Saturday, December 17, 2016

Summary of Apocalypse (Part 1 of 3)

A lot of people have been asking me what "Apocalypse" (the science fiction novel I am working on now, currently writing on chapter 4) is about. It's been more than a decade in the planning, and I still struggle to summarize it, elevator-speech fashion. So I thought I would take a break from the writing to try and present a brief summary here.

(The challenge, of course — in addition to being brief — will be to not include any spoilers!)

This blog post covers only the first third of the novel, which is subtitled simply ...


Apocalypse starts with the end of Planet Earth as we know it. NASA and other space agencies have been tracking large, civilization-threatening asteroids (near-earth objects, or NEOs) for some time. One which briefly caused them concern as a potential existential threat, way back in December of 2004 when it was first discovered and calculations showed it might come perilously close to striking the earth in 2029, was 99942 Apophis. But further orbital dynamics measurements and observations quickly determined the threat from Apophis was minimal, that it would miss earth in 2029 by a comfortably large margin.

That all changes on September 11, 2027, when "something" (or someone?) unseen provides an explosive nudge to Apophis, way out in the asteroid belt as it is inbound toward the sun ... and its chance of striking our planet suddenly changes to 100%. Its new course has the civilization killer plunging into us dead-center on April 13, 2029.

What's more, while Apophis would be devastating even if it struck the earth dead center, it might not be a civilization killer ... UNLESS it hit a dormant supervolcano (like Lake Toba in Indonesia, where it is now pointed dead center) AND unless it had been accelerated to a velocity that would have otherwise taken it out of our solar system. Apophis' acceleration had nearly tripled to about to nearly 50 kilometers per second. Scientists knew that most of the asteroid presuming it was made of what they thought it was ... rock and ice ... would disintegrate before impact. But the portion that would not would create a devastating explosion, and release an enormous volume of magma that would add a deep "nuclear winter" to the world's other impact-related problems.

And now the world has only six short months to do something about it, as the asteroid speeded from its present position near the outer edge of the asteroid belt on the side opposite the sun from the present position of earth's orbit ... and also, to deal with the unseen enemy who apparently wantrf us dead.

Apocalypse follows this story through the lives of three very distinct individuals, who are dealing with the coming catastrophe in far different ways, and who will ultimately be brought together under the most unlikely of circumstances:

Mitchell Feofan is an American astronaut, of Russian descent, who is working on the International Space Station with the Orion interplanetary exploration program when sudden preparations for an urgent voyage to intercept Apophis (and to "deal with" the adversary who nudged it) are drawn up. He leads the three-person, one-way mission into the unknown, which is humanity's only hope for surviving the catastrophe. His ship, the Orion-class USS Menelvagor, is loaded to the hilt with the most lethal weapons ever devised by humankind, in hopes of stopping the fate coming at earth like a titanic steamroller.

And of course, in addition to dealing with the more skin-crawling aspects of their deadly payload, Feofan also has to put up with the antics of Rigel, their onboard artificial intelligence.

Fadi Tanzilur is, in almost every respect, Feofan's antithesis. He is a Middle Easterner who has been cultivated by terrorists to stop the European Space Agency (ESA) from completing its mission to deflect Apophis. The organization he represents believes the apocalypse must happen first in order for a new civilization to be rebuilt under Sharia Law. And Tanzilur and his accomplices are in position to execute their bombing of ESA headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, when something truly extraordinary begins to shake the foundations of his life and cause him to dramatically change direction.

And then there is Ukwambulu Liyana, who lives in a world far apart from the struggles either to stop Apophis or profit from the disaster it brings. An impoverished victim of abusive power, she has risen above her own disempowerment and now works to help HIV-afflicted women living in a shantytown in Durban, South Africa. Along with an Anglican priest who changes her life forever, she finds herself on the day of disaster on the beach which is closest to the asteroid's projected point of impact in the Indian Ocean. There she catches a glimpse of a key role that she will play in the unveiling of a new era for humanity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What’s Your Exploitation Quotient?

In recent days I’ve felt particularly vulnerable to the possibility of exploitation. This wasn’t something I considered when I got laid off in early August from my 22-year job with World Vision. But being jobless, and the prospect of approaching a time (in the near future) when our income may be considerably smaller than it is today, leaves one with certain feelings of vulnerability.

And the thing that has been a shock to me, which I didn’t expect at all, is all the people and organizations “out there” who seek to exploit that vulnerability for their own ends.

My first real taste of this came about two months ago. I was looking for a new job, hard and fast, and using a legitimate employment site was contacted by a company in San Francisco that was supposedly looking for a Social Media Director. The job seemed a good fit. After an hour-long interview (which I felt went well), the hiring manager offered me a job. The bad news is, it turned out to be a total scam. The good news is, I got suspicious before I actually lost anything. (Read more about this story on my blog.)

I reported the scam to the FBI, but never even got a call back. Someone told me these type of scams were so common they don’t even, apparently, get investigated. This was just the first of many attempts to exploit my current vulnerability. I receive multiple emails daily from insurance companies, employment sites, and others offering me work-at-home “jobs” which are too good to be true. I now realize the vast majority of these are attempts to exploit people who are in a vulnerable position because they have been laid off.

I’ve had lots of time to think about why this happens. People seek to exploit us daily. Sometimes it’s obvious; other times it’s very subtle. Sometimes strangers are the culprits; other times it’s people we know, trust, and love.

Yes, it’s true — we often seek to exploit each other. Even in the Church, sometimes I think we fall victim to this. It might come in the form of trying to “guilt” someone into serving or fulfilling a particular ministry need. Or perhaps it might come in the form of pressuring someone to give to a specific financial need, for reasons other than their best interest.

Or sometimes we might attend worship services or other church events, or participate in small groups or ministries for what WE will get out of it, how it will benefit us, rather than engaging from the core motivation that others might be blessed by our presence, service and participation.

Upon reflection, I also realize that interpersonally we often seek to exploit the people we love, even perhaps without really thinking about it. We might manipulate a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend into doing something we want them to do for us, that isn’t necessarily in their best interest. But because WE want it, we might manipulate the relationship, sometimes without even thinking about it, to exploit their vulnerability to make it happen. Or we might treat them in such a way as to make them feel “smaller,” so that we can magnify ourselves by comparison and “feel better about ourself.”

In 2 Peter 2:3, the Apostle had strong words for those who would exploit others:
And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
You’ve heard the saying: “Don’t use people and love stuff — love people, and use stuff!” One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ life is that there was no trace of exploitation in it. While others frequently sought to use Him for their own personal ends, His every thought, word and deed was for the ultimate good of the people He loved and was sent to serve. 1 John 4:10 says:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
This verse acknowledges the stark reality that we are lousy at loving. And God is very, very good at it! So much so, that it is said of Him, “God is love.” (Sadly, I am not aware that anyone has ever said, “Larry is love!”)

So my question and my conviction is, “How can we get better at loving others?”

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Christ constantly urged His disciples: “Love one another. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, because of the love you have for one another.”

Not a word about exploiting one another in any of that, is there?

So, I guess I will leave you (and me) with this challenge: What’s your exploitation quotient? Are you (perhaps unintentionally) acting in such a way that exploits those around you, even those you love, rather than loving them unconditionally and seeking to build them up?

If you need help loving others the way Jesus loves us, you’re not alone. I think it’s a challenge that confronts all of us. Let’s seek to prayerfully and honestly stimulate and encourage one another to “love and good deeds,” as Scripture commands.

Friday, October 21, 2016

How do we look at faithfulness?

Reprinted from "The Last Word," the leadership blog of Elim Evangelical Free Church.

Cheryl Weller is very faithful to remind us elders when she needs a Last Word from us. Last week, she told me, “You are on schedule to write the Last Word for next week. Can you have something to me by Tuesday?”

“Sure!” I said, then promptly forgot about it. (I almost said, “of course,” but we’ll talk about that in a moment!)

