Friday, March 30, 2018

Wrestling With Genesis 22

Note: As the name of this website suggests, this post consists entirely of my personal musings and random thoughts. I do not claim to be a theologian with the authority to speak on behalf of any religious organization, and I certainly do not claim to be a prophet with the authority to speak on behalf of God. I am not here to present to you a guidebook on what you should believe. I'm just sharing some things that have been swirling around in my head for the past few days.

The Most Difficult Chapter in the Bible

Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham going, at God's request, up onto a mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac. As a modern Christian, I find this chapter to be one of the most problematic in the Bible. What kind of God would ask a man to kill his own son? And do I want to align myself with a God who would do that? The most common interpretation of this story, one I've heard preached from pulpits and asserted within the cozy confines of Sunday School classes, is that God was testing Abraham's loyalty. To that interpretation, as to the story itself, my first response has always been, "Um...what?" Again, why would God ask a man to kill his own son? 

Yes, the general consensus is the God never intended for Isaac to die. That the ram trapped in the bushes, which Abraham sacrificed instead, was part of God's plan all along. But still...why make the request in the first place? And the idea that it was a test of loyalty...yeah, I still have some issues with that. Looking at it from Abraham's point of view, I wonder why he would want to follow a God who made such unreasonable demands. And looking at it from God's point of view, I wonder why He would want followers who would even consider killing their own children. 

The whole thing has been something of a stumbling block for me for most of my life.

A Quick Story From My Own Life

I'm going to take you into the mind of my teenage self. Get comfortable. You're about to go on one of the strangest journeys through Nerdville you've ever experienced.

I didn't discover Star Trek until the early nineties. I didn't start really enjoying Star Trek until 1994 when Generations was released. When The Undiscovered Country came out a few years earlier, I had been interested in seeing it in the theatre, but I didn't go because I had not seen any of the previous Star Trek movies and could not bring myself to watch them out of order. So I let the opportunity pass me by. The chance to see Generations, however, was not one I was willing to pass up because it was the first movie centering on the characters from The Next Generation, and I had always preferred TNG to the original series. I had to see this movie in the theatre. But I had to watch all the previous installments first. 

So my parents and I had a Star Trek marathon. This was one of the first movie marathons I ever had. In the years that followed, many more were to come, but it all started with Star Trek. You could say it was my first binge-watching experience. 

I began the marathon with the intention of having a greater understanding of Generations. I was not interested in the movies based on their own merit, but only for the insights they could give me regarding the one I really wanted to watch. Honestly, I didn't give a rip about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I was watching the movies from a strictly intellectual point of view. I thought of it as a type of historical research. But something began to happen as I continued watching. I fell in love with Spock. It's not surprising. I loved Data on The Next Generation, and Spock was really just another version of Data.

My love for Spock became problematic for me because now I was invested in the original series, but all I had were the movies. I had no access to the original show. Netflix didn't exist back then. DVDs didn't exist back then. Yeah, some TV shows were beginning to be released on VHS, but they were not easy to find. And assuming I could find them, what was I going to do? Buy the entire series? With no more than two episodes per cassette, the full collection would likely have taken up a fourth of my bedroom. Assuming the full series was even available on VHS, which I'm not sure it was. 

I became so desperate to watch the old Star Trek that I actually picked up the TV Guide one day and read it from beginning to end, looking to see if the series was playing on any of my channels. It wasn't. 

I became very depressed about all this. Yes, depressed. What can I say? I was a weird kid. In the diary I kept back then, there are probably thirty pages devoted to my obsession with Star Trek and my despair over the fact that I was unable to watch the original show. Here's an excerpt from one of those entries:

I thought that, surely, someday, everything will even out and we will all be given the things we thought we missed out on. But when? Heaven? Possibly. I held on to this hope happily for a few seconds and then thought, "How can I know what's in heaven? The problems might not actually be resolved. The emotions that go along with them might simply be taken away." This thought bothered me so that I started crying again. I don't yearn and work for something only to forget that I ever wanted it in the end. That would not make me happy. Suddenly I realized that if it could not make me happy, it could not be heaven. Heaven was the main goal, the main thing we work for in life. It is what makes all of life's little trials, and all of the problems and overcome obstacles worth it in the end. And if it really is that, then everything will work itself out, and all of the empty spaces in the heart will be filled, not taken away so that you can no longer feel the pain. My next question was, "is it true? How can I presume to know what is in Heaven?" I had to pray. During this, several images passed through my mind. The first was something from the Bible. "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also."  Many things could be considered treasures. A loved one, a poem, even a pet. My fixation on Star Trek could even be considered a treasure. Heaven was the final reward for the hard test of life. It was the treasure. My heart was there, and there my dreams could be fulfilled. I remembered a phrase of my own, "Anyone can make a person laugh, but it takes a lot to make a person cry." We need our tears, we need to feel sorrow in order to feel happiness. It's no use to search for the gold at the end of the rainbow, only to get there and forget that you wanted it to start with. We all need the things that touch our hearts so deeply and make us cry, so that, when we finally find our goals and our happiness, we can look back and be thankful for it. Without sorrow, there can be no happiness, for there is no standard of comparison by which to judge.

Yes, I was creating for myself a vision of heaven as a place where I could binge-watch Star Trek. Are you still there? Have I scared you away? I told you my teenage mind was a strange place. 

How Is My Star Trek Experience Related to Abraham and Isaac?

I'm not trying to say that I loved Star Trek in the same way that a father loves his child. The point I'm making is that I wrestled with the question of whether God would ask me to give up this thing that I loved, and I came to the conclusion that he would not. In hindsight, I can see that maybe God wanted me to have a healthier attitude toward Star Trek, and I no longer think of heaven as an eternity of Netflix binging, but I still hold on to the notion that God won't ask us to sacrifice the things we love, the things which form the core of our identities, in the name of loyalty. 

I still wrestle with this. I married young and, in my twenties, I chose raising children over having a career. Now I'm in my late thirties and I think a lot about all of the career goals I never achieved because I was busy doing other things. Traditional Christian thought tells us that women should not desire a career. That hearth and home is our domain and we should be content to remain there. And don't get me wrong, I have a deep love for tending the home fires. I like being the one who cooks the meals for my family and who shoulders the primary responsibility for raising the kids. But I do have other dreams, and part of me hopes that one day I can make those dreams come true.

Sometimes, like I did with Star Trek, I let these unrealized dreams take up too much room in my heart. Sometimes I have an unhealthy attitude toward them. I know it's becoming unhealthy when I start moping around the house thinking about all the things I wish I had done with my life rather than enjoying the good things I already have. But developing a healthy attitude about my career goals is not the same thing as giving up on my goals altogether. My love of writing, photography, filmmaking, etc. are part of the fabric from which I was cut. To purge myself of those things completely would be to deny a fundamental part of who I am. Would God ask me to do that? Would He ask me to lay my very identity on the altar the way Abraham did with Isaac? I don't think so.

So What Was God Asking of Abraham?

Again, I'm not a prophet. I don't speak for God. I can't claim that my interpretation of this biblical story is the "correct" one. This is just a thought that has settled in my mind, so I decided to write about it. People may agree with me or disagree, and I'm perfectly fine with that. 

I'm also not an expert on ancient history, so take this with a grain of salt and do your own research if you want to know more, but my general understanding of the ancient world is that many religions of the time centered around the notion of an angry god who needed to be appeased with sacrifices. If this was the culture into which Abraham was born, it makes sense that he would feel compelled to offer up his greatest treasure as an act of loyalty to his God. What if...and this is only a what if...God allowed Abraham to believe this in order to show Him that this was not the kind of thing He would ever demand? So the command to sacrifice his son came not from God but from Abraham's preconceived notions of what religion meant. And God played along right up until the moment of truth because that was the only way to show Abraham the nature of his folly. 

And we can apply it in our own lives when we wonder if God wants us to give up something that makes us happy, just because the culture from which we came has thrust that image of religious devotion onto us.

