An Open Letter to the American Church

Dear American Church,

How did we let it come to this? How did we fail our country so miserably?

(Note: By addressing this to the “Church” I mean we, the Body of Christ, not just our pastors, or one denomination, or one building address. This also includes me. I have failed as much as and more than anyone else.)

We are living in a time where our churches have an unprecedented number of professional specialists. We have children’s pastors, family pastors, youth pastors, small group pastors, teaching pastors, worship pastor, executive pastors, outreach pastors, and the list goes on and on. We have enormous budgets, unbelievable buildings, and freedoms that Christians throughout history literally died for. Yet, we are losing and losing badly.

“My church is growing,” you might want to say. “Look at our numbers” (defined by attendance, conversions, membership, etc.). I say turn on your TV. Look at this election. Look at social media. Listen to your coworkers, your extended family. The numbers that matter don’t lie. We are failing.

We have allowed ourselves to become more insular, more bunkered than ever before. We have our own form of everything to the point that we are completely self-sustained. Look at our “Christian” music, movies, coffee houses, bookstores, community spaces and so on. With all of this, surely we can keep ourselves safe! Our bunkers do keep us safe. But the problem is, they shut the world out.

Jesus gave us a pretty big job. It is arguably the largest responsibility He could have given us. He left the world in our hands. Yes, He is still firmly on the Throne and the Head of the Body, but He told us to go and make disciples. That is our job, and we have dropped the ball. Somehow along the way we turned that around and began telling the world to come to us. Again, just tune in to what is going on all around us, and we can see that this twisting of Jesus’ words simply does not work. He knew what He was talking about after all.

Maybe our failure started when we decided that we didn’t need each other. Every American town is littered with building after building occupied by Christians that are a part of the same Church but sure don’t act like it. How could we? Surely we can’t adhere to Jesus’ very clear commands while not agreeing on transubstantiation, eschatology, how best to use the gifts the Holy Spirit gave (not to you alone, but to the Bride of Christ), or whether or not to sprinkle infants. All across America, more buildings are erected or repurposed almost weekly so that we can beckon the world to come fill our half-empty sanctuaries. How did more separation become our answer when Jesus spoke so often about the power of unification?

Maybe our failure began when we placed all of our faith in our programs. If we just bring in that one gifted specialist, we can draw the kids who draw the parents who hear messages on Sunday mornings and maybe eventually restart the cycle with someone else. If we can just offer more opportunities for people to pick and choose how to best grow themselves, then we will eventually start going and making.

Maybe our failure started with our ever constant search for relevance. It only seems logical after all. If the world is supposed to come to us, then we need to make what we do look and feel as fresh and relevant as possible. Why else would they come? Yet, looking at how our country is turning out, our relevance seems to be making us more irrelevant than ever.

Maybe our failure started when we stopped focusing on the words of Jesus and settled for a few gifted speaker’s personal interpretations. God gives gifts. To some, He gives the ability to lead and teach. To everyone, He gave His Word.

Not all is lost, but we can’t do this alone. That’s the Good News. Where we fail the greatest is when Jesus becomes our mascot. Where we succeed the most is when we matter little, and He matters above all.

We can’t do this individually. There’s a reason we are called One Body. Jesus didn’t leave behind a dismembered body with a few extra special denominational limbs.

We can’t do this through programming alone. We are the Church. Eventually, we all have to carry out our individual missions together. We can’t rely on our Christian specialists to do everything for us.

We can’t do this if we only read and follow the parts of Jesus’ teachings that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. The Way is not easy. It is not safe. It is not lucrative. Easy, safe, and lucrative haven’t saved anyone’s soul.

We can’t do this in our bunkers. When we erect walls to keep the world out, she is going to stay out. Inside our bunkers, we may be “safe,” but Jesus never said anything about being safe. In the world, there is sin, corruption, hatred, and all kinds of scary things. But it is in the world that we find the lost, the broken, the hurting, the sick. Jesus told us to go, not to invite.

We can’t keep blaming everyone and everything but ourselves. The lost are lost. That’s sort of the point of being lost. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. The world is held hostage by our true enemy.

If there is anything our country is telling us right now, it is that politics won’t save us. We can demand that God bless America as much as we want, but He gave us freedom of choice. He left the Church with a big responsibility. We can blame the media, politicians, and whatever/whomever else makes the biggest target, but Jesus didn’t leave America in the hands of the media, politicians, or whatever/whomever we choose to scapegoat. This is our country. This is our mission. Will we take a stand, not for being right, but for Who is right and the people He died to save?

To borrow from 1 Peter 2:9, we, the Church, are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession so that we can declare our praise of the One who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light. How can we keep this for ourselves?

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Be Great Americans Again

No matter how you choose to look at it, 2016 is shaping up to be a strange year to be an American.  The Cubs are the best team in baseball while the Yankees were sellers at the trade deadline.  Batman is fighting Superman.  Star Wars is back, and so is Harry Potter… sort of. And last but not least, we get to choose between a Presidential candidate who can’t seem to shake legal issues and another who was once a reality television star.  What is perhaps the most strange aspect of this election season to me is that I have yet to encounter someone who truly supports their candidate of choice.  It seems that the 2016 election is going to be more about voting against who you don’t like than voting for who you do see fit to be President.  Weird.  I’m not sure that’s really democracy at its finest. 

