Is Prayer Worthwhile? Another Mass Shooting Raises Questions About God, Prayer, and Faith

On Sunday morning, November 5, Devin Patrick Kelley stormed into First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and committed the worst mass shooting in that state’s history. As of the time of this writing, the death toll stands at 26, including the gunman’s grandmother-in-law and several children. Those children included the pastor’s teenage daughter as well an 18-month old girl. The tragedy has decimated the small congregation. As the pastor’s wife told the media: “Now most of our church family is gone.”

It of course didn’t take long for people to jump on social media to vent their outrage and, in some cases, politicize the tragedy. In what has become an almost standard response, secular progressives angrily denounced expressions of sympathy from people they see as soft on or resistant to gun control.

When President Trump expressed his sympathy, hundreds of critics denounced him, including Keith Olbermann who tweeted: “‘Thoughts and prayers’ again, @realDonaldTrump, idiot? These people were in CHURCH. They WERE praying.”

Comedian and actor Michael Ian Black again called the National Rifle Association a “terrorist organization” as if the NRA was deliberately training and encouraging mass murderers. This, despite the fact that the heroic church neighbor who shot the gunman was a legal gun owner and a member of the NRA. Black’s statement, however, is reflective of many on the left who see advocates for gun rights as not simply wrong, but evil.

Actor Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame mocked House Speaker Paul Ryan when the latter called on people to pray for the victims. Wheaton angrily tweeted: “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of sh$^.” (Censorship mine)

His former co-star Marina Sirtis (aka Counselor Troi on Star Trek: TNG) likewise expressed her frustration: “To all those asking for thoughts and prayers for the victims in #churchshooting , it seems that your direct line to God is not working.”

Anyone observing this increasingly typical liberal/progressive/leftist response to mass shootings can see where it’s going. It’s not enough to disagree with gun rights proponents. We must vilify them and blame them for every single mass shooting. Indeed, even moderates on gun issues are attacked for not being strong enough. And what’s more, people of faith are now being attacked. Innocent and well-intentioned expressions of sympathy and calls for “thoughts and prayers” are being flung back in the faces of those making such calls.

Understandably, people of faith are on the defensive. Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene, writing for The Federalist, insists that God was “answering prayers” from the Texas victims. Many liberals, upon reading his article (now making the rounds on social media) have gone apoplectic. Kurt Eichenwald simply tweeted “I have no words” in response. Though Fiene’s headline may lend itself to unfortunate inferences, it’s hard to argue with the following portion of Fiene’s article:

“People of goodwill can certainly disagree over the merits of gun control legislation, just as we can disagree over how long we should wait after a tragedy to discuss its political ramifications. However, we should all recognize that pointing to a couple dozen warm corpses and saying, ‘Fat lot of good your Jesus-begging did you’ is an act of profound ugliness.”

It’s understandable that many people are searching for an appropriate response to such a terrible tragedy — a tragedy that’s becoming all-too-common in America. But somehow, I fail to see how calling the President of the United States an “idiot,” the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives a “worthless sack of sh#^”, and publicly denouncing prayer as “useless” are responses that fall into the category marked “appropriate.”

As I wrote in a previous article, I understand that atheists and agnostics will consider prayer ineffective and hollow. But if that’s you, it’s not asking a lot for you to be polite to those with whom you disagree. If God isn’t real, then it doesn’t hurt you to have someone pray for you – or to have someone pray for others – or for someone to encourage people to pray for one another. None of that hurts you. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic or a disgruntled person who has wandered from his or her faith, let people of faith be in peace. Let them pray, ask others to pray, and live their lives according to their religious beliefs. And you can go about your business in peace. That is tolerance. To do otherwise is bigotry….on your part.

Of course, I am not an atheist. I believe in the power of prayer, because I believe in God. And I believe our nation needs prayer now more than ever. If you disagree, that is your right. But let us disagree in peace. As for me, I will keep praying…in the good times and the bad….perhaps especially in the bad. I like what Max Lucado once wrote: “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.”

Many of those attacking prayer simply don’t understand what prayer is all about. Before you attack a religion, it’s helpful if you understand that religion. While there are many confused, mistaken, and corrupt Christians out there, Christianity – at its core – is NOT about some formulaic “faith” that says if you pray hard enough, you’ll get everything you want and nothing bad will happen to you. On the contrary, God’s people often suffer. The Bible makes it clear that people, including people of faith, will suffer in this life. According to the Bible, the earth is fallen and “cursed,” and everyone (and that means everyone) living on earth is a sinner. And sinners don’t just affect their own lives. They affect the lives of others.

God sometimes intervenes (through providentially working behind-the-scenes or, in some cases, outright miracles) in the affairs of this life, but there is no formula that guarantees He will do so according to our will or our timing. Tragedies will happen. Loved ones will die. And so will we. That is the way of things.

In this life.

This doesn’t mean we throw up on our hands and yield to some depressing fatalistic mindset of hopelessness. It just means that we need to set our expectations according to truth and reality, and not according to our wishes or desires.

A good rule to keep in mind comes from the great medieval theologian Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God, work as though everything depended on you.”

So what about that “work” part? What should we be doing while we are praying?

Like many Americans, I’m all for putting our laws on the table to see what changes can be made to help prevent such mass shootings in the future. And that means all our laws, not just our gun laws. For example, let’s also look at the overall mental health situation in our country, and let’s see if some changes in our mental health laws and practices might help prevent such tragedies. How about education? Could we do more to teach constructive ways to manage anger, develop critical thinking skills, value human life, and so forth? Let’s look at all our laws. Nothing should be off limits.

Let’s also look at the condition of the American family as well as the overall moral condition of our society.

What has happened in America over the last few decades that has made acts of evil like this more common? When my late father attended Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, he was a member of the rifle club. They met a couple times each week and did target practice — at school! And on rifle club days, the kids in the club brought their rifles (with ammunition) to school! How many shootings were there at Wakefield during this time?

Zero

Oh, and what was the case at my father’s high school was common throughout America at the time. During hunting season, for example, in many schools, kids brought their guns with them to school after having hunted in the morning.

Few will dispute that Americans had fewer gun laws to contend with in the 1950s and before. And much easier access to guns. And, yet, comparatively speaking, there was much less gun violence.

Why?

Shouldn’t we ask that question?

In asking these questions, I’m aware that the population has increased and gun technology has improved. I get that. But are those two factors the only reasons why we have more gun violence today? If we look specifically at mass shootings, public places were less secure in 1950s America (and before) than they are today. People were much, much less worried about such things – not that they didn’t happen. But such incidents were infrequent enough that they didn’t affect the day-to-day lives of the American people.

I want to see mass shootings end in the United States. I want to see them stop. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and do my part to make that happen, but let’s not be so naive as to think that making a few adjustments in our gun laws will accomplish that. Yes, we should look at all our laws to see if we can tighten some things up and make improvements, but tunnel vision on gun laws won’t solve this problem. To believe otherwise is naive. Let’s get real. And let’s put EVERYTHING on the table! And as we’re doing that, let’s also be in prayer for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. And for our country overall. And let’s remember…

Hating and vilifying our fellow citizens won’t accomplish anything. If anything, it will just make things worse.

