August 25

Why Domino Theory?

Cover Preview1

Most of my books explore in some way the topics of spirituality and peace work. Domino Theory is different. It tells the story of a drug addict named Danny McCabe who’s been framed for murder. And it explores the workings of the brain of an addict in frightening, first-person honesty. I know this, because I was there.

I don’t want to use.  I really don’t.  For one thing, heroin and alcohol is a bad mix.  You never know when you’ve done too much.  You’d suddenly pass out and quit breathing, and if there isn’t someone around to wake you up again, you’re dead.

I remember the first time it happened.  I came to and my buddy Pete was slapping me in the face.  I was like, “What the f***?”

“You weren’t breathing,” he said.

I thought about that for a sec.  Then I told him the truth.

“So what?  I don’t care.”

I think that’s what scared me the most when I woke up the next day.  I almost died and I didn’t care.

What does it matter if I do some while I’m drinking?  Even if I died, it would just end the misery.

But the misery isn’t as bad now as it was when I kicked.  I’ve been off the sh*t for three weeks.  Well, almost three weeks.  Two and a half, anyway.  My body doesn’t ache any more.  I’m starting to be able to sleep at night, if I drink enough.  Yeah, I drink more, but I’m off the dope.  I’m clean, and that’s something to be proud of.

So what am I doing with a bag full of dope in my room?  I don’t want to use it.  Really, I don’t.  It was too hard to get off of it.

But the sh*t is calling to me.  That goddamn heroin is calling my name.

I drain the third Moosehead and reach for the fourth.  Two thirds gone now.  I’m pretty drunk, but not drunk enough to ignore the dope calling me.  I suck down half the bottle in one swallow.

Damn it, I hate that shit!  F***ing heroin.  For months I couldn’t not do it.  Now I’m clean, and it still wants me back.  It’s like an evil woman that won’t let go of me, and I can’t say no. 

That’s the thing.  I know I can’t say no.  I always go back to it.  I always have, and I always will.  Yeah, I’m clean right now, but that’s temporary.  I know it.  You know it.  The dope knows it.  It’s calling my name.  It knows that sooner or later I’m going to give in.

I drain the fourth bottle and reach for the fifth.  Only one left after this, and I’m still not drunk enough.  I light another cig.

The heroin calls.  I hate being dope sick.  I f***ing hate it.  I don’t want to go back.

But we all know I’m going to.  I can’t say no.

I chug the fifth beer and open the last one, desperate to block out the Siren’s call.  That’s exactly what it is, calling me to jump back in the dark, cold water.  Calling me to die. 

I can’t say no.

I reach under the mattress and pull out my works.  I thought about throwing it out, but I couldn’t.  I knew, even then, that I would come back.  The dope is too strong.

I could throw it away now.  I could open the window and throw the spoon and the syringe out into the alley with the rats.

But I won’t.  I can’t.  No matter how much I try to deny it, I’m a junkie.  Once you cross that line, there’s no going back.

I drain the last beer, slide the empty back into the six-pack, and reach for my knapsack.  I pull out the zip lock bag and look at it.  I feel my soul drain out of me.  Once again I am hooked.  I haven’t even opened that bag yet, but I’m going to. 

I don’t have a choice.

Why did I write such a seemingly uncharacteristic novel? The answer is simple. All my books seek to overcome misunderstanding. They seek to reconcile. For many people, a drug addict is unpredictable, incomprehensible, and not worth spending time on. I sought to show the interior workings of the addict mind in the hope of helping people understand why we do what we do.

I tried to do this without glorifying the addict lifestyle. Danny’s life is miserable. He has nothing to live for but his next fix, and the vague hope that someday things will be different. But, at least in his mind, he has no choice. Regardless of the consequences, and even though he knows it will make him more miserable, he continues to use. The lies addiction tells him are so deeply ingrained that he believes them without question.

Despite Danny’s hopelessness, I also tried to write a novel that provides hope, because there is hope. I’ve been clean over thirty years. There are millions of people like me who finally got clean and sober, and who are now productive members of society. A lot of people don’t believe an addict can change. Even Danny doesn’t believe it at the beginning. And admittedly, it usually takes a huge upheaval, usually a terrible loss, for an addict to take the chance of really trying to get clean. Sure, they make promises. There was a period when I made such promises every day, but I almost always broke them before the day was over.

