The Little Cog That Wouldn’t

Once there was a really big machine. It was made up of a bunch of large wheels that spun.

But in order for those wheels to spin, there were many smaller gears and cogs.

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One day the machine was churning and one of the little cogs asked where they were headed. One of the larger gears told him.

“The wheel that turns me let me in on our mission. This is machine is a weapon. Every day we go out and destroy villages.”

“Villages?” the Little Cog asked. “You mean buildings?”

“Just the buildings? Hardly. This is meant to kill. Crush, destroy, burn.” The gear laughed at him.

“Not just soldiers?”

“Nope. This machine is meant to kill civilians. Mostly children, women and old people. Those who can’t fight. That will demoralize the soldiers and make the land easier to conquer.”

Then the machine ground to a halt. It rested for the night.

The Little Cog thought and thought into the night.

The next day, the machine tried to start.

The wheels all started to spin. And the gears all started to spin. And the cogs all started to turn…except for one.

The Little Cog would not budge. And as it held up the rest of the killing machine, the gear connecting to it stopped. So did other cogs. And other gears. Finally the wheels could no longer turn.

And the machine couldn’t move. The villagers evacuated that day; all were saved.

All thanks to the difference made by the Little Cog that wouldn’t.

The Little Cog That Wouldn’t

Three Spiritual Weapons

Something is horribly wrong with the world. The Church is God’s gift to set things right. But we have been losing our saltiness in the west.

The enemy of humanity has his eye on the Church. He attacked us long before. He hates God and has a special grudge against His children.

Even when he can’t lead us from the fold he can still effectively neutralize us.

Here are the four biggest weapons I have seen at play.

  1. Division. Every time a number of divorces occurred at our church home, my minister dad would look for a new position. Divorce and other quarrels are a spiritual disease.
  2. Coldness. It’s not hatred. Just not caring about other members. The person worshipping by her can just walk out and go to Hell and the cold hearted person won’t care.
  3. Fear. This can come from many things. I’ve almost left the church because I feared rejection.
  4. Lies. False doctrine. But at least as often these are lies we tell ourselves. Or Satan puts in our heads. Temptations, threats and discouragement.

The three spiritual weapons God has put at our disposal.

  1. Unity. Let us pray what Jesus prayed in the garden. Lord make us one as a church as You and the Father are One in Heaven. John 17:20-26
  2. Perfect love. Pray for perfect love to cast out the fear. 1 John 4:18
  3. Wisdom. This will help us see through the lies of the enemy. James 1:5-8

Going offline for a few days. Been so consumed with current events I’ve neglected my inner events and eternity.

I need to pray more and keep focused on the only One Who really matters.

Three Spiritual Weapons

Letters about the Tribulation; a Download; a Link

From Rachel Nichols to Dr. Jack Cottrell (my dad’s former seminary professor)

Hi Dr. Cottrell.

From watching current events I’ve been wondering if we may have entered the Great Tribulation.

I guess maybe this is the wrong question to ask an amillineal.

How should we Christians respond if this is so?

The thought shouldn’t fill me with despair. But I do feel inclined to fatalism and spiritual passivity. Like I imagine Calvinism would effect me.

Maybe I should just continue to act as if it weren’t so? Even if I suspect it is.

Rachel

Rachel, this is always a valid question. One of my most recent books addresses it specifically….chapter six: “Are We Headin’ for Armageddon?” I am attaching a copy here. Pay special attention to the concept of “deliberate ambiguity” near the end.

Jack Cottrell

Letters about the Tribulation; a Download; a Link

Another Title

Maxwell’s Metamorphoses

Told as a series of journal entries by Dr. Curt Maxwell an unreliable narrator. Principal of a small town high school in Indiana. He runs his school as a tyrannical control freak causing troubles for students and faculty alike.

One evening, while Maxwell is working late, a mysterious young man in white enters his office. He warns him that he’s sent from Heaven to warn Curt to repent. Otherwise God will punish him in a way Curt will not like.

Defiantly Curt tells him he has nothing to repent of. “I’m a decent, law abiding man who has always played by the rules.”

The Messenger says, “Your judgment will be the rules. You appeal to the Law. By that Law you will be judged. Like every student here….Severity is your only hope.”

After the visit Dr. Maxwell collapses on the floor in a faint. On coming to the next day he discovers how severe his punishment is. He is forced to attend Northwest High School as a fifteen-year-old freshman.

The only hope for earning an end to his punishment? Following basic rules of moral decency (harder to obey than they seem) and every last rule of the hundreds he wrote down in the student handbook for the year. IF he does this perfectly he will have the right to demand his punishment be lifted.

