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10 Great Christmas Movies


10 MOVIES OF CHRISTMAS from Mark Gilroy

I hope you enjoy my list of 10 great Christmas movies that I can watch year after year – and usually do. Maybe one of your favorites was left out – but there might be a classic on my list that you’ve forgotten about and that you’ll want to watch this year! Now all you have to do is add time with friends and family, games, music, and some special moments to reflect on the meaning of the season, and you will have yourself a very Merry Christmas!

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How Great Is Our God

How Great Is Our God developed and compiled by Mark Gilroy

Devotionals from every century and every tradition of the Christian faith.

The Only Book with Daily Readings from Every Tradition and Every Century of the Christian Church

In a pluralistic culture with competing beliefs and values, there is a desire to understand and return to the basics—the classic expressions of the Christian faith.

This 365-day devotional will introduce you to the minds and hearts of many of the most influential thinkers in church history. It is a journey through two millennium of riches—from the early church fathers through the Medieval thinkers and the great councils, and on into the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the birth of the modern mind.

It is indexed by author, by theme, and by century, and includes a reading plan if you want to work through the writings chronologically.

It is an elegant edition that looks great on the nightstand, the desktop, or the coffee table.

How Great Is Our God is one part historical tour, one part devotional, one part guide for living, and one part gift book. It will appeal to every Christian who wants to hear the hearts and discover the classic voices of Christianity through the ages.

 

PURCHASE

Amazon: Hardcover | Kindle | Audio

Barnes & Noble: Hardcover | Nook | Audio

CBD: Hardcover | E-book

 

READING SAMPLE

 

5 Reasons This Will Be a Great Year for You!

It’s good to take a look back and see what we liked – and didn’t like – about last year – our circumstances, relationships, and personal behavior and integrity. But it’s even better to look forward with renewed faith, commitment, and optimism. As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

“No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14, NLT). [Read more…]

10 Great Christmas Albums for Your Playlist

SLIDE SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Tis the Season for Music 10 Great Christmas Albums

TIM RUSHLOW CLASSIC CHRISTMAS – Wow. What a fabulous big band sound from a singer known for his country albums. Don’t miss “A Soldiers Song.” An immediate classic! [Read more…]

Christmas Reminds Us That Greatness Begins In Small Packages

The man who is called father by three of the world’s major religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—had but a small family of his own. In fact, he and his wife, Sarah, weren’t sure they could even have one child. But from Abraham’s offspring, there remains a lineage that circles the globe.

He wasn’t supposed to live beyond infancy. All the other baby boys of his birthplace died the year he was born. His mother had to give him up to the care of another. But the tiny baby survived, even when he was floated down the Nile River in a basket. And the man Moses grew into led his people out of slavery and against impossible circumstances presented by nature and enemies, he brought them to God’s Promised Land.

He was the youngest son of an inconsequential family that was a member of a small tribe that lived in the hill country of an obscure nation. Yet David, a man after God’s own heart, prevailed in combat against lion, bear, and giant. Poet and warrior, he became a king and nation builder against whom all other kings to come would be measured.

In a dark and violent world; in a bleak and blighted village; a tiny life appeared. What difference does the life of one small make baby? Particularly one of questionable lineage, of humble means, far from the center of worldly power?

Jesus, the Babe in the manger, brought light and hope to a world engulfed in strife—and forever changed the course of history.

We look to the big, expensive, and impressive; we admire the powerful and influential; we check price tags, even during the holidays. But the message of Christmas is that great things come in small packages. A simple kindness. A gentle word. A smile. A listening ear. A shared meal. A song. A handwritten note. A surprise phone call. The shining eyes of children. All these small gestures hint at the greatest blessing of Christmas: a grand and magnificent love broke into the world when Jesus was born in a humble manger.

Enjoy the bright lights and big moments of the season. But don’t lose sight that the greatest blessings come in the smallest packages.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

Matthew 13:31–32

The Simple Blessings of Christmas by Mark Gilroy

From the Simple Blessings of Christmas by Mark Gilroy

Reacher, the Hardy Boys, 007, and Other Great Fictional Characters

From my childhood days reading the Hardy Boys (and if I was home sick and was out of new books, my sister’s Nancy Drew mysteries would suffice), I have always enjoyed mystery and suspense series featuring simple and complex heroes and anti-heroes. James Bond 007, Spenser, Jim Chee, Keller, John Rain, Gabriel Allon, and too many others to list here. In this video presentation I share a nice sampling of some of my favorite spies, detectives, and hit men. The psychological nuances created by the authors inspired me on how I developed my lead character in Cuts Like a Knife and Every Breath You Take, Detective Kristen Conner. Consider my novels a  tribute to the characters I have enjoyed so much – and the authors behind them. 

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Overheard at the Gym: Prices are Soaring

She said “hi” but I was on minute-28 of an elliptical workout at the YMCA so I was red-faced and could barely breathe. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be good for a conversation that included formed words and thoughts. I guess she forgot her ear buds and was bored and wanted to talk so she looked the other way and started a fairly loud conversation with the person to her left. I kept trying to breathe – and since I forgot my ear buds, too – I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

The key revelation I picked up was that she had asked for two tea bags at a coffee shop that afternoon and was charged $2.25 each, which somewhat angered her and led to a sharp exchange with the waitress that ended with her telling the waitress, “I’m drinking your tip.”

I’ve always thought it was unfair to punish a waiter or waitress when a dining problem is clearly outside of his or her control. Like prices posted on the menu. Or a grease fire in the kitchen. And all that begs the question of why she was ordering tea in a coffee shop in the first place.

But what most caught my attention was that she was at least the fifth person I had heard in a 24-hour time frame that was complaining about how high prices are. If you’ve checked costs on homes and many commodities you already know it’s a seller’s market out there – if you can find someone that can actually afford what you have to sell!

What I think I was overhearing was actually a micro example of a fundamental psychological shift occurring on the macro level in America. We’ve always complained about prices – except when bragging about how much we paid for something – but I think now people really mean it.