It's a new way of looking at it, but one which offers a bit more comfort than the typical interpretation. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

What We Love and What We Need

Nourishing the Body

I love sweets. Almost any kind of sweets. Donuts. Pie. Cake. Even bread smeared with jam will suffice in a pinch. I've been known to eat honey from a spoon straight out of the jar. I seem to be genetically programed to crave a little sugar several times a day.

Indulging my sweet tooth gives me pleasure and, if done in moderation, can be a harmless indulgence.

My body, however, will not thrive on sugar alone. For my body to thrive, I need balanced nutrition. That means vegetables and healthy protein. And don't get me wrong, I'm capable of taking pleasure in healthy food. My affinity for sweets doesn't preclude my enjoyment of a nutritious meal. But sometimes...oh, sometimes...sometimes those green peas leave a taste in my mouth that no amount of water will wash away. Sometimes that broccoli smells a little too much like old garbage. Sometimes a raw apple doesn't feel nearly as good in my stomach as it would if I cut it up and cooked it in a pie.

But I still have to eat the healthy stuff. Okay, I don't have to. I'm an adult. I have free will. I can choose to have Reece's Pieces for every meal if I want to. But I don't because I know my body needs that other stuff in order to work properly.

Nourishing the Soul

I am an introvert. I crave alone time just as much as I crave peach cobbler. I'm never happier than when I'm all by myself watching a sunset or immersed in a good book or soaking in fragrant bath water.

But I need more than that in order to thrive as a human being. I need to be a part of a community and have the support that only friends and family can give. To have this, I have to spend time around people. Even when I don't want to. Even when I'd rather stay home and look for a new show to binge-watch on Netflix.

Being around people is kind of like eating vegetables. Sometimes it's pleasurable. Sometimes it's not. Actually, my first instinct is usually to shy away from social situations. I remember getting invited to go out to the movies or the mall or the whatever by friends when I was in high school and I would beg my mom to say I wasn't allowed to go so that I could have an excuse to stay home. Sometimes she would give in to my entreaty, but more often than not she would advise me that it was in my best interests to say yes to the invitation because if I said no too many times, eventually the invitations would stop coming. I still go through this as an adult. Sometimes a group of women I know from the gym will ask if I want to go out to lunch after class and I almost always decline because I'm afraid that being in that situation with a group of people I know only casually will quickly turn awkward. And awkward social situations are scary.

Putting myself out there in that way is not something that comes naturally to me, but it is absolutely vital to my psychological and spiritual health.

The thing is, we all need a community. We all need a circle of loved ones we can count on when times get tough. But in order to have those relationships, we have to work to build them. Even when we don't feel like it. Because you don't get to be a part of a community by just existing close to it. You don't form bonds with people by sitting ten feet away from them and never making eye contact. You can only make those connections when you reach out. When you make the effort. When you force yourself to be a bit more social than your natural inclination would typically allow.

I know probably half of the people reading this will not identify with this post. I think it's one of those challenges unique to us introverts. The point is that sometimes what we really need is something that goes against our natural inclinations. But we have to fight the instinct to back away if we really want to grow into more mature, more complete individuals.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What Gandhi and Michael Jackson Have in Common

Good Advice

My favorite quote is one from Gandhi. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." It's a great quote for two reasons. First, it empowers us. It tells us that if we see something that needs to be done, we should do it. And second, it reminds us that we can't wait for someone else to do it because we can't control another person's actions. 

Michael Jackson's advice to "start with the man in the mirror" is really saying the same thing. Don't wait for someone else to do the work that needs to be done. Do it. And don't wait for the world to be perfect because it never will be. Go ahead and start working on yourself. Strive to become the person you wish everyone else would be. 

Living our Ideals

We all have ideals, right? We all have values. We all have an idea of how we think everyone else should live. But, the thing is, we can't force other people to live by our values because their values may be different from ours. 

I'm not trying to say truth is relative. I'm saying no one is perfect, and we can't make them perfect. If we try, we'll only make them resent us. We'll come off as being self-righteous, and no one likes that. 

