High-Stakes Adventure in Virtual Reality: My Review of J.A. Cipriano’s LitRPG Novel Soulstone Awakening

A couple weeks ago, I discovered a whole new genre: LitRPG when I ordered a copy of J.A. Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening through Kindle Unlimited. J.A. Cipriano is a New York Times bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, and his novel Soulstone is an action-packed romp through a computer game. That’s right. A computer game!

For those of you unfamiliar with this type of book, allow me to explain the genre. LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game and it’s all about following fictional characters through a (hopefully) high-immersion, virtual reality ‘world,’ specifically a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. The basic premise has been around for a while. It’s essentially a portal fantasy (something C.S. Lewis popularized with his iconic Chronicles of Narnia series), only it’s a portal to a digital world instead of another planet or dimension. And even this concept isn’t new. Anyone who has seen The Matrix or a few particular episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Stargate: SG-1 will be familiar with the idea, but… what is new is building an entire genre of literature around not just thrusting yourself into a game world, but around the need to progressively develop your skills, talents, and powers according to game rules and mechanics that characterize RPG or MMO games.

In an MMO RPG game, a new player starts with minimal levels (or stats) in things like strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma, etc. He or she also has little to no money and virtually no skill or ability when it comes to fighting, crafting, trading, or whatever occupations the game offers. The player must start from scratch and systematically build his or her character into a formidable warrior, successful business owner, powerful mage, or whatever. This is what makes the LitRPG genre so entertaining. It puts the literary concept of character development on steroids!

Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening is the first of a series of LitRPG novels set in his World of Ruul. His hero, Aaron Hope, is a talented young gamer competing in an MMO player vs. player world championship. After doing exceptionally well, he is lured to a back room by a beautiful reporter and suddenly injected with a hypodermic needle. When he awakens, his brain is in a jar and he’s immersed in a virtual world: Ruul. To get his brain hopefully back into his body, he must win the game. But the stakes are high. He can’t log off, because…well…he no longer has a physical body. And if he dies in-game, his brain is fried. So, he either he wins or he dies.

The reason Aaron is kidnapped and thrown into this virtual world is because…well…he’s good at what he does: playing video and computer games. And the folks behind the Ruul virtual world need him (and the other gamers they kidnapped) to defeat a malevolent computer virus that is somehow tied in with the game. For some reason, the virus (it seems) created the game. Defeating the game means defeating the virus. It’s a forced and somewhat unbelievable premise, but…. as a reader, I am curious as to how things turn out. And in that sense, Cipriano succeeds. After all, the standard for successful pop culture fiction isn’t necessarily scientific accuracy or even highly realistic scenarios. That’s certainly not the case with a genre very much in the fantasy realm. Rather, it’s to capture and entertain the reader. In this, Cipriano succeeds.

So far, I’ve only read the first book in this series. I will plan to pick up the second in a few more weeks. For now, I’m immersed in Travis Bagwell’s LitRPG series Awaken Online (yes, I’m now kind of hooked on the genre! And, yes, a review of Bagwell’s series will be forthcoming).

The one thing I don’t like about Soulstone: Awakening is the language. The cursing and vulgarity are, at times, pretty extreme. And, in virtually every case, completely unnecessary. Granted, I’m a Christian, and this may be my prudish side stepping up, but I generally can handle some language in films and books. In this book, however, most of the bad language is simply unnecessary, and it becomes a distraction and hindrance to an otherwise entertaining story.

Those who enjoy MMO LitRPG novels will likely find much to appreciate in Cipriano’s Ruul series. It may not the best of the genre, but it’s certainly not the worst. I found Soulstone enjoyable, and I’m sure other sci-fi and fantasy readers will as well.

A Sci-Fi Yarn Any Star Wars Fan Will Appreciate: My Review of James Somers’ Chronicles of Soone

Part One of James Somers’ The Chronicles of Soone series

Several years ago, I discovered science fiction and fantasy author James Somers. His debut novel, The Chronicles of Soone: Heir to the King, drew me in from the start. Of course, I’m a huge fantasy and sci-fi fan, and Somers’ Chronicles of Soone is an action-packed yarn any Star Wars fan (like yours truly) will appreciate. The Chronicles of Soone: Heir to the King was originally published in 2006 by Breakneck Books. It was the first of a two-part saga. Somers later revised the saga and re-released them independently under their current names The Chronicles of Soone: Warrior Rising and The Chronicles of Soone: Rebellion’s Fate.

Like myself, Somers is a big Star Wars fan, and Star Wars clearly inspired Chronicles of Soone. Some have accused Somers of crafting a blatant rip-off, but this is unfair. There are very few truly original stories out there. All novels borrow, to some extent, from other literature. That Somers so liberally borrows from Star Wars doesn’t change the fact that this two-book saga is a worthy read.