Could it be that we are shifting from being consumers to conservers again? A lot of pundits will say it’s about time. That sounds as good and right as saying you’re only going to help people who can’t afford their homes because of bad luck rather than those who can’t afford their homes because they were greedy. But many economists will remind us that the Great Depression was caused in large measure because people stopped spending and investing. Consumer spending does create the magical process of turning a company’s inventory or services into cash, which is usually a requisite for staying in business.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been incredibly greedy and overspent on the aggregate – and as individuals. This seeming personal course correction – possibly nothing more than a temporary dip in our mad spending ways – is undoubtedly overdue but we shouldn’t be naive that there won’t be more corporate casualties. Whatever you think of companies – unfair, unfeeling, unscrupulous or anything else unflattering – they are entities that provide jobs.

So what’s the takeaway in all this for me? First of all, I’m not going to forget my ear buds again. And secondly, I’m limiting myself to one tea bag!

Welcome to the Wild Side – Going Entrepreneurial

My dad worked for General Motors for 37 years, his only full-time employer. My wife’s dad worked for DuPont for 35 years after a brief stint with IBM. Who knows – he might have been with IBM for 37 years if they had permanently assigned him to the Nashville office rather than sending him to Upstate New York. They used to be the norm – but now their career paths would be considered anomalies.

Welcome to the wild world of independent work.

Have you considered – or been forced to consider – going entrepreneurial? I love the independent work world – but it’s a wild ride!

My career, which began at a local church as a youth pastor, and which includes three significant “employment” eras – plus a 5-year run of having my own company serve as my sole means of support – has been a much different path. This past week I concluded a three-year return to the corporate world. I moved to Nashville in late 2005 to launch a specialty book division with Integrity Publishers. When Integrity was acquired by Thomas Nelson, I served in the same publisher role with a much larger company over a well-established business unit.

With the publishing industry in a major funk – and no bailout being trumpeted on CNN – now was and is the time for me to get back to running my own business. One of the first responses I got to my announcement was from a good friend, also independent and entrepreneurial in mindset, who sent me a text that said “welcome back to the wild side.” As someone who thought he might be bankrupt and then wealthy and then bankrupt all in the same year, I can only smile – I can’t argue with his choice of words.

I’ve been asked if I’m worried about not being with a company in what may be the worst economic times since the Great Depression. Well, last I heard on TV, General Motors needs money from the government this week or it may be forced into Chapter 7, which means the doors would close. What safe place is there in the workforce today?

I’ve been told I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve been told I’m crazy. Both statements are undoubtedly wrong – and right – for different reasons! Bottom line, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all plan for navigating the white water rapids of today’s workplace. My inclination is that I won’t return to corporate (never say never), but I wouldn’t recommend that as the plan for everyone. Know thyself.

Have you considered – or been forced to consider – going entrepreneurial? I love the independent work world – but it’s a wild ride! I would offer three simple observations that might serve as counsel and advise for someone reading this.

  1. Everyone needs more than one “customer.” Your employer may be your boss and your means of financial support, but your employer is also a customer for your services. Is it smart to have one customer? Maybe it was in a bygone era but in times of economic turbulence, when many companies are struggling to stay alive, that’s probably not the case. But isn’t that kind of thinking disloyal and dishonest? I’m obviously not condoning or advocating the stealing of time and resources from the one paying you, but there’s nothing dishonorable in using gifts and skills, some of which may not have an outlet in your primary job, in ways that meet the needs of other customers.
  2. Hard work is the order of the day. Duh. That may seem too obvious to mention but let’s face it, we do live in an incredibly comfortable epoch of world history – with lots of our free time devoted to entertainment. A friend – and yes, he, too, is independent and entrepreneurial in his mindset – sent me this word of wisdom recently: “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgement” (Proverbs 12:11).
  3. Ultimately, there is no security in your own labors. So what’s the point in trying? There is great reward in working hard and working savvy, but the only true security is found in faith in God. The words of Job, who was the wealthiest man of his day, who lost his wealth, his health, and his family in a series of calamities, still ring true today: “Let him not deceive himself by trusting what is worthless, for he will get nothing in return” (15:31). Trust God more.

So whether your company is definitively in the black or the red, whether your career is booming or languishing, whether you have made the move to the independent work world or are happy in corporate, all I can say is it’s a jungle either way, so ‘welcome to the wild side!’

Charles Darwin Discusses the Housing Bailout

Charles Darwin turned 200 years old on Feb. 12. Happy belated birthday.

I’m not going to touch his evolutionary theory in relation to biology and the origin of humans with a ten-foot pole – and I’m going to avoid cheap and gratuitous humor, like, “Charles you don’t need a match to light your birthday candles where he went,” or anything else juvenile.

No way am I getting anyone from any side of that debate mad at me. What I thought I’d do is get people mad at me for other things, like imagining what Darwin might have to say about Bailout Fever in Washington, D.C., applying aspects of his theory of evolution like natural selection, adaptability, and fitness.

Note: The views expressed may or may not be the views of the blogger in whole or in part. The character named Charles R. Darwin did in fact exist (Feb. 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) but he probably did not state nor even think any of the following thoughts. This blogger is also not positing any theories of whether dead philosophers would agree to be interviewed. This is intended for entertainment only!

MG: Charles, what do you think of all the money the U.S. Government is spending to save companies and industries?

CD: They are simply rearranging chairs on the Titanic. The ship is sinking. And so will the whole fleet called Western Civilization if they keep pursuing such poppycock.

MG: Wow. How did you know that? The Titanic sunk in 1912 and you had already been dead almost 30 years.

CD: I have my sources.

MG: Like?

CD: Unnamed.

MG: I’ll leave it at that … but don’t you think it’s compassionate for a government to step in and relieve millions of people of the misery caused by such dramatic failures?

CD: Compassion? What does that have to do with survival? In fact, I’d say that rewarding weak and bumbling practices is the opposite of compassion. It hurts everybody.