A Practical Example

I'm going to use environmentalism as an example, mainly because it is a scientific one. It is easy to see which activities are beneficial to the environment and which are not because the scientific evidence generally speaks for itself. I say "generally" because there is a fair degree of interpretation involved in empirical analysis. Think of a murder trial. The evidence is there for all to see, but what the evidence says depends on which spin the attorney puts on it. Science works the same way.

So when I say a certain practice is beneficial, what I'm saying is that the evidence seems to point that way.

Perhaps I should have been a lawyer. I seem to be good at this disclaimer business.

But I'm rambling. Back to the question at hand. How do we live in a way that is not detrimental to the environment?

There is pretty convincing evidence showing that a vegan lifestyle is the best choice for healing an ailing world. Notice I said "pretty convincing." Since we've never lived in a world where everyone was vegan, we can't know what kind of effect it would really have. And I'm not vegan, so I'm certainly not promoting that lifestyle above all others.

My inner lawyer is coming out again. Sorry.

Let's look at three people with three different lifestyles.

Bob is a vegan. He chooses to live this way for multiple reasons. First, he has a love of animals and can't imagine consuming animal flesh. Second, he feels that this diet is the best thing he can do for his body. But his primary motivation is his disdain for the modern meat industry and the damage he feels it is doing to the world. Because of all of these ideals, he can't bring himself to put even one bite of animal protein into his mouth.

Teresa is not vegan, but she, like Bob, is wary of the meat industry. While she does eat meat, she tries to buy from local farms that raise free-range chickens and grass-fed cows. Like Bob, she feels that these choices are the most humane for the animal, the best for her own body, and the most beneficial to the world as a whole.

Shirley would like to be more deliberate about her diet, but she's a young mother trying to feed herself, her husband, and their three kids on a tight budget. She won't go vegan because she knows how hard it is to get her kids to eat vegetables and fears that removing meat from their diet will deprive them of the few nutrients they're actually willing to eat. And she can't do the locavore thing because it's just too expensive. So she buys the cheap cuts of meat from the supermarket. She occasionally serves up a plate of frozen chicken nuggets. Being a mom is tough, but she does what she can.

Avoiding Judgement 

We can all look at Bob's lifestyle and applaud him for his efforts to live according to his values. But what if he tries to force his values on others? What if he sees Shirley bending over the meat counter at the grocery store and takes that opportunity to inform her of the horrible consequences of her diet? Now Bob has gone from being a respectable man, who knows his own heart and lives his life accordingly, to being a bully. And no one likes a bully. Even if that bully has a good message. Even if, in his mind, he's only trying to help. Do you know what happens when you try to bully people into doing what you think is right? You actually have the exact opposite effect. You make them want to dig in their heels and refuse to budge from their position. 

Basically, if you think being vegan is the best possible thing to be, then be vegan. Because you can control your own choices. You can control your own diet. But don't expect everyone else to agree with you because they won't.

The same principle can be applied to nearly every decision we make in life. How much television we allow our children to watch. How much time we spend in the gym. Whether we go to church or not. Whether we drink alcohol. What kind of car we drive. 

In the end, all we can do is live our own lives according to what we feel is right. Even if we firmly believe that if everyone agreed with us the world would be a better place, still we cannot ask others to share our values. Doing so will only push them further in the other direction. 

Okay, so I got a little philosophical this week. Hope it didn't get too heavy for anyone. On a lighter note, I'm taking part in a group promotion right now. Amelia's Children and eight other mystery/thriller eBooks are available for only 99 cents. Check them out at this website: 99 Cent Mystery, Suspense, and Thrillers. All of the books are available from Amazon. Amelia's Children is available from all major online retailers. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Why Self Publishing is not Vanity Publishing

I don't remember the name of the anthology. I don't remember how I became aware of the anthology. It was probably a letter that came in the mail, inviting me to publish my poetry.

Publish! Well, of course, I wanted to publish my poetry. That's every writer's dream, right? To get published.

