On Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Okay, for those of you who don’t know, I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m a nerd. As a nerd, I consider myself a generalist in all things nerdy. But I do geek out in certain areas. One of them is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I just loved the idea of so many storylines tying together across several movies. I got totally into it. And then, after The Avengers, one of my favorite movies because it’s just so much fun, came the ABC TV series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the purposes of this blog, I’m just going to call it SHIELD. It’s on a brief winter hiatus right now, but I saw a sneak peek of the next episode and I’m so excited, I just keep thinking about it. So here’s a blog post about it.

I’ve watched this show since the first episode, and haven’t missed one. I’ve even watched all the Marvel movies that have come out since this show debuted, in order to make sure I don’t accidentally miss something important. I know some people were disappointed that the show has its own plot and doesn’t really tie in to the movies very tightly. As one of my friends put it, “I kind of lost interest when I realized that it’s not really about the Avengers, just some people who sort of know them.” But as the Marvel folks like to say, it’s all connected. I think it’s totally fun to set this show in a world where the Avengers really do exist and the events that happen in major cinematic productions also affect the lives of the “ordinary” people who make up Coulson’s team of agents. And yes, the show does focus on Phil Coulson, Nick Fury’s right-hand-man, who died so dramatically in the Avengers. And yes, he did die. And yes, he’s alive now. It’s a long story, and one that weaves through the plot of most of the first season. The series premiere poses the question, “What really happened to Coulson?” that gets slowly but surely explored through the course of the season. Along the way, we are introduced to a fun, engaging cast of characters. From the feisty and mysterious Skye, to the nerdy scientist duo, FitzSimmons, to hardened agents Melina May and Grant Ward, Coulson’s crew proves over and over that a good team is greater than the sum of its parts. And that learning to work together often serves to bring out the best – and the worst – in people.

I think this show has great writing, decent acting, and a lot of really fun action and explosions and special effects and stuff. In fact, to skip ahead for a second, the winter finale of this season included some of the best special effects I’ve seen in a TV series. Admittedly, I don’t watch a lot of TV. But still, it was awesome. But the real strength of the show is the characters and their chemistry. During the first season, I loved watching the bond that developed between Skye and Coulson, the fun interaction between Fitz and Simmons, and the questionable relationships between May and Ward and the other characters. It took a few episodes for all that chemistry to really start to come together, but once it did and I really started to care about the people in the show, I was totally hooked. It’s also fun to see occasional Asgardians and cameos from characters in the Marvel movies, and I hope to see more of those in the future.

I think most people would agree that the real shining moments for this show happened after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Suddenly the plot that had been developing all season had a real focus, and specific enemies, including a brilliant betrayal. The season finale of the show was packed with angst, awesomeness, and fantastic one-liners delivered with the crackling wit I’ve come to expect from Marvel writers and actors. It was like a Marvel movie condensed into an hour and delivered on the small screen. I loved it, and I loved how it set up the second season, which has been excellent. Although Coulson is still the focus, Skye is also coming into her own, and the show has now shifted somewhat in tone. Instead of just reacting to the Marvel movies, it seems fairly obvious that the show is now building to at least one of them (Inhumans) and possibly more (Captain America: Civil War…?) It’s a bold move by the studio but I think it’s super fun. I’m eagerly anticipating the show’s return on March 3, and trying to keep up with Agent Carter (which is also a fun show) in the meantime.

I’m slightly obsessed with SHIELD. My obsession has inspired internet research, long conversations peppered with exclamation points, and even a mild temptation to actually read comic books – okay, I’ve resisted that so far. But if you like Marvel movies, or TV shows with action and really good character development, I think you’ll like this show. I don’t have Netflix or Hulu but I think season one is on Netflix and season two is on Hulu Plus, so you should have time to binge-watch and catch up before new shows start up in March. Do it. Thank me later. And talk to me later, because I do not get tired of talking about this show.

On Friendship

Through an interesting set of circumstances, I’ve recently had an opportunity to evaluate some of my closest friendships, and I’ve learned some things. About life, about friends, and about my friends, in particular.  I think some of it is worth sharing.