MG: But it worked in the 1930s when FDR saved our nation from the Great Depression. Oh, I forgot you were already dead when that happened.

CD: I know the whole story.

MG: That’s right, you have sources.

CD: Exactly. In fact, I blame FDR and his adopted son LBJ for creating the conditions that will eventually lead the American economy into a death spiral.

MG: That’s rather dramatic. So are you saying that government assistance and intervention is always bad?

CD: First of all, I think government has an important role in economic evolution. I think Teddy Roosevelt got it right when he kept the Rockefellers from taking over the country and building an oligarchy that would have made Medieval feudal lords roll over in their graves with envy. You could argue that Teddy, not FDR, set the economy in motion. This opened up many more entrepreneurial opportunities. As a believer in letting natural selection take its course in a free market it doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there should be no accountability of corporations. For example, I believe they should pay for defrauding consumers. Nature has laws. Business should too. The business culture thrives when it adheres to good laws.

What FDR did may have helped America in the short term. But the course correction would have happened naturally, even if slower. And the companies that would have survived would have been much stronger for their resilience in face of adversity. But don’t be fooled. America is paying for FDR’s largesse with a populous that has screamed ever since, WHY AREN’T YOU SAVING ME? Maybe things are better for what he did and any argument about how history might have unfolded otherwise is pure speculation, either direction. I won’t say whether the payback is reasonable or not. But ask the Romans. Once the masses are promised that government will be the great problem solver, do they ever stop asking for their due? As a society you are constantly looking for money to fund the kinds of programs rolled out by FDR and accelerated by LBJ with his Great Society. Kennedy may have been from Boston but he would never put up with that kind of ethos. His dad taught him to exploit opportunities with the best of them. I digress. I’d just say again, the expectation and demand for more help, even after a crisis ends, never ends. People will ask for more and more government and more and more funding, which rewards ineptitude and punishes success. As glum as it looks in America right now, check out the economies of the more progressive social democracies. They won’t admit it but they would love to have your problems.

And ultimately natural selection finds a way anyway. When you crash and burn under the burden of compensating for a lack of fitness, you‘ll be singing a new tune, WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST LET US BE FREE?

MG: What about things like universal health care? Surely you can’t be so cold-hearted as to withhold that as a basic responsibility of the government?

CD: Again, I can’t think of a single country in the world that doesn’t envy your health care system. But I believe that when you move to socialized medicine America will absolutely love it. For a while. That is until services devolve and the governmental bureaucracy demonstrates it can no longer manage it. Then typical of America, you all will cry, UNFAIR!

MG: But it isn’t fair is it?

CD: Uh, who said anything about fair? I didn’t prescribe a theory of adaptation and fundamental fitness, I just described it. You all can do whatever you want.

MG: You seem awfully negative when it comes to government. Government gets a lot of things right.

CD: Sure they do. Other than eternal potholes around Chicago, Eisenhower’s interstate highway system was great. But when priorities and plans come from above, what happens to productivity? There ceases to be the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that feeds new design and development. There is no motivation to adapt to changing circumstances. So what you see is the eventual collapse of a healthy, breathing, growing economy. Capitalism does have to clean house in a big way every once and a while and incrementally on a daily basis, and yes people are hurt financially in the process. But you Americans worry too much about setbacks and love your histrionics. It sells newspapers! You take a snapshot and declare it is moving picture that will endure for 10 years! Almost as long as that Titanic film that came out a while back. I remember your end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it handwringing of 1987, which lasted about a month – and yes, I was already dead, but I do have my sources, so don’t ask how I remember. But in a fit and adaptable society, there are enough opportunities for people to get back on their feet. And don’t fool yourself. In a government-sponsored economic system, cataclysm comes as well. When the government can’t feed and clothe its wards the result is often violent and ugly in ways Americans can barely imagine.

MG: But owning a home has always been the American dream. Are you willing to kill that dream?

CD: You can manipulate the housing market with government rebates and incentives but it’s not going to solve the problem. Actually, if everyday Americans want to solve the housing crisis they can do so right now. Joe Homebuyer can go out and start a trend of buying and that will effect comparable sales and begin the process of price stabilization and even appreciation. But Americans aren’t doing that. Why? Not because of greed or corruption. It simply doesn’t make sense right now to buy. It’s not the investment it once was. The market was artificially inflated with government mandated lending policies and it’s still undergoing correction. Once it nears rock bottom people will buy again. Lenders will create new affordable lending practices to accommodate the demand. This will perpetuate appreciation. It will happen naturally. Just leave it alone.

MG: Where’s the compassion?

CD: Who said anything against a neighborliness that isn’t federally enacted?

Again, do what you want. Just make sure you have counted the cost of asking government to be the great financial problem solver. Does the make you more or less of a free nation? Does that fuel innovation and productivity or hinder it? Are you personally more responsible or less?

Having a government define and deliver what is good for the collective sounds compassionate and just might solve some short terms problems. But will government pull back from such a mandate? I’ve not seen such a tendency. One of my contemporaries, Karl, made a lot of utopian promises in an economic environment that was much more dire than it is today. Make sure the promises that have your heart thump thumping so excitedly today aren’t as empty!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A number of friends and family members recommend books for me to read. With a few of them I take particular note: this is a good indication that I’m not going to like the book. But one person in my life who recommends a book two to three times a year – and almost always one I am initially suspect of because it is not something I would not pick out myself – is my son Merrick.

If not for Merrick’s recommendations, I never would have read Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), Haruki Murakami (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) or Yann Martell (Life of Pi – though I probably would have got to that one eventually) – to name just a few. Oh … and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Honestly, I really wasn’t interested in a novel that deals with the political history of the Dominican Republic under the brutal Trujillo regime – I can watch the news if I want to be depressed was my first thought – but Merrick recommended it – and Diaz’s first novel did garner a few little awards like the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. But on the issue of awards, that’s not necessarily a dealmaker for me; after all, there’s more than a few Oscar-winning movies none of us liked. So it came back to Merrick’s recommendation. I ordered it, promptly put it on the stack of books by my bed – where it dropped as low as the bottom third (usually the sure sign it’s never going to be opened) – and read other stuff for six months before finally picking Oscar up. Reluctantly.