Last night (Tuesday at 10:20 p.m.) she emailed me and (very graciously!) said: “Hey Larry, do you have a Last Word? I needed it today, as I’m publishing tomorrow. Any chance of getting that by noon ready to publish? Thanks! Cheryl :)”

The bad news is, I didn’t receive her email until this morning. I would hit myself in the head with my shoe, but that’s happened too many times before and my head is already sore from yesterday’s abuse. So here I am, pounding it out guiltily! (Referring to the Last Word . . . not my head.)

The good news is, I have been thinking about “faithfulness,” and this whole situation gives me great ammunition. I in so many ways fall short of God’s standard of faithfulness, and this is just another example. As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been listing in my head reasons for my unfaithfulness. They start out as excuses, but end up migrating toward real-life examples of my own sinfulness.

  • My memory is terrible! That’s a big excuse I use a lot for blowing people off when I promise them something (like a Last Word done by Tuesday) and then fail to deliver. I’m a busy person! I have too much going on! Blah, blah, blah. The truth is, I don’t sufficiently value my word, so that when I promise something, I don’t make it a high enough priority to deliver.
  • I de-prioritized delivering on that commitment because I had higher priorities come along. Cheryl has given me grace before, and I knew she would give me grace again. See #1 above!
  • I didn’t really mean what I said when I said it. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” I interpret this to mean, “God’s faithfulness is known by His Word. Your word should be golden. Tell the truth, mean what you say, and do what you say.” Seems simple, no?

  • Selfishness and other sinful priorities. Here’s where it gets really uncomfortable. What was I doing yesterday that was more important than writing the Last Word? I made three Facebook posts. I did some training for a new job. I made a few bucks driving for Uber. I was tired and took a nap. For goodness’ sake, I apparently (without even thinking about it) prioritized my nap above my commitment to Cheryl to finish this Last Word yesterday! When I look at the topic of God’s faithfulness, I frequently think it’s a no-brainer. Of course God is faithful, I reason. He has a perfect memory. He has all the time in the world. He has the wisdom to prioritize properly. We may simply take it for granted (I may take it for granted) that God will do what He says!

Obviously, this speaks far better of God than it does of me, but here’s the truth: We should never take God’s faithfulness for granted. It’s a matter of life and death for us! Let’s take a look at some of the promises Scripture gives, related to God’s faithfulness:

Psalm 26:3 – For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.

There are 170 references to the words “faithful” and “faithfulness” throughout Scripture, and many of them tie God’s faithfulness to His steadfast love for us. His faithfulness is proof of His love, as it were. And it’s His faithfulness that creates a path for us to navigate the challenges of daily life.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Without God’s faithfulness to forgive us, we would be condemned to pay the penalty (of death) for our own sins!

1 Corinthians 10:13 – No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Because God is faithful, we can resist temptation, knowing there is ALWAYS a way of escape.

Psalm 86:14; 119:75 – But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . . . I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

God’s faithfulness establishes His mercy and grace as constants in our lives; even when we are “afflicted” (sometimes because of God’s discipline), we can bank on God’s faithfulness to us!

Psalm 89:14 – Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

God’s faithfulness, once again acting in concert with His steadfast love, is based upon the foundation of His righteousness and absolute commitment to true justice.

2 Thessalonians 3:3 – But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.

Like Job, we may be assaulted by the onslaughts of the evil one. But God has promised to establish and guard us in the midst of those assaults. Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world!

Psalm 31:5 – Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

These were Christ’s very last words as he died on the cross and gave up His spirit into the hands of the Father He loved, whose faithfulness He trusted so deeply. At every moment, and at the very end of our lives, each of us will be confronted with a choice to do the same. Do we trust our souls to the One who created us and promises to redeem us for all eternity?

When I think about it, neglecting to deliver a Last Word at a promised time may be among the least of my acts of faithlessness. Every time I cheat somebody something I owe them or am faithless to my wife with my eyes (by fancying a passing pretty girl a little too longingly, etc.), or “stretch the truth” in my conversation, I am demonstrating my own faithlessness.

Thank God He is faithful and just to forgive, and that His faithfulness is a sign of His steadfast love for me! Let’s pray together that faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Spirit presented in Galatians 5:22, would ever more clearly mark us out as those who are called children of the Father.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nonprofits: Develop your social listening strategy, tools and tactics NOW

I recently left (for financial reasons) a wonderful organization I'd been employed at for nearly 23 years. My history there: I started out at the nonprofit as a writer and editor, founded the organization's web presence (and created most of the products that now help it to raise about half of its billion-dollars-per-year in revenue online), and launched its most integral social media channels (such as its corporate blog, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels), which have also experienced unprecedented success.

My Introduction to Social Listening

During the last few years I served as a member of the organization's corporate social media team,  and one of my key goals (in addition to providing social content, channel management, analytics and online customer care) was to "figure out" social listening. What is it? Who's doing it and what are best practices? How can it help a nonprofit organization like the one I worked for?

I participated in numerous webinars and did a lot of research, then jumped in.

Creating Your Strategy

The first task, once you understand what social listening is, why you should be doing it and how it can help our causes and organizations, is to develop a clear strategy. As with any strategy, it must be well-informed, realistic and achievable, but also ambitious and visionary. And it must take into account the various realities and the interdependencies of the organization you serve.

I wrote a one-pager that outlined what I thought our strategy should be. My supervisor presented it to senior management and they loved it. The bottom line was: If we did social listening right, using some of the cool new tools out there to help us sort through and make sense of "big data," we could position our organization well for continued growth and success by: 1) informing senior management and key stakeholders of social trends and sentiment of our customers as it was occurring; 2) Become far more responsive to our customers (or, in our case, our donors') concerns and opinions; 3) alert us to vital "risk" concerns early in the game; and 3) Equip our own customer service specialists with the data they need, right at their fingertips, to interact effectively with our customers/donors.

Now It's Time To Talk Tactics

After numerous RFPs and interviews, we engaged a firm that one of our national offices had already been working with, Tracx, because we liked the simplicity of the interface they offered, how well they were connected with and seemed able to sift through "big data" sources, and the apparent simplicity/clarity of their customer interface and reporting system. They also worked the hardest of any of the firms we interviewed to get our business, and gave us a preliminary (first-year) price which truly was a good deal. They wanted the account, and seemed like they deserved it.

My management then tasked me with implementing the strategy I had outlined, tactically. I was to create a daily (informal) reporting system that made key stakeholders, specifically those who needed to be aware of risks in the social arena, aware quickly of either general negative sentiment or very specific negative attacks on our organization occurring out there in social space. These stakeholders included the "risk" group within our PR department, social media management, and key representatives from our donor service area. These would assess the relative risk of the information I presented (by email and phone, if urgency demanded) and escalate as appropriate, to our legal area, or senior management, or other stakeholders.

The next reporting tactic was a weekly social listening report, which I prepared in digital and paper form and presented to a group of content management specialists and key organizational stakeholders. This weekly report graphically summarized sentiment analysis for our organization's social interactions, and for those of some key competitors we had identified and were tracking. It also presented conversation trends (in "word cloud" fashion) for key words and phrases we were following, most importantly our own brand terms. And it tracked general trends related to social conversation on our channels and those of our competitors.

If social media followers were engaging with our competitors over specific issues, it was very helpful to understand this and jump in with ideas about how we could provide content to help us become a part of this conversation. Or if content we had provided was really spiking social interest, in contrast to other content we had "out there," it was extremely helpful to give this feedback to the appropriate department in hopes they could "do more of the same."

Because I was responsible for customer care in association with our key social channels, and in collaboration with those channel managers, I also had my finger on the pulse of how our customers were sharing their concerns with us on channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and how they were feeling about our products or core offerings and our content. I therefore included a section at the end of each weekly report to share highlights of key customer feedback and trends, and I made sure our more "traditional" customer service departments (such as our call center, mail center and email correspondents) were hearing me and paying attention.

