Why is it called “Good Friday”? [Reposted]

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[Originally posted in 2015 and revised slightly]

Why is it called Good Friday?
Because He who knew no sin became sin for us instead of
Casting the first stone. The Stone that the builders rejected
Was the stone of stumbling, the rock of offense.
They were offended who saw Him, and hid their faces,
As He was despised and rejected, acquainted with grief.
The One who would not break the bruised reed or quench
The smoldering wick was crushed according to the
Pleasure of His Father, and to that Divine Plan
The Prince of Peace bowed His holy head.

Why is it called Good Friday?
Because we who are like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us turning to our own way, doing what is right
In our own eyes, asking “Did God really say…?”
And though those who practice such things deserve death,
The great mercy of the Holy God was made manifest in
The flesh of the Incarnate Word, who tabernacled among us.
We beheld His glory, yet men loved darkness rather than light,
Because their unspeakable deeds were evil.  Into our darkness
Strode the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd of our souls
Who calls His sheep and they know His voice and come to Him,
From death to life, stumbling into light
Like Lazarus walking out of the grave, wrapped in cloths.

Why is it called Good Friday?
Because the Just Judge became the Justifier of our souls
By laying on the Righteous One the iniquity of us all
And pouring out His wrath upon the Son of Man—the wrath
That has been stored up against every wicked deed committed by
The wayward people of God—the shame of Noah, the murderous
Rage of Moses, the adultery of David, the pride of Solomon,
The hatred of Jonah, the betrayal of Peter, the bloodlust of Paul,
And even my own selfish weakness and craven man-pleasing.
Because of all these things, the holy wrath of God was poured out
Upon the perfect Christ, who did not turn away from the cup
That He was sent to drink, but received it all, down to the bitter dregs.

Why is it called Good Friday?
Without it, we would all be dead men, whose only hope is to eat and
Drink and be merry, all the days of our meaningless lives, before facing
The inevitable end and the terror of judgment.
But because He who is the Resurrection and the Life
Submitted Himself to shame and death in our stead,
And three days later, returned in victory over sin,
Having utterly defeated the greatest enemies of men.
Because He who died to save sinners was raised from the dead,
I now have hope that I will be raised up to be with Him on the last day.
Without the darkness of Friday, there would be no Easter dawn.
Without the just judgment against sin, there would be no justification.
Without the appeasing of divine wrath, there would be no eternal peace.

That’s why it’s called Good Friday.
Jesus the Messiah, the Eternally-Begotten God-in-Flesh,
Came and died and was raised again, so that 
All who turn from sin and trust in Him would live.

The Good News that comes from the Good News. [Reposted]

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[Reposted from 2015 and revised slightly]

Yesterday, I talked about the bad news that comes before the Good News: that God’s wrath will one day be poured out against all sin and unrighteousness of mankind; that religious practice is useless at taking away our sin or giving us sufficient good standing before a holy God; and that every one of us stands guilty of breaking God’s commands and failing to worship Him as we ought.

But then I also said that, for those of us who embrace these truths and come to Jesus in complete desperation and dependence, we are made into new people.

The Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is good news for sinners who confess that they need a Savior.

So how is the Good News especially good for those of us who believe in Jesus?

Here are 4 ways Christians can rejoice in the Good News:

1. God loved us before we were good.

Our natural instinct is that we must earn God’s favor by doing good works, and that our good works will give us merit in God’s eyes. But the Gospel says that before we were sinners, Christ Jesus died for us—not for righteous people, not even for good people, but for filthy, rotten, rebellious, worthless, sinful people (which are the only kind of people that exist, truth be told). It wasn’t our good works that captured God’s attention or earned his affection. God chose to rescue sinners who didn’t deserve to be rescued, and sent Jesus the Son to live as a perfect, righteous man, to die in the place of unrighteous people, and then to rise again victorious over our great enemies, sin and death. God demonstrated His love by rescuing us. So now we who love God do so precisely because He loved us first.

What does this mean for you, Christian? God initiated a relationship with you while you were still in your sins. He rescued you and adopted you as His child. So now, do you think your sin is going to separate you from that love? Do you think the work of Christ is so limited that your sins as a Christian will undo what Jesus has done? By no means! If you have sinned, repent and be restored to right relationship with your Father, because we are called to obey God; but know that those who have truly come to Jesus will never be cast out, and those who repent will be forgiven and cleansed of all unrighteousness.

2. Jesus saves children of wrath by grace through faith — not by their works.

Remember, you were spiritually dead in your transgressions and sins. You were not weak, you were not wounded–you were spiritually dead. D-E-A-D, dead. You were opposed to God, destined for destruction, facing His righteous wrath. But God who is rich in mercy made us alive together in Christ, the text says. God’s mercy initiated this relationship, and He saved us by grace through faith. Remember, grace means we received something we didn’t deserve–and that is the only sensible way we can view the love of God.