George Washington’s Home Church Caves to Political Correctness: Christ Church Episcopal in Alexandria Removing Plaque Honoring Washington

Christ Church in Alexandria, VA

Christ Church Episcopal in Alexandria, Virginia is removing two plaques from their sanctuary and apparently relocating them to another location that is to be determined. Leaders at Christ Church defended their “unanimous decision” by explaining that the plaques “make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome.” This decision by one of the most historic churches in the Washington, DC area comes in the context of a nationwide furor over statues and memorials to dead white Americans, primarily Confederate generals or leaders. But the acrimonious debate, as predicted by President Donald Trump, has now encompassed Founding Fathers and even Revolutionary War soldiers. It isn’t just Robert E. Lee who is having his plaque removed; it’s George Washington too.

There is only one valid argument which could be made to relocate a plaque to George Washington. That argument would apply to any plaque to any human being. It would be if a local congregation decided, on principle, that a church auditorium or sanctuary should not honor any individual with any plaque whatsoever – that no individual should be formally recognized in any way other than Jesus Christ Himself. That would be a policy I could respect. Unfortunately, that’s not the basis of Christ Church’s decision. Though the leaders acknowledge their “sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum,” they say this not in the context of putting all focus on Christ, but rather to complain “there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents.” They’ve made it very clear that the reason for removing the plaques isn’t to emphasize more worship of God, but rather to make visitors feel more “safe” and “welcome.”

I can respect objections to the plaque to Robert E. Lee. A plaque to the memory of a man who took up arms to effectively undermine the Union and advance slavery warrants context at the very least. I’m aware that Lee made some disapproving comments about slavery leading up to the Civil War, and publicly applauded its demise at the end of the Civil War. I’m also aware that he lent his good name to the cause of reconciliation after laying down his sword. There are many things to admire about General Lee, but there are also some things which should give us serious pause. At a time when the United States needed his statesmanlike leadership to help preserve the Union and end slavery, he chose to fight for the wrong side – a side that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said rested upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” In so doing, Lee aligned with white supremacy, with slavery, and with disunion. And he contributed to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.

If Christ Church wishes to remove or to appropriately contextualize Lee’s plaque, I can respect that, even though I cringe when I hear a word like “unsafe” so casually thrown about. It’s understandable that a few people might interpret a plaque to Robert E. Lee as reflective of the current congregation’s possible endorsement of the Confederate cause (or perhaps at least the South’s segregationist cause). For those who take it that way, I can understand some of them feeling unwelcome…that is, at least, until they pay attention to what’s actually being said at Christ Church and maybe take the time to ask a couple questions. But unsafe? For anyone to attend Christ Church Episcopal today and to pay any attention whatsoever to the people, the music, what’s said from the pulpit, etc. and then come away thinking it’s a hotbed of white nationalism or KKK activism is frankly ludicrous.

In fact, you don’t even have to go there. You just have to look at their website. Their stated mission, right on their site, declares: “Christ Church embodies God’s unbounded love by embracing, liberating, and empowering people, whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith.” On another page, they proclaim “We want to get to know you…We have room for you.”

How anyone can walk away from Christ Church today and feel “unwelcome” or “unsafe” defies logic and reason.

But, frankly, THAT is the problem I have with all this. We’ve moved away from reason and logic. As a society, we’re now firmly in the camp of Feelings. If someone feels unwelcome, then that is what matters. If someone feels unsafe, then we must do everything possible to address those feelings.

Feelings. Feelings. Feelings.

And it’s getting completely out of control.

When it comes to statues, memorials, and plaques, a huge portion of the American public have completely lost their minds. Vandals and mobs have desecrated statues to not only Confederates and Christopher Columbus (another hated figure), but also Teddy Roosevelt, a Revolutionary War soldier, and a Civil War Peace Monument – let that sink in, a peace monument! Protesters have taken aim at Mount Rushmore (yes, Mount Rushmore) as well as statues to our Founders – including Jefferson’s statue at the University of Virginia (the, um, university he started!). There seems to be no end to this madness. And now that madness has come to Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whatever may be among its faults (and all churches have faults, because all churches are made up of people), I seriously doubt than an unwelcome spirit is among the faults of Christ Church Episcopal. Abandonment of traditional biblical orthodoxy? Perhaps. In fact, one wonders if George Washington – a man who by all accounts agreed with the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer – would be in doctrinal alignment with today’s teachings of Christ Church Episcopal. That would make for an interesting conversation. But it’s absurd to say that Christ Church Episcopal is unwelcoming or makes people feel unsafe – and that’s with the plaques where they are.

Christ Church leaders suggest that people have not returned because of the plaques. Is that the standard by which a church is to make decisions? People have not returned to the church I’m honored to pastor for several reasons. Should we adjust our teachings, our doctrines, even our decor, because some people are uncomfortable?

What kind of society have we become that we now bend over backwards – even sometimes changing who we are as individuals – in order to avoid offending others or making others feel uncomfortable?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being polite. I’m all for being considerate. I’m all for being sensitive. And I certainly am not endorsing the practice of being intentionally obnoxious. And…I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will… I’m 100% in favor of racial justice and reconciliation. We should love each other, be considerate of one another, and be kind to one another. But at the same time, we as Americans today (and frankly as westerners today) need to take a big fat CHILL PILL!

Things are getting utterly ridiculous and out of hand.

Just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they are right. Just because someone is uncomfortable doesn’t mean everyone else should change or alter what they are doing in order to make that person comfy.

What we as a society need to do is start teaching and cultivating – at all levels and in all arenas – emotional strength and critical thinking. We need to encourage people to be stronger, not weaker. We need to strengthen individuals, not weaken society.

If Christ Church were remodeling its sanctuary with an eye toward enhancing worship, and as part of that decision was removing all plaques or memorials to all individuals but Christ, then I could get behind what they are doing. But to remove a plaque to the father our country and a key founder of their church just because a few people FEEL uncomfortable strikes me as a cowardly surrender to political correctness.

And if we, as a society, continue on this path marked Political Correctness, it will be to our ruin and our Founders’ shame.

James Byron Huggins Serves Up a Modern-Day Jack The Ripper Thriller: My Review of Maggie Magdalene

When a young nun is brutally murdered, an Assistant District Attorney (herself a former nun) teams up with a brilliant FBI agent and a crusty police detective to hunt down her killer. Their hunt for a modern-day Jack the Ripper turns into a race-against-time as the murders escalate, secrets long buried begin coming to the surface, and an innocent child is caught in the cross-fire.

