Fate & Faith


A true story, with some parts tweaked to protect others…

When the economy cratered a few years back, resulting in an unforeseen layoff, Barry spent day after day looking for work. Turned it into a job like everyone said he should. But if Barry’s new job of looking for a job was any indication, he would have enjoyed a more lucrative career selling water on the moon.

Barry was a Christian, as was his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Krysta. None of them understood why God would make it so hard for a humble, talented man like Barry to support his family.

In time, the job hunt was supplemented with plenty of book-reading and music-listening. Barry fell in love with the bravura passages of little-known author Guy Ames. In fact, that admiration for Ames convinced Barry to try his own hand at writing a novel. He entitled it Unfinished Business.

After five years of unemployment, in which Barry did anything he could find to bring in money, he hit the motherload. A high school buddy he had not talked with in over 20 years called him out of the blue after Googling him. Jim, who owned a growing company, had just become a Christian, and after praying one night, felt compelled to ask what had happened to Barry. The Internet told Jim what he wanted to know, and he wanted the esoteric skills Barry had. In fact, he offered his old friend twice as much money as Barry had ever made.

But the job wouldn’t start for six weeks. Having been miserly for years, Barry decided to do something to celebrate. Guy Ames was speaking at a small writing conference in San Diego. Barry thought he’d kill a bunch of birds with one small stone, so he called the conference leaders and found that a few spaces still existed. Barry snapped up one, bought a plane ticket, reserved a hotel room, and worked up an elevator pitch for Unfinished Business.

When he announced that he was making this small personal pilgrimage, his wife was happy for him. She had a fear of flying, so she wasn’t interested in going, but Krysta read a brochure on the conference and saw one of her favorite authors was attending too. Soon, the trip was a dad and daughter thing. Given that Krysta was getting married in a few months, both she and her dad considered it one last dad-daughter event before another man became more important in her life.

The night before their departure, Krysta heard a voice. Over the past six months, she had increasingly heard what sounded like a voice, but this time the voice said something that sounded like real words: Don’t go on that trip. Krysta was terrified. The feeling of dread was so strong, she barely slept a wink all night in her apartment–except when she finally dropped off an hour before she was supposed to get up for her flight.

Barry forgot to call over to Krysta’s place just before he left, and when he arrived at the airport, he found he had also forgotten to charge his cell phone AND he left the charger back on the counter in the kitchen. Still, Krysta’s roommates, some of her old sorority sisters from college, were ultradependable, so Barry knew Krysta wouldn’t be too late because the girls wouldn’t allow it.

But when an elderly lady on standby looked like she was going to be bumped, Barry thought he’d be a gentleman and let her take his place. Krysta was obviously delayed, and catching the later flight made sense. Barry surrendered his seat. The airlines promised they’d move him up to first class, Krysta too.

Krysta never made it to the airport, though. She missed an exit, and ended up stuck in the aftermath gridlock caused by a semi rollover on the highway.

Barry wasn’t sure what was happening with Krysta, but hearing one of his favorite bands blaring from the headphones of the young man sitting next to him told he should get on that plane and let Krysta figure it out. She was a big girl and could fix her own problems.

Fly like an eagle, to the sea.

Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me.

Barry was going to see that band when he got back. He already had the tickets; a second gift, but this time one Karen would like too.

Just 12 minutes before it was to land, Barry’s plane took a lightning strike to an engine. Normally, the lightning arrestor worked fine, but it had been replaced and reattached incorrectly by a mechanic. At the inquest, it came out that the mechanic had been up late partying after attending a rock concert, one given by the band Barry would never live to hear. The engine caught fire, and the wing of the plane lost integrity. The plane went down just off the coast of California, all 113 aboard perishing.

In the aftermath, Krysta told her mother about the voice, and they both held each other for a long time, stunned. Krysta’s fiancé called it a miracle. Karen and Kyrsta didn’t feel that was the best choice of words. Still, when she spoke at her father’s memorial service, Krysta found herself using that word too.

Guy Ames had to cancel his appearance at the workshop due to a ruptured appendix. He later felt that brush with death was a wake-up call. Four months of healing later, he  took his meager book earnings and launched a small software firm that Google bought, ensuring he never had to worry about money again. He never wrote anything else.

Just 11 days before her wedding, Krysta came down with what felt like the flu. At least that’s what the doctor told her. She stayed in bed to try to rest up, and that was where her roommates found her, dead. The autopsy showed a large, fast-growing brain tumor. She was 23.

One of Krysta’s roommates was so touched by what happened, the only way she could deal with it was through song. She and the other roommates formed a band and recorded the song. “Then She Was Gone” was a minor hit online, and the band Scarlet Queens, enjoyed the peculiarity of being an all-female death metal band, though they never made it big and folded a couple years later.

Life wasn’t good for the survivor. Like her daughter, Karen crawled into bed and stayed there. During her self-imposed beddedness, she could not keep her eyes off a pile of paper on Barry’s dresser. It was the manuscript for Unfinished Business–unfinished. Karen had never read one word of it.