We are not saved by our works–remember? Our best deeds are still stained by sin! How could we, who were spiritually dead and unable to produce any true righteousness of our own, ever bring about our own salvation? We can’t! Instead, it is the gracious gift of God, received through faith–a faith that shows us to be the spiritual children of Abraham, the man of faith. Abraham believed God’s promise that through his line would come blessing to the entire world, and when Abraham believed, it was credited to him as righteousness. We then who believe the promise that God will save those who call upon the name of the Lord, that faith opens the door to our redemption. And even that faith is a gift from God, not a work from us! How could it be anything else? How can spiritual corpses believe, unless God enables them to do so?

What does that mean for you, Christian? We are accepted by God because of what Jesus did, not because of what we do. We receive Jesus’ righteousness, credited to our bankrupt account, by putting our faith in Him as our Savior and our Substitute and our Risen King. The works you do are done as a tribute to God’s mercy, not a payment to appease Him. The sacrifice of Christ was not loan consolidation, to give you a lower and more manageable monthly payment of good works; it was complete debt forgiveness, as the impossible amount you owed was stamped “PAID IN FULL” in red letters. We receive that amazing grace by faith.

3. Jesus saves us from the condemnation of the Law.

Throughout the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul is trying to address confusion that has been introduced to the believers in Galatia. There were some (called Judaizers) who convinced the believers that, once they became followers of Jesus, they had to become fully Jewish as well, following all the customs and rituals of the Jews and the Jewish Law. Paul tells the people in no uncertain terms that this is not only folly, it’s spiritual suicide. He asks them why, since they received Jesus by grace, they must now continue in Him by following rituals and legal standards?

Like so many of us, the Galatians believed the lie that they still had to live up to a specific code in order to maintain their relationship with God, and if they didn’t, they would once again be under condemnation. On the contrary, Paul writes, Jesus came to be the curse-bearer, hung on a tree to take the curse of sin upon his own shoulders and off the back of those who would believe in Him.

Do you hear what Paul is saying here, Christian? You who were once fully and completely guilty according to the Law, you have been justified by Christ. You have been declared “not guilty” by God the righteous Judge, on account of Jesus, who bore the due penalty of your sin and paid it in full. Nothing more is owed against that debt, and the condemnation you once faced does not threaten you any longer.

4. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live out our new identity and obey our new Lord.

Let’s take a look at that Romans 8 passage again. If we are now in Christ, we are no longer condemned under the Law. Because of what Christ as done for us, we can now walk in the Spirit rather than according to our flesh, our old sinful nature. This means we are able to walk according to the will and commands of God, rather than being driven by our own natural desires and compulsions. We are now able to please God in how we live, because it’s His Spirit at work in us, remaking us into the image of Jesus.

Not only do we have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who lovingly convicts us of sin and reminds us of the truth of the Scriptures, but that Spirit is also a reminder and a guarantee of our hope of resurrection. As Jesus was raised bodily, so we will be raised bodily on the last day. On top of all this, the Spirit Himself confirms that we are God’s children. He gives us a spirit of sonship, so that we may call the God of the Universe, the Judge whom we once had feared, “Our Father.” We are no longer slaves to sin, bound to obey its desires. We are children of God, rescued from bondage, carrying the hope of resurrection with Christ, and given the Holy Spirit as a reminder of our inheritance with Jesus.

Hear this, Christian: We have been given the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin to bring about repentance and enable us to walk in a way that pleases our Father. We are no longer slaves to our sins, chained to our old way of life. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed. Walk in freedom, by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within you, so that you may walk as children of light.

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There you have it. Four reasons why the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is exceedingly good news.

If you are not a believer in Jesus, I must tell you that these glorious truths do not apply to you. As it now stands, nothing will shield you from the righteous wrath of God against your sins. I am not being arrogant, friend; I’m telling you only what the Bible tells you. There is yet time to repent of (that is, to turn from) your life of sin and self-service, and to look to Jesus the risen Son of God and believe on Him–believing that He is who He said He is and did what He said He did. You don’t have another moment promised to you. Don’t presume upon the patience of God. Think on these things. If you want to discuss it more, feel free to email me (the4thdave at gmail dot com) or comment below.

If you are a believer in Jesus, however, then these and many more promises are yours in Christ. As we make our way through (what is called by many) “Holy Week,” the week in which we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus, I encourage you to think on these things as well. Consider that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are signs to you of the love God had for you before you knew Him, and the grace He extended to you so that you may now call Him Father. My hope is that these truths will help you sing a little louder this Sunday.

The Bad News that comes before the Good News. [Reposted]

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[Reposted from 2015 and slightly revised]

About 5 years ago, at lunch after church, a friend invited me to sit with her and another girl. They asked if I could take a few minutes and explain what it meant to be “saved.” The only place I could think to start would be answering the question, “Saved from what?”

That conversation and others like it have affirmed in my mind the vital importance of helping non-believers understand the Bad News.

No, that’s not a typo; I’m very serious. If people do not seriously consider the Bad News, then the Good News (that’s what “Gospel” means) won’t mean what it should. Without the Bad News, the Good News won’t seem as good or as compelling.