So I meticulously chose a poem. I even gathered up several of my poems and took them to my English teacher at school (I think I was in tenth grade) to ask her advice on which poem I should send in. She sat with me for a few minutes after school and gave me what I thought was some sound advice. So I chose a poem and sent it to the publisher. Then, a while later, a shiny hard-bound book came in the mail. A book my parents had purchased because they knew my poem would appear in it and they couldn't wait to see their little's girl's words in print.

Fast forward a year or so. We get another letter in the mail, from the same publisher. This time they want to publish a collection of my poetry. That's right. An entire book of just my poems! I naturally wanted to do it.

This time I had a better authority to turn to for help than just my English teacher. You see, by this point, I had met my husband and we had been dating for a few months. And his grandmother was a poet. A fairly serious one at that. I knew she would be able to look over my work and tell me which poems were most worthy of publication.

The next time we went over to her house, I carried a bundle of my precious words with me. Nervously, I approached her, told her about the publication opportunity, and asked if she'd look over my poems and give me her thoughts. Then she gave me "the look." You know the one I'm talking about. The one where an elderly person tilts her head down so she can get a really good look at you over the rims of her spectacles? Yeah. That look.

The first words out of her mouth were, "Do you know what a scam that is?" No, "Congratulations!" No, "Good for you for pursuing your dream of being a writer!" Just, "Do you know what a scam that is?" I was speechless. After all, in truth, I did not know what a scam it was. I had no idea.

She explained to me that my parents and I would likely be the only people to ever see this "book" that was being printed. This publishing company was not in the business of marketing books for their authors. Publishing with them would never get my work onto the shelves of Barnes & Noble. They were just after my money.

"But," she said, "if it means that much to you just to see your words in print, go ahead and do it."

Welcome to the world of the vanity publishing house.

No wonder there has been such a stigma attached to self publishing.

Fast forward about twenty years, and self publishing has taken on a whole new meaning. It is no longer a scam. In fact, for many people, it has been a quite lucrative business opportunity.

So what's the main difference between self publishing and vanity publishing? It's primarily a difference in the mindset of the authors. Vanity publishers came about because people saw an opportunity to make money off of aspiring authors who knew, because it was the truth at the time, that the only way to get their work out there was to go through a third party publisher. Today's self published authors are the publishers. It's not so much publishing a book as it is starting a business. And, as I said above, some people are doing some darn good business.

No, the self publishing world is not perfect. But neither is the traditional publishing world. And, yes, the relative ease with which today's authors can put their books on the market opens the door for a lot of poor quality work. I'm not blind to that. It's why I always read the sample chapters on Amazon before committing to buying an indie book. With the business being, for the most part, unregulated, you can never be sure what you're getting when you decide to read a self published eBook.

But I stand firm on my assertion that we are no longer living in the days of vanity publishing. You see, at one time virtually the only people who chose to self publish were those who knew they weren't good enough to go the traditional route. But they wanted to see their work in print. Maybe they wanted nice, hardbound volumes of their stories to give out to friends and family at Christmas. Maybe they wanted a collection of poems written by the little old ladies of the community to sell at a church fundraiser. Whatever the reason, everyone was aware of one rule. If you were a serious writer, you did not self publish.

Nowadays, a lot of self published authors are very serious about their writing careers. There are even awards, some fairly prestigious ones, for self published books. Heck, indie books are eligible for the Pulitzer. Imagine the boost our reputation would receive if one of us ever won that award!

Don't misunderstand me. I do see the other side of the argument. I get the point the naysayers are trying to make. Getting a book noticed, and then printed and distributed, by a major publishing house carries with it a level of prestige that indie publishing will never have. After all, there's a huge difference between saying, "I thought my book was good, so I published it," and saying, "This agent, and then this editor, both well respected people in the literary world, thought my book was good, so it's going to be published." Being your own gatekeeper does strip you of a certain number of bragging rights. But, for me, that's where those awards come in. Submitting to contests is a big part of my marketing plan for my books (though I don't know if I'm bold enough to go for the Pulitzer!) because if I ever win one, that's third-party validation that my books are, indeed, worth the money I'm charging for them. So I've swapped one querying process for another. The difference is, while I wait for some literary expert to take a shine to my work, I can already be selling it in the digital marketplace.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Indie Book of the Month: March 2018

Chevalier by Bree M. Lewandowski

This one's going to be four stars for me.