The Chronicles of Soone series opens with the aftermath of a betrayal and a massacre. Due to an act of treason by Kale Soone, the teenage heir to the throne of the Barudii clan, the human population on the planet Castai is exposed to enslavement and genocide. Tiet Soone, younger brother to the traitor Kale and remaining heir to the throne, must rally the scattered remnants of his people, the Barudii, and rally the people of Castai to victory.

Like Star Wars, The Chronicles of Soone is filled with epic sci-fi battles. Space battles. Ground battles. Even swordplay. Yup. The Soone brothers are expert Jedi masters with their lightsabers. Well, not technically. Somers doesn’t equip his heroes with anything that would bring Disney’s or Lucasfilm’s lawyers calling. Instead of lightsabers, Chronicles gives us this: “Tiet pulled his Barudii blade from the electromagnetically shielded scabbard strapped to his back. The adomen blade hummed like a whisper, desiring to shatter the molecular bonds of anything the metal touched.”

This was the original version of and previous cover to Part One of The Chronicles of Soone

Readers will note Somers’ impressive creativity and appreciate the solid pacing of his story. He keeps the action moving throughout the two-part series. Pretty much all of Somers’ books (and he’s written several since the Soone series) are page-turners. They don’t just draw you in. They suck you in!

The one drawback with Somers’ novels is that they could use more editing. This grammatical issues and typographical errors can be distracting. Nevertheless, Somers keeps his readers engaged. And, ultimately, when it comes to fiction, the mark of success is reader enjoyment. Somers passes that mark with flying colors.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this author personally. Like me, James is an ordained pastor, and he infuses his books with spiritual insights and moral lessons. Currently, he’s focused on his career as a surgical technician, and hasn’t written as prolifically in the last couple of years. This is a shame, as I’ve read just about everything he’s put out — and I can’t wait for more books to follow. And, yes, I’ll review some of his other titles in future blog posts.

For now…know this: The Chronicles of Soone saga is well worth your time. I highly recommend you head over to Amazon and pick up a digital copy today.

 

A Desperate Fight for Religious Freedom: My Review of James Byron Huggins’ Rora

When their lives and liberties are threatened, should Christians submit peacefully to martyrdom or resist with force of arms? In the seventeenth century, a community of Christians known as the Waldensians chose the latter. James Byron Huggins, known mainly for action-packed sci-fi thrillers like Hunter, Cain, and Nightbringer, brings their valiant struggle to life in this incredible novel. Popular Christian author Frank Peretti accurately describes Rora as “an eloquent word painting” and a “vivid saga that is part poetry, part painting, part cinema.”

Published in 2001, Rora resonates with the same spirit as seen in Mel Gibson’s blockbusters Braveheart and The Patriot (the latter being released to theaters the year before Rora‘s publication). Over the years, I’ve read Rora at least three times. It’s my favorite of Huggins’ novels, and that’s saying something, because I love them all! Huggins is one of the most cinematic wordsmiths around. He’s quite thrilling to read.

Though based on true events and featuring many historical figures (such as Oliver Cromwell and John Milton), Rora features Huggins’ tremendous gifts as a storyteller as he puts flesh, flood, and vivid color to the Waldensian fight for survival and religious freedom. He immerses you in their struggle against  both the Piedmont’s House of Savoy and the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which was itself still reeling from the Protestant Reformation.

Huggins’ protagonist is a fictionalized version of real-life Rora captain Joshua Gianavel (known in history also as Joshua Janavel or Giosuè Gianavello). Huggins’ Gianavel is a spiritually devout, middle-aged, battle-hardened war hero who employs Israelite military tactics to confound the enemy.

Gianavel’s nemesis, as portrayed by Huggins, is the malevolent “warlord” Marquis de Pianessa, the muscle and true military power behind the throne. Huggins obviously relishes his depiction of Pianessa, something that can be seen in the opening lines of Chapter One. “Mounted upon his heavy steed, armored in black, the warlord Marquis de Pianessa frowned over the smoldering bones and ashes of those who had begged for mercy. He did not bother to count the dead.” In Rora, Pianessa is definitely a villian’s villain.

Charles Immanuel, the Duke of Savoy, is presented by Huggins as a sympathetic figure compelled into attacking the Waldensians due to political machinations beyond his control. The actual historical record doesn’t sustain this generous portrayal, though Huggins does a great job giving his readers some compelling palace intrigue. Those political forces manipulating Savoy are, of course, the Catholic Inquisitors who are depicted as the very embodiment of evil in Huggins’ novel.

The book presents people of faith with an interesting question. If and when liberties and lives are threatened, should Christians take up arms or put away their swords? Jesus, after all, told us to “love your enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” When arrested in the Garden, He reprimanded Peter for using the sword to defend Him. There is a long tradition of nonviolent resistance in Christianity, going back to the early martyrs and extending to the civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While Rora briefly acknowledges this moral and theological debate, Huggins’ protagonist Joshua Gianevel shows no remorse in his resolve to fight. The novel’s underlying theme is a glowing tribute to the bravery, sacrifice, and heroism of those Waldensians who defended their lives and freedom.