James Byron Huggins’ thriller Maggie Magdalene is full of mystery, suspense, pulse-pounding action, and high stakes. Those stakes become all-too-real and painful for Maggie, the novel’s central character, requiring her to confront her deepest pain and worst fears. In the words of the book’s official Amazon description: “Maggie defiantly descends into the depths of a darkness that seems only one red mask after another until Maggie finally confronts the true face of Evil in a fight that will take her to the edge of her sanity and soul … and beyond.”

Of course, high-stakes, action-packed stories are James Byron Huggins’ bread-and-butter. And it’s why I usually enjoy his writing. I discovered James Byron Huggins many years ago while looking for a good novel to read at Reston Regional Library in Northern Virginia. The book I checked out that day was Leviathan — Huggins’ third published work. His first, Wolf Story, is an allegorical novel featuring wolves. His second, The Reckoning, is an action-packed thriller that fans of Dan Brown will probably enjoy. He’s written several since. Most of his novels fall under the Christian fiction genre, though not all. Hunter was secular and was later optioned for film rights. Nevertheless, most contain Christian themes with Christian (usually Catholic) characters. Of all Huggins’ works, my favorites thus far are Cain, Nightbringer, and Rora – the latter being among the best historical fiction titles I’ve ever read.

Maggie Magdalene is perhaps Huggins’ darkest novel. While all of his novels are full of action (and, sometimes, graphic action), this one takes things to a new level. The novel opens with the police investigating the grisly homicide of a young nun. The first sentence of the novel sets the tone: “He gazed over what was left of the nun.” If you’re squeamish, you won’t want to read any further than that. While I personally can handle some violence, even graphic violence, in a novel, the dark themes of this story were rather heavy. The dark and often gruesome tone of this book makes it my least favorite of Huggins’ thrillers.

The dark tone of the book isn’t its only problem. Maggie Magdalene contains several typographical and grammatical errors that sometimes distract from the story. It also is a little too predictable at times, with the Big Baddie being revealed (at least in my opinion) way too soon. The love story is a little too quick and the choices made by some of the characters seem, at times, a little contrived. The book frankly seems rushed. But…

Huggins is still a great writer. And, if you don’t mind some of those issues, Maggie Magdalene is an enjoyable read. If you’re a fan of crime thrillers, I suggest you give Maggie Magdalene a try.

What Pastors Wish Church Members Knew

October is Pastor Appreciation Month. Forgive the oddity or self-serving nature of a pastor writing a Pastor Appreciation Month article. But the truth is, I don’t think I would have been able to write this before becoming a pastor. My experience has made me sensitive to things that I wish I had known as a church member sitting under my previous pastors. And I hope current church members reading this will find some value in what I have to share.

I would also like to ask the indulgence of my blog readers who may not share my Christian faith. As my regular readers are aware, this blog is not a church or ministry blog. It is instead geared more toward my activities as a Christian writer, book reviewer, and (hopefully) soon-to-be novelist. Nevertheless, I periodically feel pulled to address matters of Christian beliefs and practice, including church life. This is one of those times.

In April 2010, The New York Times ran an article on pastor burnout. In the article, The Times noted: “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”

The New York Times article is not an anomaly. Search the web and you’ll find numerous, and often heartbreaking, stories of pastors whose families fell apart or who suffered nervous breakdowns, lost their jobs, attempted suicide, or burned out in any number of other ways due to the excessive demands placed upon them.

We’re living in the midst of what I believe is a spiritual and ecclesiastical epidemic — at least insofar as churches of a particular stripe are concerned. And what stripe is that? I refer to mainly Protestant and/or evangelical churches that range from 75 to 200 members and which follow the single-elder congregational governance model. Maybe they have a worship pastor and/or a youth pastor as well, but generally speaking, the lion’s share of the leadership, pastoral care, and teaching responsibilities fall on one pastor.

Depending on the needs and the respective situations of the congregational members, a single-elder, congregational governance model can work well for churches of fewer than 50-75 members. (Note that I use the terms “elder” and “pastor” more or less interchangeably).  If you have a high-energy “superman” type pastor, a single-elder or single-pastor system can work well for churches numbering around 100 members. But once you start crossing the 100 threshold, some unhealthy and stressful dynamics take hold. By the time the church crosses the 200 threshold (if it survives that long or grows to that size), the problems sometimes ease because more pastors are generally brought on board to help share the load. But with congregationally-governed churches ranging from 50 to 200 members, the burdens that can fall on a single elder (even if he is supported by a youth or worship pastor and/or deacons) can be, at times, overwhelming. And it creates an unhealthy environment for the pastor, his family, and for the congregation.

This isn’t to say that churches with different numbers don’t have problems. Many of the issues I will address apply to churches outside the scope I’ve described. If enough individual church members demand an unreasonable degree of attention, service, or “people-pleasing” from their pastors, then even a church with multiple elders will have a tough time. But most churches in America number fewer than 90 members and fall into the scope of what we’re dealing with, so it’s those single-pastor / single-elder churches that will be my primary focus here.

This article can’t presume to fully rectify the challenges with such a church (although church growth consultants are virtually unanimous that a church can’t grow beyond 150 or 200 members without a plurality of elders). But I do believe the situation can be helped and pastors can be spared a considerable amount of pain if congregants in these types of churches knew, understood, and remembered some very basic truths. This article is my humble attempt to put those truths on the table – truths I believe pastors wish church members knew:

Truth #1: Pastors are Human

Human beings are made in the image of God, but they are not God. Human beings have limitations, flaws, and needs. They must balance multiple demands on their time, grow, learn, manage their emotions, make choices, and navigate through difficulties and challenges in their lives. They are limited in what they can do, how well they can do the things they do, and will often fall short of their own standards – let alone the standards and expectations of others. They make mistakes, commit blunders, and hurt others (and themselves). When a church calls a pastor, a church is calling a human being. And no human being can do everything that each and every member of that church expects him to do and certainly not at the level that will meet every member’s need or satisfaction.

In single-elder churches, pastors are expected not only to prepare and deliver quality sermons and lessons (sometimes 2-3 each week), but also to lead/facilitate the various church ministries and activities, evangelize in the community, visit the sick and the shut-ins, sometimes visit all the member families, counsel those in need or crisis, mediate conflicts, officiate all (or at least most) funerals and weddings, be available when people (especially those who consider the pastor their friend) want to just talk or “catch up,” prepare for and preside over church business meetings (and many committee meetings), keep up with miscellaneous office or admin work, supervise the staff (if any), and more. In many cases, pastors are expected to be available on demand (at virtually any time, day or night) to any member who feels the need to talk to his or her pastor. (Cell phones have become more a curse than a blessing for many of the pastors I know). In some cases (thankfully not with either of the churches I’ve served), pastors are also expected to mow the lawn, do building maintenance, and various other things that have nothing to do with the pastoral call. In his excellent book The Disciple-Making Church, Bill Hull writes: “Many hurting, broken pastors have been driven out of the ministry by such unreasonable congregational demands.”