On the 29th day of her exile, she took the manuscript down and spent the rest of the day lost in it. She admitted that this was a side of Barry she had never seen. The novel was actually superb, with deft characterizations and a killer story about an author who burns his writing career to the ground to start a software company that eventually grosses him a fortune. The novel had all the trappings of one of those mystical crossovers into the business book genre, filled with down-homey aphorisms about life, the corporate world, and spirituality. And Karen smelled money. Heaven knows Barry didn’t leave her anything.

Karen, who had not even an iota of creative authoring skill, was nonetheless a sharp-eyed editor. She tightened the narrative and found a publisher on just her fourth query letter.

Unfinished Business became a publishing phenomenon, with some claiming it changed their lives, and Karen became a wealthy woman.

She also became the target of every guy who could get her number. After one lothario took her for a couple million, she withdrew from public life. Money didn’t buy happiness, and loneliness ate at her soul. She missed her daughter and husband dreadfully. That weight turned to bitterness, and somewhere along the way, Karen and God parted ways. So much so, that when she died of lupus a few years later, she left the estate to American Atheists for a Better Tomorrow.

Now, what does that story say about God? About his sovereignty? About the work of the Enemy? About the mysteries of life?

How is it that the good fortune Barry received set in motion events that led to his death? Did God cause the lightning strike? Or the Enemy? Or dumb luck? Why did Barry’s act of kindness end in his death? And wouldn’t it have been more “fair” for the elderly woman to die instead? And what about the pointlessness of it all, with the writer Barry flew to see canceling? How is it that Barry wrote a book that mirrored that writer’s future life? What is the point of Krysta avoiding the plane crash only to die a few weeks later? And how can God allow all this to end in a huge wad of cash going to an atheist organization?

If you’re a Christian reading that story, no doubt you started to make connections. You tried to find some redemptive thread in it all, because that’s what we seem obsessed with: Making sense of life.

But what if there is no sense to be had in that story?

In the American Church today, we fall prey to a compulsion to find meaning in everything. If something doesn’t make sense on the surface, we have to make it make sense.

I think this is dangerous; it borders on divination.

That divination danger does scare some Christians, so much so that they flee in the opposite direction. To avoid being seen as crystal-ball gazers, even remotely, they chicken out of showing any faith.

Over at the normally reliable Parchment & Pen blog, C. Michael Patton shows us what happens when Christians blanch in the face of dealing with the vicissitudes of life and how we view God. In “Will God Protect My Children?” Patton has patiently nursed a redemptive relationship with a lost soul, but when that man asks the eponymous question, Patton rolls over and plays dead.

We have a case here of conflating the mistake of trying to scry sense out of life’s odd twists and turns with giving into the fear that we might be forced to explain God’s seeming lack of love for us when something goes wrong.

Can we make sense of everything in life? No. But can we trust God to make sense in Himself? We must. Anything else is not faith. At some point we must be able to say to that lost man that God does in fact protect our children and we must trust Him for that. Patton says the Scriptures don’t promise anything, but is that true?

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble,
    I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

–Psalm 91 NIV

That’s either true or it isn’t. If you’re a Christian, you know which it must be.

Jesus blessing the childrenThe story of Barry, his family, and the others who swirl around them told above is true–in a way. It contains bits and pieces of stories cobbled together. Regardless of its truth as a whole, the fact remains that it could be anyone’s story. We all have stories of strange coincidences and odd events that happen in life, sometimes lengthy ones. Our issue is when we attempt to draw any conclusions from those events and to create a supernatural narrative from them. The fact is, we just can’t. Unless we have some direct revelation from God that explains everything, 99.99% of the time we’re going to get the explanation wrong. We’re not God, and we are too limited to know how every piece fits together and for what reason.

However, what we must never do in the face of reality is to abdicate saying anything positive about how God operates. We know what His promises are. We have to be able to cling to those or else all of life goes off the rails. We can’t try to explain everything that happens in life, but neither should we deny that He is faithful just because we can’t guarantee understanding the fallout of a situation that may go horribly wrong. If we do, we might as well chuck the whole thing. Patton might as well just tell his lost friend, “You know what? Like you, I got nothin’.”

God help us if that’s where we’re heading in the American Church today.

9 Reasons Why Today’s Books on Christian Living Are Terrible


Bad, terrible, lousy, shallow booksI was sent an advance reader’s copy of a Christian book set to debut next week. Part-way through and I just want to toss it.

Anymore, I read little contemporary Christian nonfiction. Though I graduated from a Christian college with a degree in Christian Education (now called, trendily enough, Spiritual Transformation), I find most books in that field and in general Christian Living written today border on the insufferable. As a result, it’s all I can do to make it past the first few pages with my sanity intact.

Here’s why:

1. Paid, professional pastors who write books about how normal people should live are NOT normal people. Anymore, the disconnect just seems more and more glaring. When paid, professional pastors who have gestated for decades in the safe womb of institutional Christian ministry write about how the everyday working man should live his life, those pastors have no idea what the world is like outside their artificial womb. And that naiveté actually seems to be getting more pervasive not less.