I’m not a particularly outgoing person. I used to consider myself an introvert and I suppose that’s still true to some extent, although I like people much better now than I once did. I was very shy growing up, and being homeschooled didn’t give me much of an opportunity to break out of my shell. It wasn’t until after college, when I started my Mary Kay business, that I finally realized that I actually like people. Still, I’ve never had a huge group of friends. I tend to have a small handful of people that I know and trust, a larger circle of friends I genuinely enjoy spending time with, and then plenty of acquaintances who I’ll smile and chitchat with, but who really don’t know me at all. Most of those people tend to think I’m sweet. My friends know better. My close friends really know me, and love me anyway. At least, that’s how I see it.

I find that in life it’s helpful to think the best of people, but not trust them too much. Still, most of the time I’d rather err on the side of trust. There are times I regret that. But I’d rather love people and have real relationships where I might get hurt than put up walls and be fake. To me, that doesn’t sound like any kind of life. Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about true friends:

A true friend is a friend all the time. Good times, bad times, fun times, hard times. A true friend knows my faults, maybe not all of them but most of them, but doesn’t fault me for them. A true friend will listen to me go on and on for hours or maybe even days, or sometimes even longer, about what is going on in my life. Even after I say, “Ok, now I’m done. Oh wait, one more thing…” A true friend will listen to my secrets and my fears and keep them quiet. A true friend will have my back when times get tough. A true friend is honest. A true friend won’t tell me “oh, you’re fine, everything will be okay” when it’s obvious that I’m not, and it won’t. A true friend won’t tell me what to do unless I actually ask for advice. A true friend is willing to let me make my own mistakes, pray me through them, and be there for me afterward without the obvious but belittling “I told you so.” True friends can have fun doing little stupid stuff, and big fun stuff, laugh at a gazillion inside jokes, and talk about nothing or important things anytime, for hours if necessary. A true friend has the courage to correct me in person, rather than going behind my back.

I have discovered that I may have fewer true friends than I thought, but I am so thankful for the ones I have. I hope that I am always the kind of friend I hope to have in my life. Because when the hard times do come, and they always will, it’s good to have a few good friends.

On Christmas Music

So far this year, nothing makes me feel more grinchy than Christmas music on the radio. I love Christmas, and I love Christmas music. Well, most of it. There are a few songs that I just don’t like, and most of them would fall into the category of “Christmas classics.” The worst of these offenders is that old-timey hit from Burl Ives, Holly Jolly Christmas. Every time the fuzzy-vinyl recording starts up (which is every time I have the radio on in the car, even if I’m just driving ten minutes to the grocery store) I have to turn it off. Even my four-year-old daughter knows I hate that song. She asked me about it the other day.

This is not a rant against the secularization or commercialization of Christmas. It’s nothing as anti-cultural or sanctimonious as that. This is all about my personal preference. One of the Christian radio stations I listen to starts playing non-stop Christmas music at the beginning of November, and the other one I listen to started it last weekend. And when it comes to Christian contemporary music, these stations have a good thirty years of songs to pick from. There are always several new Christmas albums from Christian artists that come out every year. So why is it that just because it’s Christmas, they feel the need to suddenly start playing these seasonal classics that have nothing to do with Christ? If I wanted to listen to mainstream Christmas music, including those awful vinyl recordings of Silver Bells and White Christmas as well as stupid newer songs like All I Want For Christmas Is You, I could listen to a mainstream station. They’re playing all those songs, too.

Holly Jolly Christmas isn’t the only song I turn off every time I hear it. There are “Christian” Christmas songs that I hate, too. Christmas Shoes and Happy Birthday Jesus come to mind. Like I said, it’s not really about the content of the lyrics, it’s just about what I like and what I don’t. I know, I should just make a Christmas mix CD for my car (yeah, it doesn’t have an MP3 player option) and make my own playlist to listen to at home and just stop whining. But hey, I have a blog, and that’s what blogs are for, right? And sometimes I get bored with my own music selections, too.