The answer to this centuries-long debate probably lies in the book of Ecclesiastes, specifically the passage quoted and immortalized by The Byrds in their hit song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” In the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

For the people of the Piedmont in the 1650s and 60s, it was a “time for war” and a “time to kill.” The question of when it’s justified to take up arms to defend one’s liberties versus when it’s right to lay down those arms is one that each person or each group or nation must answer prayerfully before our Creator. As the American Founders acknowledge in the Declaration of Independence, He is the “Righteous Judge” and we are all accountable to Him.

If you love historical fiction (as I do), you must get a copy of Rora. It’s a book that will stay with you for a long time.

Bringing a Biblical Heroine to Life: A Review of Jill Eileen Smith’s The Prophetess

Deborah, the Old Testament judge and prophetess for Israel, comes to life in the second book of bestselling author Jill Eileen Smith’s Daughters of the Promised Land series. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and since I am currently preaching a series on Deborah (see Part One here), I was inspired to pick up a copy of Smith’s The Prophetess.

In the largely patriarchal world of ancient Israel, Deborah stands out as a dramatic reminder that God created both men and women in His image (Genesis 1:27). Deborah is a remarkable historical figure, rising to a prominent position of stature and influence when her people desperately needed such leadership. Following the deaths of Moses and Joshua, Israel entered its tumultuous “period of the judges.” With no monarch (as its neighbors had) and no strong national leader (like Joshua or Moses), the Israelites kept mainly to their own tribes, forming a loose confederation of sorts that only partly occupied the “Promised Land,” that portion of the Southern Levant they had been told by God to conquer. As a consequence of their failure to fully occupy the Promised Land and due to their habitual fall into corruption and sin, they were continually oppressed by the other nations and tribes of the Southern Levant, including the Philistines, Moabites, Canaanites, and Midianites. It was during the oppression of the Canaanite ruler Jabin that Deborah emerged as both judge and prophet for God’s people.

Not much is known of Deborah from the Bible. While it’s somewhat disappointing that we only have two chapters in the book of Judges dedicated to her story (specifically Judges 4 and 5), she does receive more attention than all three of her predecessors (Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar). The Bible treats her as the first significant judge and leader of the Israelites following the death of Joshua.

Jill Eileen Smith takes many creative liberties with this story. While staying relatively true to the biblical narrative, the vast majority of her novel can only be described as fiction. She gives backstories and personalities to biblical characters of which (from the Bible) we only know their basic information (name, relationship, etc). Deborah’s husband, for example, is fictionalized as a Levite priest who teaches Deborah to read the law of Moses. And Smith creates other characters completely from imagination – examples being Barak’s best friend and loyal lieutenant, Keshet, and Deborah’s headstrong daughter, Talya, who plays a prominent part in this story.

From the Bible, we know Deborah was “the wife of Lappidoth,” but there is some debate as to whether this is a reference to her vocation or personality as opposed to a husband. Some allege she was married to Israel’s military leader, Barak, and that Lappidoth was simply one of Barak’s other names. Smith takes the view (one I share) that Lappidoth was a real person, and that he was not Barak. Smith, in fact, avoids any temptation an author might have in a historical romance to imagine some kind of romantic relationship or sexual tension between the female (Deborah) and male (Barak) protagonists. I commend her for this, as it recognizes that men and women can work effectively together simply and fully as colleagues and friends. Without giving too much away, Smith chooses to make Deborah older than Barak and present her as more of a maternal figure to the Israelite commander.

Smith captures the world of ancient Israel rather convincingly. Anyone who reads The Prophetess will feel Deborah’s world come alive. She is particularly effective in helping modern readers understand Israelite marriage and family customs, including arranged marriages. Indeed, Deborah’s most prominent emotional story arc is her journey from an unhappy wife given in marriage to a man she doesn’t respect to….well…I’ll let you read the story. Reviews don’t need to contain spoilers. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the romantic relationships in The Prophetess, Ms. Smith sticks to the HEA romance convention.

If you’re looking for a Bible study on Deborah, stick with the book of Judges. If you want historical facts to help you better understand the Bible, this book will give you a better understanding of Deborah’s world, but it’s firmly in the category of fiction, which every reader should keep in mind. But if you want an inspirational read that blends fact with fiction, while respecting the Bible, then The Prophetess is for you.

Always Be Kind (Even When You Don’t Feel Like It)

A few years ago, I was making the rounds at our church’s Easter fellowship breakfast. As most of you know, I’m a pastor. And every Easter Sunday, our church holds two celebration services with a breakfast fellowship in between. This particular Easter, I was circulating among those at the breakfast fellowship, shaking hands and offering words of greeting and encouragement. And I came face to face with a woman who was (at the time – and, if I’m honest, quite often) angry with me. I put a sincere smile on my face and wished her a Happy Easter. She looked at me, grunted, and walked away.