Bad News for People Who Like Good News

So what is the Bad News?

1. The Creator and Judge of the universe is storing up righteous wrath against His rebellious creation.

No one likes talking about the wrath of God. Everybody’s on board for the love and mercy and grace of God, but the wrath of God is the theological equivalent of a long record scratch in any conversation. However, the Bible doesn’t shy away from it.

The story the Bible tells is that God created the universe and everything in it, including mankind. However, our first parents rebelled against God’s rightful authority, choosing to disobey His command and be their own gods. Because of that, every one of their descendants has been born with the natural bent toward rebellion against God. All of us desire to sin, and all of us willfully commit sin. We not only sin deliberately (sins of commission), but we also fail to do what God has commanded and give Him the honor and glory He deserves (sins of omission). We deny the plain truth of the God who made us and give our worship to created things. All the evil and suffering of the world is the fruit of humanity’s sin. And because God is a just Judge, He must punish lawbreakers. So His great wrath is being saved up for the last day against all wickedness and law-breaking.

You may think, “Come on, Dave, is one little sin that serious?” Well, James the brother of Jesus writes that anyone who keeps the whole law of God yet fails in one small piece is still considered a lawbreaker, as if he had broken all of it (James 2:8-11). In the Old Testament and the New Testament, the people of God are told to be holy as God is holy, perfect as God is perfect. A perfectly righteous and just God cannot turn a blind eye to sin. It must be punished.

That’s pretty bad news—but it gets worse.

2. Religious practices and good behavior won’t take wrath away.

If you grew up religious or moral, you may feel pretty good about yourself, compared to the rest of humanity. You see the evil and cruelty of mankind reported on the nightly news and think, “I’m glad I’m not like those people.” Well…the Bible says differently. Even the people of Israel, who were given the Mosaic Law and the prophets and the writings of Scripture were still guilty of breaking that law over and over. Those outside the people of Israel didn’t have the written law, but they had the law of the conscience—God’s law written on their hearts. Yet our consciences cannot keep us on the narrow path; we make excuses for our behavior, or find ways to justify what our consciences and God’s Word clearly call sin. If you grew up in church like I did, you might try to convince yourself that exterior righteous deeds are sufficient to please God, but your righteous works will do nothing to take away the stain of your sins. Even your righteous deeds are like filthy rags.

“But surely, Dave, there are good people in the world, even outside of your narrow religious belief system. You can’t pin all this on them. What about the noble Muslims and devout Hindus and God-fearing orthodox Jews and good, moral people of no faith at all? Are you saying that all of them are going to Hell?”

Fair question. Okay, let’s check what the Bible says. *looks* Uh-oh…

3. Everybody’s guilty.

Everybody. Every single one of us. We’re all lawbreakers before God. Even the tiniest infraction makes us guilty, and if we’re being really honest, we know that we’ve done much, much more than that. What the Bible actually teaches is that none of us are “basically good, deep down.” We are in fact by our very nature “children of wrath.” What the Law of God, revealed in the Bible, has done is show us the depth of our sin and our rebellion against God.

Despite all that, you may still consider yourself a good person. Okay, do you mind if we test that?

  • Have you ever told a lie? What do you call someone who tells lies? (A liar)
  • Have you ever taken anything that doesn’t belong to you, no matter the value? What do you call someone who takes things? (A thief)
  • Have you ever looked with lustful intention on another person who is not your spouse? Jesus said that one who looks with lust has committed adultery in their heart.
  • Have you ever used God’s name flippantly as a curse or exclamation? That’s called blasphemy.

How are you doing? Still a good person? Or, if you’re like me, have you admitted that you’ve been a liar, thief, adulterer (in heart, if nothing else), and blasphemer?

Let’s be gut-level-honest, you and I: If that’s all true, how can we honestly claim to be “good” people?

And if God is a just judge who punishes sin, do we really expect Him to just “be a pal” and overlook our many sins?

At this point, reader, we have a choice:

If we reject what Scripture has said about our true nature and standing before God, then let us go on with our lives. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry. But keep this in mind: on the last day, we all will give an account before the God of the Universe, the One who judges justly. If we decide to stand on our own merit in the face of that Judge, we will receive the full measure of justice. Considering we have already demonstrated that we are lawbreakers, how do you think that will go?

However, if we accept what Scripture says about our true nature and standing before God, we must admit that each of us are by nature sinners and deserving of God’s wrath against our rebellion. And for those of us who recognize the Bad News that we are facing a divine wrath we have earned…there is also Good News.

Good News for Sinners who Need Good News

What is that Good News? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to save sinners. God the Son stepped into time and space and chose to be born as a human being for the specific purpose of paying our debt. He lived the perfect life you and I couldn’t, by completely obeying God’s Law, and then died as a sacrifice in our place to pay for our sins. The wrath we deserve was poured out on Him for our sake. The justice of God was satisfied, and the mercy of God was revealed, in the cross of Jesus.