Who’s with me? Who else wants to turn on a Christian radio station and just hear Christmas music, no matter what time of year it is? Any other musical grinches out there?

On THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

So here’s a lesson in life: Don’t swear that you’ll never do something. Because then if you do it, you’ll feel kind of stupid. I swore repeatedly that I would never read The Hunger Games or its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I had perfectly good reasons for not wanting to read them. They’re dystopian, and I’m not a fan of the genre. I’ve only read a few dystopians and I haven’t liked any of them. They’re written in first person present tense, a writing style that I find extremely annoying. And worst of all, they break my rule: don’t mess with kids. For those reasons and probably a few others, I shrugged them off and said I wouldn’t read them. And then I read them.

Why did I read them? Well, people kept talking about them, and the movies, and they’ve pretty much become a cultural icon, and I was tired of feeling out of the loop. I’d heard enough about them that I figured I pretty much knew how they went, but I was intrigued by this tough, arrow-shooting female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. And there’s the fact that they’ve quickly become one of those standard series that other Young Adult books are compared to and judged by, and since I write YA, I figured I ought to go ahead and see what all the fuss was about.

With such high expectations going in, I can say that although I didn’t like the trilogy, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. Many people that I’ve talked to devoured all three books in a week or less. I checked them out through Amazon’s Prime Owners Lending Library, which is limited to one book a month. Even at that, it took me four or five months to get through all three of them. They are emotionally draining, and sometimes I could guess (more or less accurately) what was going to happen next, and I just didn’t want to read it. But finally, with Mockingjay Part 1 out in theaters this week, there was enough buzz going around that I picked Mockingjay back up, after setting it aside about a third of the way through, and finished it.

My issues with the book are pretty much what I expected. The setting of Panem, a dismal, post-apocalyptic nation of oppressed Districts ruled by a pleasure-loving, totally corrupt Capitol, is not a place where you expect good things to happen. And for the most part, they don’t. The writing style is compelling, but I’m not comfortable reading in first person present tense, and I don’t know that the author was completely comfortable writing in it, either. It slips into past tense frequently as Katniss revisits memories or events that happened earlier in the day. It interrupts the flow of the story and can come across as jarring, and anytime the writing does that, for any reason, I find it annoying. And of course, the premise is awful. Obviously this is a screwed up society, and the more you read the more you realize just how screwed up it really is. But basically the Hunger Games are a form of child sacrifice, where the Capitol forces each of the twelve Districts to offer up two kids between the age of 12 and 17 to kill each other off in an arena rigged with various horrors until only one survives and is declared the victor. The games are televised with great pomp and ceremony, so that every resident of Panem is basically forced to watch this horrible event take place every year.

At the beginning of the story, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. We then get to experience the lead-up and the games themselves, plus all the aftermath, through her perspective. I wanted to like Katniss, I really did. She does have a very naturally humble, self-sacrificing aspect to her personality combined with a certain magnetism that somehow inspires people to adore her, despite the fact that she’s also an abrasive, anti-social, lost soul. So despite really wanting to like her, I never did. She has moments of extreme selfishness. She tends to act and think like the entire world revolves around her, and she’s surprisingly clueless about things that should be fairly obvious. The fact that she’s very human and pretty flawed makes her a sympathetic character, easy to relate to, but not quite a hero. She is young, and she experiences things that would probably destroy anyone, so it’s not surprising that as the story goes along she unravels. One of my friends pointed out that she clearly suffers from extreme PTSD. She’s also hopelessly naive. She allows people to use and manipulate her for their own ends until almost the end of the story, when she finally decides she’s had enough, and takes matters into her own hands in a way that anyone could have seen coming.