But I want to take a few minutes and take a step away from the angst about which candidate is worse, and talk about something I feel is far more important.  Thanks to social media and an increasingly edgy, ratings-hungry, cynical media, we are seeing an election featuring two candidates stooping to unprecedentedly (at least in my lifetime) low levels of mudslinging and personal attacks.  Unfortunately, the media and candidates are far from the worst offenders.  Because of the crazy amount of negativity surrounding our nation, I decided to take a breather from social media.  Sure, I’d post every once in a while, but I studiously avoided reading through posts, especially if they smelled of politics or current events. Yesterday, I broke this self-imposed fast and was disgusted by what I found.  After perusing my feeds for about an hour I had a hard time coming to grips with the words spewed forth by some of the people in my networks. What was worse was that they were spat from Christians in the direction of other Christians.  Here are a few things I learned:

  • Your values have eroded to non-existence if you vote for a Democrat… for any reason. 
  • Donald Trump is automatically the correct Biblically-approved, most Christ-honoring choice because his party ticket is shaded with a bit of red. 
  • The 2nd Amendment is the only part of our Constitution that has “teeth” (still have no idea what that means) and therefore is the most important political stance a candidate can have.

I disagree with these points vehemently though that is not the point of this post.  The fact that someone had these beliefs wasn’t the problem.  This is a free country.  Speaking specifically to Christians, I believe our faith is one that allows for quite a bit of freedom when it comes to matters of politics.  What I couldn’t stomach was the bitterness, hubris, and outright rage (note: not the same the thing as righteous indignation) spewed forth onto the interwebs.  Personally, from what I have seen, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken stances on subjects that at times align with the values that Jesus Christ taught and have both opposed the teachings of Jesus in others.  Simply put, neither candidate closely aligns him/herself with the teachings of Christ.  That’s not surprising in the least considering the fact that they are politicians, not pastoral candidates.  The histories of both major parties are filled with nobility and ugliness.  My point is that even a nominal amount research can reveal that American politics are not now nor have they ever been a clear-cut delineation between the “good” party/candidate vs. the “evil” party/candidate. 

Let’s put all that aside for the moment.  Let’s pretend that one candidate is actually the perfect choice while the other wants to murder babies, immigrants, bunnies, and unicorns.  Let’s say that it is clear who Jesus would be voting for (if He even would vote).  Now, in this fictitious universe, there is a Christian (by word and deed) who posts something in support of Mr. Evil McEvilton.  Naturally, a good devout follower of Christ should jump all over this person, calling into question everything from his church attendance to parenting choices, right?  That’s what Jesus would do?  Right? 

*chirp* *crickets* *chirp* 

I mean, didn’t Jesus jump all over those who supported the evil Roman empire (and believe me, they were evil)?  Didn’t He only support the “teeth” of the zealots fighting for the rights of the oppressed?  Hmmm…  I could’ve sworn that it was in the Bible somewhere….

Nope.  Jesus healed the servant of one of the brutal oppressors (Matthew 8:5-13).  He healed one of the collaborators with the evil oppressors (one conspiring to kill Him no less) (Luke 22:49-51).  He forgave an oppressor who was in the act of murdering Him even though said soldier didn’t even ask for forgiveness! (Luke 23:33-34)

He even went as far as to utter the following:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matthew 5:43-44).

I want to stop here and focus on this for this is the crux of the problem in America today.  We live in a society that screams “love those that agree with you and hate those that disagree and are therefore 100% wrong.”  Not only is this the very definition of narrow-mindedness, but it is also in complete contradiction from the very clear, very distinct words and actions of Jesus Christ.  Even if, by your definition, you find a fellow brother in Christ to be your enemy because of his political affiliation, should you respond with rage and vitriol? 

“But Ben,” some might say, “I’m trying to correct a fallen brother.  Aren’t we supposed to call out those who have been led astray?” Well, no, probably not how you think you are supposed to.  Start in Matthew 18 then, for that matter, read the rest of the New Testament.  There is plenty written about how we are supposed to treat a fellow believer we disagree with.  (Hint:  it’s not by screaming and calling names on social media). 

Finally, I want to issue one last challenge.  Donald Trump has made a campaign slogan out of the saying “Make America great again.”  As a Christ follower, I believe that my mission is far more important than just the greatness of a nation, but I believe that ol’ Trump is on to something.  Let me tweak that slogan just a little bit.  Let’s concern ourselves with being great Americans again.  Rise above the garbage being spewed forth.  Agree to disagree.  Stand arm-in-arm on issues we can agree on and affect change in our hurting society.  Anger and arguing have never seemed to accomplish much for the betterment of society.  Jesus taught us well.  Let’s do as He did. 

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Making Music. Changing Lives.

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It has been well-documented how much I loathe self-promotion which can, at times, be rather problematic considering my chosen professions as a musician and author.  Today, however, I have no qualms whatsoever in promoting our latest—and arguably most important—professional endeavor to this point in our lives.  That is because as I share the vision of Studio 3 Music Academy, I am sharing something that is bigger and more important than just me.  I caustically avoid promoting my books and recording projects because I don’t like begging for the “spotlight” attention on my own works, but this is entirely different.  Studio 3 Music Academy is born out of the recognition of a need in our community.