But once in a while, something changes. Something gets in through the lies, and we hear hope.

Up jumps the cute girl who read Chapter Five.  She’s way too perky.  I listen to see if her name is Teresa or Shawna.

“I’m Jamie and I’m an alcoholic,” she says.  I wasn’t even close.  Anyway, she’s way to pretty to have anything good to say.  She probably sipped wine after class at the university, maybe got a DUI or something.  I don’t care what she has to say, I just like the way she looks so clean.  I bet she smells nice.

“Sixty-four days ago I was lying on the floor of a jail cell down the street here,” she says, gesturing.  “I was puking my guts out, dope-sick, and wishing I could die.  They arrested me for writing bad checks, but I don’t remember doing it,” she says.  “All I know is, I was driving down PCH, and I was driving too fast because I needed to get loaded.  This cop pulls me over and takes me in.  My car got impounded, I lost my job, and my family wouldn’t bail me out.

“At the time, I thought it was the worst day of my life.  But it wasn’t.  It got worse for a couple more days.  And I finally came to laying on the floor of that jail cell, covered in my own puke.  That was the worst day of my life.

“When the cop came to let me out, I was crying,” she says.  “I told him I didn’t know how I got that bad, and I asked him, ‘What can I do?’  He gave me some change and told me to call Alcoholics Anonymous.  He even looked up the number for me.  So I called.  They told me there was a meeting here.  I walked over from the jail.  I looked like sh*t, and I was still shaking pretty bad, and I know I must have stunk.  Clint was sitting in that chair right there,” she gestures toward the front row.  “When he saw me come in, he came over to me and shook my hand and welcomed me.  And he told me it was going to be alright.

“I didn’t believe him.  But he was telling me the truth.  Because, you know, my family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me now, and I still don’t have a job, and I can’t afford to get my car out of the impound yard yet, and that costs more every day.  But I haven’t had to drink or use since I got out of jail.  For someone like me, that’s a big deal.  I haven’t had to sleep with anyone for drugs or alcohol.  I haven’t woken up in a place I didn’t know, with a person whose name I couldn’t remember.  That used to happen a lot.  Not every day, but a lot of days.

“That cop saved my life.  I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I believe it’s going to work out.  Preston, you mentioned hope, and that’s become an important word to me.  I know some of you guys were a lot worse than me, and this worked for you.  So I know it can work for me, too.  But I have to be the one who does it.  No one is going to do it for me.

“Thank you,” she finishes.

The room applauds, as they always do.  I find that my mouth is hanging open.  I close it, and I clap too.

Somehow, I believe her.  I know she didn’t just say all that for my benefit.  She’s real.

But Danny doesn’t get struck sober. He struggles with his demons. Despite the mess he’s in, he’s terrified to give up the only thing that ever made him feel better. He knows he needs to get clean. But he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he’s more afraid of using than he is of being clean.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to drug addicts, except one: in the absence of some kind of spiritual intervention, they will continue to do what they’ve been doing, and it will get worse. The disease of addiction is deadly, and most addicts die from it.

But there is also hope. A lot of addicts do get clean. I’m one of them.

If you want to know whether Danny is one of them, too, read the book!

July 14

Excerpt: Benji’s Portal

Benji's Portal Cover lg front

Benji’s Portal tells the story of an ten-year-old boy who discovers a portal that allows him to travel anywhere in the universe.  Benji Haight and his family recently moved from the city to a small town, and Benji isn’t fitting in well at his school.  The kids tease him on the bus, and his only friend is another social outcast who lives nearby.

Benji’s life changes when he discovers an old homestead behind their house.  The homestead includes a well, and when Benji looks into it, a mass of swirling stars rises from it.

“So tell me about your day!” Dad suggested,

“Yes, tell him about the kids on the bus,” his mother prompted.

“Okay,” Benji said, reluctantly.  “These kids were teasing me about my name.  They were chanting, ‘We hate Haight.’  But it was only about a dozen of the older kids, so I just ignored them.  Then at school, I kicked a double at kickball, and Tommy said I was really good at kickball!”

“That’s wonderful,” his dad said.  “What else did you do today?”

“I went tiger hunting,” Benji began.  “Then I found a pond, and I was hunting alligators.  I found an old fireplace, where people used to cook alligators.  Then I found an old bottle, and I was going to bring it back to show you, but I forgot because of the stars.”