Did I mention this book deals with the political history of the Dominican Republic under the the brutal Trujillo regime – AND includes footnotes with historical context and explanations throughout the novel?

Are you feeling as unenthused about Oscar as I was yet? I can go on!

But what a pleasure The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was to read. The jumbled but poetic wordsmything (along with those interesting and slightly disconcerting but somehow fitting footnotes) allow Diaz, the author, to output an interesting blend of stream of conscious thought and carefully constructed and intellectual analysis of the world through the eyes of his characters and his out-of-story interjections. I think that makes him a self-aware author. (I guess pulling that off is part of the reason he is a professor at MIT. I’m pretty sure he’s a very smart guy.)

The novel is a subtle and nuanced winding road with an occasional roadblock that delivers a direct, to-the-point, academic, sledge hammer observation on life.

Our hero, Oscar, is born in poverty in the DR – though his grandfather, a wealthy and famous physician in that nation, committed the unforgivable crime against the state. He tried to hide his beautiful daughter from the lecherous Trujillo. The beautiful daughter, Oscar’s mother, moves to a rundown, hardscrabble community in New Jersey that is bordered by a dump on one side and a six lane highway on another.

There is a fleeting period of Oscar’s life when he is the most handsome boy in his neighborhood and school and his mom and great aunt are convinced he is destined to become an international pop star – perhaps as big as Porfirio Rubirosa. But that is a short lived fantasy on their part as Oscar becomes a fat little boy who is the object of ridicule and relentless teasing from classmates. It doesn’t help that Oscar’s mother is distant and harsh to the point of cruelty – she would probably be reported to health and human services today – with he and his sister. (There’s a reason this savage beauty is the way she is that can only be explained by the ravages of the curse described in the next paragraph of this review.) But Oscar is a survivor and escapes into a world of sci-fi and fantasy – he is a bonafide literature and gaming nerd – that allows him to be and dream anything but what he is. Speaking of dreams, Oscar has only two compelling visions in life:  first is to become the Domincan version of J.R.R. Tolkien; and second is to find true love, something he feels he glimpsed in the golden age of his pre-adolescent youth when he seemed to be on his way to becoming the next Pofirio Rubirosa. Oscar writes novels by nightstand light and falls madly in love on a constant basis – always and inevitably to experience the anguish of heartbreak. Sometimes before the object of his affection even knew he was in love with her.

I should have started where the book starts and mentioned that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is primarily about an evil spirit – the Dominican word is fuku – that has cursed Oscar’s family from the moment Trujillo (master of or mastered by evil spirits?) heard rumors of the beautiful daughter of Oscar’s grandfather. The evil spirit has destroyed or stolen anything good the family has had  – from lands and wealth to beauty and health. (Oscar believes the original fuku landed at San Juan with Christopher Columbus: the Ground Zero of the curse.) So Oscar’s family’s story is that of a precipitous fall from grace to one of dysfunctional but heroic struggle against the weight of a brutal personal history.

The ultimate question I got from the book is this: if you are cursed is there any point in fighting it? Isn’t that what a curse is – something you can’t fight? Or is there something one can do? How does a lost, downtrodden, forgotten, broken family – and a not-so-little boy who suffers from depression and inertia – stand up to all that an evil spirit – one that is still alive in human form through Trujillo’s heirs – and all that it can send at them?

On a visit to see family in the DR it is the frightened, cowardly, non-threatening and non-physically-imposing, ostracized, outcast, loner Oscar that dons the armor of a knight from one of his fantasy novels and chooses to face and slay the fuku beast on behalf of his family once and for all – and win the heart of his one and only true love while doing it.

Does his story end in the most improbably of victories – like Frodo Baggins in Oscar’s author-hero’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – or does his family’s fuku prevail and claim yet another victim? If you’re in the mood to read a book that deals with the political history of the Dominican Republic during the brutal Trujillo reign, you will discover the answer!

Sad. Humorous. Fanciful. Brutal. Optimistic. Fatalistic. Jumbled. Linear. Circular. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has it all.

Big Government: Pendulum or Runaway Train?

Ever since FDR “saved” the economy – either through his welfare and public works programs if you like his fiscal model or by entering World War II if you believe the country was going to turn around on the basis of a business cycle anyway – despite his inept handling of the Depression – the size and role of the federal government in the business life of America has continued to grow.

Truman was too busy fighting wars and dealing with new international realities with our Soviet allies to leave a huge mark on America Inc., but conservative president, DDE, built the interstate highway system with a heavy dose of liberal spending, a symbolic and tangible symbol of a more federally driven America economy.

JFK we hardly knew you. We’ll never know his spending agenda based on his short tenure, though his activism in other areas might lead us to believe he would have been big government in all ways.

Inspired by political activists like author John Steinbeck – and in a well-documented strategy to secure minority votes, LBJ attempted to build a ‘Great Society’ – a phrase he borrowed from Steinbeck – to further expand the government’s role and responsibility as the provider and protector of the people’s welfare.

Let’s break from this historical free for all for just a second. Everyone, including politicians of all stripes, is concerned with the welfare of “the people” and individual persons. Whether one cares is not what is being debated, though in the political world it is posited by big government proponents that if you don’t want government to take responsibility for people’s welfare you don’t care about people’s welfare. The fiscal conservative or political libertarian will argue that he or she cares just as much about the welfare of individuals, he or she just does not think government does a very good job of supplying it. They want an old school model that limits the role of government to good laws and national defense – and leaves individual welfare up to individual effort, which will be much more productive and efficacious in a free enterprise system the thinking goes.

But what happens when that doesn’t work, big government proponents ask? Some free enterprise advocates agree with having clearly defined and limited temporary aid measures in place – others argue for the “family and friends” need to save you program. But based on what we’ve seen so far in our historical foray, there really haven’t been too may free enterprisers in control, no matter what we might assume from party affiliation.