I am writing this post for two reasons.  First, we are incredibly excited to get the word out about who we are and why we exist.  Second, we need your help.  Both Tessa and I are throwing ourselves all-in financially, physically, and emotionally to getting Studio 3 Music Academy ready to open.  That said, we are a paycheck-to-paycheck family.  Getting something like this off the ground is going to require support from our friends, families, and community.  In the past, we have been encouraged to start a crowd-funding campaign for my books or recording projects, but we’ve always held off because it just didn’t feel right asking for money for something that primarily profits only us.  Study 3 Music Academy is different.  We currently have a conditional non-profit status from the State of Indiana as we await the final seal of approval from the IRS.  We chose the non-profit route because this is not a business to us but a mission, something I hope you see in the sections that follow.  At the end of this post, I will share ways you can get behind this.

Who is Studio 3?

Simply put, Studio 3 Music Academy will go beyond private lessons to immersion in every aspect of music creation, from instrument training to songwriting, live performance, and music production.  Though our doors will be open to all ages, we specifically target ages 8-18 for reasons that I will explain further in a moment.

Why is Studio 3 needed?

As many of you know, my professional (and scholastic) career has gone through many twists and turns.  I started out pursuing a career as a professional guitarist in Nashville, TN while pursuing an undergrad in music from Belmont University.  After transitioning to more of a producer role, I felt a call to leave Nashville.  For the next seven years, I served in the Chicago suburbs as a youth pastor and worship pastor eventually ending up in Indiana.  During that time, I earned a graduate degree in youth ministry leadership from Huntington University. Since leaving full-time vocational ministry, I have returned to music production and composition for media while launching my writing career.  During this time my passion for music and helping our youth reach their potential has never waned.

Recently, I spent a few months working at the local high school as a study hall proctor.  I spent day-after-day working with students that had already had so many people give up on them in their lives.  Their home lives were toxic.  They were labeled as “problems” by many of the faculty, often for good reason.  Despite all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would like for these students to find an enriching passion and pursue it with abandon.

Enter Studio 3 Music Academy.  I could easily write dozens of posts about the incredible potential music has in helping shape young people’s lives.  Study after study has shown that participation in music education can have a tremendously positive impact on scholastic achievement, sense of self-worth, feeling of identity, and emotional/mental well-being.  When I think back on my time as a study hall proctor, I am not so naïve as to believe that by simply taking up the guitar, all of these “problem” students would have experienced a complete 180 in life.  Still, what if one or two had found a life-long passion that not only enriched their own lives but impacted their peer groups?

This is, of course, besides the fact that history has shown that the arts have always had a positive impact on a community.  Simply put, music enriches lives.

Sign ShadowWhat is Studio 3 Music Academy?

As mentioned earlier, our vision is bigger than just a place to take lessons.  My personal passion as a musician is the recording/production side. I adore tearing apart a song to its bones and reassembling it into something unique and (hopefully) magical.  When Tessa (my wife) and I sat down to seriously begin the process of building this Academy, we began to dream of a place where students are able to put together all the pieces of the puzzle that is music creation.  I encourage you to visit our website to learn more about the specifics of our educational approach, but I’ll try to briefly sum it up here.

We are employing an “AND1” approach.  Private one-on-one instruction is integral to personal growth, but alone, it often leaves a student walking away from their instrument.  As it was in my case, passion for music is often discovered when creating it with other musicians.  Many music educators have realized this and are adapting.  It’s becoming rare to find a place that only offers private lessons.  Usually, there is some kind of “rock band” approach where students are gathered into groups.  Concerts are replacing the traditional “recitals.”   Studio 3 Music Academy will build on this concept and take it further.  Students enrolling at the Academy will be required to take a private, one-on-one lesson on their primary instrument (acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboard/piano, and vocals to start). Additionally, their fee will include participation in one of our three AND1 options.  Students can choose from participation in a genre-specific performance group (rock, country, top 40, etc.), a songwriting co-op where students will grow in the craft of songwriting/composition/arranging while working with other writers their age, or a recording arts track where they will learn and engage in all aspects of the recording process (tracking instruments/vocals, music production, audio engineering, etc.).

Additionally, we will offer a wide variety of classes ala-cart.  These will not be a typical “classroom” experience where students listen to a lecturer, but an interactive experience that will engage them with instruments in hand.  Topics will include guitar tone and matching, building a tight pocket between drums/bass, keyboard synthesis, the study of legendary songwriters, etc.  Already have plans to bring in clinicians from the music industry to supplement our programs with awesome seminars and clinics.

Students at Studio 3 Music Academy will be given the opportunity to perform in the community, record awesome albums, and see the songs they write come to life in amazing ways.  How awesome will it be to see our songwriters write killer songs that are performed by the bands and recorded by our studio musicians?

How Can I Support Studio 3 Music Academy?

Quite frankly, we need funding.  We have a location for our Academy in Pendleton, IN.  Now we have to modify to meet our needs.  This will involve some renovation as we build out lesson rooms, a band rehearsal room, and a recording studio.  Additionally, we need to purchase music equipment such as drum sets, guitar amps, keyboards, a sound system, recording equipment, etc.  As a professional musician, I have personally acquired a fair amount of gear over the years that will be made readily available when needed, but our needs are bigger than what I can personally provide.