While most people are at least perfunctorily polite at church, I can’t say the above incident was the only time I’ve experienced a lack of kindness. Far from it. Over the years, I’ve had the experience of greeting people with kindness, only to have that greeting rebuffed, ignored, or dismissed. Why? Because too many people (even in church) act based primarily on their feelings. If they feel like being nice, they’ll be nice. If they don’t feel like being nice, they won’t be.

Henry James once said: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Life is tough. Sometimes, it can be very tough. A kind word and a smile can go a long way to brighten someone’s day. And people need their days brightened. To withhold kindness from someone is to say to that person: “I don’t want to brighten your day.”

A person will often justify withholding kindness for a myriad of reasons. The excuses often include:

  • “I’m having a terrible day!”
  • “I’m tired.”
  • “That person wasn’t kind to me.”
  • “I’m running late.”
  • “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
  • “He hurt me.”
  • “She betrayed me.”
  • And the list goes on.

Kindness isn’t something we extend, however, only when the other person deserves it or only when we feel like giving it. At least it shouldn’t be that way. If we base our kindness only on our feelings, then we’re not really being kind. We’re just being. We’re just following our feelings where they lead. Emotionally healthy and mature adults know better and they act better. Emotionally healthy and mature adults understand they need to lead their feelings, rather than follow their feelings.

Jesus says we are to love our neighbor, and Paul the Apostle writes that we should “esteem others better” than ourselves. It is inconsistent with those teachings to withhold kindness from the people in our life.

But what about those excuses? Well…here’s how I would respond to those….

“I’m having a terrible day!” Okay, but why make someone else’s day terrible? How does that help you? And maybe…just maybe…your kindness (even when you’re having a bad day) will create a reaction in the other person that will bless you in return. But even if not, there’s no morally justifiable reason to rain on someone else’s day because you have some rain in yours.

“I’m tired.” Then do your best to be kind anyway. And if you can’t muster the energy, then you can at least communicate to the person that your mood is based on your fatigue and not because of them.

“That person wasn’t kind to me.” Is this kindergarten? It’s one thing to walk away from a person who is being overly rude, obnoxious, and hurtful. That is fine and sometimes necessary. It’s another to get into a tit for tat situation. The former is a way of protecting yourself. The latter is petty.

“I’m running late.” Then say so with a smile. And, next time, try not to run late.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.” Then say so….while being kind.

“He hurt me.” And….? Was it intentional? Was it punitive? Did the other person hurt you because of his (or her) desire to hurt you? Or was the hurt accidental or inadvertent? Or are you hurt because you had unfair or unrealistic expectations of the other person or a situation that person was involved in? Do some honest analysis on why you were hurt. And, after that analysis, talk (kindly) with the person about it. If the person is being intentionally hurtful, then you should, if possible, put some space between you and that person as a means of protecting yourself.

“She betrayed me.” Jesus says “Love your enemies” and “Do good” to those who hurt you. That’s a tall order, but that’s the right way to respond. Of course, you can (constructively and from the heart) express to the person how their actions, or betrayal, hurt you – and why. If they are receptive, then you have succeeded in turning a bad situation into a learning opportunity and an opportunity for reconciliation and perhaps even the deepening of a friendship. If they’re not, then you may need some space and you can certainly reevaluate your level of trust and expectations in that person, but it’s not a justification for you to be mean, unkind, or retaliatory to them.

The excuses can be endless, yet none of them really excuse a lack of kindness. Don’t make excuses. Be kind. Don’t follow your feelings. Lead them.

The late American journalist George Elliston once wrote: “How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it!” Make it your goal to touch as many people with kindness as you can (no matter how you feel) so that you can bring as much beauty into their days as possible.

Former Obama Aide Tackles Politics and Religion: A Review of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope

Michael Wear loves Jesus, believes the Bible, is pro-life, holds traditional views of marriage, and is fully committed to religious freedom. And he’s a Democrat.

Some may find the above paragraph an incredible contradiction. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green put it bluntly: “There aren’t many people like Michael Wear in today’s Democratic Party.” Yet this tension between Wear’s Christian faith and his Democrat leanings is what drives his story and makes his book Reclaiming Hope a must-read for anyone interested in how religion influences American politics.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in The Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America isn’t your typical Beltway tell-all. Instead, it’s a balanced look at the tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, and high emotions that accompany ethical and religious issues.

