Hiatus

September 30, 2008

 

Staci and Dennis are taking the week off from blogging this week to put the finishing touches on Dennis’ second book from Spirit Light Publishing, “Sharon’s Song.” Watch for details here and at www.dennisbates.com  next week.”


Stage or Altar?

September 25, 2008

By:  Staci Stallings 

Plastic Christians. You know the kind. They know all the words, spout all the rules, sing all the songs, join everything, and they look really good doing it, too. Their suits are pressed. Their ties are straight. Their dresses are the mint of modesty. And yet, it all seems too good, too perfect.  All plastic, no feeling.

 Recently I came face-to-face with the plastic Christian in me. Oh, she talked a good game. To the world, she looked good in her deeds.  She was no doubt Christian, but plastic nonetheless.

 You see, deeds done out of fear of being found less than the perfect Christian are dead deeds–no matter how good they look. A song I heard by Casting Crowns puts it this way:

 Am I the only one that’s traded an altar for a stage?

 Now before you jump on the bandwagon of spirit-bashing the choir or the readers or those in other visible ministries, I suggest as Jesus said, that you look first at yourself. If you are without sin here, then you may cast a stone.

 These words are not talking about the more visible ministries in the church. They are not meant to say, never sing in the choir, never volunteer for a visible ministry. They invite you to look at WHY you are joining. More than that, they are talking about you and your walk every day with Christ. Is it a performance or a sacrifice? Are you on the stage or on the altar?

 If you’re not sure, from experience, ministry of performance looks like this:  you say all the right words, but your heart feels very few of them.  You read the Bible religiously, go to church without fail, you can recite all the rules and the prayers as well–but it all feels empty as if you are going through all the motions because that’s what’s expected.  You join the organizations, help with the youth, volunteer for every fundraiser, attend classes, teach classes.  You serve and serve and serve until you’ve got no more to give, and then you find a way to give some more.  You feel burned out and used up, and yet there are still people hurting, still more you should give. You want to live out the Christian life, but the reality for you is, it’s tiring work.

 That’s performance.  Performance is going on your own ability, choosing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over resting in the Tree of Life.

 Things look and feel very different when you’re on the altar. When you’re on the altar, the comprehension of your smallness when compared with His enormity is reassuring–not judgmental, frightening, and depressing.  You suddenly realize you can’t, but He can. That understanding frees you to jump into situations where failure in the world’s eyes is a real possibility, but even if you fail when He whispered the task on your heart, you know that somehow from His perspective, even that failure is a victory. Better, you trust that it’s a victory and move forward in confidence–not because you think you can do it, but because you know you don’t have to–He will.

On the altar when you read the Bible, you read it because it’s fascinating, because you hear Him speaking to you through it–not because you have to or because you’re supposed to. Prayers might be memorized or they might well be, “Hey, God. It’s me, so glad You’re here.”  Either way, they feel like a personal friendship rather than an empty exercise in pleasing a God you suspect will never be pleased no matter how much you do.

On the altar, you let go of the driving need to prove anything to anybody.  You just are. You open your life to Him, just as a sacrificed animal on the altar is cut open, so are you. In a very real way, you die to who you were, to your own ability, to your own performance. Impressing others pales in comparison with being real and being honest about your fears, about your failures, and about who you really are.  You suddenly have no desire to wear the mask of plastic Christianity, and the more it is stripped away by His loving, accepting presence, the more you begin to allow others in your presence to remove theirs.

As I thought about the concept of stage or altar, performance or sacrifice, the story of Cain and Abel slid into my consciousness.  Has there ever been a more perfect example of what performance-based Christianity leads to?

There’s Cain tilling his little performance heart out, thinking how pleased God is going to be with this offering and being pretty pleased with his offering before it even gets to God.  How could God not be impressed? After all, Cain reserved the best of his harvest for the Lord.  But when he presents the offering to God, God shrugs.  Instantly Cain gets angry. How dare the Lord not fawn over his offering!