After researching a variety of methods, we have selected INDIEGOGO as our fundraising platform.  We felt it best suited our needs while providing credibility and security for our backers.  100% of the money we receive from this campaign will go directly to getting our location open.  Our goal is to open our doors in the Fall of 2016. If our vision speaks to you, please consider donating to our organization.  You can donate by clicking here.

If financial support is not an option, we are also in need of a variety of supplies, and labor equipment.  For more information on what you can donate, please contact us at info@studio3musicacademy.com

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post.  I can’t wait to see this dream come to life.

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Sacred vs. Secular… revisited.

Though this is actually from a blog series I did two years ago, I have recently come across more conversations along this line of discussion. What makes something “sacred”? What makes something “secular”? Since I see this as a critical topic to those Christians engaging in the creation of the various arts, I thought it a good idea to repost.

Sacred vs. Secular

I recently read two very well-written posts by Joe Foreman of Switchfoot and Michael Gungor.  Both articulated two viewpoints on the often debated, and perhaps more often misunderstood, topic of Christian music today.  In this series of posts, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring.  Though I largely agree with both posts, my view on the subject may differ from theirs.  My opinions on the subject are based on my own experiences in the industry, my theological views on worship, and my understanding of music based on my studies.

As a disclaimer, before I dive in I feel it is important for me to say that it seems to me that American Christendom has seemed to have lost the ability to agree to disagree without divisiveness springing forward.  My opinions may strike some of my readers the wrong way.  That is okay.  Though I feel I have a strong basis for what I believe, you may possess an equally strong basis to the contrary.  Our faith is based on just that… faith.  Faith in God and faith in His Word is, in my opinion, an absolute pre-requisite for discipleship of Christ.  That said, we are provided with an inerrant Word that is often interpreted in different ways when it comes to certain topics.  And make no mistake about it, there are few topics that have caused more division in the Church throughout its history than music.  So, have faith in Christ, a faith that can still achieve the kind of Unity Christ prayed for in John 17:23 even though we may not agree on every single topic in Scripture.

Sacred vs. Secular

 On the topic of sacred vs. secular, one of the first questions that pops to my mind is, “What defines a song as one or the other?”  Is a song sacred if it invokes the name of Jesus?  If so, then Amazing Grace is a secular song.  Is it a song that is written expressly for corporate singing in worship services?  If so, then many of the songs in your church’s hymnals (if your church even still has one) are secular.  So, what is the defining factor?

Allow me to submit that there is not one.  No song is sacred.  To place a song in that place is to elevate it to a status that it was never meant to achieve.  Songs are a medium, a vessel, nothing more, nothing less.  Every song written from the beginning of time is a tool meant for a specific task.  Some are intended for entertainment, others are meant for advertising, others are propaganda, still others are meant to instruct or expand a set of beliefs.  “Worship music” or “praise and worship music” as it was once called is a specific medium or vessel.  In my opinion, worship of Jesus Christ in the form of music is simply a prayer penned by a human in need of a Savior.  We writers are fallible, one and all, and our songs are a simple means of expressing our adoration, thankfulness, repentance, or requests in a way that others can use as a launching pad for their own conversation with God.  When viewed this way, the “worship song” is simply a means to an end with the “end” being the worship of and communion with God.

So, what exactly, is “sacred”?  In my search for understanding, I went as far as to pull out an actual dictionary… tiny print and real paper, no less!  According to Webster’s New Dictionary sacred means:

consecrated to a god or God; having to do with a religion; venerated, hallowed, inviolated.

Now, let’s use the same source to define “secular”:

not religious; not connected with a church

Where does that leave us?  Did you discover tremendous clarity?  I, for one, did not.  Songs like, “How Great Thou Art”, or “How Great is Our God,” seem pretty clear cut, as does a painting of Jesus or a poem about His Great Name, but what about a painting of an English countryside, a sonnet penned about the love found in marriage, or a song encouraging the listener to not give up when times are hard?  Sacred or secular?

I want to draw attention back to our definitions.  Allow me to highlight two lines in particular:

Sacred – consecrated to a god or God

Secular – not connected with a church

I, Benjamin J. Denen, am a composer and an author.  More importantly, I am a son of the One True God, a disciple of Jesus Christ.  My understanding of 1 Peter 2:9 (and other similar passages) informs me that I am consecrated.  If I am, in fact, consecrated and any gift that I use I do so for the glory of God, what does that say about any song that I compose or book that I pen?  What if that song is written to encapsulate my love for my wife or a novel about the struggles a teenage male faces through adolescence that does not contain any overt references to Jesus or the Christian faith?  Sacred or secular?

Here’s another way to look at it.  Can any work I create not be connected to the Church?  If it is connected to me, is it not through me a part of the Church?

I can already hear an immediate response from those critical of my viewpoint.  “Are you saying that anything a Christian produces is sacred or consecrated?  What if this Christian produces pornography or expletive-laden music denigrating women?” to which I would respond, “I believe that you are missing my point altogether.”  Herein lies the crux of my argument.  The creative works that a Christian produces must, like all things that humans emit from our being, be subjected to the Holy Spirit. Discernment is the aim.  As we are told in Phillipians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (ESV)

And again in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22:

“test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (ESV)

Are Christians, those who are consecrated, capable of creating that which is sinful?  I believe with all my heart that the answer is “yes.”  How does this inform the “sacred vs. secular” debate?  Well, I believe the devotion to these categories represents a form of easy (i.e. lazy) discernment.  A close parallel would be the process by which I choose the movies my child can watch.  I could take the “easy” route and simply adhere to the Hollywood’s rating standard.  However, anyone familiar with modern film and television knows that the rating system is far from reliable regarding the above-mentioned scriptures.  True discernment eschews sloppy standards and seeks discernment through the Holy Spirit.