Christians in particular will find Wear’s book enlightening. And don’t just take my word for it. Wear’s book has earned the endorsement of several heavy hitters in the evangelical world, including:

  • Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of numerous bestselling books including The Reason for God
  • Andy Stanley, Senior Pastor of North Point Ministries
  • Louie Giglio, Pastor of Passion City Church and founder of Passion Conferences
  • Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

When it comes to President Barack Obama’s religious faith and his relations with the Christian community, Michael Wear had a front-row seat. He served in President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009 until 2012, when he was appointed director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Conservatives shouldn’t let Wear’s Democrat leanings dissuade them from reading this book. National Review‘s Jim Geraghty writes, “Conservatives will have a hard time finding a more like-minded guide to the decision-making inside the Obama White House than Michael Wear.”

Indeed, Wear pulls back the curtain on some of the behind-the-scenes strife that took place within the Obama administration and sheds light on the personal and public side of Barack Obama’s faith. And it reveals how the Democratic Party has become increasingly hostile toward men and women of traditional Christian beliefs.

The office to which Wear was initially assigned was created by President George W. Bush and was originally named the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. President Obama reorganized and renamed the office, christening it the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). Joshua DuBois was named as its first director under Obama. Wear, an intern for Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, was brought on board to help.

Wear explains the White House faith-based office and its affiliated centers in several federal departments were to act “as advocates for, and resources to, faith-based and secular nonprofits” including and perhaps particularly in terms of government grants.

The faith-based office is not without its critics. Many believe it’s an unconstitutional violation of the “separation of church and state.” Many saw Bush’s faith-based office as nothing more than a political ploy to woo religious voters, an impression fed by a blistering critique from David Kuo, a former Bush administration staffer, in his book Tempting Faith. When Obama became President, many of his supporters hoped he would scrap the faith-based office. He didn’t. The OFBNP remained a part of his administration for the duration of his presidency.

Though it is (as of this writing) uncertain whether President Donald Trump plans to continue the faith-based office (and its affiliate centers) in his administration, Wear is among the office’s defenders. In Reclaiming Hope, Wear explains why the office is important. He writes, “The faith-based office exists because of a clear-eyed recognition of the power and centrality of faith in the spiritual and practical lives of many Americans and their communities.”

Wear doesn’t support the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) because people of faith need the government. On the contrary, Wear believes it’s the government that needs them. Religious nonprofits and houses of worship are at the forefront in serving the needs of the people, especially those most vulnerable. Government needs to partner with such efforts if it wants to truly help those in need.

Wear believes people of faith should be involved in politics and actively engaged in the public square. He likewise believes that those in power should respect the input of people of faith and that no one should be excluded from policy conversations on account of his or her religious beliefs.

Twenty years ago, such contentions weren’t that controversial. Thirty years ago, they wouldn’t have even been noteworthy. Today, things are quite different. Today, men and women who regard Jesus as God and the Bible as divinely inspired are not nearly as welcome in Mr. Wear’s party, the Democratic Party, as they once were. As an example, Wear contrasts President Obama’s pluralistic 2009 inauguration which featured an invocation from Rick Warren with Obama’s 2013 inaugural which ultimately rejected Louie Giglio. Despite Giglio’s respected stature within the evangelical Christian community and his commendable efforts to fight human trafficking, he was driven out of Obama’s 2012 inauguration because, fifteen years previously, he had taken a traditionally biblical position on marriage (and thus against homosexuality) in one of his sermons. “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces,” explains Wear. “In 2013, diversity required us to expel dissent.” It’s a civil, but scathing, critique of the increasingly intolerant political left.

The central premise of Reclaiming Hope is one that should appeal to all people of faith, regardless of their political beliefs. Wear argues that we can’t put our hopes in government. “Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met,” writes Wear. Unfortunately, as he explains, politics “does a poor job of meeting inner needs.” Politicians and government bureaucracies aren’t equipped for that. Wear declares, “As someone who has experienced firsthand the great successes and bitter disappointments that politics brings, I can say without equivocation that politics is not where you want to place your hope.” Our hope, says Wear, must be “grounded in the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] and the kingdom of God.”

We need more people like Michael Wear. And we need more books like Reclaiming Hope.

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For more on Michael Wear and his book Reclaiming Hope, visit his official website.

How to Change a Negative Attitude: Six Bible Verses to Help With Our Attitude

One of the strongest indicators of a person’s success or happiness in life is his or her attitude. Charles R. Swindoll, a popular Christian author and theologian, agrees. In a famous quote, Swindoll declares: “Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church….a home.”

The importance of attitude is of course nothing new. People struggled with attitude issues thousands of years ago when the Bible was written just as they do today. That is why the Bible has some great wisdom to help any of us improve our attitude. Here are six Bible verses to help with our attitude.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties.” -Psalm 139:23

When it comes to experiencing joy and peace of mind, nothing is more crucial than prayer. And not just prayer, but focused, intentional prayer that welcomes God into every corner of our heart and mind. Such fervent, exhaustive praying leaves us totally exposed, completely vulnerable, and ready for purification and healing. This kind of praying rejects compartmentalization and casualness in favor of intimacy and authenticity. It’s the kind of praying that transforms not just our attitudes, but our very lives.