And then, 3 days later, Jesus rose again from the dead, defeating death itself, demonstrating that His sacrifice satisfies the righteous demands of God’s Law, and forever declaring that He is Lord of all creation.

Friend, if you know you are a sinner, and you have never turned from your sinful rebellion, confessed that you need God’s forgiveness, and believed in Jesus who died and was raised for your sake, today is the day. There is no time to waste.

My email address is the4thdave at gmail dot com. If you want to talk about this, shoot me a message.

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Tomorrow, we’ll revisit the Good News that comes from the Good News! See you then!

Rethinking My Feeds: Addict.

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Early last week, I put up messages that I was taking a few weeks off of social media. I wanted to do the “Digital Detox” thing that Newport recommends in Digital Minimalism. I logged out on Tuesday or Wednesday and said, “okay, that’s it for a while.” My plan was to stay off of social media for at least the next 30 days, maybe into the summer sometime.

I keep logging back in. 

On the plus side, more than half of the time, I will check for notifications, maybe peruse the first screens of items in my feed, and then log out. In other words, I haven’t been idly scrolling and losing all track of time, like I would sometimes do before this.

But I keep going back. I keep wanting just to check if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me on any conversations. I log in, hoping for the little dings and pings I’ve become so enamored of.

As much as I try to describe my use of social media in noble terms, as a way to connect with others and find edifying and challenging content, the diabolical truth of the matter is I use social media most often because I want attention. I want to be noticed.

Like a dumped boyfriend or a cut-off junkie, I keep lingering around the periphery of Twitter and Facebook, hoping to get a peek at what’s going on, hoping to be seen. Hoping to be missed. Trying to get just enough of a fix to take the edge off.

Okay, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s not as much of an exaggeration as it should be. See, I know something that none of you readers do: I know my heart. I know my sinful little self. And I know that I want to be known. (And I cringe to acknowledge it, but to my wicked heart, being known by the very Creator God of the universe doesn’t seem to scratch that itch, some days.)

So here I am, taking my seat at the table, cup of cheap coffee in hand.

Hi. My name’s Dave. I’m addicted to social media attention, and I need to change that.

#FridayFive: 5 Web-comic Artists I Enjoy [4/12/2019]

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Happy Friday, friends! This week, I wanted to point you to five web cartoonists whose work is always worth a look. You may be familiar with some or all of these artists, but I would recommend you check them out (or check them out again) this afternoon!

XKCD — Okay, fine, file it under “obvious statements are obvious,” but Randall Munroe’s brainy webcomic is a mainstay of the format, and always worth a look. His work is clever, dry, and expressive even in its simple stick-figure design. In other words, it’s not as much about the art as about the ideas behind each post (especially when some of the best material is hidden in the “scroll-over” text of the published image). I should hope by now if you are able to use “the internets” in any form, you have already enjoyed some of his work, but if not, here’s a recent post that made me smile.

Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet — Let’s acknowledge and set aside the recent hubbub about Pyle’s alleged pro-life views, the “cancel-culture” dogpile, and his subsequent “clarification.” His series of comics examining common human behavior from an alien’s perspective is full of off-beat, pointed observations, drawn in a charming style that brings a smile to the face. I just found out about his work a few weeks ago (just before the dust-up), but no matter what his politics are, I really do enjoy his work on this series and will continue to follow his updates.

The Awkward Yeti — I’m not sure when I started following The Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk), but his colorful designs and relatable punchlines keep me coming back. I am particularly a fan of his charming (and hugely-popular) “Heart and Brain” series. If XKCD tickles my geeky little brain, The Awkward Yeti touches my geeky little heart.

RefToons — If you’re into Christian theology (particularly of a Protestant bent), get thee to RefToons immediately. Paul Cox has created a host of lovely illustrations and portraits of figures from church history. His figure style has the feel of a more complex and artistically mature “Calvin and Hobbes,” and I find his work absolutely delightful. Check him out, buy his merch, support his work.

Adam4D — I think my favorite cartoonist online is still Adam Ford. His work is sharply-written and thoughtful (no surprise from the founder and former editor of The Babylon Bee), and his art is simple but subtle. Again, these are comics about ideas–and sometimes those ideas are challenging. (Case in point: On Wednesday, Instagram removed a comic he posted that compares the arguments used to justify abortion to those used to justify slavery–a post that contained no profanity, no slurs, no suggestion of violence or abuse, but was deemed “hate speech.”) I hope he continues to produce work like this, and keeps pushing the boundaries to challenge mainstream ideas that should be re-examined.

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There you go–five web-based artists whose work I enjoy. I hope you are able to find something new and fun to check out among these listed.

Do you have any favorite web-comics or artist/illustrators online that I haven’t mentioned? List them in the comments below!

52 Stories #10-11: Two Stories About Consulting Detectives.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I’m delighted to discuss two stories about the most famous consulting detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. The first is a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “The Red-Headed League.” The second is another unexpected delight from Neil Gaiman, titled “A Study in Emerald” (recommended by Pedro Jorba on the GOLiverse Facebook page). So, can I deduce some interesting insights from these stories? Elementary, dear reader!