Closing

I would like to leave you with this question.  How do you determine what songs to listen to, what books to read?  How do you determine who is a “Christian” recording artist or a “secular” artist?  How is a work of fiction “Christian” or not?  These are important questions because here in America we allow the parent companies of our bookstores, publishers, record companies, and so on determine what we deem “sacred” or “secular.”  A very interesting fact that many Christians are unaware of is that most of these parent companies we rely on for discernment are, in fact, not actually a Christian organization.  That does not mean they are necessarily evil, but in a free market society, these businesses exist to make money… pure and simple.  I do not see that as a good or bad thing because I do not need to rely on these companies to help me determine my values.  I have the Holy Spirit, a discipleship journey, a community of believers, and God’s written Word to guide me toward discernment.  My prayer is that more Christians rely on the latter as well rather than the former.

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Respect: Earned or Given?

In my 13-day (and counting) foray into study hall proctoring (better word than teaching), I have had a number of conversations with other teachers. A reoccurring theme that seems to emerge when talking about student discipline problems is the idea that respect is earned, not given out freely. Of course, what the teacher really means by this is that a teacher’s respect for a student needs to be earned, not the other way around. Students are expected and required to give respect to those in authority. It has got me wondering, is this a good life philosophy? Should respect be given or earned?

Let’s look at the word’s definition.

Respect:

  • esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability
  • deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment

I want to highlight a couple of things.

Esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person

I recently wrote about a student that has been giving me problems. Since I wrote this, I have been working hard to improve that relationship. Well, there’s been some improvement, but his friends have far exceeded him in terms of disruptiveness and outright disrespect. Things got so bad last Friday that I had to ask the police officer to come into the room to remove a student who refused to go to the office. Fun day! It is VERY easy to not respect these students. After all, they clearly do not respect me. Here’s the issue though, shouldn’t I still esteem these students’ sense of worth or the excellence of their person? This is SO much easier said than done.

Proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment

Here’s the age-old question that has led to a tremendous amount of debate within Christian circles. Can you accept the individual while not accepting his/her actions? I believe 100% that the answer is yes. By showing respect to a student whose actions I do not respect, I am affirming that the individual is greater than what he/she does. We are not defined by what we do. Thank God! If we were, there would be no hope for our salvation. The very Gospel screams in defiance of the idea that actions equate the person. Does that mean that what we do doesn’t matter? Of course not. There will always be consequences to pay for what we do, but those actions do not define who we are (sorry fans of Batman Begins).

Conclusion

Imagine what our world could look like if we respected each individual without requiring them to earn it from us. When respect must be earned, we are automatically placing ourselves in a position where the person in question starts with low esteem, and if he is lucky, he can improve his place. Is that Gospel? I don’t believe so. How many conflicts could be avoided if respect was assumed? How many arguments could turn into productive conversations if we gave those with opposite viewpoints our respect? Making someone earn your respect might be the standard way our world works, but is it the best way?

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Reviews Matter

I need your reviews.

I am desperate for your reviews.

There, I said it. I hated writing it more than you did reading it. If you have followed my blog for any length of time you know that in addition to sharing my thoughts (at random intervals) on this site, I am an author. I have released two full-length novels and one novella.

I love writing, but it is not just a hobby for me. I spend literally thousands of hours crafting these stories. The editing alone takes months on end. I invest both my efforts and my earnings into improving these stories so that they can reach my readers in the best form possible. Though I do not claim to be the greatest author, I believe I have a gift that I have a responsibility (and privilege) to share with others.

Why am I writing this post? Today, I wanted to share with my readers just how incredibly important reviews are for the future success of my books. If you are reading this, there’s a decent chance you support me as a writer—whether that’s through the purchase of my books or simply (and as importantly) through your prayers. That said, it’s understandable that you may take for granted how critical it is for me that each and every reader take just a few minutes of his/her time to write a short review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. These two platforms are the life blood of the self-publishing industry. The importance of honest reviews on these sites cannot be overstated.

Honest Reviews

Let me be clear about something. I am not asking for all of my friends and supporters to write eloquent, glowing reviews about how “amazing” my books are, how they are the best they’ve ever read. I’ve read my books. Though I think they have their strengths, I certainly wouldn’t say they are the best I’ve ever read. I need reviews, and by that I do not mean all 5 star reviews. In fact, a book with an abnormal number of 5 start reviews is seen as suspect.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea that I will see your potentially sub-5 star review, rest assured that you can leave a review anonymously. That said, I welcome any and all criticism.

Here’s the important thing: potential readers have literally millions of books to choose from. When they come across my book, they are faced with the decision of taking a chance on an unknown author. My books aren’t free. Though they are marked rather inexpensively, potential customers are understandably skeptical any time they take on a self-published author’s books.