Finally, I aggregated these weekly reports together into a monthly report which I "prettied up" a bit so my management could send it on up to senior management and give them an easy, visual way to keep in touch with social sentiment of our donors and of those interacting with our competitors. These highly visible monthly and quarterly reports were designed both to equip senior management ... and keep our own department's bread buttered, so to speak!

There are so many reasons social listening, which is being practiced well by today's most responsive business organizations, is an essential skill for nonprofits who want to be successful in the competitive environment they are operating in.

Taking It the "Next Step" — Integrating Social Listening Into Your CRM

One of the things I was hoping would happen while I was still with my organization, but which they have not yet gotten traction on (due to the complexity of the project), is integration of our social listening data with our back-end customer data, or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

A call center representative accessing the CRM account for a donor who calls in upset about something needs to be able to answer such questions as: Does the complainant have a significant social media following? Are they now airing (or are they likely to air) their concerns on their social media channels? If so, does more damage control need to be done? Beyond simply safeguarding the organization's reputation with this donor and keeping them happy, what would be the public engagement benefits of "going the extra mile" to make sure we hear and address their concerns? Etc.

I'm sure you can see the potential, right?

Integrating a social listening system with your CRM on the back-end is no simple task, but the world's best in class organizations are doing it now. So we should be thinking about it!

I'm Listening ... To YOU!

I'd love to hear how your organization is implementing social listening strategy and tactics. What are you learning? Is it worth it? What are the pitfalls and obstacles you are encountering?

And where do you think it's all going from here?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yes, it's embarrassing ... but this week I was the victim of a sophisticated employment scam

As I think most of you know, I am currently between jobs. I was laid off of from World Vision on August 3. I have six months of severance pay (which is very generous of them), but I do have to pay for my own health care (which is ridiculously expensive) and by the end of six months I will need to have something in hand that can help pay the bills.

Darlene has a good part-time job with the Puyallup School District (as a school nurse), though the pay isn't awesome. (Hey, it's the school district.) Our house is paid off, and we do have a solid nest egg set up for retirement, so it's not an emergency. But I do feel some pressure (at my relatively young age!) to find something, and not just anything, but specifically what God has cut me out to do. I've been hard at work investigating jobs in writing and editing, and social media and web innovation, as well as looking at some other areas that might fill the need temporarily. I've also been doing a lot of writing ... working on blogs, on my next novel, and on a magazine article or two. And I've been developing a business idea. (Yes, you guessed it ... related to exotic mushrooms!)

So, I've been busy. I've been working with an outplacement company, and have lots of resumes and applications out there, seeking interviews for various positions. This week (as part of this process) I was taken in (for a brief period of time) by a very sophisticated employment scam. And of course since then I've been dealing with the fallout, trying to protect our assets and help the authorities catch the criminal(s) running the scam, if I can.

I'm embarrassed that I was taken in, however briefly, and it's painful to share about. But I felt I should tell the story so others would be aware and might learn from my mistakes. And also, as you will read more about below, to protect myself if possible.

Laying the Groundwork

It all started out last week, when I saw and applied for a job posted on (a legitimate employment website) for a social media manager job at a (legitimate) smallish/newish business-to-business firm called Filmless, in San Francisco. The posting described basically what I would be good at doing and offered $35/hour for full-time work-at-home efforts, plus expenses.

This amount didn't work out to what I was making at my last job, but was better than what I need to survive and what I'd already been offered elsewhere. And the work-at-home part was very attractive. So I applied, via the Indeed site.

Day One ... Monday, Sept. 12

I received a contact email in the afternoon from someone purportedly named "James Townsend." The form was a standard Indeed email form and my response that I was interested triggered to their website.

Day Two ... Tuesday, Sept. 12

About 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, I received a very officious-sounding message from James which said:

We at Filmless are glad to let you know we have accepted your resume from Indeed for the position of a Social Media Manager and you can proceed now to get started with your interview for the job. This Position is Mon- Fridays and pays $35/hour, full time hours guaranteed if desired with salary increase.

To proceed you must first undergo an online assessment/job briefing and you will be needing a Gmail (Google Hangout Instant Messenger) on your Pc/device, using your Gmail account to gain access to Hangout Messenger. Contact your interview Manager and request to get started with an interview using your job code as verification."
The part (other than a few sloppy typos) that should have been my first clue, which I didn't pay sufficiently close attention to at the time, was his email address, Note that it has the word "Filmless" in it, but it's actually from the Gmail domain, and not a legitimate email address. But, I completely missed that at the time.

So, I followed his instructions and connected with him via Google Hangout, which I am familiar with as a result of using it extensively on my last job. His account had the official-looking Filmless logo which was on their (legitimate) website and Google Plus account. So I assumed (yes, another assumption) that I was talking to the legitimate Filmless Google account.

Once we connected on Google on Tuesday morning, he said, "Okay, are you ready for your interview?" I was somewhat taken aback, assuming an interview would be something that would have to be scheduled. I was sitting there at my computer in my pajamas still, so I responded: "Well, I'm not prepared for a video interview, we should schedule that if that's the case. But if you wanted to interview by chat I suppose we could do that now."

He simply responded, "Yes," and started off firing interview questions. (By the way, this became an MO for him. He typically didn't respond either completely or clearly to my questions, which should have been another clue. It was as if his attention was divided while we were talking online, and now I suppose it was — probably running his scam at multiple levels simultaneously — but at the time I supposed he was probably just a busy guy and not a great communicator on chat. Many people aren't, and one reason is they don't type as fast as I do!)

The interview took about two hours, and he asked lots of questions about my social media skills and experience, which I realized at the time were canned questions, but I figured he was probably HR and asking a lot of people standardized questions. Hence I was quite surprised when, at the end of the interview, he began talking as if I had the job.

Another red flag was that as he did this, he immediately launched into financial details. Did I want to be paid by check, or online? If online, what bank did I use? And he began talking immediately about providing me with the funds to purchase the software I would need to do my job at home. Some of the items on the list were familiar and I had used them before, others were new. But I realized the way such software worked was, as a user on a company account I wouldn't actually have to pay to purchase "software," but the company would simply add me as one of its available user seats.

One other thing that had happened during the interview (prior to this point) was that I had tried to interrupt his stream of questions (at what seemed like an appropriate moment) to ask a list of questions of my own about the company: their history, their culture, their values, their financial details, etc. The only one he actually answered was to confirm they were located in San Francisco (which I already knew from Googling them), but he ignored the rest of my questions. Also a red flag.

But at this point I was still processing the fact that it sounded like, counter to my expectations, he was offering me a job. So I asked for clarification: "Are you offering me a job?"

Yes, he said he was. He confirmed the salary and we talked a bit about benefits. He mentioned that they did have a retirement plan, but when he copied me a list of benefits, nothing about a retirement plan was on it. Another red flag, but I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.

Another red flag was a comment he made that I was "lucky" to be selected for this job — not something a real HR professional would probably say. But I excused it, thinking, "Well, he's probably new. The company's only two years old, after all."

Then he continued talking about the process of getting me a check, and when I was available to start? I told him I was flexible. He said he wanted me to start training on Monday, and that for the sake of speed they would email me a copy of the check (as a PDF) so I could deposit it in my bank account.

At that point I told him I was not yet ready to accept his offer, that I needed to speak with my wife about it and also close the loop with some other applications I had in process first. This response seemed to upset him a bit, and I received a curt: "Well then, message me back when you've made up your mind." Should have been another red flag.

Shortly after the interview ended (about 1 p.m. or so) I received a text (I had given James all my basic contact information, which is a part of my resume) from someone who identified herself as Angela Perryman from Filmless. The number the text came from was 858.683.7846. I didn't recognize the area code but assumed it was San Francisco. (I didn't research this until later, and found out it was a San Diego area code. Not that that in and of itself is anything of a huge red flag.)

By the way, I'm putting names I was given (probably all phony) as well as the real (disposable, no doubt) email addresses and the text number that I have here, in this blog, because I know Google will index this information and it will become available to anyone searching the web for information on these scammers.