Then, in walks Abel who presents his offering to the Lord.  Abel, innocent, trusting, a sacrifice personified.  And the Lord is pleased with Abel’s gift.  This infuriates Cain who rises up, and in his jealousy and anger, kills his brother.

Are you Cain in your Christian walk?  Do you look around and become envious of someone else’s service, of someone else’s gifts?  Do you judge those who aren’t as Christian as they should be?  Are you completely sure that God will accept your gifts over someone else’s because yours are so obviously better? Do you work for God, or does God work through you?

Take it from someone who was on that stage for far too long:  It’s a lonely, miserable, rotten place to be.  More over, as scary as being on the altar sounds, the freedom it affords is worth every spotlight you have to give up.

So, are you on the stage or the altar? 


No More Tears

September 24, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

One of the greatest blessings I ever received was a full complement of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. They were all alive when I was born, and to some degree or other I remember something about all of them.

 

One of my great grandmothers collected donkey figures. She had hundreds of them, and yes that is how she voted. She’s the same woman who fell out of a pear tree in her back yard when she was in her late 80’s and broke her foot.  When the doctor asked her what she was doing in the pear tree, she said simply, “Somebody had to pick them and the best ones are always at the top of the tree.”

 

I learned how to hit a softball because one of my great grandfathers, who was also nearly 80 at the time, took me out to the back yard and pitched to me hour after hour. He taught me how to watch the ball swing level and stay out of grandma’s flowers when the ball went into them. He got the ball then because he said she wouldn’t yell at him as much.

 

One of my grandmothers taught me how to laugh; she had the best laugh I have ever heard, and the other one taught me not to take myself too seriously. She could tease with the best of them. She also made the best chicken and noodles from scratch I have ever tasted. One of my grandfathers took me to my first major league baseball game more than 50 years ago. The Cubs lost to the Phillies 3-2, but he bought me a Cub’s hat anyway and told me to wear it proudly. I wish I still had it the way they played this year. My other grandfather taught me how to add and subtract in my head and that ice cream tastes better when you pour corn flakes on top of it and have at least two flavors at a time.

 

My mother taught me to love learning (she taught, of course) and my father taught me how to stick to a job and do it right, even if takes longer that way. He also taught me that sometimes it’s better to be quiet and keep your mouth shut; I’m still working on that one.

 

All of these people are gone now, except for the memories I have, which are truly priceless, and just as I remember them, I remember the tears I shed when the most important people in my life died one by one. The memories of those tears are just part of our lives here. But there is one Bible verse that has always given me great consolation when the tears came in the past and when they still do from time to time.

 

Revelation 21:4 says this:

 

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 

I know this isn’t the most theologically correct interpretation of that verse, but here’s what it means to me: laughter, the smell of homemade chicken and noodles in grandma’s kitchen, corn flakes on ice cream, Cub’s baseball caps and holding my grandpa’s hand, the unyielding love of a mother who talked all the time and a father who sometimes didn’t talk at all, and a great grandfather who could get the softball out of the irises without grandma knowing it.

 

All without tears.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Darkness or Light?

September 23, 2008

By:Dennis Bates

When is least noisy

and the silken soft darkness

of a breezeless night is

perfectly black and calm

or even less,

I dream.

When the stars

don’t  flicker even a little

and provide reassurance

that everything is good;

when there is nothing

to light the shadows

or illuminate

the silent screams

in the night

that I hear only

in my soul

and nowhere else,

I feel the

frenzied fear of

forgotten faith, promises

made but soon forgotten

and prayer that God answered

but I didn’t,

and I wonder why—

why am I so afraid?

I hear the panting

of the ravenous lion

prowling in the night

looking to devour

the unwary and unconcerned.

I feel his hot heavy

breath on my neck

waiting for fear to soften me

so I will be easier prey,

and I make it easy for him.

I don’t resist;

I let his lies in the darkness

convince me

that I am doomed,

that all is lost,

and I might as well give up.

And it always happens

in the darkness,

in the night,

when I can be easily confused

somewhere between sleep

and wakefulness

where I thought I was safe

and set my shield aside.