Here is where reviews come in. As a voracious reader myself, I am very cognizant of the number of reviews a book has that I am considering purchasing. First, a higher number—even if they aren’t all 4-5 stars—tells me that a large number of readers have read the book (many from cover-to-cover). Second, it tells me that the book was able to leave a significant enough of an impression that the readers wanted to say something about it. Good or bad, this combination of impressions tends to help sway me as a consumer.

High Quantity

Since I released The Keeper of Edelyndia in June and Raulin: Rise of the Forest King in October, I have been blessed to see both books remain in the top 100 Christian Fantasy novels on Amazon.com. Raulin in particular has stayed consistently in the top 20. This is huge! I am beyond grateful for the response.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.44.02 AMUnfortunately, the only negative is that my books have struggled to gain reviews. As seen in this recent ranking, Raulin has far fewer reviews than the books around it. I do not have a publisher backing my books. There is not a marketing company helping me get my books “out there.” I’m flying solo, often by the seat of my pants (by solo, I mean my wife is doing the lion’s share of the work… because she’s awesome). As positive as my daily sales have been, the lack of reviews is hurting the spread of my novels.

What can you do?

Here is where you come in. If you haven’t bought my novels, please do! If you haven’t read them yet, please do! If you haven’t reviewed them yet, please stop reading this and follow the links provided here… again…

Your review is not supposed to be a book report. A couple of sentences and a rating will do.

Please be honest. Share what drew you in. Be honest about what could be improved as the series develops (in the case of The Keeper Chronicles).

Closing

Let me leave you with this little shameless guilt trip. I have a five-year-old son and four-month-old daughter at home. An important part of our income and their future depends on the sales of my books. Can you really say no to this face? 🙂

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Shooting the Wounded

If you read my previous post, you know that recently I took on a new job at the local high school “teaching” study hall.  Using the word “teaching” is quite misleading.  As the principal put it during my interview, my job is to make sure the roof stays on.  Actually, that’s also misleading as that is a far more important job than mine truly is.  Basically, I make sure that students are in the room and sign out if they are leaving.  I spend most of my day writing or doing other work on my laptop.  Though it’s hardly my dream job, it pays which is nice, plus it has the added perk of allowing me to do what I would be doing at home, most likely for free.  But I digress…

For the most part, I think that I fade into the background in the student’s minds.  I’m sort of like the chipping paint on the cafeteria’s wall… perpetually there, somewhat noticeable but rather forgettable.  I’m sure many of them do not really see me as a teacher which works fine for what I need to do.  As a result, it seems to me that they are less inclined to filter their conversations as they might in, say, math class.  Needless to say, I hear a LOT of interesting things throughout the day. 

Two days into the job, this lack of a filter led to my first confrontation with a student.  A group of young men decided that they were bored, so they started disassembling pens and chucking the parts at neighboring tables.  Though I’m pretty lenient on the rules, eventually I do have to step in, so I did.  For whatever reason, one particular young man really didn’t like this.  Though I was rather nice in my approach he immediately became belligerent.  He lashed out in a far more excessive manner than I would have expected for simply being asked to stop. 

His reaction surprised me for a couple of reasons.  First, it seemed out of character for the situation.  Second, I have never seen a teenager act so disrespectfully to an adult in authority in my many years working with teenagers.  I deescalated the situation, but without even really noticing it, I made a mental check mark that this kid was going to be an issue.  He moved from my “unknown” list to my “known problem” list.  Over the next couple of days, he went out of his way to seek confrontation with me.  These confrontations moved him to the “don’t like” list.  All of this was done subconsciously but by the end of my first week on the job I had completely written the boy off.  Then, I learned more about him.

Because of some “connections” I have in the area (it’s way less mafia than it sounds), I was able to learn some back story.  This boy is the youngest (or second youngest… unclear) in a very troubled family.  His parents have had numerous issues with drugs, alcohol, and possibly legal issues.  He comes from a long line of “problem kids.”  Knowing this and some other background, when I started this week I took it upon myself to observe him more carefully.  What at first glance just looked like a kid with way too much attitude began to morph into a picture of a hurting child.  The obstinence began to look more like buried pain.  The anger seemed less from the moment and more from the twenty-three hours a day that I don’t see him.  Suddenly, his place on my “don’t like” list made me feel like a rather wretched human being.

How many adults in his life do you think have written him off?  How many people stopped only at a cursory examination of his attitude without looking at the complex myriad of issues he faces every day?  Don’t misread me.  I am not simply excusing his behavior, explaining it away.  We are each accountable for our actions, but by writing him off, I was saying, “He’s not worth enduring for.” 

What do I mean by that?  Love—that thing we, as Christians, should be living and sharing in our every action—is not reserved only for the easily lovable.  Sometimes (oftentimes?) the people that need that love the most are the ones who give you every reason not to give it.  Within the first couple of hours of knowing this kid, he managed to grate on just about every nerve I have.  It was somewhat impressive.  But true love endures.  It is willing to deal with the abrasive personalities, taking the wounds that come with it.  I am ashamed that he made it so quickly to my “don’t like” list.  Instead, I should have trusted in my Maker’s leading to move him to the “worth it” list.

I am willing to bet that once seventh-hour roles around, I am going to be greeted by the same obstinate kid.  He will probably seek me out for more conflict.  I can’t promise that I will always show the love I’m supposed to show.  Knowing he’s worth it doesn’t always make it easier.  But my prayer is that when he attacks, my first reaction isn’t to draw my own weapons.  He’s already wounded.  The last thing he needs is for yet another person to open fire.