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“The Red-Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Pitch

Sherlock Holmes is hired to find out why his client was paid to copy pages out of the encyclopedia. Naturally, the game’s afoot.

The Pay-off

This is a pretty standard Sherlock Holmes story–a curious case, a few interesting details, and a brilliant Sherlock deduction that’s almost too clever by half. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stick to the ribs. I’ll try not to give too many details, in case you haven’t read it before.

The Takeaways

I wonder if I’m a bit too familiar with the Sherlock formula, because as soon as one minor character was introduced, I knew something was up. I’ve read just enough Doyle to know to look for minor details and unusual characters. (Though I’ll admit, I totally passed over one key detail.) When it came down to it, I had basically figured out the broad strokes before the story’s climax. I wonder if this is more due to the fact that Doyle is essentially the gold standard for the genre, so his techniques have moved from innovative to perhaps a little cliched. Readers familiar with the formula know what to watch for, in other words. (Think of it as the detective-fiction version of the “Shyamalan Problem.”)

I feel cheeky to even mention it, but it almost feels like ACD makes Watson a little too dense in order to make Holmes look even more brilliant by contrast. I’ve always understood that Watson was no fool, and I think ACD sometimes does the character a bit of a disservice in order to make his hero shine. That said, oftentimes the resolution of a case depends on Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of arcane details (very likely unknown to the reader) and his keen observation of details we must be told rather than shown. Frankly, it takes away some of the fun if there’s almost no way we could have worked out the solution ourselves. In those instances, the climax is basically “Oooh, look at the big brain on Sherlock.”

That said, if you haven’t read “The Red-Headed League,” it’s worth your ten minutes or so. It’s not a bad little tale, even if it’s not one of ACD’s best. Here are a few favorite quotes from the story:

  • When Sherlock walks a civilian through his deductive process and they respond that it now seems almost obvious, Sherlock quips, “I begin to think I make a mistake in explaining.”
  • “As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It’s your commonplace, featureless crimes that are really puzzling.”
  • And the source of one of my favorite Sherlockisms: “[German music] is introspective and I want to introspect.”

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“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman

The Pitch

The consulting detective and his military veteran sidekick are called in on a grisly murder scene involving a member of the royal family. Then things get…weird.

The Payoff

Oh my goodness, y’all. I was ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by this story. Gaiman turns the formula (and the reader’s expectation) on its head, as he spins this variation on Doyle’s classic “A Study In Scarlet,” filtered through the unearthly prism of H.P. Lovecraft’s paranormal horrors. This story is another entry in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things, and I cannot encourage you heartily enough to read it. It’s my favorite #52Stories read so far, and will no doubt be in the running for top-five at the end of the project. If you have any appreciation for Sherlock Holmes, file this under “Must Read.”

The Takeaways

I’m loath to divulge much if any detail, so I’m going to go ahead and put up a SPOILER WARNING right here. I want so badly to talk about it, but I would hate to ruin the fun for you, reader.

I mean it: If you haven’t read the story yet, bookmark this page, go read it, and come back. I’m serious, do it. You really do want to read this story with no advance details other than what I’ve given so far.

We all caught up, class? Okay, good. Onto the bullets!

  • The last time we looked at a Gaiman story, I mentioned that the normal-seeming story veered suddenly off the rails with dialogue and details that made me do an actual double-take. This was no different: specifically, when the sleuth asked our narrator, “Was it the number of limbs?” Um, I’m sorry, WHAT?
  • I adore the “advertisements” between each section, which feature subtle allusions to other horror icons (though I had to do an internet search for one Anglo-centric reference in particular). It’s the type of added detail that might feel a little strange and disconnected to readers who aren’t familiar with classic literary horror, but for geeks like me, the references made me actually giggle.
  • “They call her Gloriana because she is glorious. They call her Victoria, because she was victorious in her conquest of us hundreds of years ago, and because her name cannot be spoken by human tongue.” Paraphrased from memory, but still my favorite line from the story. Making Queen Victoria one of the Great Old Ones was inspired.
  • Gaiman’s off-handed reveals of the religious and political realities of the story are stunning. What an effective way to leverage the reader’s assumptions in order to surprise.
  • There is so much deep Sherlock lore in this story. I’m not fully conversant in the Holmes cases, but I knew enough to catch the more obvious Easter eggs. I also freely admit that I looked up a few names or phrases that seemed to have meaning behind them. Gaiman employed a deep familiarity and obvious love and care for the source material when he constructed this gem.
  • THAT ENDING! I’m still “shook” by the final reveal, y’all. Remember the last scene with Paul Giamatti’s character at the end of The Illusionist? The sequence in the train station, mixing flashbacks, Edward Norton’s voiceover saying “Everything you have seen is an illusion,” and the shots of Giamatti, camera spinning around him as his middle-distance concentrated stare breaks into a smile of understanding and appreciation. He laughs once and claps his hands as the pieces fall into place. THIS, this EXACTLY, is how I felt when I read the last few paragraphs of “A Study in Emerald.” When Gaiman pulls off the final trick, revealing the identity of the murderers, I was gobsmacked. What a triumph. What a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand.