Every time the Messenger reappears he has a checklist of all the rules Curt has broken. Despite his best efforts Curt cannot live by his own law. After repeated failures depression sets in as Curt despairs of ever getting his life back.

This is already written. Going over it one last time before getting it formatted, paginated and posted with three other e-books on Kindle, Smashwords and other platforms. This will also be out in paperback.

Like Flannery O’Connor I strive to show the work of grace in the life of one of us wretched sinners. Not sure what that hard headed southern writer of the realist school would think of it. But I’m sure she’d be happy I love her writings and have been inspired as a Christian as well as a writer by them. Different though they are from my spec pieces.

I owe the idea of this story to my Mom. When I was fifteen I was having problems in high school after we moved before my sophomore year. Too smart and homely and awkward. Mom suggested what would happen if a professionally successful middle aged educator reverted to age fifteen and were seen to have emotional issues.

The movies have tackled this but I flatter myself that this is a more realistic depiction of such a surreal, very hypothetical event. Partaking of the night dream more than the day dream.

Kafka got away with his gem “The Metamorphosis” because of all the realistic elements it contains aiding the suspension of disbelief. Yes, I owe the consumptive Czech surrealist a debt as well. Not to mention C.S. Lewis who exposed me to the device of the unreliable narrator long before I ever heard of Nabokov. (Age 6 was when I learned about this in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, though not till college did I learn the term. Lewis uses this device masterfully in Till We Have Faces.)

Another influence would be George MacDonald. The last part of this book would not exist if I hadn’t read his glorious novella The Wise Woman.

Another Title

Show. Don’t Preach.

Few things ruin a work of fiction–whether a short story, a novel, a play or movie–as much as preaching to the audience. (This is becoming more of a problem with secular films too.)

I highly recommend The Wind in the Willows for children. It’s up there with Charlotte’s WebThe HobbitThe Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland. 

A teacher I really liked, Mr. F read us both Charlotte’s Web and A Wind in the Willows. Both well written books with no heavy handed Moral to beat a fourth grader over the head with. Yet both are moral books kids can learn good character qualities from.

Instead of letting us figure out these things for ourselves Mr. F felt obliged to lecture us on the naughtiness of certain characters.

“Who do you think would make a better friend? Charlotte the spider? Or Templeton the rat?”

Obviously Templeton was not the hero. The title is kind of a clue. He’s more of a comedy relief that E.B. White wrote to be a jerk.

Then around the middle of The Wind in the Willows we come to the adventures of Mr. Toad in which a series of dumb and just plain wrong choices lead to tribulations this protagonist must undergo to learn his lessons and mature. Almost a coming of age story.

One of Mr. Toad’s character flaws is his pursuit of the Next Big Thing. Generous and kind-hearted though he is, he is also a spendthrift, a braggart, and so impulsive it gets himself and those around him into trouble. Not your standard hero nor villain nor even a comic relief/jerk.

Toad is a moving character. And boy does he move!

Anyhow Mr. F worried we weren’t able to figure out that auto theft was wrong. Or heedlessness or lying to friends or wastefulness. So he would go on and on for several minutes after reading us a chapter about how wrong it was to have “a restless spirit” like Mr. Toad.

We had been hearing Greene describe how Toad was thrown into jail for several weeks, escaped by wearing a humiliating disguise, had to throw himself from a train, went without food and slept outdoors as he trekked home, got thrown off a barge, and almost drowned before coming home to find a bunch of weasels had moved in….no lecture required for kids. Acting this way provided no temptations.

Preaching is like over-explaining a joke. It also insults the intelligence of a reader. Good writers get readers/listeners to think and meet them halfway.

Usually the preaching is like exposition. We no longer have the omniscient narrator talk directly to the “dear reader.” A side character will lecture the hero or the hero will lecture the villain or someone else on how evil X is.

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Show. Don’t Preach.

Pursuit of the Arete in Fiction

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A question rolling around in my mind lately is “What is fiction good for?”

This is a very important question if we’re going to figure out what makes quality fiction.

There is an ancient Greek word arete. It can’t be properly translated into English.

It could be used as a synonym for virtue in some cases, but also means “fulfilling its intended purpose.” It’s linked to excellence and efficiency of function.

What we need to ask before beginning a piece of writing–or any art–is “What is the purpose of this poem/painting/statue/symphony?”

When it comes to fiction–especially as a Christian–I’ve always been troubled at the apparent frivolity. Is it a waste of time?

But trying to turn fiction into a sermon is annoying and hurts the art form. I’ve nothing against good sermons. But trying to hybridize them with a novel or movie is not a good idea. (Unless you’re John Bunyan. I prefer to think of Pilgrim’s Progress as a sermon written as a free verse poem when I read it. Probably the authorial intent.)