RMN actually toyed with price controls, which would made him a hero among Marxist ideologues and an enigma to his independent, puritanical forebears, but ultimately, he poured his attention on foreign policy and then shifted his focus to another set of problems that were a little more personal in nature.

JC. We hardly knew you. Stagnation and malaise were the order of the day. The result of bad business or too much government intervention? Carter wasn’t sure there was a possible solution from the government or private sector and suspected we might be headed for leaner days. He spoke about those suspicions a little too forthrightly and the electorate lost as much confidence in JC as in the country’s future.

That ushered in the reign of RWR, who was sure it was the latter, too much government intervention, that was the problem. No one in the media and not even his vice president believed in his “voodoo” economics, but he get elected. He cut capital gains taxes, eliminated and simplified regulations to doing business, and cut income taxes for the middle and upper middle classes. (He would have done the same for the lower and wealthiest classes but it is impossible to cut anything from nothing.) It can be argued that he restored America’s business star, setting the stage for the largest capital growth campaign in history and the rise of Bill Gates. What he didn’t do, however, was cut government spending. And it wasn’t just because he built up the military. Liberals and columnists – I would have said Liberal columnists but why be redundant? – bemoaned all the benefits he cut from the poor. Not true. He did occasionally cut government program increases but never spending.

GHB (W’s dad). We hardly knew you, either. I do recall H was kinder and gentler than Reagan – at least he said he was – and raised taxes to prove it despite the protests of lip readers to the contrary.

WJC got his butt kicked on socialized medicine early in his first term. His solution? Keep Hillary away from Congressional hearings and enjoy Reagan’s promised ‘peace dividend.’ Then he started experiencing the joy of balancing the budget and reducing the federal deficit so much he went out and tweaked some welfare policies so that they became workfare policies. For the first time in 60 years people were involuntarily cut from welfare rolls. Bill might be the last and the only fiscal conservative of the past 100 years. Deep down, I suspect that still bothers him.

GWB. Or just W. A man of principle, faith, and profligate spending habits. He and the man who followed him, BHO, are architects and builders of an expanded role for government through TARP(s) that might have made FDR’s head spin. Even the German socialists are confused. When they throw money at economic problems it is at least to save unnecessary jobs. In America’s iteration of corporate welfare, it is to eliminate jobs and save companies.

The latest Obama move has been to appoint a ‘Special Master for Compensation’ to oversee executive and employee pay at companies that accepted government bailout money. Any wonder so many are fighting like crazy to give this ‘free’ money back? Any wonder Hugo Chavez, left-wing socialist president of Venezuela, claims he is more right wing than Obama?

So is the size and scope of the federal government cyclical – a pendulum that is simply on a high note of growth? Or is it a runaway train navigating hair-pin turns as adroitly as possible?

If these economic days are tough on your personal welfare and you see a bright shining light ahead, it might mean there is hope at the end of the tunnel for you. Or it might mean you better jump off the track in a hurry if you don’t want to get hit!

Don’t Eat That Frog First

Eat that frog?

Eat that frog?

In his bestselling book, Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy tackles the issue of personal productivity with 21 ways to conquer procrastination, beginning with his classic breakfast recipe :

If the first thing you do when you wake up each morning is eat a live frog, nothing worse can happen the rest of the day!

If you’ve ever met Brian, read one of his books or heard him speak, you know what a disciplined, talented, savvy communicator – and person – he is. I have a lot of admiration for him. Better to listen to him than me! I’ve been known to procrastinate at times.

But I would humbly suggest that there are some days you will get more done by foregoing the frog for breakfast – it tastes nothing like chicken – and enjoying your Cheerios, oatmeal or bacon and eggs. [Read more…]

We’ll Be Friends Forever – RIP Ora Knies

Amy with her 109-year-old grandmother.

My wife Amy’s grandmother, Ora Zimmerman Knies, died in her sleep on June 11, 2010. She was 109 years old.

Three days later we gathered at Memaw’s funeral mass held at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Hermitage, Tennessee. She was survived by her three “boys,” 11 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren, and 19 great great grandchildren. She just missed holding a fifth generation of babies, with one of the great great’s due to have a child in a few weeks when she passed away.

Beyond savoring the memories and bonds of love and family, anyone who attended her funeral couldn’t help but reflect on all that Memaw had seen in her 109 active and colorful years of life. She was born January 13, 1901 – the year the first radio receiver picked up a transmission. Had she entered the world just two weeks earlier she would have been alive during three of the centuries of the Christian Era calendar.

Ora was born in the Territory of Oklahoma – it would not be admitted to statehood for another six years – and traveled cross country by horse-drawn carriage as a young girl when her family moved to Winchester, Tennessee.

The array of inventions and developments she witnessed in her lifetime is mind boggling – from the Wright Brothers engine powered airplane to commercial air travel and rockets and man landing on the moon; from the newspaper to the radio and on to the television, which itself morphed from black and white to technicolor with hundreds of stations; from the first Model-T rolling off the assembly line in Detroit in 1908 to the interstate highway system of the Eisenhower era; from penicillin and bubble gum in 1928 to the atomic bomb during World War II.

She witnessed the two world wars with Germany – the first by radio only and the second by radio and television. The day after her death, Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee landed in Germany to meet with Volkswaagen officials to discuss manufacturing opportunities in his state.

The United States of America has had 44 presidents in its history. Memaw lived during the presidency of 20 of them, from McKinley to Obama, and including her favorite, JFK.

Ora lived alone in her own house until 103, when she entered an assisted living facility. Her flower and vegetable gardens are still legendary. She drove her car for the last time on her 100th birthday. She did not hand the keys to her sons readily or happily and it took her a few years to forgive them – even though, according to the daughters-in-law, Memaw was pretty certain her boys had never really done anything wrong in life. She finally had to quit bowling in the Madison Bowling League when she was past the age of 100 due to hip problems.