Not only are pastors expected to have consistently superhuman levels of energy and wisdom to fulfill all the preceding demands, they often must do so without making any mistakes. Many church members look upon pastoral mistakes and shortcomings in the same unforgiving manner that patients look at doctor-oriented mistakes or failures. With a hospital, a person’s health is on the line. With church, people have their spiritual health and their emotions on the line. It makes for a high-stress and often unforgiving environment for pastors.

Church members need to know that pastors are, like them, human. Like anyone else, we fall short of God’s glory. We deal with temptations and sometimes don’t resist that temptation like we should. We deal with worry, stress, and uncertainty. We have our own obligations and responsibilities. And we must learn and grow like anyone else. We are human. We need church members to remember that and frankly extend to us the grace and patience they would want extended to themselves.

Truth #2: Pastors Don’t Have All The Spiritual Gifts

In The Disciple-Making Church, Bill Hull sums up the collective complaint many churchgoers have of their pastor: “He doesn’t preach as well as Chuck Swindoll, counsel like James Dobson, care for others the way Mother Teresa does, manage like Peter Drucker, and motivate like Ronald Reagan.” In short, pastors are supposed to love well, pray well, preach well, teach well, lead well, counsel well, manage well, organize well, fellowship well, and live well.

Here’s a dose of reality: No pastor has all the gifts of the Spirit.

Here’s another: No pastor is talented in every area that the members of the church may want (or even need).

And here’s another: No pastor can perfectly connect with all the personality types as well as with people of every age group, socio-economic status, and background.

If you’re expecting the pastor to be able to teach, preach, counsel, lead, manage, supervise, mediate, evangelize, visit, smile, juggle, sing, dance, and Lord knows what else (and all at a high level) and to also click with every single church member to every member’s emotional satisfaction … you are setting your pastor up for nothing but anxiety, fear, frustration, and disaster.

You will never have a perfect pastor. At least not in this life. Only the CHIEF Shepherd is perfect. Until He returns, we must make do with flawed under shepherds. And guess what?

That’s okay, because ecclesiastical focus shouldn’t be on the pastors but on the churches themselves.

No human being has all the spiritual gifts. And that’s why ministry (including ecclesiastical ministry – that is, ministry within the church) was NEVER – repeat NEVER! – intended to rest on the shoulders of one person. This is why Paul talks so much about the parts of the body in his letter to the church in Corinth and why he says, in Ephesians, the pastor’s role is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” It’s also incidentally why he talked about multiple elders (plural) being appointed in each church. The hope is that all the relevant and needed spiritual gifts (as well as God-given talents) will be evidenced WITHIN the congregation. Ministry is to be carried out by all the members of the church – by all the parts of the body. And leadership is to be entrusted to multiple elders, supported by multiple deacons. The biblical model is never dependence on one man.

Sadly, many churches don’t get this fundamental, Bible-based principle. They expect to outsource most (if not all) ministry to pastors and other paid staff. And many churches are resistant to when the pastor will try to expand the scope and reach of the local church by equipping others for ministry. “As the pastor struggles to give ministry away,” writes Hull, “a poorly trained congregation fallaciously sees his giving away important work as sheer pastoral laziness or complains that he gives away the ‘dirty work.'”

It all makes for a sad and bleak situation.

Truth #3: Pastors Have Limited Time and Energy

Giving voice to the cries he’s heard from many pastors, LifeWay CEO Thom Rainer writes: “Many people in our church have a priority about where I should be: meetings, dinners, church events, hospital visits, home visits, and many more. The problem is that everyone has a different priority. And sometimes church members forget that I have my own family. Please understand my limitations on being in so many places.”

There have been many days where I’ve sat back, considered all the requests, needs, and (sometimes) demands that I get from church members (and leaders) via calls, emails, texts, etc. And I go numb. There’s no conceivable way I can meet all those needs and requests — and still have time to attend to my other responsibilities as a pastor, let alone my responsibilities as a husband and father.

Hull concedes that “most congregations would deny they expect such performance.” That’s true, but as Hull notes, “If you tabulate corporate expectations, they spell impossible.” You may have reasonable expectations of your pastor, but what about the other members of the church? And even if all the members have reasonable expectations, do all those expectations, when added together, represent a reasonable sum? You may consider it highly reasonable, for example, that the pastor visit you while you’re in the hospital. But what if five other church members are in the hospital the same week? And what if, at the same time, a marriage in the church is breaking up? And a conflict has erupted between two church families? And what if all that is happening while the pastor is getting little sleep and is fighting a cold? And let’s not even talk about what might be happening in the pastor’s own family.

Why is it we assume or expect the pastor should visit everyone who has a need whenever they have one? According to the Bible, the congregation (not the pastor) is to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6). No apostle taught that pastors are to carry and try to meet the burdens of the entire flock. And yet churches across America expect this. And both they and their pastors are paying the price via burnout, frustration, acrimony, and (in the end) unmet needs.

In my own case, I’ve neglected family, friends, and neighbors. I hardly know most of my neighbors and those I do know sometimes only get a brief hello or greeting. I’ve lost complete touch with some family and friends. Why? Because the church I serve takes most of my time and (most weeks) drains virtually all of my energy. And it’s not just me. I know of many pastors who face the same reality week after week. And they and their families – and their friends – suffer for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I serve an amazing congregation full of wonderful people. And the church I served previously was likewise a wonderful congregation. I love the people God has privileged me to serve. I understand that people come to church with needs and often with brokenness. And I count myself honored to be a part of their lives. My appeal isn’t to push people away from me (or from any pastor), but that they simply understand the limitations of myself as well as my colleagues in ministry. And that they reevaluate, in prayer and according to the Scriptures, what it is they should expect from the local church and from the local pastor.

Truth #4: Pastors Have Needs

Since pastors are human beings, they have the same needs as other human beings: water, food, shelter, love, relationships, encouragement, and so forth. In the case of pastors, however, they often find themselves in giving mode so much that they rarely have a chance or opportunity to receive. Pastors often feel guilty, in fact, when they take time to rest, enjoy their families, indulge in a hobby, travel, or do something fun.

Recently, a church member who felt neglected complained that I was too much on social media. In his mind, I should use that social media time to attend to his needs and other needs in the church. When I encountered this complaint, I asked (in my mind): “How much of my time each week is the church entitled to?” That may seem selfish, and perhaps it is. But, in a “normal” job, an employee is expected to give 40 hours a week to the employer. In high-demand jobs, sometimes more. But, even then, as a general rule, it’s understood that employees need some down time, some time to themselves. Taking a couple hours each week on social media (often while I’m sitting next to my wife at home) is part of that down time. And yet, from this member’s perspective, I shouldn’t have such down time – not while his perceived needs are unmet.

The reality is that pastors need time to relax. They need time for hobbies. For many pastors, it’s golf, tennis, or hiking. For others (like me), it’s reading or writing fiction. For others, it’s playing games or painting or watching movies or going to ball games, etc. For some, it’s all of the above. Guess what? When done in moderation, these hobbies are healthy. Don’t begrudge your pastor that time.

