forced to wander the wilderness for forty years for their sins. Many of us are in the wilderness because of our sins – laziness, lack of faith, fill in the blank. And others of us are just suffering the consequences of a fallen world, or you just haven’t reached Gods timing yet. We can list off a hundred different reasons why we’re in the wilderness, but the fact is the wilderness is chillingly real and we are very much in it.

But the point is, what will you do while you’re in the wilderness? Will you follow my lead and pout, stomp your foot and complain to God while feeling sorry for yourself in the corner of a room? Or will you follow Paul’s lead and find joy in the darkness of a damp prison? Or Jesus’, spurring the temptations of the Devil? Or Joshua and Caleb, holding steadfast to the God they love even while everyone they know and love is falling dead around them and their day-to-day lives are more mundane than our own 9-5’s?

I think it’s appropriate that Disney/Pixar’s most evil villain is not a dragon or a witch or even a puppy-snatcher. In fact, Lotso, Toy Story 3’s antagonist, is probably one of the most evil villains in most movies combined. Satan comes to us in the form of a loveable, pink teddy bear who smells like strawberries. God might put us in the wilderness, but Satan is there to meet us head-on. He’ll convince you that a) the wilderness isn’t so bad, that life isn’t meant to be enjoyed so you might as well accept the status quo, or b) you deserve better than this, how dare God leave you in such a wretched state; curse Him, spit on Him, leave Him!

Brothers and sisters, no matter who you are or where you’re at in life, you’re in the wilderness right now. Life is a wilderness of wandering and finding truth, waiting out the storms and fighting the good fight. Those who trust in Jesus Christ know that there will be an end to this wilderness and we will live in Paradise in the end. But to those of you who do not put your hope and trust in God, this is the greatest paradise you will ever know and your wilderness will be waiting for you on the other side and it will never ever end, and once you’re there, trusting in God will do no good.

But while we’re here, trust n God that this meaningless wandering will come to an end, and that when you’re in Jesus, there is actually nothing meaningless at all about your wilderness stay. Joseph trusted God in prison. David praised God in hiding. And Joshua and Caleb? They were the only ones who had enough faith in God to see the promised land at the end of the 40 years, and their efforts were greatly rewarded.

Woody held out until the very end to do what he was meant to do. Even in the face of adversary from his friends, apparent abandonment from his owner, hostile adversaries, betrayal and even death, Woody never once lost sight of who he was supposed to be and what he was made for. And we shouldn’t either. We are here to praise God and worship Him. That’s our purpose for being here. I wonder, if they made a movie about Joshua and Caleb, if I would cry in the end of that one too, because I certainly envy and long for their loyalty. And you should, too.

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Summer Shopping Spree!

 I’ve said it many times that I would sooner buy books than replace old clothes or repair the house. I realize that this is not a very godly trait. When I look into my heart of flesh, and survey my surroundings at home, I prioritize what I would save first in the event of a fire. My books, the computer, then the dogs. (We’ll be making a lot of trips up and down those smoky stairs to save all my books.)

Four times a year I allow myself to go on a wild shopping spree to buy a handful of books to last me through the next several months. One spree takes place around Black Friday. Poor Sarabeth married the kind of guy who does just as much shopping for himself for Christmas gifts as he does for her. The next spree comes on Christmas day, where I get to open the plethora of books Sarabeth ordered for me from my bn.com wish list. The third spree comes the day after Christmas (got to get the whole Christmas list checked off, right?). And the fourth one lands somewhere between spring and summer where I begin to gather my more cozy-home-by-the-fire books in preparation for the long winter ahead. (I get all my summer reading and baseball books during Christmas… yes, I’m that … ahem, organized.)

So this week I thought I’d share with you the newest members of our family, taking up a prominent place on our bookshelf, eager to be cracked open and brought to life.

The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas

Here is a fictional story about one of the guards who bartered for Jesus’ clothes at the foot of the cross. The reviews for this book were outstanding, and because I enjoyed The Flames of Rome so much, I figured I will take another step into the world of historical Christian fiction. Apparently this was made into a movie back in the 50’s.






The Long Way Home by David Laskin

This was an impulse buy. When the cover bragged about immigrants landing on Ellis Island and then being shipped off to war several years later, I couldn’t resist. The fact that Eric Larson wrote a review of it helped my decision.




The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick

Apparently Sarabeth is related to Custer, and we don’t have anything about the Battle of Little Big Horn in the house that I know of. So why not take the time to learn about Cousin Custer, and his ravenous tirade against the Indians? Oh, and Sarabeth is living proof that, hereditarily  speaking, insanity and madness diminishes through the years. I am proud to say that the Custer clan has come a long way, and has been redeemed.