Was I full of reservations at all these unusual red or yellow flags? Yes, absolutely, and I talked those through with Darlene after she got home from work Tuesday evening. She agreed they were weird. But I had also spent a lot of time researching Filmless, and they seemed to have a spotless reputation. (At this point I didn't really consider the possibility that Filmless itself wasn't a part of the scam.) It was clear that the company was more or less virtual; though it had a small physical office in San Francisco, it was clear on their website that all their producers were freelancers, and with such a new-ish company it made sense that most of their staff would telecommute.

Other than reservations, however, there was one other thing I had. Let's call it by a term that is frequently used, but difficult to define: A "check in my spirit." I stayed up late Tuesday night, my mind spinning, difficulty going to sleep. I prayed, and I watched a movie to try and get my mind off the sense of nagging anxiety that something wasn't right. But even as I finally went to sleep, well after 1 a.m., and when I woke up at my usual time at 6:30, it was still there.

Day Three ... Wednesday, Sept. 13

I reconnected on Google Hangout with James on Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., as I'd promised. I said, "Before I accept your offer, I have a list of questions for you." I fired all my questions at him (one at a time) from my prepared list. And he responded to them quite well. I also was sure to be clear that he was very aware of my Christian faith, which I know might be off-putting for some. But it didn't seem to phase him. Once again, we talked for about an hour.

My final question was, "Why do YOU enjoy working for Filmless? What makes you go to work in the morning?" (I had also asked him who Angela was ... he said she was his secretary, which in hindsight should also have been a yellow flag, since nowadays such folks are called admins, not secretaries. And I asked him if they worked in the office or were remote. It would have been smarter for him to say "remote" as this would have made it harder for me to verify with Filmless, but he said they worked in the office.) We bantered about the traffic in San Francisco, and he told me the reason he did the job was for the money, and that he had family in the area. I was expecting more of a PR-ish answer than that, but it seemed honest and so I kind of laughed it off. And stuffed down my sense of anxiety, thinking, "Well, I can certainly put the breaks on this at any time if I need to."

I did still have reservations at that point, about all the seeming yellow and red flags, and also about the job description itself, which seemed a bit unrealistic, but Darlene had said: "Test him a bit. Maybe ask for flexible hours and see if he agrees. If so, they probably do really want you and are willing to be flexible. And you could always quit if it doesn't turn out to be a good fit."

So, I told him I was willing to give it a try, if he agreed to my flexible hours request, which he did without hesitation. I asked what the next step was. He said they would pay for my training next week, and that he and I would also need to get some details taken care of before then, so I would need to be available online for a few days. I asked him who would do my training. He said he would, which I also found slightly suspicious. I asked him who my supervisor would be. He said that would be determined after the training. Hmmm. You mean there isn't actually a hiring supervisor? Weird.

Then he again started talking about how to get me a check for me to purchase things I needed. At this point I stopped him and said, "Okay, yesterday you said the check was for software, but my understanding is that's not really how the software situation should work, especially if your company already has relationships with the software vendors" (he had told me earlier that I was replacing another social media manager who had left the company, so it made sense this was true).

But then he replied, "No, it's not for the software, it's for purchasing the equipment from our approved vendor." And the amount of the check made sense for equipment. However, I KNEW the day before he had said it was for software (twice), so this was another red flag. But by this time, I'd taken the bait, and I wrote it off to the fact that he was evidently a pretty sloppy communicator.

In hindsight, it's amazing to me how you can create and use all kinds of internal excuses to try and explain unusual behavior, red flags which should really stop and make you say, "Hold your horses here." But it's a powerful thing, when someone approaches a person who is vulnerable due to need with a seeming way to meet that need. You want to believe that they are telling the truth, so you rationalize things in your own mind to try and make you feel more comfortable and less edgy.

I used to make fun of people who were dumb enough to fall for scams proffered by Nigerian princes. Now, I'm going to be a little more empathetic.

That sense of edginess, I realize now in hindsight, is a valuable thing we should listen and pay attention to. I had SO many red flags, I was already reasonably convinced there was a 50% chance that this was some sort of a scam. Despite this, I continued down the path with this scammer. (Or scammers, I'm not sure.)

I didn't have a virtual check deposit app set up with my credit union (didn't actually even realize they had one, which is a nice thing to have), so I set that up. He then PDF'd me a copy of the check with instructions to print it out and then scan it using the app, for deposit.

I called my credit union (ECCU) and talked this through with them. They said they weren't sure it would work, printing and then scanning a digital copy. But he assured me, "Sure, it will work, it's basically the same thing as scanning the original." Which made sense to me. So I tried it. Repeatedly. About a dozen times. I kept getting error messages from the credit union's system that the scan wasn't clear. James kept bugging me, "Have you deposited it yet?" (Which also should have been suspicious.) And making suggestions about how to make it work: better lighting, etc.

I finally got the scan to go through, by following one of his suggestions and cutting out the printouts in the approximate size of a real check, then placing them on a dark background for the photograph. And the app acknowledged my deposit.

James then asked me for a screenshot of the acknowledgement message to verify that the check had been deposited. But by that time I'd closed the app and couldn't get the message back, and told him so. "Well," he said, "just log on to your account and send me a screenshot of your transaction history." I looked at my account and the check I'd submitted wasn't reflected there yet, and I was still sufficiently suspicious that I wasn't ready to provide account numbers or any sensitive financial information to him, so I told him that deposit wasn't yet reflected in my transaction history and I would send verification whenever I could get it. He then let that go.

And, in hindsight, yet more red flags: The check that he emailed me wasn't made out from Filmless and didn't even had Filmless' name on it. (Or James'.) It was from a "Diversified General Credit Union," signed by a "Demi B. Atwood" and it had the name "James Beckham" in the memo area. Moreover, the check itself wasn't sent to me from James' email account, it was sent from the email account of someone named "Ben Dawson" at

But there was one more thing he wanted. "To set up our payroll, we need verification of your account. Is there a branch of your credit union nearby? We'd like you to go have them make out a $5 cashier's check, to you, then scan and send us a copy of that. You can then cash the check for yourself when you're done."

It seemed an unusual request (another red flag), and I think it pushed me over a tipping point of sort. After all, at this point the thought of NOT having to work with this weirdo was becoming rather appealing. I decided to "play along" but to seek the credit union's advice about the situation. I told him, truthfully, "My credit union doesn't have any branches in my area, but there is another credit union I belong to here, Harborstone, where I can have them make me out a cashier's check."

"Do it," he said, "and let me know when you are able to scan and send a copy of that to me."

So I headed for the credit union. When I got the Harborstone branch office on South Hill. I had a very helpful conversation with a teller who listened well, talked to her supervisor, and came back and agreed that the whole situation seemed quite suspicious. "A $5 cashier's check made you to you? We've never heard of that before and don't understand how that would help them set up payroll. It doesn't have any of your own account numbers on it. Perhaps it's for some sort of a security or credit check?"

"I don't know," I said, "but I can ask them." So I messaged James back and asked him to call me because I had questions.

He didn't respond right away, so I left the bank and ran a few errands. While I was out I also did something else I had intended to do much earlier: I had gotten Filmless' main office number off their website (where they also had email and chat contacts listed). So I called it, intending to ask them about James Townsend and Angela Perryman. But an answering machine picked up the call, so I left a detailed message describing my dilemma.

Meanwhile, James responded to my message asking him to call me: "What questions?" was all he said. (Another red flag was that he never did give me his phone number, even though I asked several times.)

I told him what the credit union had said, that they didn't understand why he'd want me to do this. He gave me some lame and muddled explanation about needing it to set up payroll. So I returned to the credit union and showed them his response. They read it carefully and said, "That doesn't make any sense at all. This really does sound fishy."