Pastors also need time for exercise. For walks. Numerous pastors have health and weight issues. Why? Because they have to eat on the run and rarely have time to work out.

Pastors also need time for friends. Numerous surveys attest to the fact that pastors feel incredibly lonely. They spend most of their time serving the members of their congregation, and have very little time for friendships outside the church. And yet (for obvious reasons) they can’t fully confide in or let their guard down completely with anyone in the church they serve. And they have to guard against showing favoritism. Pastoring can be lonely.

Bottom line….pastors need down time. Time for themselves. Time to refresh. Time for friends (outside the church). And churches need to give them that time.

Pastors also need money. It’s not “greed” for this to be said. It’s factual. And it’s scriptural. Financially supporting your pastor is a responsibility that you, as a Christian, should embrace, especially if your pastor is doing a good job. Paul wrote Timothy that the elders (or pastors) “who rule well [should] be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.'” (I Timothy 5:17-18, NKJV)

In some cases (dare I say in most cases), the financial needs of a pastor’s family often exceed what a church is able or willing to give. In most cases, this isn’t due to a pastor’s wasteful living or any kind of greedy spirit, but rather to legitimate family needs (health care, retirement, college tuition for kids, paying down debt, car repairs, etc.) often in high cost-of-living areas. If the church is unable to meet these needs, that church should pray for God to bless them with the capacity to do so, while giving the pastor permission to make extra money on the side through a home-based business, a part-time job, writing, or some other means. The Apostle Paul, as you recall, helped support himself in such cases by making tents. If the church is able to meet the pastor’s needs and compensate him at a level commensurate with his education, skill, and the area’s cost-of-living, but is simply unwilling to do so, then such a church needs to repent of its sin.

Finally, pastors need time with their families. Do you wonder why “pastor kids” (PKs) have such a bad reputation? It’s because churches often don’t give their pastors sufficient time to raise their own children. Wonder why clergy have such a high divorce rate? It’s because congregations take time and energy from pastors that they (the pastors) could otherwise give their marriages. You can’t expect your pastors to have model families if you don’t let them have time with their families.

Truth #5: Pastors Are a Poor Substitute For The Holy Spirit

Recently, I read the social media post of a woman who angrily pulled her pastor into his office and berated him for not paying her more attention after the death of her father. Still seething with anger, she excoriated her pastor saying that “he should’ve known the pain I was dealing with.” She didn’t provide enough details of the situation for me to know to what degree the pastor was at fault. Perhaps he did completely neglect her. Or perhaps he got swept up in other matters. Or perhaps he did try to help her, but the pain she was dealing with exceeded the help he was able to give. Whatever the details, one thing stood out: To paraphrase an old country song, she was looking for comfort in all the wrong places.

Even taking this at a human level, very few pastors are trained psychologists or therapists. Most pastors are neither trained, nor wired, to give the kind of emotional, therapeutic support that many people need today, especially given the multiple kinds of situations that people face today. Society overall is broken. The family is in disarray. People are suffering from emotional and mental health crises like never before. The needs confronting pastors now are far greater than what pastors faced 50 years ago. Most pastors are simply not able to keep up. And, while some churches are fortunate to supplement their ministries with lay counselors or even trained professionals to help. Still, the emotional and spiritual needs of the people in any church often exceed the ability of the church (and its pastor or pastors) to meet such needs.

And guess what?

It’s always been that way. It’s certainly become worse and more noticeable in recent years. At least in America. But it’s always been that way. Why? Because the church isn’t intended to meet your needs. Neither is the pastor.

No one in the church, including the pastor, can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for any member who has an emotional crisis or heavy spiritual need. No one can mend every broken heart, comfort everyone dealing with grief, address every mental health challenge, or help steer every family or individual through whatever trouble they are in. No one. Not the pastor. Not the deacons. Not your Bible study leader or Sunday school teacher. No one. And yet…

The needs are there.

We need spiritual comfort. And some need that comfort desperately.

And to meet those needs, Jesus didn’t leave pastors. (He left them for a different purpose). Instead, Jesus left us the Comforter. He left us a Comforter who is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Everywhere Present. He left us a Comforter who has Limitless Energy and is Always Available. That Comforter is the Holy Spirit. We get into trouble when we look to people (pastors, deacons, anyone) for the kind of comfort that only the Holy Spirit is intended and able to provide.

In saying all this…I’m fully aware that there are some bad pastors out there. Some are corrupt. Some are lazy. Some are abusive. Many pastors have hurt a lot of people. But while all pastors are sinners (and some are notoriously so), most pastors try to do the best they can with the calling God has placed on them. So long as they are being held appropriately accountable to the biblical standards of an elder, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. And they deserve you giving them all the support and help you can so they can give you their very best.

Let me also say once again that I love the people of the church I currently serve, as well as the church I previously served. I don’t want anyone to perceive this post as “sour grapes” or an expression of anger. If this comes off as simply complaining or as fault-finding, please forgive me. Know that I love being a pastor and, like I said, I love the people I’ve tried to serve, and am currently striving to serve. Don’t interpret this post as any kind of attack. It’s simply me sharing from my heart what I hope church members will realize and understand about their pastors.

Let me also say to all the lead pastors and associate pastors who have served the churches I’ve attended over the years and who often poured into my life and that of my family: Thank you. I appreciate you very much. I love you and am forever grateful. I’m sorry I took you for granted. I don’t now. I appreciate you all and thank you with all my heart.

This Pastor Appreciation Month, let’s all see our pastors the way God wants us to see our pastors. Let’s treat our pastors as Paul encourages in his letter to the church in Thessalonica when he writes: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13).

May that be the commitment of all church members everywhere toward their pastors.

 

What is Wrong With ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting in Las Vegas?

There was a time in America — not that long ago — when anyone (and I do mean anyone) would at least appreciate hearing that he or she was in the “thoughts and prayers” of another person or group of people. Even if the person in question didn’t believe in God, that person would respond to such sentiments with a nod or a polite thank-you. There was a time when it was altogether appropriate, even expected, that political leaders would express their “thoughts and prayers” to hurting people. Apparently, that time has passed. The aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada has seen our country become even more polarized. And religious sentiment, no matter how thoughtful or sincere, has become provocative and antagonistic in our increasingly divided culture.

Following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, social media exploded with a torrent of expletive-laden dismissals of anyone expressing thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families – no matter how sincere. Some went out of their way to be as partisan and/or as inflammatory as possible. A few examples…

  • Chris Sacca, a former venture capitalist and periodic Shark Tank guest, tweeted: “Dear Republicans in Congress, F*** your thoughts and prayers. Sincerely, Americans Sick of Gun Deaths.” (The censorship of the F-word is mine, not his).
  • Wisconsin Democratic Party official Khary Peneabaker tweeted: “Politicians will learn of this horrific mass shooting and offer their empty #ThoughtsAndPrayers, which they use as a way to avoid action.”
  • A self-described “Democratic strategist” who goes by the Twitter handle @ProgressOfAKind tweeted: “F*** your #thoughtsandprayers. Seriously. There is no more insincere meaningless comment in American history. It’s a disgusting cliche.” (Again, the censorship is mine).
  • One cartoon that is being widely circulated has a girl asking: “Why didn’t God stop the shooting?” A boy answers: “Because God doesn’t exist. Engage with reality and fix your f****** gun laws.” (Again, censorship mine).