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I’m Good: What true contentment looks like

A little over a week ago I started a new position working for the local high school as the new study hall teacher. While I was very appreciative of the income, if I would have been honest with you during the first few days I would have told you that I was pretty unhappy about the job. Sure, it’s easy. In fact, the principal encouraged me to bring in a computer to work on whatever I want. Is there a better “real” job for an aspiring writer? Other than actually supporting my family from my writing income, the answer is probably not. Still, “teaching” study hall was hardly on my career plan when I was working so hard toward my undergrad and eventual graduate degrees. I mean, shouldn’t multiple degrees translate into something a little more… I don’t know… meaningful? Successful? Brag-worthy?

So, there I was, feeling sorry for myself while trying my best to appear as though I wasn’t when somebody entered the room that would soon completely alter my perspective. Allow me to lay out the setting. Study hall at the high school is held in the cafeteria for all but two periods. During first period, the special needs class comes in to help the cafeteria staff with lunch prep. Mostly, they straighten chairs, make sure everything is clean, and other such tasks.

Back to the guy throwing a private, secretive pity party. I was in my corner, working on my laptop, when a rather energetic young man with special needs approached my table and loudly proclaimed, “I’m good!” in a rather boisterous manner. He then held out his fist for a knuckle tap. I couldn’t help but smile. He was gone before I could get a word out, but I watched him cheerfully go about his tasks, practically skipping around the room with enthusiasm. After a couple of minutes, I returned my attention to my screen and he was soon forgotten.

Over the next couple of days, the routine continued. Halfway through first period, the same student would bound into the room, enthusiastically proclaim to me, “I’m good,” fist bump, and go about his work. I wasn’t able to catch his name, because he was gone as fast as he showed up.

This brings us today. It’s Monday, a day most known for the rueing it inspires. I’m starting my second week at my new job and, you guessed it, the pity party planning committee was ready for round two. The same student bounded in with the same exuberance as always. Today, something hit me so powerfully that I had to stop what I was doing to write down my thoughts. In case you haven’t gathered, this young man’s proclamation wasn’t that he was “good” in the sense of accomplishment or skill but in the sense that he was content, happy. His “I’m good” was a way of declaring that all was right with his world. After hearing his words today I found myself on the edge of tears. This young man has every reason to loudly proclaim that he is everything BUT good. He lives daily with challenges I can never dream of. My job involves babysitting a room full of teenagers while I write whatever I want to write. His job involves cleaning up and prepping a cafeteria for a room of thankless teenagers. Who am I to chair my own pity party committee?

I still haven’t been able to get the young man’s name, but my plan is to try to stop him during tomorrow’s fist bump to introduce myself. I want to thank him because he has shown me what true contentment looks like. Yes, I’ve read the verses. I’ve taught them in countless sermons. I know what the Bible says about contentment, but today Jesus used this amazing young man to make His Word manifest.

Life isn’t about accomplishment. It isn’t about better jobs that sound more impressive, higher wages, nicer stuff, etc. Life is so much more than these things, and I have no possible reason to do anything other than sit back and happily declare, “I’m good!” Notice the exclamation point. Like this incredible young man, this is not a resigned statement of acceptance of life station. This is a bold proclamation that God has given me everything I need, far more than I deserve.

God is good. Life is good. I’m good. My prayer this morning is that He never lets me forget that.

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When a Game Isn’t Just a Game

mlb-nlds-st.-louis-cardinals-chicago-cubs-850x560

I was huddled around the corner, just—and only just—courageous enough to peek at the TV screen hanging above our fireplace.  My wife, holding our dear nine-day-old baby girl in her arms, was no doubt feeling the same anxiety I was.  Our wonderful ball of energy in five-year-old-boy form paced the living room, both feeling the palpable anxiety in the room and not understanding it in the least.

Then it happened.  Stephen Piscotty stood at the plate, a young talented rookie that perfectly encapsulates the homegrown talent upon which our often disliked but begrudgingly admired rival has built an organizational dynasty of perennial contention. Hector Rondon, just another of Theo’s kids, released the ball.  My eyes widened.  The pitch appeared to be heading for the heart of the plate, the sweet-spot of Piscotty’s bat, ultimately destined for the bleachers meaning just another heartbreak in a long line of such dismal endings.  For this fan, bad endings are the bitter aftertaste of every Cubs season.

Until this moment.  Until this team.

Just as the pitch was about to reach home plate, the trajectory turned as did, perhaps, the hopes and dreams of an entire city… the Second City… the Windy City. Piscotty swung. He missed.

I can’t say that I remember much of what happened next.  One minute I was hiding like the grade-school-age version of myself that first fell in love with the Chicago Cubs so many years ago.  Suddenly, I was jumping, dancing, twirling my way into the living room.  My five-year-old son was laughing with a joy only a child—and a Cubs fan on this night—could possibly understand.  He didn’t know why he was celebrating.  In truth, he probably enjoyed watching his daddy act silly more than anything else.  My wife held an upraised fist, a beaming smile fixed to her face.  This celebration was, of course, done in near complete silence—the sounds of my not-in-my-twenties-anymore body thumping up and down not withstanding. We did have a sleeping nine-day-old in the room, after all.