“The stars?” his mom asked.

“Yeah!” Benji continued, excitedly.  “There was a well near the pond, and it was full of water.  And I looked into the water and all these stars came up from the bottom.  They looked like the Milky Way, and they were just swirling right there in front of me!  It was really cool.”

“Hmm,” his dad said.  “And this happened while you were hunting alligators?”

“Well, yes,” Benji said.  “I mean, I was pretending to hunt alligators.  Everyone knows there aren’t any alligators around here.  Or tigers either.”

“But there were stars in this well?” his dad asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Benji confirmed.  “I can show you if you want.  I’d like to take you there.”

Benji’s mom gave his dad a knowing look, and then turned to Benji.

“You know, Benji,” she said, “wells can be dangerous.  If you were to fall in, you would drown.  I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go back there without one of us with you.”

“Mom,” Benji protested, “I’m not going to fall in.  Besides, even if I did, which I won’t, I can swim, remember?”

“But no one would know where you were,” she said.  “We wouldn’t be able to come help you.”

“Your mom is right,” his dad said.  “It’s best that you stay away from that well.  Maybe one day you can take me there and show me what it looks like.  But until then, play somewhere else, okay?”

“Okay,” Benji said, sadly.  “I’ll stay away from the well.”

Of course, Benji doesn’t stay away.  He soon discovers that the well is a portal, and that he’s the only one he knows who can operate it.  Thus begins as series of adventures on alien worlds.  But the old homestead also has ties to their family that none of them yet realizes.  Benji’s ancestors were driven out of town because the residents feared they were witches.  And they’re pretty sure that Benji and his family are witches, too.

Benji’s Portal is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Category: Writing | LEAVE A COMMENT
July 14

The Value of Eye Contact

In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness.  It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.

In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE.  The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them.  We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.

These villages are incredibly poor.  Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs.  The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them.  Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.

The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.

“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”

“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go?  Into the sea?”

Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.

Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.

I hear a low voice call to me.

“Sir?”

Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”

I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.

Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.

“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.

“Of course,” I reply…  “How do you know English?” I ask her.

She grins, ruefully.

“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”

“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.

“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.

“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

I consider her words.

“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.

“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”

I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.

“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”

“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.

“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”

“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.

“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“A message?  How?” I ask.

“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“They signed it?” I ask.

“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”

The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer

Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.

It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”

The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.

The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.

“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”

“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.

If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant.  But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.

I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.

Does that make the villagers’ accounts false?  Yes, and no.  Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.

But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative.  They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing.  They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it.  Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.

Does that make their narrative more true?  Obviously not factually.  But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website.  And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes.  You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone.  Our virtual world has brought many advantages.  But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.

Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.

When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them.  Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it.  We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.”  People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.

 

This Thing of Darkness is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.

July 10

Steve’s Grace: Excerpt

BookCoverPreview (1) front

Steve’s Grace tells the story of a distinctly nonreligious man and his path back to faith.  He doesn’t plan to become religious.  But then, he doesn’t plan to lose four days in a blackout in Las Vegas, either.  Stranded and broke, burdened with shame and guilt, and certain he’s about to lose everything important to him, he winders whether he’s been too quick to dismiss God.

I’m already a day late getting home, and I’m sicker than I can ever remember being. My chest feels like there’s an elephant sitting on it.

I don’t know when I showered last. I probably reek of sex. I know I stink of sweat. And, with no money, I don’t see how I can clean up before I get home and face Susan.

I wonder how much longer I will have a family.

I cough again, a hacking death rattle that lasts for more than a minute.

I wonder if I am dying. Have I killed myself with this latest debauch?

I wonder if Vanessa is out running up my credit card, and how I will explain that to Susan. I should call Susan and have her cancel it.

But I can’t. In my compromised state of mind, I don’t dare even hint at the truth of what’s happened for fear that Susan will read whole story from my voice.

I unzip my bag and stare at the Bible sitting there. I can’t believe I have it. I’ve never owned a Bible, and have never read the Bible. I have never possessed one any longer than necessary to remove it from a hotel room and deposit it in a trash can.

Yet there it sits, like a hot coal in my bag that I’m afraid to touch. Will it burn me for all the disrespect I’ve shown it over the years?