Let me say one thing before I start. This is a good book. I had some personal issues with it, but I know those issues won't bother everyone, so please take my critique with a grain of salt and give this book a chance.

I always start with the positive and move to the negative when I write these reviews but have come to realize that structuring them that way gives the impression that I'm saying something along the lines of, "It was okay, but..." What I really want to say is, "It had some issues, but I still liked it." So I'm turning my normal review structure upside down and starting with my critique.

One issue I had with this book was the wonky grammar. Notice I've not said "bad grammar." The grammar is not exactly bad, just...wonky. The reason I say it's not bad is that the most common grammatical error I found was the dangling modifier, which is probably the easiest language faux pas to commit. Really, nearly everyone, except the staunchest grammar nerds, is guilty of dangling modifiers from time to time. And most people probably wouldn't notice them. I did because I'm a grammar nerd. There were also a few cases of mixed up pronouns (object pronouns that should have been subject pronouns and vice versa) but those were few and far between, to the point that I could almost dismiss them as typos (I've said in numerous reviews that I can easily overlook typos because I know how easy they are to miss). Again, these are things some people might not mind. I did because I'm a nerd.

This is the third book I've read by this author, and I'm not sure why I'm only just now noticing these errors in her writing. I think it may have been that the other two books I read by her were her Under Lights duet, which takes place in the world of ballet, and I was so in love with that world that I was blind to any mistakes that may have been present.

On to the story itself. It was good. But it left me underwhelmed in some ways. Again, I couldn't help but compare it to Under Lights. Ms. Lewandowski's first two books blew me away with their attention to detail. I expected the same when she tried her hand at fantasy. I expected such in-depth world-building that I would live in this beautiful place she created. And don't get me wrong. There was world-building. And it was beautiful. But I wanted more. I wanted to know more about the Shirs and the Nightingale Queen. I wanted a front row seat for the ritual that elevated Kohl to the Order of Chevalier. Details were there, but not as many as I wanted.

And the romance? Well, I've said before that I don't normally read romance, so maybe I'm not the target audience in this situation, but I felt that the whole thing unfolded too quickly. Remember, I was spoiled by Under Lights. That story is told over two books, and the first one is 300 pages long. The two main characters have heaps of time to get to know each other before they start declaring their undying love. And they take their time. So much time, in fact, that when they do get together, the audience is like, "Finally!" Chevalier is one book, and it's barely more than 150 pages. Basically a third the length of Under Lights. So, of course, it moves at a faster pace. And maybe that's what romance readers want. Maybe it's a genre where you get in trouble if you let the sexual tension build for too long without giving the characters, and the audience, the release they crave. But I love a good build-up of tension. Heck, my favorite love story is Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. Remember how long it took them to get together? Seven seasons. Yep. We waited seven years for that release of sexual tension. And I loved every minute of it. So I guess I prefer slower-paced stories. Again, maybe it's because I'm a nerd.

Okay, so that was a long critique, but I want to repeat what I said above. These are my issues. They may not bother other people at all, so please give this book a chance. There is plenty of good in it. I loved the two main characters. The flawed heroine and the strong hero with the tortured past. Two people who believe no one will ever love them...until they find each other. It's a beautiful concept, and Linah and Kohl fill their roles well.

I also appreciated the role reversal at the end. Linah is portrayed as a delicate flower who needs to rely on the help of others. Kohl is her knight in shining armor. Until Kohl falls ill and it's up to Linah to save him. In order to do so, she has to rely on reserves of strength she didn't know she possessed. I'm a sucker for a story with a vulnerable male lead, so I was eating all of that up as I read the ending of this book.

So please go check out this book and make up your own mind about it. If you like a touching love story encased in beautiful world building, this may be the perfect book for you.

You can get on Amazon.