There are two basic intentions for any piece of writing. To inform or to entertain. Or both.

Some people have said fiction is immoral because it is at best a waste of time. At worst it’s a form of lying. St. Augustine made that argument against narrative poetry; in his days that was the only fiction.

Many have a cynical view even if they don’t see novels/short stories as poor time stewardship. Forget artistic integrity and give the public whatever they want says the jaded businessman. Anything that makes money equals a success.

The sentimentalist who wolfs down sweet romances when she isn’t binge watching Hallmark rom coms or Pureflix says if it makes her feel good that’s really all that matters.

Actually I agree more with the sentimentalist than the businessman. If money is what you want technical writing or ad copy or grant proposals–useful information–is ideal.

But is fiction merely entertainment? If so, why do we have classes to help us distinguish well written stories from poorly written? After all many of the latter sell well. And many writers of the former need day jobs.

Actually I agree with the Christians who write for Netflix or write Amish romances for the CBA that fiction should inspire as well as amuse. But inspiration requires more than good feelings.

The best longer works of fiction–movies or novels–provide an emotional arc. Similar to the goal of “catharsis” found in Greek tragedies. I read a translation of Oedipus Rex as a college freshman and was surprised at how the story moved me.

In his struggle to live an honorable, virtuous life and shun the horrific sins of patricide and incest this well meaning young man stumbles into these very acts unawares. My dad and I disagree on the “message” or theme. He sees it as hopeless fatalism. I see it more as a depiction of how human arrogance and self righteousness leads to the very sins we loathe. The Greeks had the natural law even without the Law of Moses. But the Law cannot save. Only condemn.

There are three ways fiction/drama can inspire us as Christians.

  1. Through themes. The dangers of self righteousness. Oedipus Rex. Sophocles. How all natural laws can be twisted into something worse than hatred without God’s love. Till We Have Faces. C.S. Lewis. The sacrificial atonement. Billy Bud. Herman Melville. The power and wisdom of divine weakness and foolishness in the face of overwhelming evil. The Ring Cycle. J.R.R. Tolkien.
  2. Through depicting the beauty of virtue and the ugliness of sin. Phantastes. The Wise Woman. George MacDonald. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis. Cry the Beloved Country. By Alan Paton.
  3. It can help us to love others more easily–including our enemies. The secret is complex, well written, nuanced characters. Les Miserables. Victor Hugo. Anna Karenina. Tolstoy. Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky. I find the works of Jane Austen and the best of L.M. Montgomery helped me treat my annoying neighbors with more tolerance and charity.

I’m going to write more on this topic, with a couple sample short stories for each of the above.

Pursuit of the Arete in Fiction

50 Shades of Pastels

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For a long time I wouldn’t read Christian novels. Just nonfiction and classical fiction. Much of that was by Christians. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsksy, the Bronte sisters, and Flannery O’Connor.

That last writer taught me that Catholics can understand grace too. My Protestant school told me they couldn’t, but were too focused on performing good deeds to get to Heaven.

Legalism is not confined to Catholics. Nor even religious people. There was a lot of it in the Evangelical subculture where I grew up.

This subculture encouraged me to confine my reading to “good Christian” romance novels. Tolkien was okay. But we girls should confine our minds to sweet, nice. little books that didn’t tax them too much.

Let me make it clear, no one told me, “Rachel if you read high fantasy or science fiction you’ll burn in Hell.” I was twelve at the time and eager to please. It was not my father, nor any men, but a bunch of older church ladies who got me hooked on the stuff. They did it because I let them do it.

I felt abnormal and weird. Not feminine enough somehow. I read Christian romances, worried about my hair/skin/clothes and dieted all the time in the hopeless endeavor of becoming attractive (less than 100 pounds in those anorexic eighties) and girly.

Here are the kind of books I read. Mostly between ages 12 and 20.

The covers were all pink, powder blue, lavender, lemon, and white. With a slender, doe-eyed girl of 18 or 19 in a pretty dress and picture hat. Her figure was closer to Kate Moss’s than Raquel Welsh’s. Curves are unsightly and unholy.

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Prairie romances by Janette Oke and western/”contemporary” romances by Grace Livingston Hill primarily. What the oeuvres lacked in quality they tried to compensate for in quantity.

They had mostly the same plot. A girl no older than 18 or 19 sets out to find her place in the big, bad world.

She meets a bad man or two with nefarious–but understated–erotic evil on his mind. Sometimes he would allude to wanting her. Sans clergy. Bwoohahaha.