I had also brought a copy of the $3,400 check they had sent, which I had already deposited to my credit union, so at this point I asked if they'd be willing to take a look at it. They said, "Of course. We can do even better than that. We can run its numbers to see if it appears legit or not." So the teller typed the numbers into the computer, then immediately shook her head. "Nope," she said, "it's coming up as a bad check."

The gig was up. On their advice, I immediately called ECCU and told them what had happened. They said they would put the check I had deposited into a special research hold and try and figure out what was going on.

After stopping for some lunch, I headed for home. As I did so, James was messaging me: "Did you get the cashier's check? Can you send the scan soon?" His urgency to do these weird financial things was another red flag that I should have really paid attention to earlier on.

I ignored his messages until I got home, and then decided to put him off while I tried to figure out what to do. I messaged him briefly and told him I'd developed a bad migraine (which was true!) while waiting at the bank, and that I was going to bed for the rest of the day (not exactly true) and would talk to him tomorrow. He asked again about the check, but I ignored this, and also a 4:30 message asking me if I was feeling better.

Immediately after this I got onto the FBI's website for internet crimes, called the "Internet Crime Complaint Center" or IC3, and made a full report of the crime. I told a few close friends who had been praying about what had happened, but asked them not to share it publicly, as I didn't want to tip him off that I was onto him. And I also went back on Filmless' site, sent them an email with the whole story, and also tried their chat technology, which said they weren't available to chat. I left a message that I was going to call the San Francisco PD on Thursday if they didn't get back to me. (At this point I still wasn't sure whether they were in on the scam, or not.)

Later Wednesday evening I did get a gracious response from Filmless. They told me that over the past two days they had been the victim of an employment scam, and they apologized, and suggested I ignore any communications about a job offer. A little late, of course ... I wanted to advise them that next time they should say something about it on their website, which would have clinched it for me earlier. But, I can understand that they were inundated putting out the fire. (I've been there, in my job at World Vision.) They also told me they were working with to resolve the situation.

Naturally, I was upset about all this. I felt foolish, and was frustrated about wasting my time, and being victimized, and disappointed that what had seemed like a nice job didn't pan out. Nonetheless, my spirit was at rest, and I also had a great sense of relief. The only open question mark was "Why?" What were the scammers hoping to gain from all this?

I went to bed early and slept like a log on Tuesday night.

Day Four ... Today, Thursday, Sept. 15

James was messaging me via Google again before 8 a.m. this morning. Then, shortly after 8, he sent the following message:
I see you on hangout now , Larry what is going on And the funds you deposited have cleared The bank just informed me"
I was, of course, reasonably certain that was a lie. I knew that even under normal circumstances, a check like that took days to clear. And these weren't normal circumstances; ECCU had said they had put a research hold on this particular check. But, I called them anyway, just to make sure.

While I was waiting to talk to someone, I checked my web balance online, and was startled to see it list in my transaction history the deposit of the $3,400 check! However, when I looked at my available balance, the check amount clearly wasn't reflected in that.

When the operator came on, I started at the beginning and described the situation, then said: "I'm concerned because my transaction history shows the check I deposited yesterday, but my balance does not." The gentleman I spoke with looked at the situation and told me that the deposit was indeed flagged for research, but that as a normal part of their process they were showing the transaction in my history and that they had actually released $200 of the $3,400 check (per their policy, I assume) to my account. He said he would reverse this and that they would contact the issuing bank to be certain. He said if the check was a phony it would be rejected at that point.

Okay, I told him, but I had two concerns: 1) I don't want a single cent of this guy's money in my hands! Yesterday when I talked with you, I assumed the check would be rejected, because I told you what Harborstone told me, that it was a fake. But even if it's not, I don't want him accusing me of cashing his check! And 2) I didn't want to incur any fees for this bad check, if possible.

At this point, after reading James' message this morning, I realized with a chill what the point of the whole scam might be. He would probably come back and say, "Hey, you cashed my check. You owe me that money back!" And of course he'd want it in the form of a cashier's check, or some such. (Possibly the reason he had me prove I could get a cashier's check? I'm not sure.)

Or perhaps the check is one he's stolen from someone else? Or perhaps it was forged on someone else's "real" account? And now of course the bank of the victim would have a record of me trying to cash the stolen or forged check. Perhaps this might be a blackmail attempt of some sort?

This feels ugly ... here's why I'm telling you this

Whatever it is, it feels extremely ugly. So I'm telling the story here, partly in an effort to protect myself, just as I've told it to the FBI (through their IC3 website ... though I really wish I could talk to a human being there).

Naturally I'm hoping for justice. And I'm hoping to stop this guy so no one else is victimized. I feel bad for what has happened to, and to, as a result of this scam. And possibly to other people (possible innocent victims?) I've named in this blog.

In the meantime I've learned some lessons about trusting my own heart, and about being more cautious and getting verification earlier in the process when things don't seem right.

I also have a message for James, if he bothers to read this (and he might, I'm not sure): While you have tried to hurt me, for the sake of your own greed, I am not angry at you. In fact, I forgive you. This is because there is One who has already paid the price for every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit. Jesus gave His life on the Cross to forgive you and set you straight!

I will continue to pursue justice, and hope that the FBI catches you and stops you before you hurt anyone else. But even as you sit in jail (since as an interstate crime, this is a federal offense and a felony), I will pray that you find peace, and true purpose, and recognize the freedom that comes from being forgiven.

As for the rest of you: I'll continue to post updates (as comments to this blog) and let you know how things develop from here. Please do pray for James, and for anyone victimized by his greed. And thanks for listening!

Friday, September 02, 2016

Is disrespecting your country a legitimate way to protest wrongs?

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made the news big time for his decision to not stand during the playing of the National Anthem, as is traditional in the sport. You can read Kaepernick's explanation for his decision here.

Despite refusing to stand for the anthem because of what he says is the need for changes to end racial oppression in the U.S., Kaepernick has sought to show support for veterans in other ways. ESPN says that during a game with San Diego he "applauded veterans and active military during a first-half break with Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA playing and stood for a rendition of God Bless America, clapping at the end of that as well."

Whether you agree or disagree with what Kaepernick has decided to do (and many disagree, as he has been loudly booed by fans as a result of refusing to stand), you have to admit he has been successful at one goal, and that is drawing more media attention to the issue of racial disparity and oppression in America.

I've been thinking about what Kaepernick has done because I realize that, in addition to the issue of racism, there are many other evils happening in America today which could certainly be protested or highlighted in some way if one was willing to take a step to disrespect our country. What about abortion? More than 55 million innocent unborn children murdered in America since 1973 certainly deserves some discussion. Not to mention our government's (and the UN's) support for this heinous practice. What about the fact that as taxpayers we are forced to give a half billion dollars of our hard-earned money each year to the evil Planned Parenthood organization so that it can continue to kill unborn children?

And I'm sure if you looked hard enough, in addition to these two horrible things (racial injustice and abortion) there are lots of other evils that you could justifiably blame America for, and in so doing, find justification in showing disrespect to our country, if you were so inclined. So, should we be?

Respecting Rome

I believe the answer to this question, for Christians, is a clear "No!" ... and here's why.

The first Christians (those who lived in the generation or two after Christ lived, died, rose again and ascended to the Father) experienced government-sanctioned evils as horrible as any we here in America are experiencing now. In 64 A.D. Rome was the greatest power the earth had ever seen, but its emperor, Nero, was feeling threatened by the rise of a new religious sect called Christianity, which claimed fealty to a Kingdom not of this earth. He began a government-sanctioned campaign of persecution of Christians that was horrible beyond imagination. Christians were fed to the lions in the arenas for entertainment, and in his own garden he tied them to poles, coated them with pitch, and lit them on fire to serve as pleasant evening lights.

The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen who ended up being executed in Rome by the governing authorities, most scholars think in May or June of 68 A.D. Nero himself committed suicide on June 9, 68 A.D. Paul would have doubtless been aware of all Nero's many atrocities against Christians.