On this night the Cubs won.  A city of long-suffering fans lost their collective minds.  A game was suddenly more than just a game.

I have many friends and family members who are not sports fans.  Some would have watched the scened unfold in my living room that night while shaking their heads.  Aren’t you too old for this behavior?  What kind of lesson does this teach your children?   Don’t you know it’s just a game?

In this I must respectfully disagree.  Again, allow me to propose that sometimes a game is more than just a game.  Consider the events in my little family’s life that led to this night.  It isn’t a tragic story.  It isn’t even one that would be triumphant or dramatic enough to entertain a television audience in the form of a Lifetime or Hallmark original picture. Still, it is our story.

I have been a Cubs fan since before I even really knew who they were.  My father is a Cubs fan.  He instilled this love in me from an early age.  I remember watching Ryne Sandberg (my all-time favorite ball player) turn double plays that made my jaw drop.  I remember the sweet swing of Mark Grace, the innocence and naivety of believing that Sammy Sosa was a true hero, the heartbreak of 2003.  I was at Wrigley Field in game 1 of the 2008 NLDS.  My heart soared with DeRosa’s homerun, and my soul was crushed by the Manny Ramirez grand slam.  I cheered when Theo asked for my patience while he tore the “house” down to its studs, and I watched in awe as his ingenious plan came to fruition throughout the 2015 season.  I’m not just a fan of the Cubs.  I’m a Cubs fan.  There is a difference.  I say “we” when referring to my favorite team.  I don’t wear jerseys, shirts, or hats to prove that I love the Cubs.  My fandom runs in my very blood.

But that just describes a fan of a game.  What occurred at Wrigley Field on October 13 was more than just a game.  For this to be true, my love has to transcend the diamond, the Boys of Summer, even the idea of sports.

2015 has been a very trying year for my family.  We have dealt with tragedy.  God blessed us with a beautiful little girl soon after, but her arrival on October 2nd was fraught with worry and stress.  There were complications.  There were more prayers uttered from my lips in those forty-eight hours than perhaps in the first thirty-three years of my life combined.  Then, in the short time between the Cubs win in game 3 and the start of game 4, my wife and I spent the night and much of the next day in the hospital with our beautiful daughter.  God watched out for her, but seeing her tiny body hooked up to all those wires and hearing the terrifying possibilities uttered by the doctors was something out of my worst nightmares.  God is good.  My daughter, always firmly in His hands, left the hospital in our arms, safe and sound.  Still, we arrived home physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Then the game was played.  For us, a weather-beaten family of four, the conclusion was more than just a game won.  It was a lift so desperately needed.  It was a bonding point, a renewing of the spirit, a cleansing of the pain and worry we had experienced just hours before.

What if they lost? you might ask.  Doesn’t this just prove that your obsession with a game is unhealthy?

If they had lost life would have gone on.  After all, the life-long Cubs fan in me was expecting it.  I would have been disappointed, sure, but on October 13 a loss would have meant it was just a game.  No lasting damage would have been left in its wake.  But it wasn’t a loss.  It was a win and suddenly the game became something other than a game.  It became something more, something that is perhaps not quantifiable.  It became hope, justification, joy, peace.  For one night it may have tapped the very essence of life itself.

Perhaps you are still rolling your eyes.  Sports are dumb.  Grow up. I cannot, of course, make you understand this.  It has to be felt.  Consider one more story.

My father introduced me to the Cubs.  We share a love for the team.  My big brother, an amazing man with Down syndrome, also bleeds Cubbie blue.  A few years ago life took my young family down a new path, one that has us now living five hours from my parents and siblings.  This has been hard on all of us.  Communication isn’t always easy, despite the abundance of technological tools that make “connecting” just a click away.  Still, there is a bond between us that exists beyond space and time.  It is a shared love, not just of each other which is a given, but of something that unites us.  My brother (sometimes) cheers for the Packers.  My dad doesn’t follow the Chicago Bulls like I do.  We don’t always like the same music or movies.  We don’t have the same hobbies, political views (all of the time), or even identical theological beliefs.  We don’t share a zip code or even a time zone; yet, there is something unshakeable that we do share.  It has already stood the test of time.  This “thing” is our love of the Cubs.

Last night, before the Cubs players even finished spilling onto the field, I was on the phone talking to my dad and brother.  We were cheering like little kids.  Suddenly, that distance between our zip codes didn’t seem so far.  The game helped us bridge the gap.  For just a few minutes, the game brought us together.  We didn’t watch the moment on the same TV but we experienced it together.

You may not love the Cubs.  You may not even like the game.  That’s okay.  But don’t make the mistake of assuming that your experience is universal. Do not denigrate the passion.  Love what you love, and I will do the same.

For me and my family, the game on October 13 was so much more than just a game.

 

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Reblog about Kindle Unlimited

In the aftermath of Amazon announcing changes to the Kindle Unlimited a few weeks ago there has been much (uninformed) weeping and gnashing of teeth in the author community, especially among self-published authors.  Today, I stumbled upon a superbly written blog post about these changes. If you are an author worried about the new direction of the KU program I strongly reccomend that you read this article by by best-selling author, Hugh Howey.

http://www.hughhowey.com/great-ku-flip-2015/

Hugh Howly

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