“In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” -Proverbs 10:19

The words that come out of our mouths don’t just reflect our hearts; they can also affect our hearts. When we get in the habit of talking negatively, we become negative. If you want to improve your attitude, one of the best ways is to guard what comes out of your mouth.

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” -Philippians 4:8

It is a truism in the field of personal development that “we become what we think about.” If we focus our attention on things that trigger anger, depression, anxiety, or worry, those emotions will dominate in our minds. If you want to have a more positive outlook in life, take control of your thoughts.

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” -Psalm 20:7

Often, we become anxious and discouraged because circumstances don’t cooperate with our desire for happiness or with the goals we’ve set in our lives. The problem is that there are so many things in life beyond our control. Don’t rely on your job, your bank account, your status, your health, or even your goals per se to determine your happiness or peace of mind. While we can certainly influence these things, they are ultimately not in our control. If we base our happiness on things beyond our control, then we’ve relinquished control of our happiness.

“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men…” –Colossians 3:23

What is your purpose for doing the things that you do? If you base your sense of identity on yourself and your own desires, then your happiness will be dependent on the ups and downs that you experience in life. But if you’re serving someone else, then your focus won’t be on the results so much as on your motives and giving it your very best.

“[I]n everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” -I Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude is foundational to a positive attitude. And there are always things for which we can be grateful, even when life isn’t fully cooperating with us. Look for the good in all people and circumstances.

Applying the principles of these Bible verses will help anyone change a negative attitude for the better and place them on a path to peace and happiness.

Be an Informed Citizen Every Day of the Year

Casting a vote is good. Casting an INFORMED vote is even better. Your responsibilities as a citizen of the United States aren’t confined to Election Day. That so many Americans only think about politics come election time is why we’re in the mess we find ourselves in today. Whatever happens today, make a commitment that (from this day forward) you will be an INFORMED CITIZEN. You can start by reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. And then making it a habit to know your elected officials, what they stand for, and likewise what the candidates each election cycle stand for. And know what the respective political parties stand for. Oh, and don’t rely on bumper stickers and TV commercials. Actually read the party platforms and the candidate positions in detail. Many people around the world would give just about anything to have the freedoms and opportunities we take for granted. Stealing a phrase from the late, great Benjamin Franklin… our Founders gave us a Republic, but it’s our job to keep it. And that means vigilance not just each election cycle, but throughout the year. God bless you and have a wonderful day.

Want Peace of Mind? Manage Your Expectations of Others

Unmet expectations are among the chief reasons people struggle with depression, anxiety, and anger. If you want peace of mind, a great place to start is by examining the expectations you have of other people. Let me, at the outset, be clear that I’m not endorsing the school of thought which claims the secret of happiness is found in low expectations. My point is that we must be careful that our expectations aren’t misplaced and aren’t divorced from reality.

Several years ago, I was going through a difficult time. I was attending a fairly large church in Reston, Virginia and reached out to the lead pastor for counseling. The church office passed me onto one of the associate pastors, and that turned out to be a less than rewarding experience. Angry, I sent a letter to the senior pastor protesting his lack of concern for me in his refusal to invest time in my welfare. My expectations were entirely driven by my needs and my emotions. And they were unfair and unrealistic. In a church of several hundred people, it’s ludicrous to expect that each individual attendee would have direct, one-on-one, on-demand access to the senior pastor at any time. What’s more, a pastor is not a therapist. While there are some very gifted and trained counselors serving as pastors, most senior pastors (even of smaller churches) are geared more toward teaching and preaching rather than one-on-one counseling. And, finally, the model for the church (according to the New Testament) is that the congregation carry one another’s burdens (which are emotional and spiritual needs) – not that the pastor does so. Many years later, when I myself became a pastor, I reached out to him and apologized in person for my insensitivity.

When it comes to what you can rightfully expect from others, you must look beyond your needs. You may need $1,000, but it doesn’t mean the person you’re talking with has $1,000 to give you. You may need someone to come sit by your bedside while you’re sick, but that doesn’t obligate the person you ask to do so. Your needs don’t determine what you can or should expect from other people. This is among the hardest lessons to learn, but it’s crucial that we all learn it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t help other people. There are indeed many cases where able-bodied people fully able to render help or encouragement have failed to do so. This has happened in families, in churches, with friends, and in communities. We do have a responsibility to help others, but that responsibility is based on not only the needs of the other person but also our capacity to give assistance. The rule of thumb is best expressed by the ancient biblical proverb which says: “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it” (Proverbs 3:27). If you can render a genuinely good word or deed to a person that needs and deserves it, then you should do so — so long as it’s within your capacity.