Ultimately, I reconciled myself to moderately liking these books because in the end, the author states the very thing that bothers me about the whole story: A society that sacrifices its children for power or entertainment or to end a war is fundamentally flawed, and certainly not a place where any sane person would want to live. No one comes through the story whole and healthy. So many people die. Many of them are children. At times it’s deeply disturbing to read. In fact, I find it slightly horrifying that it’s written for “young adults,” or in other words, teenagers. I know there is worse, more graphic stuff out there, and that kids these days are probably used to that sort of thing, but it bothered me. It really shows a lot of what’s bad about people, the horrible things we could be capable of if we allow our own culture to continue down the path we’re on. There’s a lot of the dark depth of human nature in these stories, without very much of the light of God’s glory and grace. I know they’re not Christian books so I didn’t expect to find much of that anyway, but in my opinion, the best stories still reveal the truth of God, and the image of God in the human beings He created. I’m not sure these books ever get there.

I haven’t seen the movies. Of course, I swore I wouldn’t. Now I’m not so sure, but at any rate I can’t comment on how the movies are the same or different or whatever. I’ve heard from several people who think the movies are better, that Katniss is more heroic, that some of the other characters aren’t quite as passive as they seem to be in the books. At this point, I’m not going to recommend seeing the movies or reading the books. I read them, I didn’t hate them, but I’m glad I’m done with them and I never have to read them again. That is all.

On Why I Love Scrivener

It occurs to me that I should have posted this at the beginning of November, for anyone attempting to write an entire novel during National Novel Writing Month, although if you are a NaNo participant, you may be eligible for special offers this month. I didn’t discover Scrivener until after my first NaNoWriMo journey. I wish I had known about it then, and I’m definitely glad I have it now, as I prepare for a rewrite that is going to require rearranging several scenes, deleting some, and adding new ones.

Scrivener is a writing software, available for both Windows and Mac, at literatureandlatte.com. Unlike a regular word processor, it allows me to write my novel in chunks (I call them scenes) rather than in one long file. It eliminates the annoying need to scroll forever through a multipage document when I realize I made a typo in the middle of say, chapter 12. It’s much easier than cut and paste if I decide that a scene I put at the end of chapter 10 really would go better at the beginning of chapter 11. It also allows me to keep notes, research, and deleted scenes all in the same project file rather than searching my computer for that piece of backstory or that scene I deleted and now decided I want to put back in.

Here are some of my favorite Scrivener features:

  • There is a handy search function, so that when I realized in a read-through that I use some form of the word “irritating” too much, I could list all the spots where I used it and edit them.
  • The Project Targets, which shows a total word count for the project as well as my current session, and gives me red, yellow, and green bars to tell me how close I am to my targets. Statistics also give interesting information like an approximate page count and how many times certain words are used.
  • The ability to Snapshot the current version of a scene before editing it. That way, if I make a change I’m not certain about and then I decide I don’t like it, I can just Rollback to the previous version with a click, or cut and paste bits and pieces out of previous versions. Scrivener saves as it goes, so this is one way to keep a log of previous versions of scenes.
  • The extremely valuable Compile function, which allows me to compile all of my manuscript, or just parts of it, into various file formats. So if I want to send a PDF of my latest chapter to a reader, no problem. If I want to compile the entire thing to archive it before a major edit, done. I can create a Word file and touch that up for submission to an agent or publisher. And my latest, most exciting discovery: I can create a .mobi file and read my own book on my Kindle, or send it to beta readers in that format if they want.

In my opinion, writers are much better off using writing software than word processors to create their manuscripts. Word processors have their place, but since Scrivener can compile into a .rtf file, why not wait until the manuscript is complete and then use the word processor for final editing and formatting? I haven’t even taken advantage of all the amazing features Scrivener offers. It has different templates for novels, non-fiction, scripts, etc. It’s not very expensive, and adding the license to multiple computers is simple, so once you’ve bought it you shouldn’t have to ever purchase it again. I know there are other software options out there. I tried several before choosing Scrivener several years ago, and I’ve never regretted it.

Do you have any questions I can try to answer about this amazing tool? If you’ve used it, do you have any comments to share? Maybe you can tell me about a feature I haven’t tried yet!

**I purchased Scrivener at the full retail price and I am posting this blog without the knowledge or permission of Literature and Latte Ltd. I have not received any promotional discounts or other compensation in exchange for my opinion of the product. It is simply something I use and enjoy.