It is especially then

that I should remember

it is all Satanic sleight of hand

that has no real power

unless I give it to him,

and I don’t have to

because I am a brother

not in the darkness

nor subject to it

no matter how hard he tries.

I am a son of the light

and a son of the day,

and darkness holds no sway,

for I have heard the words

“Let there be light,”

and there was light

And that Light shines

In the darkness everywhere

for you and for me.

All I have to do is open my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


L.I.G.H.T.

September 23, 2008

By: Staci Stallings

One of my Holy Spirit friends is teaching Sunday School to 7th grade girls this year. When she first started, my friend was a little lost as to what to teach and what other resources were available, so she innocently asked me if I could help. Little did either of us know where that one simple email would lead.

First, it was just figuring out what song she could use as an opener and then as a closer. I’m a music fanatic, so that wasn’t too taxing. Then as the year progressed, we began working through what it means when things don’t work out the way you thought they should. We discussed lessons—she is the consummate “activity guru,” and I added in insights I’ve gleaned from my writing ministry. Together, we made a pretty good team.

Just after Christmas she came over to discuss her newest lesson. She had decided to do a lesson on the light of Christ coming into our world at Christmas. She had already gotten candles to use and everything. We worked out the activity—turning off the lights to start in darkness and then explaining with a single flame that Jesus came into our world and brought light. He gave His light to the early Christians, who passed it down through the generations to us, and now we have the opportunity to give His light to others.

The idea was that the first girl’s candle would be lit from the Jesus candle, and then each girl would light the next girl’s candle until all the candles were lit. We thought it was a pretty good plan—and then she got to class and had two girls instead of 14. She didn’t do the light ceremony but did do the other activities she had planned to go with it.

When we talked again, she still wanted to do the light ceremony, but now she needed new activities. She told me that she was thinking about letting the girls take the word LIGHT and see what acronyms they could come up with. I agreed that it sounded like a good plan.

Then the Holy Spirit stepped in. Being a word freak and having some time on my hands as I drove to school to get my children, I started asking, “What would LIGHT stand for to me?”

I came up with some good ones: Love In God’s Heart Today. Live In God’s Hope Today. Then as I got closer to home, I looked down and noticed a fortune from a cookie we had gotten over the weekend lying on the seat next to me. I picked it up and read it. The word “Luck” jumped out at me because the book I am currently working on is called “Lucky.”

Because I had been looking for “L” words, I immediately thought, “Hmm… Luck… How would that work in the word LIGHT?” Then a thought went through my head. “Luck Is God’s Help.” Instantly I got excited, but then I realized there was not “T” word. So I said, “Okay, Holy Spirit but what does the T stand for?” Instantly the answer came… “Luck Is God’s Help… Trusted.”

You might think I came up with that. I didn’t. It’s too perfect. It’s too Holy Spirit!

The cool thing is that for years—literally—people have told me that I was lucky. I always said, “Yeah, and I work darn hard to get that luck to work out.” Up until the middle of last year, that was completely accurate in my life. I did work darn hard to be so “lucky.” And it was work.

However, about the time my friend started teaching, I started putting things in the Holy Spirit’s hands, and life has not been the same since. “Luck” has started literally pouring my direction. So much so, that when the title “Lucky” showed up for my new book, I knew it was perfect because the main theme is putting life in God’s hands and how it works so much better when you do that.

Well, you can be sure that I couldn’t wait to get home and call my friend. Thing is: She called me first with awesome news! (I love the way the Holy Spirit works!) Just before Christmas she had taken her teacher’s certification test, and at the time she commented that it seemed that “everyone else is freaking out, but I’m not worried. I know whatever happens, it’s what God meant to happen.”

Then today she calls to tell me that she had gotten her scores in… A 91! 73 out of 80 questions right! That, for those of you who don’t know, is a slam-dunk on a really challenging test!

Now some people might say she got lucky. But there’s no doubt in my mind that she and I both know that “luck” came because she was living in the “light.” Luck Is God’s Help Trusted… It’s such a cool way to live!