I loved it. I just loved it. AAAAHHH. So much fun.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Rethinking My Feeds: Sabbath.

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Photo by Marianne on Pexels.com
(For the record, that is not my actual back porch. But, hey, #HouseGoals, right?)

I spent most of my Sunday screen-free.

I’ve been trying to do that more often, with varying levels of success. This past Sunday wasn’t perfect in that regard, but I’m getting better about it. I noticed throughout the day that I was getting tasks done, I was engaging with my family, and I was feeling more relaxed in general. Who would have thought, right?

While I’m not any kind of strict Sabbatarian, I see the value and blessing inherent in carving out Sunday as a day of worship, rest, and reflection. (And reading–LOTS of reading.) So it makes sense for me to try to make Sunday screen-free as well.**

Online commentary in recent years that examines or critiques our current screen-focused culture often recommends regular breaks from tech as a way of finding refreshment and gaining perspective. (Seriously, do a web search for “digital sabbath” or “digital detox”–ironically, you’d be staring at a screen for ages trying to read it all.)

One of the points that Cal Newport raises in Digital Minimalism is that removing a huge chunk of unproductive (or even harmful) screen-time isn’t enough. Something needs to fill the void, lest we go back to our old habits.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a break from your devices or distractions (whether for a few hours, a day, or even longer), here are a few recommendations for redeeming the time in your now-quieter weekend:

  • Sleep. Let’s get real for a second: you probably don’t sleep enough. I know I don’t sleep enough. There are all sorts of reasons we stay up too late (maybe related to our tech, maybe related to our anxiety, maybe related to our out-of-balance work-life). So if you make the choice to turn off the screens for a day or two in the near future, please take my advice: take a nap. That thing we all hated in kindergarten is now a thing of beauty and joy, and a gift to us from the God who never sleeps.
  • Enjoy some face-to-face time with your loved ones. When I stop reaching for my phone to scroll random folks’ text-only communication, I can hear my 20-month-old daughter better, as she learns new words, makes phrases and sentences I can actually understand now, and mixes in babble that she tells me very emphatically (which is seven different kinds of cute). I can talk to my wife about her day and the challenges of being a mom. I can spend time with family members or friends from church, and not be pulled away (mentally or optically) by pings and buzzes. These people, these faces, they mean something to me. I honor that when I give them my undistracted eyes and ears.
  • Spend time with God. It’s all too easy to be harried and distracted by my daily life so that a thousand petty annoyances crowd out time to read the Scriptures, pray, or read a good book of theology or church history. I’ve been trying to devote my Sunday reading time to things that feed my soul and not just my mind. (That said, I admit I still need to be more intentional about devoting time to talk to God and not just read about God.) Whenever I make the choice to focus my heart on Jesus and not on entertainment or distraction, I come away feeling more alive, not less. More human. More thankful.
  • Do something physically active. I’m a desk-jockey five days a week. I eat too much sugary food and drink too much caffeine. If you’ve seen me in the flesh, this won’t come as a surprise to you. So my goal for this next Sunday is to do something active. Take a walk. Play on the floor with my daughter. Maybe break out my workout mat and do a quick session with DDPY. (Does that involve a screen? Technically, yes. …What are you, the Screen Police? Never you mind.) I need to make the decision to be more active. No, not *just* on Sunday, but I think it’s a great time to celebrate the “rest” I have been given in Jesus by being active in a way that is refreshing and restorative rather than laborious.

I’m not good at making changes in my life. I’m lousy at consistency. I tend to talk a good game but not back it up well. But if nothing else, I am trying to attain “expert” status at being stubborn enough not to give up on things that I know matter in the long run.

My wife likes to remind me of the verse in Proverbs that says “A righteous man falls seven times and rises again…” While not the perfect contextual application, I think there’s merit in that reminder. Victory, change, and growth sometimes start with just getting back up and starting over (and over, and over, and over).

Sunday is five days away. Can I challenge you to make the decision now that your screens stay dark as much as possible? Then, come back to this post next week and let me know how that worked out for you.

 

 

** “Screen-free Sundays, even during football season, Dave?” Yes, I’m going to try to keep it up even during football season. That’s why the good Lord gave us radio.

52 Stories #9: “The Baptism” by Ron Rash

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, let’s take a step back from sci-fi (I promise, not *every* story I read will be sci-fi… just, ya know, most of them) and talk about something written in the last few years. I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay, and flipped through it to find something different to read. Truth be told, some of the stories in that collection weren’t really my bag. Several of them, in fact. But the title of today’s story caught my eye (understandable, being a Baptist myself). As it happens, “The Baptism” is a western, so no matter how I try to avoid genre fiction, I can’t stay away!

I looked briefly and couldn’t find a (legal) link for you to read the story online, but you can find the collection at your local library, if you’re interested.