To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to read this in high school, but I have no recollection of it. As a novelist I consider it part of my job to be well-versed in some of America’s greatest literature. Did you know that this was voted one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century? I find it hard to believe that anything can be better than John Steinbeck, so I must see to believe.





Life as we Knew it by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Never mind that it’s a teen book. As soon as I heard the synopsis – meteor knocks moon closer to the earth and every type of natural disaster ensues – I was hooked. I love a good apocalyptic story… I just haven’t found that many. Plus, I’m going to need inspiration for my own apocalyptic novel that I’ve been writing. The reviews seem almost unanimous that these books (it’s a trilogy) are absolutely terrifying, so I’m looking forward to a good scare.

Now, I probably won’t get to any of these for about a year or so. I’ve still got a lot of back-shelf books to catch up on. And in case you’re wanting to follow my reading trend, let me highlight that it is not likely that I will buy a book unless it has overwhelmingly positive reviews online. You can check book reviews at bn.com or amazon.com or  wherever you buy your books. Happy reading!

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Letting Go

Here’s a fascinating and insightful take on Pixar films as a whole. This is taken from the book The Art of Up by Tim Hauser:

Taken as a whole, Pixar’s films can be viewed as serialized chapters in a single life: from sibling rivalry, early attachment (Toy Story), and socialization (A Bug’s Life), to maturation (Monter’s Inc.), separation, and parenthood (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo); from protecting the nuclear family (The Incredibles), shifting out of the fast lane (Cars), and rekindling passion (Ratatouille), to planning for future generations (WALL-E), and, finally, accepting death (Up). 

Up is more than just a picture of moving on from death. To me, it’s one of the greatest images of love that Hollywood has ever placed on the silver screen. Throughout his whole life, our character Carl is set on keeping his wife’s promises. He never goes back on his word – no matter what. This is a lesson many of us, myself included, need to be reminded of. Too often I’ll make a promise to Sarabeth and I won’t go through with it either because “I forgot,” or I just didn’t feel like it because it suddenly wasn’t convenient for me. Up convicts me as a Christian.

But as wonderful as a (true) love story this is, I would like to focus on another aspect of the film that is sometimes overlooked and is pertinent to this blog. In the movie, Carl has his life set to a certain standard, and his goals are fixed without room for interruption. But interruption knocks on his door (2,000 feet in the air) and presents itself. Throughout the story, Russell the boy slowly but surely wedges his  way into Carl’s heart. And slowly we begin to see the ideology of an adoption form. We learn that Russell is fatherless and Carl steps in as his surrogate. But the only way for him to do that is by letting go of what’s closest to him.

Often, if not always, that is what ministry of any kind requires. Make no mistake that adoption falls under the category of ministry. We all can attest that it’s not easy giving things up, because it seems that what is required of us in order to do our ministry effectively, is what’s most dear to us. It could be a call to part with money, a house, comfort, or even a sin that we’re harboring in our hearts. I believe this is the reason so many Christians refrain from partaking in true self-giving ministry (myself included). In a sense, ministry is not free – there is a cost to following Jesus, and a lot of times that cost is high to pay. But we must learn to see it as more of an investment, because God promises that He will repay us in Heaven for all we have given Him on earth.

But we’re so finite! We lack the eternal sense that there is a life beyond this, where what we do here will actually matter for an eternity. Even the best of us feels pain when we part with something we would rather keep. There’s a reason why it is emotional every time a balloon pops in the movie, because we feel Carl’s pain of letting go. When his house, which is a representation of his wife’s memory, creaks, and groans and falls apart, we are witnessing someone losing the most cherished (and only) possession he has. And sometimes we feel that what we hold closest to us is all we have.

But here’s the good news. God will always replace what is lost with something richer, and more appropriate for the season of life we’re in. When my good friend Nick died of heart problems when I was a sophomore in high school, God sent a new friend into my life to fill that role. He has been my best friend from that time until now, even though we haven’t lived in the same state for several years. Or maybe God will replace something you lost with His presence, or a subtle sense of joy, or peace, or fulfillment. Carl needed someone to share his life with, because he was wasting the last days of his life away in solitude. But in order for him to accept Russell into his life, he had to let go of his past, and be willing to move forward into the next season of his life.

If you’re holding onto something today that you know you need to part with, pray that God will give you the courage and strength to do away with it. Look around at what you know God has given you, and live accordingly.