Journalism 101

September 17, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

Back in the day when they still taught journalists traditionally, we learned that a good news article was written in an inverted pyramid style. That means the most important parts of the story come first, then the next most important, and so forth until the last paragraph which was the least important. That last paragraph was the tip of the upside down pyramid, thus the name.

 

The first paragraph was supposed to tell the entire story in thirty words or less and it was called the lead paragraph. A good lead paragraph answered the following questions: who, what, why, where, when and how.

 

There were several good reasons for the style. Most importantly, have you ever read the first paragraph of a sports story and learned about the overflow crowd, the muddy field or the annual rivalry for paragraph after paragraph, only to be totally frustrated? I have. The most important fact in the first paragraph, especially for those who haven’t attended the game is THE SCORE. Who won? Yet, I have seen countless stories that don’t give you that crucial piece of information until the third or fourth paragraph, or even lower. A reader should never, ever have to hunt through a story to find out who won. That is the story. Everything else is just detail.

 

I have found through the years that knowing how to answer the five W’s and an H for a lead paragraph has been a transferrable skill. It helps me in my writing and in my thinking. There are exceptions to the technique, of course, but basically life itself makes a lot more sense if you can answer those six questions in any given situation.

 

For example, let’s take the thing we call religion.

 

Who? The who in religion has to be God. Like the score in a sports story, I shouldn’t have to hunt for God in religion. He should jump out at me in the very first or second sentence. He should be clear and easy to find.

 

What? God should be defined. What are his powers? You can’t have a religion without knowing whether your God is omniscient and all present, like the God of the Bible, or if he is some super human force that has flaws like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology or if God is simply a good feeling you get when you commune with nature on a beautiful summer day.

 

Why? This question goes to purpose. What is God’s purpose for being? Is he there to trip us up and punish us? Is his purpose to manipulate us like playing pieces in a universal game of Chutes and Ladders? Is he there so we remember our ancestors and therefore carry on the past? Is he there to make us feel guilty, or is he there to love because more than anything else that’s what we need, and he knows that?

 

Where? Is God hiding just around the corner, taking a break, or a permanent resident of Club Med? Where can we find him, or can we? Does God have a home? If he doesn’t, then we can and should question whether he really exists at all. The where of God is a crucial question that we must be able to answer. If I tell you about my God and you ask me, “Where is he?”, I had better be able to show you.

 

When? When does or did God exist? Most religions fail here. If God only existed in the past or only makes a brief guest appearance sometime in the distant future, how can that be very useful to us? In fact, how can that be God at all?

 

How? How can we tell what we believe in is God, and more importantly, how can we know him as God?

 

Only one religion can answer these questions satisfactorily.

 

Who? The creator and maker of all things, the Word, the thing without which there would be no other thing.

 

What? Omnipresent, Omnipotent, All powerful. Nothing else comes close.

 

Why? Because we are His; it is He that made us and He loves us.

 

Where? Everywhere. Here on earth, in the depths of hell and in the heights of heaven. There is no place where God isn’t.

 

When? Yesterday, today and tomorrow. God always was, is now and forever shall be.

 

How? Through belief in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. If we know Him, we know God.

 

There is your lead paragraph for real religion; it’s called Christianity.

 

 


Choices

September 16, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

We have no choice about what we do last in this life. We die. It’s as simple as that. But as Christians, it isn’t death we should fear. It’s not living that we should be afraid of.

 

We all have choices in life, lots of them, but making the right choice is only the beginning, not the end. It’s what we do with that right choice that matters. It is how we react to that Frostian two-road dilemma after we choose that really defines us. It may be our choice of the road less taken that starts us down the path, but it is how we walk that path once we chose it that makes all the difference.

 

It does not matter if we chose to walk down the path that was grassy and wanted wear if, after making that choice, we do nothing to tramp down the grass along the way. How will anyone even know we’ve been there? For as in Adam all die, but in Christ we are made alive. And we weren’t made alive to just enjoy the serenity of the path that is grassy and wanting wear. We were made alive to walk down it.