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The Pitch

A Protestant minister in a small prairie town must decide if he can baptize a very wicked man in order to protect the man’s fiancee from harm.

The Payoff

Rash’s story challenged me to put myself in the position of the minister and answer the question: To what extent can I hold to fidelity in doctrine or practice, if doing so brings direct harm to another? (This question is more deeply and brutally examined in Shusaku Endo’s powerful novel, Silence.) Reverend Yates is challenged by Gunter’s open malice and arrogance, wrestling with his role as a protector of the flock. In the end, the plot resolution was a bit too clean, although the final paragraph or two leaves the reader with some lingering questions.

The Takeaways

(Spoilers ahead, FYI.)

  • Rash might be charged with pulling his punch a bit, as he uses a “Deus ex Remington” to remove Reverend Yates from his impossible choice. By doing so, he left the question of Yates’ decision open and difficult to answer, given how little the reader knows about the preacher.
  • That said, I half-expected Yates to push Gunter under the frozen water during the baptism and then hold him there until he drowns, allowing his body to float away under the ice. No doubt, the townsfolk present who were already alarmed at the possibility of Gunter and Pearl’s marriage would all agree it was an accident and walk away (much as they did in the actual resolution of the story). Part of me would have preferred that ending–something more decisive. Ambivalent protagonists can be frustrating. (Yes, yes, Hamlet, yada yada yada.)
  • Yates’ uncertainty about what to do made me uneasy, especially when he was making counter-arguments to the town elders. Rash effectively muddies the waters (pun intended) so that the reader isn’t sure what to expect when morning comes.
  • FWIW, I can understand wrestling with the hope that Gunter *could* change his ways, but obviously I disagreed with the minister’s suggestion that the waters of baptism could have any spiritual effect on an avowed sinner. (I can’t remember what denomination Yates is supposed to be a part of, but it’s not Southern Baptist!)
  • In the end, Reverend Yates seems to decide to accept the burden of guilt for his actions–whether that’s the guilt of providing apparent absolution to an unrepentant abuser and possible murderer, or allowing the man to destroy himself without a word of warning.
  • The story has as “happy” of an ending as it can, but even then, it comes at the cost of a dead man in a river. Depending on the story you’re writing, sometimes there’s no other way for justice to be done.

This was an interesting tale. Nothing that will stick with me for years, but Rash presents an interesting and complex situation, in terms of both justice and faith.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

Rethinking My Feeds: Unfollowed.

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[Note: The timing of the post is incidental. There is no joke coming. FYI.]

A couple months back, I shared some thoughts about rage-baiting and resisting the pull of hot-take media seeking to enflame our passions and soak up our attention for ad revenue. (At that point, the outrage du jour was Gillete’s “toxic-masculinity” advert and the Covington boys’ protest debacle–feels like a year ago, doesn’t it?)

I’m still thinking about my relationship with social media and how I use it. My recent dive into Cal Newport’s writing has further encouraged this self-analysis. (I’m currently listening to his last book, Deep Work, and it’s really, really good.)

New Twitter, Who Dis?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about audience and curation–whom I’m speaking to, and whom I’m listening to. (Since Twitter is my main social platform, that’s the focus of my consideration here.) I’m reminded of a suggestion from Senator Ben Sasse in his book Them. After talking about a prolonged hiatus from Twitter, he came back to the platform with an entirely different perspective. His intended audience changed. When he used his personal Twitter account (his “professional” account is run by staffers), he stopped trying to impress the mass of humanity who happened to stumble across his tweets. He said he started writing to a specific audience–friends of his from his early adulthood, people he still kept in touch with over the years, despite physical distance. He said he wanted to write for them, to connect to them, to make them laugh.

Sasse described how having a specific audience in mind for his social media posts helped him focus on how to use the platform more intentionally.

Digital Connection Isn’t Worthless, It’s Just Insufficient

This idea of having a specific audience in mind got me thinking: why am I on Twitter, really? Though I have to admit that I have sometimes chased the attention of “celebrities” or others that I esteemed highly, over the years what has kept me on Twitter is the “digital friendships” I’ve made with like-minded people online, across the country. I’ve only met a handful of them in real space, but I hope to–that’s the biggest reason I want to make it to the G3 Conference or ShepCon one day.  It’s this group of connections that keeps me coming back.

If you recall my Digital Minimalism review a few weeks back, I wrote that Cal Newport dismissed these digital interactions as mere “connections” rather than communication, and he argued that digital connection should have the explicit goal of providing logistics for in-person communication. I think that’s partly true, but on the other hand I think there’s a place for the encouragement and (dare I say) friendship that can grow out of initially-digital interactions.

Are these folks on Twitter my friends? In one sense, no, because there’s no real-space experience communicating with each other. But in another, I can’t help but think of these people as my friends–my Twitter squad.