On Writing: The End

Yes, the rumors are true. I finished my book this week. I’m just going to stop for a moment and celebrate the fact that I have actually written an entire book. It’s 112,000 words, so about the length of Twilight or The Golden Compass, and if you’ve read either of those stellar works of literature, well, good for you. Anyway, it’s a full-on, novel-length book, and I hope you can forgive me for feeling pretty pleased with myself.

After writing my last post about reaching 100,000 words, I struggled for several weeks to reach the ending I was aiming for. And then on Sunday, I got mad, gave up on that ending, and took a completely different direction. Two days later, I was writing furiously and suddenly I realized I was at the end. I’m not sure yet if I love it or hate it, or even if I’ll keep it, but for now, it works. It’s actually pretty good.

Now for the bad news.

While I was struggling through those last few chapters this month, I realized (thanks in part to input from friends who will remain nameless) that part of the problem with getting to the ending is that the middle of the book lags pretty badly. The story just sort of meanders along aimlessly for a few chapters and doesn’t really build to a good ending. So now that I’ve finished this draft, I’m going to take a deep breath and enjoy the feeling for a week or so, and then go back and rewrite most of the middle. Because yeah, I wrote a book, and there are good parts to it, and I really like the characters, but the story as a whole still isn’t very good. So, I’ll let it rest for a little bit and then it’ll be time to open it back up, rip it apart (again) and see what I can salvage from it this time.

Writing a book is definitely a learning experience for me. It’s not as though I’ve ever done this before. Yeah, I’ve written bits and pieces of various stories over the years, but an entire novel that carries one plot from the beginning through the end, that’s new. I’m still not very good at it, but I think I’m getting better. I’m enjoying the process, despite occasionally panicking and deciding that I hate my book and I can’t actually write and I’m wasting a whole lot of time and effort on a completely useless pursuit. It’s fun.

I appreciate all of you who have been asking how my book is going. It’s really sweet to know that there are people who actually care, or are curious, at least. No news yet on when anyone (except those nameless few) will actually get to read it, though. It still needs lots of work and lots of love from lots of people I haven’t met yet. But for today I’ll just say I wrote a book, and I’m pretty happy about that.

On My Best Friend’s Book

If by some chance you’ve had your head under a rock and didn’t realize it, Inseparable by Ashley Linne released this week. Ashley has been my BFF since before that was a thing. We met in first grade and have been best friends ever since. We were even roommates for a year in college, before I ditched her to get married. Over the years we’ve had ups and downs and disagreements, like friends do, but if I’m being perfectly honest I have to admit that the vast majority of those were my fault. But the beauty of this friendship that has lasted for over twenty-five years (Crazy!) is that it is based on the fact that we both have very deep beliefs about God and His word that are very similar. And because of that, I can wholeheartedly endorse this book that she has written. In fact, as I read through it I kept thinking, wow, that’s exactly how I would have said that.

In college, Ashley and I shared a mentor who took us through a study on our identity in Christ. I know that made a profound impact on both of us. Based on concepts found in the book of Romans, Inseparable really dives into the truth of who God has declared his children to be. Walking the path of the Christian life from the moment of being made right in Christ through eternity, Ashley draws on her experience in studying theology (she has a Bachelor’s degree in Religion and has master’s level work on the subject) and her studies in human behavior (her Master’s degree is in Family Life Education), as well as her deeply personal struggles with questioning God’s love for her, to craft a book that is deeply theological, very practical, and intensely emotional. She doesn’t pull punches, and she doesn’t hide her pain. If you embark on this study with her, you will find much more than a “how to” manual on the Christian life. You will look deep into God’s truth and contemplate what it means in your own life. You might even find yourself changed by the experience.