 

I’m with James on this one. Knowing that there is a path and choosing it in our minds is nothing. It is faith without works, and it is so very, very dead. Belief without action is pretty useless. I know that some would say that Paul says we are justified by faith and not by works. I don’t dispute that, but I’m not talking about some sort of justification here. I’m talking about life and living it so it does somebody some good besides you. After all, only worrying about you is rather selfish if you stop to think about it.

 

Look at Paul’s life if you think he meant that faith alone is enough. He didn’t sit on his faith; he went everywhere he could, preaching about it and telling people how to live better lives. And in the end he paid the ultimate price for doing so.

 

For that matter, the Man that he believed in and called Lord did the same thing. Jesus, as the Son of God, didn’t have to do anything, but he did. He didn’t just pick an interesting path; he walked down it. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, forgave the sinners and ultimately walked the path to his crucifixion.

 

This Man who could calm a storm, walk on water, and change water into wine didn’t have to prove himself to anybody. He was from God and going back there. He did what he did to show us that if we truly want to follow Him, if we really believe that we are justified by faith, then we have to do more than just talk about it. It’s not enough to shout hallelujah or believe quietly in our hearts that we are saved and then slink off timidly down the sidewalk.

 

We need to walk boldly down the path we choose. We need to ignore the signs that say “Keep off the Grass,” and walk on it, stomp on it, wear it down and wear it out. Jesus will walk down that path with us; He’s been there before. Then and only then does choosing the path less traveled make all the difference.

 

 


A Present Annoyance

September 10, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

I coughed in her ear.

That’s all! I coughed in her ear.

Is that a sin in any religion?

Did I come home late

Smelling of another? No.

Did I forget our anniversary,

her birthday, our first date?

No. I coughed in her ear.

We were lying next to each other

and I coughed; an accident,

I didn’t do it on purpose

or out of spite

I coughed, and her ear

was there.

Had we been pressing

each other’s warm flesh

it might not have happened,

but we don’t press each

other as much anymore.

Too old,

too tired,

too full,

too fat.

Too,

not two.

I coughed in her ear

And I haven’t heard

anything from her since.

It was only a cough

and I didn’t try to,

but somehow

it dioesn’t  matter.

In the twilight kingdom

under the fading star

lips that would kiss

form only a broken jaw

and avoid speech

somewhere where Eliot’s shape

has no form

and shade has no color,

where all we do

is grope together with a whimper

somewhere between

the motion and the reality.

And all because

I coughed in her ear.

And so it will be.

But does it have to?

In the larger scheme,

and I believe there is one,

isn’t a harmless cough

something to be ignored

or at least forgiven?

In youth it would have been

so that the joy of being close,

the warmth,

the breathless excitement,

the soft love of

a sweet sensual touch

of  flesh and soul

could be enjoyed

and magnified.

All of it.

But those things got replaced

because of familiar repetition

that we chose to view

as an annoyance

rather than something

to be cherished

like it used to be. 

Too soon there is no cough

and only the creaky silence

of abject loneliness prevails,

and it doesn’t cough.

It just sits and stares

like a cat with no purr,

a barkless dog,

a bird with no song, or

a sullen child

not allowed to speak

because it is better

to be seen.

Then the only screams

in the night are your own,

and there is no one

to hold you when you are

shaking,

comfort you when you are

terrified,

or turn on a light when

dreams of darkness

descend.

It may not be much,

but at least I coughed,

not because I sought to annoy,

but to be near while

I still can.

 


Wouldn’t it be loverly?

September 9, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

One of my favorite lines from the play “My Fair Lady” comes from the slightly pompous and very proper Professor Henry Higgins when he rails about how different nationalities speak. When he gets to the French, he has this to say: “The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.” Something about the tongue-in –cheek nonchalance of that sentence has always tickled the British genes in me. Almost anything that pokes fun at our cousins across the channel usually does.