So, what was Paul's attitude toward his government? Did he advocate disrespecting it because of its evil?

Paul's letter to church at Rome, written about 10 years before his death, offers an interesting perspective on this question:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

His statement in verse 6 about paying taxes is interesting. I've considered before the question of whether Christians should withhold a portion of our taxes in objection to being forced to support Planned Parenthood's slaughter of unborn children, in particular. (THAT would make a statement ... get the government's attention very quickly, getting you in all kinds of trouble with the IRS, and you could probably get on the news by doing this if you wanted to.) But would it be the right thing to do? Paul's counsel above would suggest that it would not be.

Rome and the USA: Some Sad Similarities

Some might object, "But Paul says 'rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.' But this obviously wasn't true of Nero, and it isn't necessarily true of our leaders either." And it's true that while Nero was in power when Paul wrote his words to the Romans, he didn't actually begin seriously persecuting Christians until a decade later.

But Rome was involved in plenty of other horrific evils before then. This article in "Ancient Origins" details some of the more gruesome archaeological discoveries of mass infant killings in the Roman Empire. And I quote:
During Roman times, it was not uncommon for infants to be killed as a form of birth control. It was not a crime, as newborn infants were viewed as being ‘not fully human’. In most cases, a Roman woman who did not want a newborn would engage in the practice of “exposure.” She would abandon the infant, either to be found and cared for by someone else, or to perish. According to the beliefs at the time, it was up to the gods to determine whether the infant would be spared or not.
But the author, M. R. Reese, notes as she continues that the hundreds of infants killed at the site under an ancient bath-house in Ashkelon did not die of exposure; rather they were healthy babies, none more than a week old, who died as a result of being thrown into the sewer pit beneath what is speculated to be a brothel as well as a bath-house. She says "It is possible that the infants were born to prostitutes or laborers who worked at the bathhouse."

This is the culture Paul claimed citizenship in when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Such horrors as we also experience here in the U.S. today with our government's support for late-term abortions — near-term babies having their spinal cords snipped with the scissors of abortionists — or the prevalence of incidents of people murdering others because of their skin color, would not have been something terribly out-of-place in the governmental context for Paul's writing.

And yet he urged respect for the governing authorities, and for paying taxes.

The fact is, God expects us to respect those authorities who govern us, regardless of their evils. Such authority has been established by Him, and He will ultimately hold them accountable for what they do with the authority He has given them stewardship over.

Does this mean we are to stay silent in the face of such atrocities? Absolutely not. We in particular have the privilege of living in a country where we have the legal (First Amendment) right to speak out, and God forgive us if we don't exercise this right. In this current election cycle, I find the two primary contenders exceedingly immoral, and so I have not hesitated to use my voice (on social media and elsewhere) to speak out against them. And frankly, there is no way I will support either with my vote. This I also think would be a grievous wrong, to adopt a "lesser of two evils" mentality and thus give my support to either.

But, if either is elected, I will respect them, as I have respected President Obama. This does not mean I won't speak out against the evil that they do, and it doesn't even necessarily mean that I won't respectfully disobey the governing authorities in those situations where obedience would mean myself committing evil. This was the pattern established by Peter and John in Acts 5 when the governing authorities ordered them not to talk about Jesus, under threat of imprisonment and possibly death: “But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men.'" And they continued to preach the Gospel in respectful defiance of the orders of the governing authorities.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

Personally, I think the most praiseworthy thing that Kaepernick has done to share his concern about racism is not the thing that he's getting all the media attention for. He told the press he plans to "donate the first $1 million he makes this year to help communities in need as part of his plan to take a more active role in combating racial inequality."

Kaepernick's stance has created a lot of useful conversation about racism in America, but putting his money where his mouth is an especially effective (and also respectful) way of making a difference about those issues he's concerned about. Are we willing to do the same thing with the issues we care about?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

You and I are very different!

I was reading some of Old Testament books written by minor prophets, and I was struck by a fundamental truth that has been both very challenging and very freeing for me:


The Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra (two prophets) tell the story of the return of a remnant of Jews to the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the walls around the city and safeguard the Temple. After the wall is successfully rebuilt, the books detail some of the challenges that this remnant of Jews was facing. One of them was intermarriage with the other (non-Hebrew) people living in the land. Such intermarriage was always considered a no-no among the Jews, as it resulted in a dilution of Jewish teaching, faith and culture.

Ezra 9 tells the story of how the prophet discovers the disgraceful practices being employed by the returnee Jews. "When I heard this," verse 3 says, "I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice."

Chapter 10 continues: "While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly." And it goes on to share how the Israelites who were practicing these things repented and changed their ways.

Nehemiah tells much of the same story, but the approach of this prophet is clearly very different than that of Ezra. In chapter 13 it is revealed how the Israelites are comingling with Ammonites and Moabites, which is expressly forbidden by Scripture due to the role these peoples had played earlier in antagonizing Israel. Starting in verse 23, Nehemiah says: "Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair."

These two prophets had very different styles. It strikes me that Ezra pulled out his own hair in grief and repentance over the sins of the Israelites. Nehemiah, on the other hand, beat and pulled the hair of the guilty parties!

Both shared the same godly concerns, but what they did about it was expressed in very different ways.

Another interesting example of this phenomenon exists when you compare the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both are written after the renovation of the Temple stalls, due to external threats and internal dissent among the remnant. Like Nehemiah, Haggai is very brief and to-the-point. His exhortation is fundamentally a kick in the pants. Chapter 1 reports: "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways."

The entire book of Haggai is only 2 chapters, 36 short verses.

But Zechariah (one of my personal favorites) is VERY different. He goes on at great length. He has mystical visions and peers through the telescope of time. His exhortation is very inspirational, a pat on the back rather than a kick on the pants. (Yay for we longwinded, poetic, people-pleaser types!)

But his message to the Jews who had stalled is fundamentally the same: God is coming! Let's prepare the way for Him and get His house in order!

All these men were effective, in their different ways. And this leads me to ask: Why does God create (and use) people who are so different from one another?

I think part of the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul reveals that although we are one body in Christ, that body is made up of many very different members. He likens our situation to a physical body when he says:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor. 12:15-20)
We do have a tendency to think everyone should be just like us, don't we? But when you realize that God created us very different, and the reason he did so, aren't you glad? Would life be a total unmitigated disaster if everyone was just like you, or exactly like me?

God has created each of us with different functions, gifts, talents, skills, passions, personalities, working styles. This is how the Body of Christ was designed to get things done ... God things, the task that He has set out before us to accomplish!

And when you realize this, and how desperately we need each other, you also must realize how God expects us to respect (and work with) one another. Especially if we are different!

Yes, you and I are VERY different. Aren't you glad?

Monday, August 08, 2016

Here comes the worm, and there goes the shade tree

A few weeks ago, Pulse (our young adults group) was studying the book of Jonah. Most people focus on the part of the story where the reluctant prophet gets swallowed by a whale; but I felt particularly drawn to the fourth and final chapter in the story.

And as usual, God gave me a poignant, real-life illustration of the principles in His Word.

The fourth chapter finds Jonah, having (finally) fulfilled God's command by walking back and forth among the streets of the ancient world's largest city, Nineveh, proclaiming:

"Forty more days Nineveh will be overthrown."

It was a very simple message God had given him to deliver. God had said in chapter 1, "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." And in chapter 3, after Jonah got barfed up on the beach facing Nineveh, He added: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” So that's what Jonah did. And of course the amazing thing that happened as a result was nothing short of the greatest revival in history. Tens of thousands of Ninevites repented of their sin, "from the least to the greatest." Even the king got into sackcloth and ashes. And God in His compassion and mercy decided to spare Nineveh from the promised calamity.

And Jonah was not a happy camper. Chapter 4 details his expression of anger against God for being so gracious to Israel's enemies. Remaining convinced that surely God was mistaken and the repentance was false, he sat up on a hillside above Nineveh to watch and see what would happen.