2. Really, I don’t care about all their credentials either. Read a book on Christian living from 100 years ago and I can promise you the author did not spend page after page talking about his credentials or casually dropping on the page all the wonderful things he has done that should convince you he’s an expert worthy of following. Authors of 100 years ago let the Holy Spirit establish credibility through the spiritually astute words on the page.

3. Drawing on illustrations that apply to only 0.01% of people won’t help anyone. So you’re writing a book about drawing closer to Jesus, but every illustration comes out of your life in a Christian commune. That may be great if the point of the book is how to start a Christian commune, but for everyone else who doesn’t live in a Christian commune, well…

4. Do I really need to have sectarianism and branding/marketing ever before me? I don’t recall Christian books from yesteryear constantly shilling for the author’s brand of Christianity. Books back then seemed to focus on Jesus more and less on this denomination or that. And even if an author had a clear denominational background, it wasn’t so pervasive on the page. Today, in cases where the author started a nondenominational, unaffiliated church, the constant on-page marketing campaign for the church doesn’t help either. Same goes for conferences or parachurch ministries.

5. To the shallow, all things are shallow, including the book they just wrote on how to be deep. Maybe it’s me, but today’s books on Christian living seem obvious. I know I’m not a babe in Christ anymore, but too many of those books ramble with stories about how the author did such and such, and they never get around to pressing in deeper. I’m always startled by how much more reasoned and filled with rare wisdom older Christian books are. Maybe Christians of 200 years ago were just deeper people and knew the Lord more intimately.

6. Christian publishers give too many book deals to callow dudes who haven’t lived. Yes, I am getting older, but I find it wrong that so many authors of bestselling books on Christian living are young hotshots running a trendy megachurch everyone is trying to emulate. Give me someone with some life experience instead. A guy who has buried a quarter of his congregation has a lot more to say about life than some 35-year-old dude who wears bowling shirts, can quote The Big Lebowski, and loves to drop in casual conversation what microbrews he drinks.

7. And why is it that all the young dudes always quote each other? Sometimes it seems as if Christianity started 30 years ago, if many of today’s books are any indication. This is especially true of books that discuss ministry models. It’s as if no one before today did anything worthwhile in the name of Jesus. In addition, a friend noted that the only way to make money blogging is to write a blog about making money blogging, and I wonder if that circular focus afflicts too many Christian nonfiction titles today. The way to sell Christian books on a topic is to get all your buddies who also sell Christian books on that topic to refer to your stuff in their books. The incestuousness of it all bugs me. That’s also a recipe for not only multiplying errors but also for believing too much of your group philosophy’s press.

8. Stop with the constant reference to your other books. If you’re going to publish a new book, don’t spend half of the new book referring to to something you wrote in a previous book that I’ll have to read before I can make sense of what is written in the new book. I get that you need to make a living through your writing. Great. How about achieving that noble goal by writing better books?

9. Where’s Jesus? We know Waldo is hiding amid the crowd, but why must Jesus be reduced to lurking amid the plethora of words in a book on living the Christian life? People are dying for Jesus. They’re not dying to hear an author ramble about his favorite video game and what life lessons can be drawn from playing Master Chief in Halo. I don’t care how big that pastor’s megachurch is or how fast it’s growing. Jesus’ Church is bigger. Tell me and everyone else about Jesus. Christian books from long ago did.

The Christian life deserves better. I wish I could find more of that better in the pages of today’s bestselling books on Christian living.

Too Much Grace?


One of my projects for the summer was to read the New Testament out loud with my son. We finished a couple days after summer ended.

I’ve read through the entire Bible a few times, and through the New Testament more times than I can remember. But I had not read straight through the New Testament in perhaps five years. That was certainly too long, but we have a tendency in the Church to break down everything into acceptable chunks rather than dealing with larger wholes, so I suspect my failing is more common than not.

This time through the NT, one theme kept hitting me in the face. John sums it up:

Everyone who has been born of God does not commit sin, because His seed remains in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.
—1 John 3:9 MKJV

Whiter than snowWe Protestants love to talk about grace. At one point, we loved to talk about holiness too. Today, we don’t talk much about that second one at all.

What struck me hard in my read-through of the NT this time was that every writer of every book warned the Church about sin. Believers were commanded not to sin. Believers were warned of the consequences of sin. The writers were pretty darned serious that Christian faith and sin cannot coexist. The Book of Revelation holds nothing back regarding what happens to those who sin and those who do not.

The Bible makes it clear that we believers are commanded not to sin. We are also commanded on the flip side: to be righteous. If this is a command, then it must be something we have some control over.  If we are told, “Don’t do that!” or “This you must do!” then some means exists for us to take action or else the command is pointless.

Some might argue that these commands sound too much like New Testament Law. Maybe. But they are there in the pages of the NT nonetheless.

I see Christians today excusing all manner of bad behavior under the blanket of grace. We seem to have room for all manner of grace for all manner of sin. I’m not sure we have the same room for holiness though.

When Jesus says that calling your brother a fool is murder, and the Bible says God won’t let murderers inherit His kingdom, do we take that seriously? Do I even have to ask that question? Because the answer today seems to be that we don’t. At all. Or else we believers would look more distinct from the unrighteous hordes who have chosen the wide, sin-strewn way that leads to destruction.