That is just a tiny sampling. Others, while not quite as incendiary, were nevertheless highly critical of anyone who dared to express thoughts and prayers. Indeed, as I write this blog post, the hashtag #ThoughtsandPrayersAreNotEnough is widely trending.

Let’s agree that an insincere expression is always empty – even if it’s dressed up in religious language. In the course of my life, I’ve had many people tell me they were thinking of me or praying for me. In some cases, I could tell the words were quite sincere. In others, not so much. But, in every case, I extended the benefit of the doubt and thanked the person nonetheless. Anyone with a modicum of decency and civility should do the same. Nevertheless, let’s agree that, if and when we express to someone else that we’re thinking of them and praying for them, let’s be certain we’re authentic in that and that we actually follow through on it.

Let’s also agree that people who are hurting need more than just our thoughts. (More on prayer in a moment). If a patient is wheeled into the emergency room, that patient is going to need more than the “thoughts” of the nurses and doctors present. I get that. I think we all get that. But…we have to make a distinction between the individual and society as a collective. As an individual, I can’t help all patients in all emergency rooms throughout the world. I can’t even, as an individual, help all the patients in the emergency rooms in all the hospitals within driving distance from me. I don’t have the time, energy, training, or capacity to do so. But, certainly, our society (collectively-speaking) must do more for patients in need of health care that simply think about them. The same is true for Las Vegas.

As a society, we should do more for the victims and families of the Las Vegas shooting than simply think about them. But, not every individual in the world is able to do something tangible for those affected. Some can. Many can’t. Most can’t. How exactly, for example, is a single mother in Paris, France supposed to help the families of those killed in Las Vegas? What about a lady I know who is hospitalized currently in Baltimore? What can she do for the victims and their families? What about the teenager in Boise, Idaho or the first grader in Biloxi, Mississippi? Not every individual can help. In many cases, they ONLY thing some individuals CAN do is… you guessed it… express their sorrow and pray. That’s it. That’s all many people can do.

Can some people do more? Absolutely. And King Solomon’s wisdom is the key. For it was the great Israelite king who once wrote: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so.” (Proverbs 3:27). Each person, when confronted with a neighbor or fellow citizen in need, should consider the type of help a person in need requires and whether he or she is able to offer such assistance. If you see a person in need, and that person is worthy of assistance, and you are able to give such assistance, then you are morally obligated to do so. If you don’t, then your “thoughts and prayers” are empty. But if you’re NOT able to give such assistance, then expressing your thoughts to that person and praying for them may be all you can do. And you shouldn’t feel guilty about that, and you shouldn’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it.

What’s more, many of the people expressing thoughts and prayers for the Las Vegas victims and their families, as well as those affected by the recent hurricanes, are doing more. Churches are responding in Las Vegas with counseling, hospital visits, bringing meals to families in need, and much more. Many people are lining up in record numbers to donate blood. Money is being donated. Don’t assume that people who express thoughts and prayers are only thinking and praying.

Speaking of prayer… If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, I understand that you’re liable to consider prayer meaningless. That’s your right. But it’s not asking a lot for you to be polite to those with whom you disagree. If God isn’t real, then it doesn’t hurt you to have someone pray for you – or to have someone pray for others – or for someone to encourage people to pray for one another. None of that hurts you. That is, forgive me, unless you’re a hyper-sensitive “snowflake” who can’t handle hearing or seeing ideas or concepts with which you disagree. If you’re in that camp, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. Humanly speaking, you are a hopeless case. Only prayer can help you. But…if you have at least a slightly open mind and/or a small scrap of decency, then let people practice their faith in peace. Let them pray and go about your business. It doesn’t hurt you. In fact, it helps. That’s right. It helps. When people pray for one another, it actually reinforces positive thoughts and goodwill in our society. And we need more, not less, of that.

Of course, I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in God. And I believe in prayer. And I believe our nation needs prayer now more than ever. If you disagree, that is your right. But let us disagree in peace. As for me, I will keep praying…in the good times and the bad, but especially in the bad. I like what Max Lucado once wrote: “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.

I also think of the words of Abraham Lincoln, a man who knew a thing or two about suffering and hardship. Lincoln said: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”

Yes, we as a society should not stop at thoughts and prayers. We should look at the mass shooting in Las Vegas and see what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. Yes, as individuals, we can write our elected leaders and challenge them, pressure them, to do something. Yes, yes, yes.

Like many Americans, I’m all for putting our gun laws on the table to see what changes can be made to help prevent such mass shootings in the future. That should include looking at how our existing gun laws can be better enforced. But I’m not going to get “tunnel vision” and look ONLY at gun laws. Let’s also look at the overall mental health situation in our country, and let’s see if some changes in our mental health laws and practices might help prevent such tragedies. Let’s also look at the condition of the American family. We now know that the perpetrator’s father had a fairly interesting track record on the wrong side of the law. Don’t you think that had something to do with this? And, while we’re at it, let’s look at the overall moral condition of our society. What has happened in America over the last few decades that has made acts of evil like this more common? And what can we do about it?

Let’s put it ALL on the table!

But, as we’re putting those issues on the table, let’s also be in thought and prayer for the people affected — and for our country. It’s not one or the other. It’s BOTH.

No one should toss out a “thoughts and prayers” sentiment with the intention of ducking his or her responsibilities as a citizen or as a neighbor. But, at the same time, no one should make the assumption that other people, when they express such sentiments, are doing that. You do not know the thoughts of other people. Don’t assume sinister motives on another person’s part just because you might disagree with that person on some issues. When you do that, you’re frankly part of the problem in America. Not part of the solution.

Our society will be a much better place if and when we, by default, ascribe positive intentions to others and give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s clear from the aftermath of this tragedy that we have a long way to go to get there. But I hope those reading this will agree it’s worth it for us to make the journey.

Become a Knight in Medieval Times and Fight With King Arthur: My Review of Galen Wolf’s Camelot Overthrown

If you’ve ever pictured yourself as a knight in King Arthur’s Camelot, Galen Wolf’s latest LitRPG novel may be just for you. LitRPG novels are of course all about following a character or set of characters as they progress through a virtual reality game setting. In Camelot Overthrown, Wolf turns his attention to knights and chivalry and churns out a virtual reality manifestation of medieval England. The prolific LitRPG author invites his readers to follow a young Level 1 up-and-comer named Gorrow on his quest to wealth and glory.