Memaw’s last visit to our home was Christmas 2008 and she had a marvelous time, particularly looking through family photo albums. Amy had made memory books for Bo and Zach on their football seasons and after studying them several times, Ora proclaimed she was now a football fan. In fact, she wished she had learned to play.

Her one complaint about her assisted living residence was the food. She loved to have a home cooked meal and she participated in the preparation for Christmas Dinner by making her much requested peanut butter fudge. She sat by me at dinner and told me numerous times that we would be friends forever.

We all know that how we live our lives is what matters most. But most of us still have a fondness for the ongoing numbering of our days as well. If longetivity didn’t matter we wouldn’t work so hard to live longer.

For Memaw, quality and quantity were inseparable. She was one of those believers who received in abundance both of the blessings expressed in Psalm 91:16: “I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation” (NLT).

So Ora Zimmerman Knies, may I be so blessed, and yes, let’s be friends forever.

“The Necessary Compulsion of Exercise”

I will be riding my bike this Saturday with Lance Armstrong and other friends.

On Saturday morning I take off on my bicycle with a couple thousand of my closest friends – including Lance Armstrong and some of his Team RadioShack teammates – on the Harpeth River Ride. I am doing the 62-mile course with mixed emotions. (Not sure how far Lance is riding or how long we are going to hang together.)

On one hand I love riding my bike and I see the benefit – or more accurately the necessity – of riding to get in better shape (another way of saying, “I need to lose 20 pounds … again”). On the other hand, after a long winter hibernation and then an early spring surgery, I’m not in the best shape of my life, a condition that both motivates and discourages the obvious cure. So I know full well that not all of the 62 miles promise to be fun. In the short time I’ve had to get ready for this modest ride I’ve discovered that after riding about 25 miles the gentle rolling hills of Middle Tennessee, the hills are not always so gentle.

I was sifting through some excerpts from Albert Schweitzer’s Africa Notebooks and stumbled on this relevant observation the great missionary and humanitarian made as he conversed with the natives of Africa. They were curious as to the differences between themselves and the people of Europe where Schweitzer was born.

So I go on to tell them that in Europe people row for pleasure, a statement followed by uncontrollable laughter. … I don’t attempt to make clear to them what sport is. The conditions under which they live in so many ways compel them to use their physical forces and take exercise to a greater extent than they like, that they cannot understand at all how people can do so except under compulsion.

We may have a choice whether to exercise or not, but in our corner of the world where food is abundant and many of us ply a trade that is sedentary, it’s not surprising we put on jogging shoes or head to the gym or hop on a bike under a certain compulsion, too.

So will I ride for pleasure or compulsion on Saturday? I’m telling myself it is for pleasure. But halfway through I may not be able to fool myself any longer. As is so often the case in life, the answer is a definite and resounding, yes.

How Healthy Is the Christian fiction Category?

Publishing professional and friend, Dan Balow, recently took a look at the Christian fiction category in his blog for the Steve Laube Agency. His analysis includes some counterintuitive insights for publishers and some very specific advice to retailers that I wanted to share here. (Since my novels are considered “tweeners” – somewhere between the Christian and general markets, I especially appreciated what he had to say.) Dan – thanks for permission to use the following!

Just how well is Christian fiction doing?

Last year, two Christian publishers downsized or suspended their fiction programs. Currently, some Christian publishers are nervous about fiction and in a wait-and-see mode before they attempt to expand it or try new things. Others are excited about growth potential in the category and are taking an aggressive stance toward it.

Similarly, some Christian retailers are doing quite well with fiction, others are lukewarm with it and some are not doing well at all.

The answer to the question, “Is Christian fiction thriving?” is no, but it is certainly interesting to explore the reason behind such widely diverse opinions on the subject of Christian fiction today.  How can one group see great potential and another see little or none?

Here is why I think Christian Fiction is causing some publisher and retailer confusion right now:

First and foremost, fiction is the segment of book publishing and retailing most affected by the sales of eBooks. In some cases, 50% or more of unit sales on a particular title can be digital.  Because eBooks are cheaper than printed editions, overall revenues to the publisher will decrease or remain flat, all the while readership increases. For a particular novel, digital sales might be 50% of the units and 20% of the revenue.

A new business model eventually emerges, but it takes time for publishers and retailers to adjust to new realities.

Retailers can easily recall how the decline in physical product sales were affected by music downloads (iTunes started in 2001), video download/streaming and audio book downloads. The migration to digital delivery in music, video and audio resulted in a corresponding drop in physical product sales at retail.  But knowing the cause doesn’t make it easier to handle.

The second major contributor to publisher and retail confusion about fiction is the relatively small number of titles published.  Even in good years, the total output of new Christian fictions titles by the main ECPA Christian publishers are not more than 250-300 annually.  (I am not counting the various Harlequin Love Inspired and Heartsong mass market lines which publish over 200 titles per year.)

According to R.R. Bowker data from a couple years ago, the entire U.S. publishing industry (not self-publishing) released over 250,000 new titles annually, of which about 40,000 are novels. There is no completely accurate data available on Christian publishers, but not long ago the total output of books from Christian publishers was around 10,000 new books annually. If Christian publishers followed the same ratios in fiction as the general market, there should be over 1,000 new novels each year, not 250-300.  Not every category growth problem is solved by doing more books, but in this case, I believe it has something to do with it.

Similarly at retail, when a category suffers a slowdown, reducing shelf-space for the category only hastens the decline.  The huge disparity between fiction in the general market retail and that in the Christian market would leave one to wonder whether some are giving up too early on it.

The final reason for confusion about fiction is there are a limited number of genres published by Christian publishers. For reasons that may or may not be obvious, Christian publishers cannot publish in as many genres as a general market publisher.  For instance, erotica will never be a category in Christian publishing, while it is a major category in the general market.

Combine these three things…eroding physical sales due to digital delivery, a small number of titles in relatively few categories  and maybe we can understand why it is rather confusing time in the Christian fiction category.