I pick it up, and it does not burn me. I feel the gold inlay of the cover, as if reading it in Braille. I flip it open at random, and find myself reading Psalm 119:

My soul melteth for heaviness: strengthen thou me according unto thy word. Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously. I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.

The way of lying, I think to myself. Is there any way out of that for me? After what I’ve done these past few days, how can I possibly be honest?

I can’t even call my wife and ask her to cancel my credit card!

But here’s the real kicker. I’ve been berating myself because, one way or another, my wife is going to find out. I’ve been berating myself not for what I did, but for not lying well enough.

“Oh, shit,” I murmur, as I begin to realize how selfish my thinking has been.

I flip to another page, and find myself reading Isaiah:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

I slam the book shut, close my eyes, and lean my head back, holding the book in my hands on the table. Is it possible that God forgives even the worst sinner? Is it possible that there is a way out for someone like me?

“I can give you a ride,” says a gravelly female voice.

In my present state, she sounds to me like an angel, and my eyes flick open.

She doesn’t look much like an angel. Fiftyish and overweight, her mousey-gray hair is pulled back in a pony tail. She smiles, revealing bad teeth that have seen too many years of smoking.

Still, I smile.

“Seriously?” I ask.

“Yep,” she says. “I’m headed for Long Beach.”

“That’s closer than here,” I observe.

She gazes at me appraisingly.

“You don’t have any money, do you,” she says.

I hang my head.

“No,” I admit. “It was a bad, bad weekend.”

She reaches in her pocket and pulls out a wad of bills. She peels off a few and hands them to me.

“Go take a shower,” she says. “Pay at the cashier, and they’ll give you a ticket. I’ll be right here in the food court when you’re done.”

I stare at her for a moment before taking the money.

“Thank you,” I say, gratefully.

“Oh, I’m not doing his for you,” she says, and chuckles. “We’re going to have five hours together in the truck cab. I’m doing this for me.”

Of course, the path to faith is rarely quite that simple. Steve’s doubt runs deep, and so does his denial. He’s quick to rationalize the events in Vegas as “not that bad.”

But as his memories begin to return, he realizes they were indeed that bad, and worse. He’s committed an unforgivable sin, something he never thought himself capable of. Unable to deny the horror of his actions, his brain shuts down, and Steve enters into a period of psychosis.

As he gradually heals, he explores what it means to follow God. But sometimes, the line between faith and insanity is not quite clear.

Steve’s Grace is available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

Category: Writing | LEAVE A COMMENT
July 9

We Are Babylon

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. (Revelation 18:11-13)

Babylon.  The most luxurious nation on earth.  Every one of us benefits from the free market juggernaut, the control of oil fields by friendly dictators, and the expansion of American franchises into nearly every corner of the globe, sending a steady stream of money to our economy here at home.

Do I want to live in a less privileged nation?  I do not.  No matter my protests, no matter my awareness, I am of Babylon and I shall suffer its eventual fate.

No one expects that fate to come too quickly.  Yes, the financial system almost crashed a few years ago.  Yes, the value of the dollar has plummeted thanks to inflation caused by deficit spending.  Yes, droughts, fires, and floods have ravaged farms and communities across the country.  Yes, climate change has dried out lakes and even eliminated winter for some people, making me wonder if the prophecies of Joel aren’t already upon us.

But we’re still okay for a while, right? (Ordinary World)

I wrote these words four years ago.  After Ordinary World was published, I wondered whether I’d been too dramatic, comparing the U.S. with Revelation’s land of idolatry, corruption, and conspicuous wealth.  I no longer have these doubts.  Our nation is run by the wealthiest people in the world, the heads of mega-corporations who purchase influence in our supposed republic.  Christian values of helping the poor, welcoming the refugee, and loving our neighbor have been replaced with self-centeredness, xenophobia, and the worship of wealth.  Trye community has been replaced with FaceBook and false dialog that does little if anything to promote understanding.  When confronted with mass violence, we no longer ask, “What could make people do this and what can we do about it?”  Instead, we dismiss their suffering and talk about controlling their access to weapons.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that we’ve had five neo-liberal presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, which seem to correspond with the five fallen kings of Revelation 17:10.  And that the presumptive favorite, Hillary Clinton, is yet another neo-liberal, and one who supports military action all over the world.  Revelation predicts one more “king” after this one, and then the Beast.  And it predicts that Babylon will burn.