All is not well, however. Gorrow must climb from poverty to wealth and from obscurity to fame in the midst of a war-torn world. The forces of evil (and they are thoroughly evil – more on this in a moment) are sweeping across the land and closing in on Camelot, the kingdom’s main bastion of freedom and hope. Wolf’s game world allows players to join King Arthur and fight against evil — or align with evil and seek to overthrow Arthur’s fabled Camelot. Gorrow and his friends choose the former, and readers are treated to the delight of meeting (and fighting alongside) the legends of Camelot, including Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, and Arthur himself.

Wolf isn’t afraid to play up cliches. The baddie of all baddies in this novel is named… wait for it… Satanus. Wolf actually incorporates quite a few Christian concepts into his novel, making them part of the game. Not only can a character drink a health potion to heal (a common trope in role-playing games and LitRPG novels), he or she can also pray. That’s right, prayer is an in-game action with mathematical advantages to one’s health stats. Reducing Christian concepts to cliches and game mechanics doesn’t altogether sit well with me (seeing as how I, as a Bible-believing evangelical, take Christianity very seriously). Nevertheless, Wolf avoids showing any outright disrespect to or hostility toward Christianity. In fact, the “Christians” in Camelot Overthrown (albeit as defined in-game) are quite clearly the good guys. This is somewhat refreshing compared with other literature out there.

As a history buff, I love Wolf’s combination of Arthurian mythology, knights-and-armor warfare, crafting and empire-building. Rather than focus on just one path of character development, Galen’s protagonist chooses to become both warrior and blacksmith. He becomes a squire and (minor spoiler) a knight while also building up a small village and mini-trade empire.

And as for the setting, what fan of history doesn’t appreciate a good King Arthur story? And the LitRPG angle allows the reader to fully immerse himself or herself into Arthur’s world. The scene where (spoiler warning) Gorrow sits at the Round Table was particularly cool. I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

Unlike most other LitRPG novels I’ve read, Wolf spends hardly anytime in the “real” world. He doesn’t try to contrive any real-world stakes for the virtual reality game. He all but ignores the real world, and just immerses you in the game itself. And hopes you’ll care enough about the game and the game players, on their own in-game merits.

The story is very simple, but enjoyable. At a few points, I thought Wolf would develop his characters a little more fully or introduce some side plots, but he leaves those teasers and plot threads dangling (at least for now) and keeps things focused on Gorrow’s advancement. Some readers may prefer a more sophisticated and nuanced story, but Camelot Overthrown is somewhat refreshing in its simplicity. It’s an easy read. And, sometimes, that’s all you need.

Camelot Overthrown is in serious need of more editing. There are lots of spelling errors, grammar issues, and formatting issues throughout. More editorial polish would also be appreciated. Given the number of books Wolf has turned out this year, it seems he may be going for quantity more than quality — at least in terms of editing. Still, the story itself is just fine. Simple. Not elegant by any means. But enjoyable all the same. Camelot Overthrown won’t win any literary awards, but it entertains the reader. And, in that, it succeeds in his purpose.

If you enjoy the LitRPG genre or appreciate the legends of King Arthur, I encourage you to give Camelot Overthrown a try.

Should NFL Players Stand For The National Anthem? That’s Not The Most Important Question

It’s sad – make that tragic – that our National Anthem has become a symbol of division and a platform for polarization. At least in professional sports (especially in the NFL) how players conduct themselves during the National Anthem is now seen as indicative of where they stand (no pun intended) on civil rights, race relations, police accountability, or Donald Trump. What has happened to us, America? 

Make no mistake. The most important question isn’t whether NFL players (or players from any sport) should stand for the National Anthem. For the record, I oppose any legal coercion to compel them to do so. The most important question is:

What has happened to us as a country?

Read this carefully: I 100% support civil rights, racial equality, and government accountability. And I consider the presidency irrelevant to the National Anthem. The United States is not a perfect country. Never has been and never will be. But I refuse to believe that I must take a knee during the National Anthem or disrespect the flag of my nation in order to show my commitment to righting wrongs in this country. That many would disagree with me shows how confused and upside-down we’ve allowed our politics, and our culture, to become.

The National Anthem, I remind you, is a song based on a poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written when our nation was under attack and on the verge of collapse. Had Fort McHenry fallen, it would’ve basically been curtains for the young United States. Francis Scott Key knew this, which is why he was moved to pay written tribute to the fact that, when the smoke cleared, “our flag was still there.” Key’s poem was written and later put to music in the spirit of patriotism, gratitude, and unity. Virtues we sorely need today.

And our flag, while always flying over a flawed nation full of sinners, nevertheless represents ideals and principles to which each generation of Americans are called to aspire. The truly great social reformers and civil rights champions in American history have always understood this. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t call on Americans to toss out the founding principles of our nation. Rather, he called on the nation to “live out” those principles.

None of this is to suggest we take away anyone’s First Amendment rights. Forcing someone to show respect for the flag or the National Anthem is neither right nor desirable. Nor am I endorsing an extremist view of nationalism that would claim America can do no wrong. Of course, America can do wrong. In the United States, there will always be wrongs needing to be made right. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many people go to the other extreme as well. That extreme being that America has done no right. That extreme is just as dangerous and equally indefensible.

What’s more, I would never suggest that Americans should sweep wrongs under the carpet. It isn’t enough that people respect the flag. We must work for equal justice under the law while we, at the same time, honor our flag. It isn’t one or the other. It’s doing both at the same time.

Some will of course defend National Anthem protests, saying that Americans would never pay as much attention to the protesters’ grievances otherwise. This claim is highly debatable, since one could argue that outrage over a mode of protest isn’t necessarily the attention protesters should seek. But, laying that aside, I simply want to ask: Where does this line of reasoning end? Is anything ‘sacred’ anymore? Or must we continually chase after the most controversial, the most offensive, and the most divisive way possible to express our frustrations over particular injustices? I would like all my friends to carefully consider that question. Once you power up the Outrage Machine, when does it stop? Where does it end?

Showing respect to the flag doesn’t equate with approval of the government or everything your fellow Americans do, say, or believe. It means that you’re “all in” as an American. Not as a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Tea Partier, etc. And not as black, white, male, female, whatever, but as an American.

Not that the American flag is meant to erase our differences or invalidate our individual perspectives. On the contrary, it’s meant to say that, in spite of our differences, we still have SOMETHING in common. And the thing we have in common should be more than TV sets in our homes or a McDonald’s down the street from where we live. Common experiences do not, in and of themselves, unite a country. Common commitments do.

Respecting the flag doesn’t mean you agree with everything taking place UNDER the flag, but it means you are committed to keep the flag flying. It means you are grateful for living in the United States and are “all in” as a citizen of the United States.

If you don’t like what’s happening in America, work to change it. That’s what makes America great. It’s bigger than one person. Bigger than one President. It’s bigger than you or me, but yet, it needs you and me in order to work. And it is frankly something of a cop-out to believe that defying or disrespecting our flag will make America work better. It represents no constructive action on your part, but is more akin to the finger-pointing, “someone needs to do something about that” mindset that permeates too much of society today. That wrongs need to be righted should be seen as a call to action for us, not a reason to walk away from our civic responsibilities. Don’t take a knee on your duty as a citizen of the United States.