Trying Something Different

This leaves me with the question: if I’m going to use Twitter in an optimized, healthy manner, what would that look like? Two specific goals come to mind:

  • Following My Squad: One way to optimize Twitter is to dramatically reduce the accounts I read and engage-with to the handful of people I enjoy most. Here’s the thing: I don’t care to use Twitter for engaging ideological opponents or calling out falsehood. Maybe that’s your mission or ministry–have at it. I’m not trying to change lives here. I’m just looking for a little encouragement, a little humor, and the occasional free book giveaway. Limiting my inputs to people who provide that specific value could eliminate a lot of needless scrolling and still maintain some of those digital connections I enjoy.
  • Seeking Edification: Following people whose content challenges and encourages me in my faith and thinking is another beneficial method of approaching Twitter. Following the accounts of certain theologians and groups can bring a net-positive into my feed.

Now, there’s a clear disadvantage to this approach–namely, that it makes it much easier to crawl into an echo chamber and not engage ideas that differ from my own. I’ll grant you, that’s definitely possible; but isn’t it better to risk doing so and be honest about it? If you follow everyone under the sun but only stop to read and engage positively with the tweetfolk with whom you agree, what’s the difference, other than a bit of self-congratulation because your feed is “diverse”?

And that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to follow people whose views diverge from my own. I have several beneficial friendships and interactions (both in real life and online) with people who vehemently disagree with my religious views, politics, and perspective on the world. Some of those interactions (specifically, the IRL ones) produce good conversation and understanding, especially when we are reminded that the other person isn’t an abstract idea but a person with dignity and value.

That said, I don’t feel the need or obligation to expose myself to interactions that serve only to enrage or frustrate me. I get to make that choice, because Twitter (like all social media) is a voluntary program. I can choose whom to follow, whom to mute, whom to block. I shouldn’t be afraid to do all three, as need be.

If I’m mindful of the dangers of groupthink and seek high-value interactions online, there’s a good chance I can make it worthwhile to stay on social media, while limiting the scope of how I use it. I’d call that a win-win, wouldn’t you?

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Here’s my question for you, dear reader: why do you use social media? Who’s your audience? Do you agree or disagree with my proposed “squad and edification only” approach to Twitter, described above? Sound off in the comments–I’d like to hear your perspective on this. Thanks!

52 Stories #8: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I wanted to talk about another classic tale from legendary sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick. Thanks to my long-time friend Trevor Taylor for the recommendation of a PKD story!

I read this story in a PKD collection I checked out digitally from the library. You can find it here.

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The Set-Up

Douglas Quail dreams of having adventures on Mars and pays Rekal, Incorporated to convince him he’s been there.

The Pay-off

“He awoke…and wanted Mars.”

I’ve never seen Total Recall (either version), the famous film adaptation of this material. Going into this story, I had heard that it involved memory manipulation, Mars, and a woman with…unusual physiology. (That last one is apparently just in the first film version.) Nevertheless, the source material had a reputation as being one of PKD’s finest short stories, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the details, the escalation, and the way the story resolves, though it was just oblique enough that I had to read the last few paragraphs again to make sure I understood what he was implying.

The Takeaways

Now, the hail of spoilery Martian bullets–and if you aren’t satisfied, we’ll refund half of your fee (that’s more than fair, Mr. Quail):

  • Let’s jump right to the big twists: first, PKD reveals that Douglas Quail actually *was* a secret Interplan agent, and then doubles-down by revealing that he is in fact the most important person alive, on a cosmic level. That’s…bold. One thing you have to appreciate about PKD, he just GOES FOR IT. No half-measures.
  • That said, there’s an almost quaint groundedness to his settings, as if he can’t quite fully imagine the great leaps of technology affecting every part of life. Example: This is a world of space travel and memory wipes, of 3-D hologram phones and cranial implants, but they still use “microtape phone books” and typewriters with carbon paper. Just a reminder, kids: you actually do live in The Future, with your email and Google and whatnot.
  • Buried in this pretty straight-forward science-fiction story is an interesting peek into the life of someone who just needs to feel important, as well as a brief consideration of the nature of memory and experience. Is having the memory of an experience a suitable substitute for literally experiencing it? You could draw a jagged line from Rekal’s pictures-and-props approach to the fragmented documentation of life we maintain on our social media feeds. “I don’t remember much about the concert, but I got some great footage on my iPhone…” Is it really that different? As Morpheus would say, “…Hm.”
  • Some of PKD’s grammatical construction got under my skin–to the point where I jotted it down. Example: “You remember,” the policeman said, “your trip…” There is no reason to break up that phrase, Phil. None. Stop it. Stop it now.
  • Was Kirsten an Interplan operative, in place to keep an eye on Douglas? It’s not explicit, but PKD implies yes, and that Douglas knew this all along, at least subconsciously. It reminded me for some reason of The Truman Show. (By the way, would you like some of this delicious Mococoa Drink?)

In a word, I liked the story–it was a tidy and effective sci-fi story that gives you just enough to be satisfying while leaving several questions unanswered. It doesn’t have any emotional resonance, but it’s well constructed and fun. You should read it.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!