This is an undeniably girly book. From the purple cover to the butterflies that adorn every page, the language, and the approach, it definitely fits the “by women, for women” image of the InScribed Studies. But it does contain scriptural truth that is applicable for everyone, and I’d guess that any brave guys out there who can get past the girly presentation would be encouraged by the message, as well. I like how the InScribed books are put together (I also have Dive Deeper by Jenifer Jernigan), with the end flaps that conveniently help keep your place, and the personal notes written on the front flap. Ashley is not only an author in the series, but she had a pivotal role in bringing it all together, and I couldn’t be more proud of all that she has accomplished. Definitely check out this study, for yourself or a woman in your life. You’ll be glad you did.

Keep up with Ashley by following her blog: ashleylinne.com

On Writing: 100,000 words

This week my novel tipped the word count at over 100,000 words. I’ve found that while writers tend to think in terms of word count and automatically have an idea of what 100,000 means, readers often want to know how many pages that is. Word count is a solid, tangible number, while page count is rather ambiguous in an unpublished work. The number of pages in a book depends on several factors, including format (paperback or hardcover), font, print size, front matter, back matter, chapters, sections… That being said, not that anyone is counting, but if my book were published in its current state, it would be somewhere around 300 pages, give or take 50 or so. But let’s not talk about my book being published in its current state. I’m already breaking out in hives.

Honestly, I never thought I could write a book that was 100,000 words long. Don’t get me wrong, I know I can be pretty wordy. I decided when I was ten years old that I would never be a short story writer. Novels are my thing. I love action and drama and fast-paced, quick-moving stories… in movies. In a book, I like to take my time to get to know characters and love them before things happen in their lives, while things are happening, and after the things happen. That’s what I love, so that’s what I write.

Characters take time to develop. Just like first impressions in real life, where you can make a snap judgment in five minutes and decide whether or not you’re going to like a person, very often you can tell within five pages of a book if you’re going to like a character enough to invest in them for the next 300 pages or so. But then there’s the fun of really diving in to what makes this person tick, watching relationships unfold and stretch and change, seeing how they respond in various situations and wondering if you would react the same way. That’s what’s fun about stories, isn’t it? Escaping your own life and immersing yourself in someone else’s, just for pure entertainment. Sometimes you even learn something along the way. Again, that’s what I love, so that’s what I write.

Still, when your novel is limping along at 55,000 words (barely a novella by most standards), which is where mine was a year and a half ago, 100,000 seems like an impossible target. When I embarked on this major rewrite, adding important things like a plot to my story, I set 80,000 as my target goal. Surely I couldn’t add 45,000 additional words to what I thought was already a fairly complete story, but 25,000 seemed reasonable. Then as I kept writing, and the plot and the characters kept developing, and one minor character kept demanding more of a role, I looked at my outline (yes, I do look at it sometimes) and thought, “This thing could go massive. Like, I’m not sure if it will be less than 130,000 words.” But I kept writing because I figured, hey, if I can add that many words, I can just as easily cut out that many when it’s time to get it into shape to try to submit it for publication. Then a few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I wrote a short piece of a scene that just popped into my head and thought, “Hey, you know what? This sounds like an ending.” So now I’ve been writing toward that, and I’m only a chapter or two away, so 110,000 is sounding like a really good total number of words for this draft. And let me be clear: it’s a draft. The kind of thing that only a few patient people who really love me would be willing to read through. It needs lots of work, still. But I’m much, much happier with it now than I was a year and a half ago. Who knows, maybe in another year and a half (or less!) I might have something that I’d be ready to let the whole world read. We’ll see. For now, I’m going to enjoy this moment, knowing that I’ve written more words in a single story than I ever have before, and focus on writing on to that ending!

(In case you’re wondering, this entire post is about 730 words)

On GOSPEL by J.D. Greear (and why everyone should read it)

I admit, I don’t often read nonfiction, and when I do, it’s usually because Greg recommended that I read it. Sometimes after I’ve read several novels, I feel like I need to read something real and true, just to get myself grounded in reality before diving back into fiction again. As usual, I asked Greg what I should read, and as usual, he suggested a winner.