 

As with any truly classic British humor, however, the statement takes on a bit of itself as well. That’s why the statement fits so well in an American play about an uppity Englishman. It’s a joke within itself, poking fun at the very thing it seeks to make fun of. Professor Higgins is more concerned with proper pronunciation and diction than he is the substance of the statement he seeks to pronounce correctly. In fact, he bets his best friend that he can turn an ordinary flower girl from a working class area of London into a proper lady just by teaching her how to speak correctly, which is to say, as he does.

 

Of course, anyone who is familiar with the play knows that by the end of the play he has passed her off as a lady in all the proper circles, and her proper manners and speech has no doubt been the key to her success. In fact, ultimately the Professor himself realizes that he is in love with her and his loveable, but quite proper mother applauds Lisa for being able to force her son to finally grow up. Would she, however, been quite so thrilled if her son had brought home the rag tag flower girl Henry first took in, whose speech was barely intelligible? For that matter, would Henry himself have fallen in love with Lisa the flower girl, had she not cleaned up well?

 

While outwardly different at the end of the play, I have always had the sense that inwardly Lisa hadn’t really changed that much. Her heart overflowed with love, but it always had. Her vulnerability when Higgins was unkind at the end was just better camouflaged but none the less the same as she felt when she was overlooked on the streets, even though she spoke of being a “good girl,” when her virtue was challenged.

 

If anyone really changed, it was Henry. Although he still showed shameless chauvinistic tendencies to the very end, in some small way, he learned how to love who Lisa was and what she did at least as much as, if not more than the way she pronounced it. At least, I hope so. That’s what was always the most important as far as I’m concerned.

 

I feel the same way about society in general and churches in specific today. With all the whirl of technology and all the glitz and glimmer of multimedia gadgets, have we let the medium become the message? Has televangelism phonetics translated unassuming flower girl Christians into proper ladies who look good, but only pronounce things properly? Is a mega church with a full orchestra, and cameo appearances by famous people necessary to praise the Lord?

 

Or was Lisa right in the very beginning when she said all she needed was a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air where things would be loverly and real, regardless of how you pronounced them?


It’s here!

September 5, 2008

By:  Staci Stallings

You know, there are some things about writing that are just kind of odd.  Like when you pick up the phone and someone says to you, “It’s 2008.”  Uh-huh.  I knew that.  “Well, where’s the book?  It says here it’s coming out in 2008.  It’s 2008.  Where’s the sequel? I want to read it NOW!”

This was an actual conversation on like January 12th of 2008.  I can get a verifiable reference from the person who made that call (and who is right now laughing hysterically as she reads this!) that this call actually took place.  The truth is, I’ve gotten a lot of strange calls like this.  For example, the time I picked up the phone and the caller said, “I’m going to slap you silly.  You did NOT write that book.  I could not put it down…” 

Those kinds of calls tend to stick in your mind long after you’ve gone on with your life.  But today, I fondly remember that January call because I can now officially announce that “Reunion”–the sequel that the caller could not wait to get and read has been officially released. 

I wanted to put said caller’s endorsement on the back, but others won out.  However, here is what she said about “Reunion” upon reading an advanced copy (sometimes you just have to bend the rules):

“Reunion”–a sequel well worth the wait.  It ties up all the loose ends, and it was so good. I loved it. Staci Stallings definitely knows how to get your attention and curiosity to its peak. This book shows you how true the saying is, “Good things come to those who wait”!

I think she liked it.  And now you can too.

Just go to:

http://www.lulu.com/content/3448917

And I also want to give a big shout out of thanks to Ash Arceneaux for the awesome cover design!  Wow!  What in the world was I worried about? ;)

Finally, let me just say that God is VERY good and VERY faithful.  There were times, especially with this one and “Dreams” that I wasn’t at all sure I would ever see either one in print.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that He had it all planned–even all the bumps along the way.  The publication of this book strengthens my faith that I never have to worry.  All I have to do is follow and do what He says, and my dreams will work out in His time, in His way, in His perfection.

How very comforting and restful that is to know that I don’t have to because He will…

Now onto the next step He’s got waiting for me!

Peace to all my readers and friends.  I really couldn’t do this without you!

Staci


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