What happens next in chapter 4 is fascinating, and the point of this blog. Verses 6 through 8 report:

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Why would our gracious and loving God both provide great comfort to make Jonah happy ... then take it away to make him miserable? What was the point?

It's easy to conclude from reading this passage that God is more interested in developing our character than He is in our comfort and happiness. Note that "God provided" both the blessing (the shade tree) and the curse (the worm that chewed it). He used Jonah's resulting discomfort and frustration as an object lesson both on how "the Lord gives and the Lord taketh away" and why compassion is such a key part of God's character (and should be a key part of ours as well).

My Shade Tree

Right before leading this Bible study, I was called to a meeting in our human resources department and informed I was being laid off. For nearly 23 years, God had provided me with a marvelous shade tree, my job at World Vision. I loved it, I was good at it, it brought me great joy and satisfaction, not to mention a decent living. I had planned to retire in about three years or so, after I had accomplished a few more milestones. All was good.

But then, bam, God sent a worm to chew on my shade tree!

So, after studying Jonah 4 I've been asking myself, "What is it in my character that God is seeking to work on through this event?" I'm grateful to God for the many years of beautiful shade. I must be grateful as well for the worm. For both come from His hand.

I've blogged before about how the Hebrew word translated "worm" in chapter 4 is "Tolah," the crimson worm which throughout Scripture is used to represent the Messiah. (For instance, see the Messianic Psalm 22.) Jesus was in some manner in Jonah's worm, which reminds us that He gave up the comforts of heaven to be born as a human baby, to struggle with all the things we struggle with, and ultimately to give up His life on the Cross for our sins.

I'm grateful that God is present in both blessing and comfort, as well as in adversity. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to discern His will in this next phase of our lives together.

Monday, June 06, 2016


We're living in a day and age where an outflowing of national anger and disillusionment with broken government promises, increasing bureaucracy and taxation is having a significant impact upon presidential politics. Whether that impact will be negative or positive for our country is hotly debated, and beyond the scope of this Last Word.

What I am concerned about here is the impact that anger has on us personally. And I speak from that of which I know. I was raised by Christian parents, but the general mood in our household was often very angry. My parents fought a lot. Usually they were angry with each other, for a variety of reasons; and sometimes they were angry with us kids. I remember once my mom was very angry with my brother and I about something (I don't remember why; I'm sure we deserved it). She went for the belt to administer a whipping, which she rarely did. As the oldest, I was unfortunately first in line. And she was so angry she didn't realize she was holding the wrong end of the belt when she hit my backside with it. The first (and as it turned out, only) blow landed with the metal buckle coming in contact with the target.

And my mother was instantly horrified when she realized what she had done in anger; she burst into tears and ran off sobbing. It was the last time she ever took a belt to any of us five kids, as far as I know.

The fortunate part of the story for me is that my mom wasn't very strong, and even in her anger the metal belt buckle, while it stung a bit, didn't do much damage!

Some of this anger transferred to me. I had a hard time as a young father not being goaded to anger by my kids, particularly my son, who was very good at doing that. By the time he was 17, he knew exactly what buttons to push to get me pretty much out of control. Once he sent me into a blind rage, and I was so angry I grabbed a telephone (the cordless kind) and launched it at him with all my might. Fortunately he had good reflexes and ducked the missile, which punched a hole right through the drywall of our staircase.

He grabbed some things out of his room and left the house, announcing that he was going to report me to CPS. I probably would have deserved that. I was appalled and dismayed and spent three days just pleading with the Lord to help me get my anger under control. At the end of that time, realizing that through the Lord's empowerment I indeed did have control, if I only had the discipline to exercise it, I vowed I would never be goaded into that kind of anger again. And I have kept that vow to this day, some 15 years later. As a result, my relationship with my son has vastly improved. (Not that he hasn't occasionally tested those limits!)

I realize now (and I probably realized then, to some extent, at least) that my anger was holding me back from becoming the kind of father, and the kind of disciple, God wanted me to become. I am so grateful to be able to look back and see how God has helped me get some victory over this particular broken and sinful aspect of my life. I am hoping that it has not only made me a better dad, but also a better husband, employee, brother in Christ, and citizen. (Now, on to the next big project!)

A Prophet With a Problem

At worship on Sunday I mentioned what I am learning from the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet who had a problem with anger. And the Ninevites deserved his anger! They were among the most brutal people ever to inhabit the planet.The records of their horrific brutality, if you read about them in the history books, make you feel ill even now, thousands of years later. I won't go there; I'll just assure you that whatever your imagination can conjure up, what they did to their enemies was worse.

And they didn't like the Hebrews. And the Hebrews didn't like them. Which is why many people think Jonah ran the opposite direction when God told him to go and deliver His message to Nineveh. Wa-a-a-ay in the opposite direction.

But the real reason Jonah ran is revealed in chapter 4:1-4:
But it [God's mercy on the Ninevites after they repented] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
The answer to the Lord's question was, of course, "No." But instead of answering, Jonah just sulked. He went and staked out a position on the hillside overlooking the huge city of Nineveh, hoping against hope to see God rain down fire and brimstone on it while he ate popcorn.

It's amazing, when you think about it, that the reason for Jonah's anger was the kindness, grace and mercy of our steadfastly-loving God! In his anger against the Ninevites, Jonah wanted vengeance. He was only all-too-happy to preach God's simple message: "40 days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!" No love lost there, as far as he was concerned.

So Jonah set himself up on the hill, and verse 6 says "the Lord God appointed a plant" that provided shade over Jonah and gave him relief from the heat. And Jonah was glad for the plant. (He'd apparently had enough of discomfort after spending three days and nights in the gastrointestinal tract of a large fish!)

But then our merciful, gracious, and loving God did something very interesting. Verse 7 says that at dawn of the next day, God "appointed a worm" that attacked the plant so that it withered, and Jonah lost his comfy shade. (For the fascinating biblical story behind the worm, check out this blog post.) After the sun rose, "God appointed a scorching east wind" to make Jonah really uncomfortable. And once again, Jonah was angry and "asked that he might die" (You can almost hear him thinking, "I'll show God! We'll see how he feels after His prophet has died of heat stroke.")

The discomfort was of course intended by God as an object lesson for Jonah. "Do you do well to be angry about the plant?" God asked him in verse 8. And Jonah replied, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

I hope Jonah saw the divine humor in this. God was under no illusions that the Ninevites were model citizens. His view of them was that they did "not know their right hand from their left." Not very flattering, eh? And to drive his point home, God adds: "And also much cattle." Come on, Jonah, at least feel for the cows!

(Something about this reminds me of that strangely hilarious scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "Oh, George! Not the livestock!")

I continue to be blown away by a recognition which I probably share with Jonah that God is so good at love, and I am so bad at it. He is indeed "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Thank God He often (probably more often than we know) "relents from disaster," even though we certainly deserve it!

What to do if you struggle with anger?

Do you struggle with anger? Be honest. I don't think I'm alone in this one. We know there is a "righteous anger," an anger at sin and its effects on innocent people, and injustice, and man's inhumanity to man, and so much else that has resulted from the Fall. But how often can our anger truly be counted in this category? Or how often is our anger instead a result of the fact that we haven't gotten what we want or think we are owed? Our anger blinds us. We think we are concerned about a mote in someone else's eye, when our anger has blinded us to the log in our own.

And our anger separates us from the blessings God wants to bestow on us, and through us, to others. My advice is: Deal with it! Lay it before the Cross. Recognize how the blood of Christ absorbed the righteous anger of God, anger at the sin we so willingly partake in. If you need help, get it. Ask brothers and sisters around you to pray for you and hold you accountable. Get professional help if you need it. Please don't wait for God to give you a loving sunburn to drive His point home, as He did with Jonah!

Thursday, June 02, 2016


"Wanderlust" is one of those words I have very mixed emotions about. On the plus side (I think!), I am one of those people who feels drawn to the idea of exploration and road trips and hikes in the wilderness and camping and all those sorts of things. There is a sort of romantic, gypsy feel to the lifestyle of a wanderer. As the popular saying goes, "All who wander are not lost."