Too often, we get angry or upset because we expect more than what other people are able to give. A parent, for example, can’t expect a child to think or act like an adult. A boss can’t expect a youthful employee in his first job to perform at the level of a seasoned veteran with multiple years of industry experience. Whether we’re talking about your job, business, college, school, church, community organization, or neighborhood – the principle is the same. Expectations must be based on a realistic assessment of the person or persons in question. Remember that other people are human beings too. They have lives, families, friends, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, and problems — just as you do.

And even when we assess that the other party is able to help more than they do, we must still guard our expectations. While we can certainly encourage others to do better or to give more, we have no control over what they will do. And when it comes to our personal happiness, we must never tie that to other people. We must ultimately accept people for who they are, not for what we want them to be. Ashley Fern, a writer for Elite Daily, puts it this way: “Once you realize that your expectations cannot change people, the better off you will be.”

When it comes to having your personal needs met, be careful not to increase the burden others might need to help with by making poor choices. Sometimes, we add to our own problems by doing things we shouldn’t. And then we get mad at others after we’ve dug our own deep hole. Don’t do that. Be wise and responsible in your own choices and decisions – especially when you’re in pain and in need.

It’s also smart to “dig your well before your thirsty.” Develop a wide network of positive relationships, so that when needs do come, you’re not relying on just one or two people. Too many burdens on one person can crush that person. Have lots of friends. And invest in those friendships ahead of time – unconditionally and with no strings attached.

But most of all…depend on God. I realize not everyone reading this shares my faith, but only God is capable of meeting all your needs. Keep your expectations of people realistic and your focus on the One who knows you best and loves you most.

The Hard Truths About Terence Crutcher and the Need for Racial Justice and Healing in America

22286900533_4fe3a2c2a5_bHundreds of mourners descended on Antioch Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma yesterday to pay their final respects to Terence Crutcher. During the solemn service, one of the speakers declared, “We’re not going to stop until we have full justice, say it, full justice.” The assembled crowd responded, “Full Justice.” All of America is swept up now in the Crutcher family’s quest for justice as our nation wrestles with serious questions of race relations, criminal justice reform, police accountability, and the need for all citizens to be treated equally before the law.

Last month, no one knew Terence Crutcher, other than the friends and family of the 40-year old African American resident of Oklahoma. Today, Crutcher’s name is well known. All because of a tragic shooting that resulted in his death. Most Americans are familiar with at least the basics of what happened. Millions have watched the heart-wrenching video footage released by Tulsa police.

On September 16, Terence Crutcher briefly abandoned his vehicle in the middle of 36th Street North just west of Lewis Avenue. Subsequent to a couple 911 calls, police arrived on the scene. By all accounts, Crutcher was disoriented and unresponsive to police questions and instructions. Crutcher was also unarmed and, for most of the encounter with police, had his hands in the air. Nevertheless, as more cops arrived, he was categorized as a “bad dude” in need of a taser. When Crutcher angled toward the vehicle and appeared to be reaching towards it, one police officer fired his taser. Another discharged her weapon. And Terence Crutcher slumped to the ground in a pool of his own blood. He would die soon afterward.

When Tulsa police released their video footage, social media predictably exploded with rage. To many, Crutcher’s death wasn’t simply a tragedy. It wasn’t simply a police mistake. In their minds, Crutcher was “executed” for no reason other than the color of his skin. While many dispute that allegation (including, obviously, the police), it is beyond dispute that, at least some of the police officers on the ground (and in the helicopter overhead) judged Crutcher to be a “bad dude” rather than someone who needed help. This despite the fact that he was unarmed and his vehicle “cleared” of any danger or weapons. This seems a textbook case of race prejudice. What’s more, Crutcher’s bleeding body lay on the pavement clinging to life for over two minutes before officers rendered any kind of aid. This kind of callous, heartless treatment of a dying and UNARMED black man can only bolster claims of a race-motivated killing.

The fatal and unjustified shooting of Terence Crutcher came at about the same time of another shooting of a black man in North Carolina (although the latter involved a black police officer and circumstances that were much different). Still, the two shootings unleashed more unrest in the country, including violent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And these shootings happened when Americans were quite animated over the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand out of respect for the national anthem. Kaepernick told NFL Media that he would not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The Tulsa and North Carolina shootings bolstered Kaepernick and brought more athletes (including at the high school and college level) to his cause. Hailed by many as a hero, Kaepernick has now made the national anthem a platform for protest, essentially undermining its original purpose.

Though I’ve strongly criticized Kaepernick (and still maintain that critique), I acknowledge that patriotism should not be coerced and that he has (and should have) every legal right to engage in such a protest. I further acknowledge that the issue he raises is an important one. All Americans, regardless of race, deserve equal protection of the laws. No law-abiding citizen should ever fear the police. And Americans should not tolerate or accept situations like the killing of Terence Crutcher.