But it’s not speculation to observe that we have sold our well-being for the short-term gain of a few.  Our spending on prisons has grown three times faster than our spending on schools.  The wealthiest Americans now have a greater share of this nation’s wealth than at any time since the Great Depression.  “Soft money” campaign contributions to presidential candidates ballooned from $105 million in 1992 to $2 billion in 2012.  That’s a 20-fold increase!  Meanwhile, our national debt now stands at more than six times our national income from taxes.  That’s like earning $50,000 a year and having to make payments on $300,000 in credit card debt.

We have ransomed our future.  And we’ve done it at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

Does this warrant a religious judgement?  Consider the words of Isaiah:

Ah, you who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
    and you are left to live alone
    in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isaiah 5:8-9)

Or Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.

Or Matthew 25:35:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in…

Or, more frighteningly, Matthew 25:45-46:

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

As a nation, we have turned our back on our values.  We are destroying ourselves.  And we are making plenty of enemies in the process, both within and without.

For those who see this, is there an alternative?  Can we be more than a voice in the wilderness?

Because, let’s face it: most of us are not leaving.  We are of Babylon, and we will suffer its fate.

March 27

Book Excerpt: An Easter Sermon

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Steve’s Grace by D. J. Mitchell.

“Christ is risen!” I begin.  “Imagine the sorrow his mother must have felt, going to the graveside to mourn her son, whom she watched die just three days before.  But instead of a grave and a memory, she finds an empty tomb and the question, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’  What a shock that must have been!”

So begins my Easter sermon.  I perform it for my family on Good Friday, two days before I will give it to the congregation.  They seem to love it. Cindy and Zephyr both proclaim it the best one yet, and even Susan seems impressed.

That doesn’t keep me from being nervous Easter morning.  I focus on each step of the service so I don’t obsess about the moment I will stand before the congregation and preach.

After the hymn, I read from the Gospel of Luke.

Then the moment comes.  I stand before the congregation, spread my hands and arms upward, and begin.

“Christ is risen!” I proclaim.

Then I pause.  The next line won’t come out.  I know what I’m supposed to say, but I can’t say it.

I’m not expecting what happens next.

“Christ is risen!” I repeat.  “He who was dead now lives.  Christ is risen in me!”

I continue in a softer voice.

“He is risen in every one of us who was once dead through sin, yet now we live through the Grace of God and the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ!  We have been redeemed, that we may escape the death penalty for our sins and live in Grace!”

“Do we fall short of what God wants us to do?” I ask.  “Let’s be honest.  I fall short far too often.  How about you?”

I raise my hand.  About half the congregation raises theirs, too.

“Do we try to play God in our own lives, and the lives of other people?” I ask.  “I do.”

I raise my hand.  More hands go up.

“Are we sinners?” I ask.

I open my hands, inviting an answer as I repeat, “Are we?”

“Yes!” they reply.

“Yes,” I agree.  “But we found new life through Jesus Christ.  Amen?”

“Amen!” they reply.

“Did you ever have an experience when something strange was happening in your life and you couldn’t figure out why?  Then later, you looked back and realized it was God?”

I pause, and see heads nodding.

“That’s what happened to the disciples of Jesus,” I continue.  “They were walking on the road to Emmaus, and a man joined them and talked to them.  And it was only after they had walked for some time that they realized that man was Jesus.

“That’s a little odd, don’t you think?” I ask.  “They spent three years traveling with Jesus.  He was their teacher.  They saw Him after the Resurrection.  They saw the holes in His hands and feet.  Yet here is a man they don’t recognize, and it turns out to be Jesus?

“Maybe he was in disguise,” I suggest.

Some people chuckle.

“Or maybe,” I continue, “Jesus appeared in a guise they didn’t recognize at first as being Him.

“Has this ever happened to you?” I ask.  “Something in your life happens, and it seems so painful or wrong that it doesn’t even occur to you that it could be God working in your life?  But later you realize that’s exactly what it was?

“It happened to me,” I say.  “I was comfortable in an ungodly life, but God shook it up for me.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this could be God working in my life.  I mean, I got into a situation where I did some bad things and almost lost my family over it.  I should have gone to prison.  How could that be God?