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What is a pure-minded ingenue to do? Clutch her pearls and swoon away. Then Mr. Badman would depart. Stopping only to kick a puppy on the way out.

Sometimes Mr. Badman would want to marry her under the proviso that she do something horrible. Like send her siblings away to an orphanage, desert her aging parents, or wear lipstick and rouge. Sometimes she would agree to marry him, but then catch him smoking a cigar while drinking and swearing as he played cards.

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Then she’d meet Mr. Goodman. As handsome and noble as a cardboard cut-out. Usually he’d save her from Badman. On rare occasions the ingenue had to rely on her own devices–like arranging a wedding on the sly so her snobby mother couldn’t interfere with her marriage to the hero.

These books were typically 200 pages long. The heroin was nice but unsaved on page 1. Sometimes a little worldly. (She never did anything too dissolute though. Like wear lipstick.)

By page 100 she’d fall under conviction of her sinfulness. Usually from hearing Mr. Goodman say something spiritually profound. Such as, “I don’t drink.”

By page 150 someone would lead her through the Sinner’s Prayer. By page 175 Mr. Goodman would propose out of the blue, with no sign beforehand that he returned her love.

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Pages 190-200 were dedicated to descriptions of the Wedding.

The guests would go away under conviction due to the absence of drinking and dancing at the reception.

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These books taught me valuable life lessons. Such as:

  1. If you pray, don’t drink/smoke/chew, and eat your veggies God will send Mr. Right into your life by the time you turn 21.
  2. Purity will automatically turn you into a slender blonde goddess all men will chase after.
  3. Following Jesus is a means to the end of finding Mr. Perfect and establishing a middle class home in suburbia.
  4. The only thing God wants for all women is marriage and motherhood. If you’re a virgin all your life (like Corrie ten Boom, Gladys Aylward, Amy Carmichael) you’re a failure as a Christian and God can’t use you. The Cross is not enough. You need to put a ring on it and pop out lots of babies.

Nowhere do you find these morals in the Bible. In fact the Bible itself contains spicy, problematic stories those little, old ladies who taught Sunday school never actually read. Just skimmed over in the KJV to avoid mental images of stories like Dinah’s angry brothers tricking the men of Shechem or how the resourceful but morally ambiguous Tamar obtained her widow’s pension.

Bad art often reflects narrow mindedness which kills creativity. And if you’re going to slap the Christian label on a book as a marketing strategy shouldn’t you try to ensure a higher quality since it will reflect on Christ after all?

50 Shades of Pastels

Grappling with Grace

Throughout my childhood I struggled to believe in God’s love. I could believe in His existence, His power, His wisdom, His holiness. But I could not believe He loved me, sinner that I was.

I knew my parents loved me. But they weren’t as holy as God so their standards were lax. Or so I reasoned.

I was a willful child. Prone to disobedience and ugly fits of rage.

It didn’t help that a Sunday school teacher frequently rhapsodized on the wrath of God and the horrors of Hell but made no mention of grace. Or explained why Jesus chose to be executed so horribly.

We were only preschoolers, but if we were old enough to tell about Hell we were surely old enough to explain about God’s plan of Salvation. I struggled throughout my childhood with the concept of grace.

Modify my outward behaviors as I would, my inner person would go astray and do her own thing.

One question I frequently asked myself.

If God is all knowing and all powerful and all holy why doesn’t He blast me into oblivion when He sees what I think and say and do?

The answer is God is merciful and patient. As I have grown in my Christian walk I no longer struggle quite so much with sin either. Even my addiction to food is better now.

I couldn’t sleep at night and frequently wept in terror at the prospect of the Second Coming or Judgment Day. This sounds “crazy” to many, but the Puritans wouldn’t have seen it this way. Our culture views it as a sickness because a lack of guilt and no fear of God is normal for our times.

In my teens I quit focusing on my own sins. Not because I had come to appreciate God’s grace but because I chose to focus on others’ sins. I compared my outer works with their outer works, and by my own standards though not the biblical ones exactly came out even or ahead. Of course I gave myself a break for intentions and having a bad day–while not doing the same for my neighbor.

I became very image conscious and obsessed with how others viewed me. When my dad got fired from a church, the woman who convinced her husband to fire him and evict us was a mentor. An older friend of sorts.

Her betrayal cut me to the core.  It’s hard not to personalize it.

I went into a shell, blaming myself for all that went wrong. In the place we moved to I avoided talking. I would only say the wrong thing anyhow.

Things looked better in college. But my inner demons followed me.

Then something horribly scandalous and shameful happened to me in college. The degradation made me want to die.

I spent the next decades in hiding. My life was full of existential angst. I doubted my own soul and humanity.