Many will of course point to statistics which show that more whites are killed by police than blacks. They’ll likewise point out that the officer who actually shot Crutcher has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. And they’ll point to the unarmed whites killed by police (killings which receive little attention) or the horrifyingly high black-on-black homicide rates in places like Chicago. While some of these points may be valid, they ignore a larger reality. It’s a reality tough for many white Americans like myself to confront, but it needs to be confronted.

civil_rights_march_on_washington_d-c-_dr-_martin_luther_king_jr-_and_mathew_ahmann_in_a_crowd-_-_nara_-_542015_-_restorationAs much as I love the United States of America (and I do), it’s a fact that, for most of America’s history, black Americans were treated as second class citizens (at best) and, in too many cases, subjugated and victimized. You can’t just ask a black person today to forget about slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, clearly racist (and often violent) police departments of the past, segregation, and so much more. Yes, the United States has made great strides. And, yes, everyone (regardless of race, color, gender, etc) needs to make good choices and should be held accountable for bad choices. And, yes, the so-called ‘race card’ is sometimes played when it shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, black Americans aren’t operating from a blank slate. And, regardless of how many whites today deny it, there IS still racism in America.

When it comes to police, it’s a fact that many (not all) law enforcement officers will profile people based on certain characteristics. Many years ago, as a teenager, I was driving a co-worker home late one night. I was 19. My co-worker and friend was about 20. We were in my red Chevy Camaro. It was after midnight and we were one of the few vehicles on the road. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a pair of headlights rush up on me from behind and weave around behind me. Within moments, he pulled me over. I had been abiding by the speed limit. Doing nothing wrong. But the officer approached, gruffly asked why I had been “weaving,” and then asked if I’d been drinking. I said “No, sir” and he leaned in to see if he could smell any alcohol. Then, he abruptly and quickly retreated from my car, saying “thank you” and “have a good night” and was gone. My friend and I looked at each other, thinking “What was that about?” The only explanation I can think of is this: A police officer saw two young guys in a red Camaro late at night and figured we were likely up to no good. That’s profiling.

Now, here’s the point. That happened to me once. Once. And I still remember it. How often does it happen to our fellow black Americans? Many of them would say it happens a lot. They are used to being profiled and approached by police with suspicion — for no other apparent reason than the color of their skin. And this is not divorced from context. It’s in the context of past hostility from majority white police departments, especially in the South but also in other parts of the country. And it’s in the context of all the past mistreatment and discrimination black Americans have sadly and tragically endured.

When you then add the shootings into the mix, well now you’ve ratcheted things up to an unacceptable level. Stopping and frisking someone who “looks” suspicious is one thing. It’s offensive. It’s alarming. But when you’ve got, in the words of Colin Kaepernick, “dead bodies in the streets,” now you’re talking a whole new level.

At this point, I want to be clear on several things.

  • I love the United States of America. We live in a great country. And it’s a country that deserves our love and allegiance, regardless of the color of one’s skin. The good far outweighs the bad.
  • Most Americans are not racist. And I think this is the case across the board. Most Democrats are not racist. Most Republicans are not racist. Most conservatives are not racist. Most liberals are not racist.
  • Most law enforcement officers are good, decent, honorable men and women. And most police officers are not racist. They certainly don’t want to shoot unarmed black men.
  • Contrary to what some allege, there is no systematic, national conspiracy today to kill unarmed black men.
  • Any association of the United States (especially the US of today) with Nazi Germany is absurd and repulsive.
  • While we’re talking about comparisons with foreign governments, anyone (looking at you, Mr. Kaepernick) who criticizes the United States for oppression while wearing a T-shirt celebrating Fidel Castro should be immediately regarded as woefully ignorant or unbelievably twisted in their sense of reality.
  • We (all of us) MUST be patient, especially during highly-charged controversial episodes like police shootings. We must not jump to conclusions without all the facts. We must hold the government accountable, while at the same time, letting the process play out.
  • Social media is NOT a courtroom.

In saying the above, however, I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that there are real problems of injustice and inequity still in our society. There are some real issues that need to be addressed. In spite of the fact that most Americans (including most police officers) are decent people who believe in racial equality, the question must be asked: how much poison is required to make a bottle of water fatal?

Our country overall is not racist. We live, in fact, in the greatest nation in the world. But we’ve allowed racism to fester for too long and in too many areas of our society.

At the same time, when it comes to facing the injustice in our society, hatred is not the answer. That includes hating cops, hating the country, or hating all white people. We must love one another. Love is what will conquer racism. Not hate. No matter how much injustice there is in the world, you must not lose your faith in God or your love for others. You can and should still find room in your heart to honor the nation in which you live and, as Martin Luther King did, call upon America to live UP to its ideals. Never yield to hatred or cynicism. That is the way of darkness. And our nation needs light now more than ever.

God bless you.