What can retailers do about it? (other than stocking current best-sellers and new titles)

  • Begin with the inventory. Carry the classic backlist.  Not just In His Steps or Pilgrim’s Progress but the authors who made the category successful over the last 30 years … Janette Oke, Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye, Bodie and Brock Thoene, and Francine Rivers to name a few.
  •  Decide to add a new genre of fiction that heretofore you have not carried or promoted.  This is to grow your customer’s taste for a wider type of fiction.
  • Consider rearranging the fiction section by genre to help readers find new authors. Perhaps using a variation of the umbrella categories that the Christy Awards uses to separate the genres.
  • Encourage fiction reader groups among your customers. This will show how fiction can communicate spiritual truth in an effective manner.

Steve Laube, the founder and owner of the literary agency with whom I work, was a Christian retailer himself before getting into the publisher side of the equation over 20 years ago.  In 1989, his Berean Store in Phoenix, Arizona was named the CBA Store of the Year.  I asked him to give his perspective on how retailers can sell more fiction:

The key was that great story that got people telling their friends. Word-of-Mouth.  Second was a staff that was knowledgeable about the various fiction offerings. Hand-selling is still a critical piece of what makes the physical store a destination. Hand-selling is a form of word-of-mouth. For example, when Mrs. Sally came in the store each month and asked us, ‘What’s new?’ we could direct her to the latest and greatest because we knew the type of stories she liked and the type of stories that were on our shelves.  That principle has not changed over the years. I am always attracted to the part of any bookstore that has a ‘Staff Recommendations’ section. I find it fascinating to see what other people think is worthwhile to read.

Keep in mind, that if readers don’t find what they need in the Christian store, they will look elsewhere and personally, I’d rather they find a lot of great reads among titles from Christian publishers in Christian bookstores.

college football still packs a punch

Baseball may be America’s pastime but football is America’s passion when it comes to sports. (I have a friend who has dubbed the summer sport as basebore. Wake me up when the world series starts.)

The NFL finished its preseason – and no one knows why they even hold a preseason in the first place (unless it had something to do with money). This weekend they keep real score and the games count in the final standings.

College football came out of the corner swinging last Thursday – literally if you check the video below – with Oregon visiting Boise State and losing on BSU’s Smurf-blue football field that makes TV screens and viewers’ eyes beg for mercy. By now everyone in the world that watches ESPN highlights has seen the sucker punch thrown by a frustrated Oregon player at the end of the game as players were exiting the field. Not quite the punch CFB wanted thrown on a weekend dedicated, ironically, to sportsmanship. (Note: This is real irony, not just the bad luck and tragedy masqueraded as irony by Alanis Morissette in her song Isn’t It Ironic?). But I digress. And despite a black eye administered to sportsmanship, there was plenty of on field highlights for football junkies who have been suffering withdrawal pains for the past eight months.

My Buckeyes played a less than impressive game against the Naval Academy – putting in the second string quarterback in the second quarter is not a recipe for maintaining momentum in what looked like an emerging blowout. But it was good sportsmanship – so count one for the Buckeyes – just like the way the two teams ran onto the field together before kickoff. This was a first ever happening in storied Ohio Stadium. All week leading up to the game head coach Senator Tressell had let it be known that he did not want servicemen being booed – a friendly tradition in Ohio Stadium and a couple hundred other venues each Saturday afternoon of CFB season. In fact, Tressell wanted Navy’s players to be given a standing ovation. Glad it worked. We’ve booed the home team before, too.

Based on one week of results, the sports guru pundits are pretty sure who is really good and who is really bad already. They’ll be wrong a fair amount of the time and by season’s end express indignation with teams that didn’t perform as they predicted. Of course the problem will be the team not their ability to predict. (Note: Only a few of the pundits predict any more. Most now pronounce. Better ratings.)

Not surprising, Lou Holtz has already declared Notre Dame as national champions. The term “SEC speed” was used no less than 300 times on ESPN. And then a thousand more times once the games started. Oklahoma got upset by BYU and lost their Heisman winning QB, Sam Bradford, for an indefinite stretch of games. Michigan looked like the Wolverines again – maybe they’ve been practicing extra. Speaking of which, I am all for eschewing the tie and deciding games in overtime, but it doesn’t mean I can’t still hope and pray that when Michigan and Notre Dame play next week they end with a 0-0 final score highlighted by 20 fumbles.

So who is going to win the national championship? And who do I think is going to be really good and bad this year? Rather than separate the sheep and the goats and impute or impinge character on the basis of winning, as a spectator, I’ll hide behind the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never tasted victory or defeat.

On that note, all I can say is “Go Bucks. Beat USC!”

College football still packs a punch!

The Pillars of the Earth – Building a Cathedral to God’s Glory

Ken Follett. Penguin. Published in 1989.

My first exposure to Follett was in the early 80s with a trio of spy thrillers, Eye of the Needle, Triple, and The Key to Rebecca. I like the spy genre and though I didn’t think Follett had the nuanced political and psychological depth of a LeCarre or Deighton, he delivered intrigue, twists, and turns at a Frederick Forsythe (Day of the Jackel) level. Smart, action-packed escapist reading!

Follett wrote The Pillars of the Earth in 1989 and I completely missed it. For 20 years. Once I’ve read an author a couple times and like him or her that usually doesn’t happen. But it should have come as no surprise. In Pillars, Follett switched genres from international political thrillers to historical fiction with this 973 page tome. I’m sure his publisher was aghast when he brought the proposal to the table. Follett was undoubtedly told that this was a bad “self-branding” move for any author, that he would confuse and lose his core audience. I’m Exhibit One that his publisher was probably right in a business sense. But if Follett had listened, we would have missed out on a literary treat. It hasn’t turned out too bad for Follett either, as Pillars is his backlist title that continues to sell the most copies every year.