Rather than step up to address injustice, too many Americans today would rather kneel down in anger or defiance. Were they kneeling in prayer, that would be one thing, but that’s not the case. The sad truth is that too many Americans have given up on their country and/or find themselves feeling more estranged from it than caring about or for it. And it’s in this sad context that we are witnessing the division and polarization of our country today.

I’m reminded of the lines from the famous poem by Sir Walter Scott: “Breathes there a man, with soul do dread, who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Apparently for many Americans today, the tragic answer is yes.

And it breaks my heart.

September 19, 2017 Bookshelf: What I’m Reading and Listening to at the Moment

The late Dr. Seuss once said: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Like the legendary author of such iconic children’s classics as The Cat in The Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, I love to read. Of course, I’ve moved on from Hop on Pop. Sadly, I’ve met many who haven’t advanced that much further. Many Americans haven’t read a book cover-to-cover since their school days. It’s sad, and it explains a lot of the problems we’re facing in our society today.

Unlike some book aficionados, I don’t insist – with my nose in the air – that you read only the most sophisticated literature. If you’re not into highbrow literature, that’s okay. Start somewhere. Experiment. Read widely. In time, you’ll discover your tastes and preferences. But, whatever you do, read.

Don’t have time? Nonsense. I will hold up my busy schedule against just about anyone else. My work week can, at times, be extremely demanding. But you’d be amazed at how much progress you can make in your reading by just investing 30-60 minutes each day, with maybe a little bit more on the weekend (unless you’re like me, and your busiest work days are on the weekend).

Personally, I will actively read or listen to several books at a time. I can read whichever one I’m in the mood for. And when I get bored with one, I can switch to another. Unfortunately, over the years, I developed a habit of not finishing books. I’m now forcing myself to finish what I start — unless the book is terrible. So, while I’m reading and listening to several books at the same time, I will finish all of them. Thus far, I’ve completed 49 full-length books this year. You can track my progress on Goodreads. But, in saying that, I’m nowhere near the impressive totals of some of my friends and colleagues – many of whom read hundreds of books each year.

Here are the books I’m actively reading or listening to — the books currently on my “bookshelf”:

BOOKS TO WHICH I’M LISTENING

  • Church History in Plain Language (4th ed) by Bruce L. Shelley
  • Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

BOOKS I’M READING

  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
  • The End Times in Chronological Order: A Complete Overview to Understanding Bible Prophecy by Ron Rhodes
  • Heaven by Randy Alcorn
  • Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith  (**yes, I read widely**)
  • America: Imagine a World Without Her by Dinesh D’Souza
  • Hangman’s Curse: Veritas Project by Frank Peretti
  • Noah Primeval by Brian Godawa
  • Writing Vivid Settings: Professional Techniques For Fiction Authors by Rayne Hall

If you look at my Goodreads profile, you may see additional books. That can sometimes be misleading, because it will sometimes register that I’m reading a book even if I only open it to look up a fact or two – or to check whether it’s worth my time to read.

There are also several reference books that are always on my shelf, though I have no plans to read them cover-to-cover (at least not anytime soon) given their length. But I have read significant chunks of them already. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
  • Theology for Today by Elmer Towns
  • Bible Answers For Almost All Your Questions by Elmer Towns
  • KJV Bible Commentary by Dr. Ed Hindson
  • The Big Book of Bible Difficulties by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe
  • Hard Sayings of The Bible by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.; Peter H. Davids; F.F. Bruce; and Manfred Brauch
  • Roget’s Thesaurus of Words For Writers by David Olsen, Michelle Bevilacqua, Justin Cord Hayes, and Robert Bly
  • and more

And, of course, the above reading does not include my regular Bible reading. Let me be the first to say that the Bible is the most important book anyone should read – at least in my judgment. It’s certainly the most important book on my shelf.

I hope this has been an encouragement to you to focus more on your reading habits. Keep reading. Even if you only manage a page or two per day, you’re making progress. Before you know it, you’ll be a reading machine!

God bless you.

A Devoted Husband Struggles to Save His Wife via a Dark Virtual Reality Game: My Review of Stan Faryna’s Dystopian Novella ‘Francesco Augustine Bernadone’

Stan Faryna’s Francesco Augustine Bernadone: A Brief History of Our Tomorrows centers on an 80-year old Italian named Francesco as he desperately seeks to finance his wife’s cancer treatments, battles multiple sclerosis himself, and struggles to hold onto any work he can. All in a bleak world devoid of much happiness and hope. Francesco’s selfless devotion to his ailing wife, Clare, is about the only bright spot in the dark dystopian story world painted by the author.

Francesco Augustine Bernadone is the first of a planned series of novellas set several years into an imagined future where the Dollar and Euro have collapsed, and western society has plunged into a gritty existence of unemployment, poverty, struggle, and despondency. To escape this grim reality, people are buying their way into a virtual reality game called Jacob’s Ladder. The massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) is, in many ways, even darker than the real world itself. Yet, for those few who can survive for any length of time, Jacob’s Ladder promises possible windfalls of cash that can help better their condition in the real world. When Francesco is laid off from the last of his three part-time jobs, he is a man with few prospects. He decides to give Jacob’s Ladder a try.

Faryna does a great job creating a highly immersive story world and drawing the reader into it. And then…before you know it, you’re plugged into an online, virtual game world as well. Both worlds – the dystopian world in which the characters live and breathe as well as the MMO game world – are convincingly described.

The novella is difficult to classify as it crosses genre lines. Broadly speaking, it’s certainly within the science fiction umbrella, but there are elements of horror, fantasy, LitRPG, and spirituality as well. The breadth of the novella, however, reflects the diverse background of its author. Stan Faryna is an author, blogger, gamer, successful entrepreneur, technology expert, and an online strategist. He’s done business extensively both in the United States as well as Europe. He studied philosophy in college before drifting into the IT arena and entrepreneurship. He counts gardening as among his hobbies, and is strong in his Christian faith.

The story jumps around a bit. It doesn’t actually begin with Francesco, but with a woman named Penny and then her son Roberto. Just as you get attached to one character, especially at the beginning, it jumps you to another. He also plays with chronology a bit (as many authors do), but this (combined with the character-jumping) can make things a little confusing at times.

The characters are, however, well developed – especially Francesco. Faryna’s world-building is quite good. The settings are compelling. The game world is believable. And he does a great job setting up contrasts and ironies within the story as well as dropping in symbols and what some call “Easter eggs” to make readers think. And…Faryna encourages the reader to confront some worthy questions, like how much one should compromise or sacrifice for a noble end.

The story is darker than what I normally like, but I still give it high marks due to the quality of the writing and the importance of the themes that Faryna causes the reader to confront. For these reasons, if you’re an adult (or at least a mature teenager) and can handle some darker elements in your reading, I recommend you give Francesco Augustine Bernadone a try.