I honestly think everyone should read this book. No joke. If you only read one book this year, read the Bible. If you read two, read the Bible and Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. (And if you read three, add my BFF’s upcoming book, Inseparable: Who I Am, Was, and Will Be In Christ.) In Gospel, J.D. Greear says a lot of things I’ve heard and read in the last few years, but I love the way he says it. He’s a smart guy, he’s got degrees and he pastors a big church, but he talks and writes like a dude that I could be friends with if I knew him.

If you’ve read this blog at all (other than my silly posts about movies and stuff) you’ll probably understand why this book spoke to my heart. It makes the claim, very simply, that everything we do as Christians is inspired by the gospel, motivated by the gospel, and empowered by the gospel. Put simply: it’s all about Jesus. Not about following a bunch of rules to check off all the boxes to make sure that we’re saved and that God loves us. Not about being a good example to the rest of the world about how we ought to live. Not about living in fear that God will strike us down if we obey. Because of Christ’s completed work on the cross, we can live in freedom to do the good things that God actually created us to do, because He loves us and we love Him, and because Christ made all of that possible. Greg just started a sermon series on Romans and one of the verses that keeps sticking in my mind is Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The gospel is the power that saves us and makes us new. The gospel. Not our own lame efforts.

Greear’s theology is definitely what people would call “Reformed,” that is, among other things, he has a very high view of God and His sovereignty.  He believes that everything God does is for His own good, that He is in control of all circumstances, and that He has a plan and purpose in every event that unfolds. Some people have issues with the Reformed crowd, but if I’m being honest I count myself as one of them in most points. This perspective that God is big enough to handle my issues, my inconsistencies, and my circumstances, whether or not I understand what He is doing, is okay with me. I don’t expect to understand God, so it doesn’t bother me that sometimes I don’t. I like things to make sense, to have a logical order to them, to be scientific and formulaic, so I can explain them. But some things defy explanation. My faith tells me that even when things don’t make sense to me, they make sense to God. If I could see things the way He does, I would understand why they are the way they are. I can’t always see them that way, but I have faith that He does, and sometimes that just has to be enough. The gospel is God’s plan for the world, the central theme of His story, and an incredible picture of who He is and why He is so great and unfathomable that we simply must call Him God.

The book is arranged in three parts: A basic introduction into the gospel and what Greear calls “The Gospel Prayer,” a detailed look at the parts of The Gospel Prayer, and ways that the gospel answers some of the questions we often have about life and Christianity. It also addresses how we often come at the gospel from a backward perspective, focusing on actions and behavior rather than on God’s work in Christ. It suggests caution toward many of the ideas we have been taught in churches about “doing things for God,” noting that while it is good to do good things, the reason why we do them should be motivated on our love for God which flows from our belief in the work He has done, not because we want God to love us for what we do.

In the chapter on gospel-centered churches, Greear does a masterful job of breaking down many of the “types” of churches that exist today, while ignoring confusing denominational labels. With each type of church, he points out the areas those churches often focus on instead of the gospel. While most of those areas of emphasis are not bad, and Greear actually agrees with and applauds many of them, the problem happens when churches replace the gospel with their favorite sacred cow, whether it be prosperity theology, the filling of the Holy Spirit, Calvinism, or anything else. The chapter on the church is, in my opinion, one of the most important chapters in the book. But if you skip the other chapters and read it first, or alone, I think you’ll miss the point.

Now for the part where I tell you why everyone should read this book. It’s not because it’s brilliantly written. The writing is good but I’m rather particular about such things and I found several problem spots (also I read it on Kindle and the formatting isn’t spectacular). It’s not because I agree with everything Greear says, although throughout most of the book, he says what I would like to say, only he says it better. A few times I thought, “Well, I’m not quite sure about that …” but I believe he’s right on in his presentation of the gospel and its vital importance in the lives of both believers and unbelievers. This book lays out, relatively simply, what the gospel is, how it changes our hearts and lives, and what that change can look like when it’s lived out in our homes and job and communities. Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, if you’ve ever wondered what Christians believe or why they do the things they do, read this book. I think (and I pray) that if you read it all the way through with an open mind and a humble heart, it might just change your life. It might just change mine.