So what prompted Follett to write a book that features a devout and godly monk who dreamed of building a cathedral to God’s glory; the ups and downs of a couple of stone masons and their families; and some really rotten earls, barons, sheriffs, bishops and priests? Was it Follett’s own act of devotion and religious fervor? In his preface he claims to be an atheist despite a Plymouth Brethren upbringing. But he did have what can be described as a near religious experience on a business trip to Peterborough for the London Times. He had recently read a book on European architecture and was fascinated with Nikolaus Pevsner’s description of all that went into the building of Gothic cathedrals. With an hour to spare before his train left for London, Follett took a tour of the Peterborough Cathedral and says he was instantly “enraptured.” This began a personal hobby of visiting and studying cathedrals all over England and Europe.

Follett may have left modern politics behind in Pillars but not the politics of 12th Century Europe. With the death of King Henry, Stephen and Maude wage a civil war for the throne spanning decades, with a constant and ensuing political fallout for earls, cities, and counties. Even the building of a castle or cathedral became a political roller coast ride with access to lumber, stone or labor determined by which combatant won the last battle of the season and which barons and earls had the right allegiance to be rewarded or punished.

Follett shows Medieval churchmen at their superstitious and barbaric worst – and their enlightened, progressive, spiritual, and charitable best. I think he is very fair to represent the true spirituality of the Medieval – and modern – believer. He doesn’t succumb to the temptation to paint crude caricatures. My own reading of Medieval history is cursory but from what little I know, Follett actually helps dispel the myth that these were simply “Dark Ages.” Watching Jack – a stone mason and master builder – wrestle with how to make his cathedral roof taller but still safe and finally discover the pointed arch is a marvelous glimpse into the technological developments of the day.

Pillars is set around the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, but Follett takes us on a historically plausible side journey through France, over the Pyrenees, and into the Iberian Peninsula, where Medieval monks traveled to the library of Toledo, Spain, and were introduced to Euclid (his algebra and geometry play a role in the building of cathedrals), Plato, and other great writings from antiquity. Throughout the story Follett introduces the historical seeds that blossomed into the modern political mind and arena, from worker’s and women’s rights to the question of whether kings and nobility must answer to the law.

Toward the end of the book, Prior Philip, the stern, austere, kind, hard nosed, fair, loving hero of the story witnesses the assassination of Thomas Becket at Canterbury – carried out under the urging of his nemesis, Waleran, a bishop who made Machiavelli seem like an author of positive thinking and encouragement titles. Philip faces his ultimate test of faith, namely whether he will keep his faith in God and whether that faith in God has the efficacy to make the world a better place. As a reader, we have followed his life as orphan, monk, reformer, and builder for sixty years up to the year 1174 A.D. But the question he must face in the closing pages of Pillars is just as relevant today!

Major League Baseball: “What I Learned About Competition from the Globetrotters”

In 2006 the Harlem Globetrotters got win number 22,000. From 1971 to 1985 they won 8,829 straight games. In 1948-49 they beat the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers two years in a row, which was a major factor in integrating the NBA. But most of their wins have come against various “stooge” teams, most owned by Red Klotz: the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets, the Washington Generals, and the Atlantic City Seagulls were a few.

Legends like Meadow Lark Lemon, Curly Neal, and Sweetwater Clifton are from a long ago era – already past their prime when I saw them as a kid – but amazingly, the team founded by Abe Saperstein in 1926 is still touring and entertaining the world.

Yes, the Globetrotters have steadfastly claimed that their “exhibition” games were competitive, but everyone knows better. The games have been the backdrop for one of the most enduring and entertaining comedy sketches of all time.

Competition in sports assumes two persons or parties with similar levels of ability – and fair rules.

The NBA is contending with charges that the league encouraged referees to “affect” the outcomes of certain playoff games. Anyone who watched Game 6 of the 2002 playoff series between Los Angeles and Sacramento has not problem believing that to be true, though the greatest mystery of the game was probably Shaq hitting 75% of his free throws. And anyone who watched Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN-ABC announcer, explain that he didn’t mean what he said when he said that very thing as Coach of the Houston Rockets, knows how awkward that topic is for those with a vested interest in protecting a league that is supposedly competitive first and entertaining second. But I digress …

Returning to the subject of my previous blog, Major League Baseball, and as response to the defenders of this spectacular of beauty, grace, intelligence, and sportsmanship, I would simply say that the numbers don’t lie. The league lacks competitive balance due to the vast gulf between what clubs can afford to pay for talent. Unlike the NFL, the singularly healthy professional sports league in the United States, there is not a revenue sharing plan. That means owners and general managers don’t have to be skilled talent evaluators and traders to build a great team, but rather they simply outbid the have-nots to amass all-star teams on a single roster.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule and low-payroll teams have a Cinderella year and the high pay-roll clubs have an off year (cough … New … cough … York … cough … Yankees …). But a quick scan of the 2008 payroll figures is a pretty good indicator of how this season will end.

  1. Yankees $209,081,579
  2. Tigers $138,685,197 (a surprise spender, up from 9th in ’07)
  3. Mets $138,293,378 $117,915,819 $20,377,559
  4. Red Sox $133,440,037
  5. White Sox $121,152,667
  6. Angels $119,216,333
  7. Cubs $118,595,833 (when you are cursed, does it matter how much you spend?)
  8. Dodgers $118,536,038
  9. Mariners $117,993,982
  10. Braves $102,424,018
  11. Cardinals $100,624,450
  12. Blue Jays $98,641,957
  13. Phillies $98,269,881
  14. Astros $88,930,415
  15. Brewers $81,004,167
  16. Indians $78,970,067
  17. Giants $76,904,500
  18. Reds $74,277,695
  19. Padres $73,677,617
  20. Rockies $68,655,500
  21. Rangers $68,239,551
  22. Orioles $67,196,248
  23. Diamondbacks $66,202,713
  24. Twins $62,182,767
  25. Royals $58,245,500
  26. Nationals $54,961,000
  27. Pirates $49,365,282
  28. A’s $47,967,126
  29. Rays $43,820,598
  30. Marlins $21,836,500

Certain Major League Baseball teams have discovered the Harlem Globetrotters model for success. Stack the talent and schedule the stooges.