I realized that you can be a self righteous hypocrite with all sorts of odious traits and not go to church. So staying out of church was no solution to avoiding hypocrites and sinners.

Eventually I came home. My physical health is broken. I’m alone at 46 and living on nothing but my SSRI money.

Yet I have peace despite it all. Despite my sins I know He loves me. In the midst of my suffering His suffering became meaningful. This caused me to realize how great His love must have been for me despite everything I have done or suffered.

Life is short. Soon all suffering and sorrow will end. Only peace and joy will remain in His Kingdom of Love.

Grappling with Grace

Unsafe Christianity

My dad and I attended church again last Sunday. It brought joy to us both.

Dad is seventy and the associate minister. I’m in my mid-forties but have autoimmune diseases.

We’re both high risk groups. But we’ve stayed away long enough.

We have taken precautions. Sterilize every surface we can. Keep the chairs widely spaced so only families/roommates are near. Everyone wears a mask except the preacher facing from at least six feet away up front. Lots of hand sanitizer. No handshakes in the foreseeable future.

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It’s doubtful people were more terrified of the Black Death which wiped out nearly half of Europe. Yet, please observe the conditions at our church are far more sanitary than the average Walmart, Meijers, or Target.

But suddenly, the tiniest risk makes people sob and swoon and hunker down in fear. (Although the fear grows less when they shop at Walmart somehow.)

How safe was it to go to church in ancient Rome? Do you think it was safe to refuse to worship Caesar Nero as a god and declare the Lordship of Christ instead?

To this day, around the world, people have continued to assemble in underground churches though they know it’s a dangerous thing that could cost them their lives. They take precautions to keep it secret and go.

Did the ten Booms or Bonhoeffer play it safe during the Holocaust? Did the Allied forces win the day at Normandy by being careful and avoiding danger?

These were much bigger risks–with far greater odds of dying than of dying from the virus if you catch it.

We’re a nation of thanophobes. Yes, the fear of death can be irrational if it’s excessive and counterproductive. Howard Hughes died, regardless of the great care he took of his health. All cowards and hypochondriacs die–just like war heroes, fire fighters and Christian martyrs.

According to the Bible we’re supposed to take risks. Remember the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30?

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” Matthew 25:26-27 NIV

Nowhere in the Bible will you find the words, “Well done, good and cautious servant. You played it safe and never took the slightest risk.”

 

Unsafe Christianity

Finished! On to Future Projects

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Finally completed my first draft of Anemia. Chronic muscle cramps, eye surgery and the sin of sloth delayed me.

I need to go over it at least a couple times. Maybe hire a copy editor off Fiverr.

My next project is a book of fables I may illustrate with line drawings in chapbook form. I could offer it for free without the illustrations and those who really like it could order the finished project.

Another thing I’m doing during this crisis is sending out homemade post cards to every church member. Especially those afraid to attend now. Something physical to hold may cheer their hearts even if they have internet.

Every afternoon I phone someone lonelier than me.

But what really troubles me is how selfish this crisis has made us. Not only do I have low rent housing and $800 a month from the government, but I’m getting extra now. It doesn’t sound like much, but I only have myself and my cat to feed.

Meanwhile, small business owners and many others struggle to make it. With all those on unemployment many are falling between the cracks.

We Christians should do what the Philippians and other early churches did. Many of us still have money. Others have lost everything.

I’m trying to figure out a way we can give to those in need using online resources. Tithing is not enough now.

This project is really on my heart now.

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Let’s pray for those harmed by the riots. The weird thing is this is no worse than the Spanish Flu yet it’s turning us all into monsters.

My pet peeves are healthy, rich people under fifty who ignore the high deaths in nursing homes. Only lately has anyone expressed concern at their grandparents’ deaths and asked why nothing has been done to protect them. (Beyond banning visitors.)

These same people post about various hobbies on social media but rail against how selfish that unemployed hairdresser is who can’t feed her kids. No one offers her a dime. Just lectures how she owes it to everybody to let her kids go hungry till the government check arrives.

If a woman collapses in a store, nobody offers her any assistance. Too risky. The obvious thing to do would be taking her aside, making sure she was okay and calling 911. You can quarantine afterward like Jesus did after touching the lepers he healed.

(It’s a very minor risk too. We’re a nation of cowards who can’t be inconvenienced by others’ suffering. Lock down is a great excuse to only live for your own comforts and pleasures. Probably why so many enjoy it.)

Far worse than the lost income is how it’s destroying whatever remnants of compassion or justice remain in our culture. How this must grieve the heart of God!

 

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Do you think THIS was comfortable or convenient for our Lord?

Finished! On to Future Projects