On the other hand, half of the word "wanderlust" is not so nice. We usually don't give a positive connotation to the word "lust," do we? (Although I readily admit I unashamedly lust over chocolate!)

One of the young men in Pulse is a young professional with a serious case of wanderlust. Oftentimes he just launches out in his car, driving he knows not where. He usually ends up in another state .. the coast or forests of Oregon, the mountains of Idaho or Montana, or sometimes even further. He just loves to wander. He says it helps him process life. (And eventually, thankfully, he comes back!)

During Jed's maiden voyage to Lake Chelan.
​I've confessed to several people that I'm getting to the point in my professional career where I can see a light at the end of the workaday tunnel ... that light which is sometimes called "retirement."

One of the recent symptoms of pre-retirement, for me, is wanderlust. I spent several months researching and then purchasing a nice motorhome (a Jayco Melbourne, built on the popular Mercedes Benz "Sprinter" chassis), and I've been getting it equipped to take on the road. Its maiden voyage was mushroom-hunting in Eastern Washington with my son Nathan, then my wife and I took it to an RV resort in Ocean Shores. For our third trip we visited Gordy and Linda McCoy at lovely Taidnapam (on Riffe Lake), where they serve as camp hosts. They made us breakfast, and we plan to return the favor by going back there tonight and making them dinner.

But I have dreams of going much further. Ultimately we'd like to make our way lazily over to Pennsylvania, for a month or two at a time, where our daughter Mandy, her husband Mike, and our granddaughter Annabelle live. Pennsylvania in the fall is beautiful (full of mushrooms), and there is plenty of space for Jedediah (that's what we named our new motorhome, after the explorer Jedediah Smith) on their small farm there.

From there, we could even explore the eastern coast of the U.S., or divert up into Canada on our way home ... or maybe Iceland ...

Mandy inherited my sense of wanderlust. She and I spent a good portion of the summer of 2006 exploring several nations in Southern Africa, including the Congo. We had a blast, and she went on after that to wander through India and Nepal with a friend. She and Mike also frequently hike places like the Appalachian Trail, and when they visit here later this summer they want to hike a part of the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. (As do I!)

Where am I going with this meandering word? Well, I've felt vaguely guilty at times about my wanderlust. I know God calls us to be content with where He has placed us, and I love our home, our family, and our friends. I hate missing Elim, even one weekend service. So I've wondered whether my wanderlust may be a sign of ungodly discontentment?

But then I look at my model of godliness, Pastor Martin. There's a guy with some serious wanderlust. He thinks nothing about jumping on his manly motorbike and heading out into the open highway, bugs splattering thickly across his grinning teeth.

If Pastor Martin has wanderlust, it seriously can't be wrong, can it?

Pulse is currently studying the book of Jonah, which I'm enjoying very much. Jonah had a serious case of wanderlust. God said, "Go to Nineveh!" The great city was due northeast of where Jonah lived. So he headed out ... due west, to Joppa. There he boarded a ship for Tarshish, which was WAY west, actually out in Spain on the westernmost edge of the known world!

Jonah was fleeing God, which he discovered (while soaking in bile in the belly of a big fish, buried deep in the Mediterranean Sea) is actually not possible. As David says in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
In Jonah 2, the reluctant prophet says: "From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry."

If the belly of a big stinky fish in a storm in the ocean isn't "the realm of the dead," I'm not sure what is! Once the fish barfed Jonah out upon the beach, pointed toward Nineveh, he thankfully started heading in the right direction. (There's nothing like a little fresh air to clear your thoughts after three days and nights in the realm of the dead!)

I think the important thing for me (by way of admonition to those who, like me, have a bad case of wanderlust) is this: Are we running TOWARD God, or AWAY FROM Him?

There's nothing wrong with travel. But when we travel, are we making it a priority to connect with other believers in worship? Are we ensuring that our home church has our financial support while we are gone? And are we staying connected with those (at home) we are in community with, through whatever means are at our disposal? (Ahem, social media, cough, cough ...)

And is our motivation for running away, getting away from something that God wants us to deal with? Instead of simply dealing with it?

Christ frequently wandered into the wilderness, even amidst the pressing demands of ministry. But He was running TOWARD the voice of His Father, who was drawing Him to solitude for the sake of their fellowship together. Does our wandering have the same aim?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Three Hands, Three Strands

The associate pastor at our church, Brian Sharpe, has created a booklet called "Three Hands," with the help of some others on our communications team. The artwork on the cover is a bit goofy and I've made fun of it a lot (insert comment about living too close to Hanford Nuclear Reservation here), but the foundational idea, while simple, is incredibly important.

The booklet looks at the lives of some of those who were called, in the first century A.D., to "lean into" the task of taking the life-changing Gospel ("good news") of Jesus outward from their home villages and spreading it so that the world might be changed. This obviously took an incredible amount of passion, and conviction, and selflessness, and courage, all gifts brought from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit who fell upon Christ's disciples in Acts 2. Specifically, it looks at the Apostle Paul, and Timothy, and Barnabus, three men who made an incredible contribution to the spread of the Gospel. And more specifically, it looks at the relationship between them, and draws some simple ideas from what we see there.

Paul's mentoring of Timothy was obviously incredibly important. It was far more than the relationship between student and teacher; it was discipleship. Paul frequently said, even as Jesus did, "Those things you see me do, go and do those things." He modeled what New Testament life was supposed to be about, then encouraged others to follow the model.

And how does Barnabus fit in? One of the key things you see in Acts and beyond is that men like Paul rarely went out "on their own." They partnered with someone who could provide strength and encouragement. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says:
And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.
The truth is, we are too often alone ... and too often, inevitably, overpowered! The Christian life wasn't designed to be lived alone. It was designed to be lived in partnership with brothers and sisters. Too many Christians in this "cowboy" culture we live in here in the U.S. simply blow off "church." They don't need anybody, they can go it alone. But truth be told, our need for others is far more significant than we know. We need that brother and sister who can tell us the truth when we need to hear it, or can give words of encouragement when that is what we need. We need others to "stir us up to love and good works," as Hebrews 10:24 says.

A two-stranded cord is far better than one.

But wait ... that's not what Ecclesiastes says, is it? Oh, of course not! Duh. The third strand represents He who enters into our fellowship, and interweaves His life with ours. The Third Strand alone is unbreakable ... so any rope with it woven firmly into place is a rope that should surely hold under even the greatest pressure!

So, back to the three hands: On that goofy cover I told you about, one hand is reaching downward, one reaching upward, and one to the side. The hand reaching up reminds us that we all need to have a mentor who can disciple us and prepare us for what God has assigned. Even Paul spent something like three years learning from others and getting prepared for his public ministry.

And we should all be willing to pour what we have learned into others, for our faith is just one generation away from extinction and we must not be the ones who fail to pass it down! The hand reaching down reminds us that we should all have "Timothys" in our lives who we are pouring ourselves into. We should be showing (with our lives, not just saying with our lips), and we should be working toward a specific goal (as Paul did), to release those we mentor into ministry once they are ready.

And finally, we all need Barnabuses. (Barnabi?) I have a close friend in California named John whom I met my first year of college. Our friendship has continued to grow since then, and there has been many a time when we have needed and depended on each other. Often he is a Paul, and I a Timothy; and sometimes it may be the other way around. But always, we are Barnabuses, to whatever extent we can be, separated by 1,200 miles!

Brian asks, Who is your Paul? Who is your Timothy? Who is your Barnabus? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and this may be a season when all three relationships are not operating in our lives right now. But we should always be on the lookout for who God might bring our way. And we must never neglect "the assembling of ourselves together" and simply putting ourselves "out there" in places where we can impact (and be impacted by) the lives of others! Are you allowing God to weave that three-stranded cord in your life?