“And it wasn’t,” I say.  “I did those things, not God.  Just like the man on the road to Emmaus who was not Jesus.  But he was.  They saw the Risen Christ in a stranger.  And I can look back now and see the hand of God even in that most despicable moment of my life.  That’s what it took for God to get my attention.  I had to fully live up to my capacity for sin in order to realize I needed God.  Because how can I ask for redemption if I don’t know I need it?

“I am a sinner,” I say.  “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ.  How many of you are willing to say that with me?”

“I am a sinner,” I repeat.  “I was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ.”

About half of the congregation says it with me.

“Let’s say it again,” I suggest.

This time, everyone joins in.

“Christ is risen!” I proclaim.  “His tomb is empty!”

Then, in a softer voice, I add, “And so is ours.

 

August 22

Canning Peaches

canning peaches 2015

“I love to can fresh vegetables and fruits.  When winter comes, I’d much rather eat our own tomato sauce, for example, than something out of a can or jar.  Pickles, apple sauce, chutney, and more spice up our winter diet.  Gracie likes it, too.  But the weeks of produce-covered counters, stacks of pots and pans, and spills on the stove sometimes combine to make her grumpy.  She loves the result, but hates the process.  So this time of year, there’s tension between wanting to can, and not having enough time.”

So writes Bill in my novel, Ordinary World.  And it’s true!  I love to can, and my wife Carrie dreads the mess in the kitchen.

This week, we found a box of locally-grown peaches at a really good price.  Last night, I washed and sliced them, sanitized jars and lids, and filled ten quart jars with peaches and “syrup.”  My syrup contains very little sugar, since I make it with fructose and coconut sugar, and I reduce the comparative amounts of those, too.

August 16

Forgiveness

This is the second sermon given by fictional Pastor Jason in the forthcoming novel , Steve’s Grace.  I hope you enjoy it.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.  Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:  Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:  Their feet are swift to shed blood:  Destruction and misery are in their ways:  And the way of peace have they not known:  There is no fear of God before their eyes…  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. –Romans 3:10-24

“How many of you here,” he asks, “fall short of what they know they ought to do.”

He raises his hand, and almost everyone in the congregation raises theirs.  I do, and Cindy quickly follows.

“It is impossible to be human, and make all the right choices,” he says.  “That’s the nature of the free will we have been given.  Sometimes, we choose wrong.  And when we choose something other than what God wants us to do, that’s sin.  It is falling short of God’s desire for us, and our duty to serve Him.

“How many here have made a really, really bad choice at some time in their life?” he asks.

Several hands go up.  Mine is one of them.

“How many have made a really bad choice in their life but don’t want to admit it?” he asks, chuckling.  Another hand goes up, but most do not.  “That’s okay,” he says.  “You don’t have to admit it in public, or even to me.  But sooner or later, you have to admit your sin to yourself, and to God.

“Why do you have to admit it?  Because until you do, there can be no redemption.  If you don’t admit you did wrong, you can’t be forgiven.

“Think about it, people,” he says.  “If I steal your wallet, and I deny I did it, can you forgive me?  Of course not.  You’re not even sure who took it!

“Suppose I come to you and say, ‘Hey, Bob, I stole your wallet and I know it was wrong and I’m asking for your forgiveness.’  Now you have the option of forgiving me.  And it is an option.  You don’t have to forgive me.  Unless, of course, you happen to be a Christian, in which case Jesus tells us that we can only be forgiven for our sins if we forgive the sins of others.

“And that right there is the formula for being forgiven,” he says.  “You have to admit your sin and ask for God to forgive you.  And you have to forgive the sins of others.

“But what if you’ve done something really awful?  I know a man who committed murder.  Because of the circumstances, he was never arrested or tried by the law.  But he did it, and he knew it was wrong.  Now, the Bible says the penalty for murder is death.  If he asks God to forgive him, will God do it?

“Yes! Because Jesus gave his blood so that those who repent might be saved.

“And that man did ask for forgiveness, and he repented, and now he lives his life according to what he believes God wants him to do.  He helps people.  And he does it not so he can be a good person, but because he wasn’t a good person and he owes a debt to God that can never be repaid.

“Every one of us is a sinner,” he continues.  “Every one of us owes a debt for God’s forbearance.  Because God sent his only son Jesus to die for us.  What an amazing gift that is!  Jesus gave his life so that we can be redeemed from our sin.