What about you? Have you read this book? What did you think? Any recommendations for what I should read next?

On Trouble

I almost titled this post “On Suffering” but then I thought, do I even know what it means to suffer? There have been hard, hard times in my life, but when I look at people I know, or know of, or people I’ve never even heard of across the world who really, truly know how suffering looks and feels, I realize that I have no idea what suffering really means. Now, trouble is something else. I know a few things about that.

In my recent post On Waiting and Working, I quoted John 16:33, where Jesus promises His disciples: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart: I have overcome the world.” Since I posted that I can’t stop thinking about that verse. It’s like it’s on repeat in my head and I just keep thinking about the implications of it.

Trouble. I quoted the verse the way I learned it, in the old NIV. Other versions say “tribulations,” “trials and sorrows,” etc. But you get the idea. Trouble. That one word can encompass everything from the little inconveniences and disappointments to the great, tragic, horrible things that I don’t even want to talk about because I can’t imagine dealing with them. We all have trouble, some more than others, because we live, ever so briefly, in this world. It is a natural hazard of living and breathing every day. Now, one thing I keep asking myself is, why is that when we come to Jesus, who told us very clearly that in this world we will have trouble, we expect Him to take it all away? And then we’re disappointed when He doesn’t. Or even worse, we stumble into even more trouble and then blame it on Him. We wonder if He’s abandoned us, or if He’s punishing us, or if He hates us, or if He’s somehow refining us by putting us through hell on earth before bringing us home to heaven. I can’t condemn that kind of thinking because I’ve been there. But I think that maybe when we’re focusing on the trouble or how we are feeling in the midst of it or how we wish God would just intervene and take it away, maybe we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

I feel like I’ve been harping on this kind of thing lately but I suppose it’s because I’m so convicted about it. I have a real problem with thinking that my life is all about me. Or that it’s my life at all. Because well, it isn’t. It belongs to Christ. The trouble I have isn’t just mine, it’s His. All that pain and frustration and questioning and doubting is just part of the sin and pain and death that He bore on the cross. Everything that makes us feel overwhelmed and horrified and crushed, He felt it all when He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And what did He do with all that? He overcame it. He died, He was buried, He rose again, and He overcame this world and all the trouble that goes along with it.

I am so small-minded and present-focused. All I know is what I’ve learned and experienced in my 34 years in this world, and my poor little brain can’t even begin to imagine the vastness of eternity, but that is what Jesus promises is in store for those who believe in Him. Forever with Him, in His presence, at His feet, basking in the light of His glory, because He is worthy. It’s no wonder the Apostle Paul asked, what are the tiny troubles of our little lives in comparison to that (2 Cor. 4:15-18)? The good gifts that God showers on us every day, the troubles that darken our days and make us long for heaven, they are all for one purpose: So that we can shine God’s light into the lives of as many people that we possibly can, extend His grace to a world that needs it so desperately, and one day fall at His feet knowing that we brought as many souls with us as we could.

I’m not trying to minimize or ignore the pain that trouble causes us. It can break our hearts, rob us of loved ones, destroy our health, and strip us of everything that we value. That’s big stuff. Heart-rending, awful stuff. It can drive us from God or bring us to our knees. But whether our troubles make us feel closer to God or wonder why He feels so far away, reality is, He’s there. And He does have a greater purpose in it, to grow His Kingdom for His glory.

Our troubles are not about us. They are not what God is doing to us, what He is allowing in our lives for some reason that we hope He understands because we can’t, they don’t happen because God forgot about us or hates us. When we walk with Christ, when He is in us and we are in Him in this unfathomable life that He bought with His blood, they are His troubles, too. When I can’t figure out anything in life and I don’t know how I’m going to get through it, I know one thing: He’s got this. He has overcome the world. I don’t have to.

God, give me an eternal perspective, even if my mind can’t grasp it all. Let me keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of my faith, knowing that one day, everything else will fade away and I will see Him, not through eyes of faith, but through my very own eyes, transformed by His glory forever.