“And it is a gift.  But when someone gives you the gift of life, don’t you feel just a little bit obligated to them?  Maybe grateful?  And wouldn’t you want to live your life in a way that expresses that gratitude?

“A wise man once said that mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.  I look at my life today, and I am struck by the mercy and grace of God.  I am a sinner.  But I have not gotten what I deserve for my shortcomings, and I have gotten so much goodness in my life that I don’t deserve.

“We fall short, but God forgives us.  We do bad things and God forgives us.  We don’t do some of the good things we should do, and God forgives us.

“Can anyone relate to that?  If so, I want to suggest that when you leave church today, you find a way to express your gratitude to God.  Because, I don’t know about you, but my life is better today than I have any right to expect.

“Amen!”

August 9

How Hard Is It?

This is the first of two fictional sermons given by fictional Pastor Jason Schumer in the forthcoming book Steve’s Grace.  If I could actually preach like this, I would become a minister!  I hope you enjoy it.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? –Matthew 5:38-47

“When I was a kid, my mother said to me, ‘Stay away from those Catholic kids. They don’t go to the right church.’ Then my father said to me, ‘Stay away from those Jewish kids, because they don’t go to any church at all!’ Both of them thought that if I only hung out with kids who went to the same church as I did, I would grow up with better standards.

“You know, peer pressure is very strong, and I think that’s what my parents were counting on. If my peer pressure came from good kids, they figured I would learn good behaviors. So I hung out with kids who went to my church, and I did what they did.

“My parents were just a little shocked when I got caught in the back seat of my buddy’s car with a bag of marijuana, a twelve-pack of beer, and the sixteen-year-old girl who lived next door.”

The audience chuckles. Then Jason delivers the punch line:

“And both my buddy and the neighbor girl went to the right church!” he shouts.

Everyone laughs. He has our attention as he delivers a sermon about how we are all sinners, and we are all God’s children, and he loves every single one of us.

“God doesn’t love Catholics more than Baptists, or Baptists more than Catholics,” Jason pronounces. “I’ve got news for you. He doesn’t even love Christians more than non-Christians.

“So if God doesn’t love us more for being Christians, why are we in church this morning?” he asks. “Is it because we can’t find anything better to do?” He raises his hand as he asks, “Would anyone here rather be surfing?”
Everyone laughs, and I gather Jason must be an avid and vocal surfer.

“We’re not here to make sure God loves us,” he says. “At least, I hope that’s not why we’re here. No, my friends, we are here to be reminded that as Christians, as people of God and followers of Jesus, that we are commanded to love everyone else!

“I was on the freeway back from El Segundo one morning this week and this guy cut me off. He just cut right in front of me, like I wasn’t there. I’m human,” he says. “I wanted to give him the one-finger salute. But that’s not what Jesus says I should do. He says I should love that person.”

He pauses, and rolls his eyes..

“If it was up to me, I’d have loved that guy right off the side of the road! But that’s not what Jesus says to do.

“Who can think of a reason the guy might have cut me off on the freeway?”

“He didn’t see you,” someone suggests.

“He didn’t see me!” Jason repeats. “It had nothing to do with me at all!”

“He was having a bad morning,” says someone else.

“Yeah, he was having a bad morning,” Jason repeats. “And I’m about to make it worse! How Christian is that?”

“He doesn’t like surfers,” someone shouts.

Everyone laughs, including Jason.

“You get the point, right?” he says. “I don’t get to hate anyone, no matter what they do to me. Jesus says if someone sues me for my coat, give him my cloak, too. If they want me to walk a mile with them, walk two.

“How hard is it to look at someone who just cut you off in traffic and say, ‘I’m sorry you’re having a hard day, and I hope it gets better’?” he asks, loudly.

“Hard,” shout several people at once.

“How hard is it to see someone doing something you don’t approve of and forgive them for it and love them anyway?” he shouts.

“Hard!” comes the reply.

“How hard is it to forgive someone who hates your guts and love them anyway?” he calls.

“Hard!” everyone shouts.

He pauses again, and his voice softens.

“How hard is it to be a Christian?” he asks.

They seem to know this one is rhetorical, because no one answers.

We sing another hymn, and there are announcements. Then Jason stands again.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” he says. “Thank you all for coming.”