The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

Advertisements

A Killing at the Creek | Book Review


“All in the world Elsie Arnold wanted was a murder case,” and in A Killing at the Creek, Nancy Allen gives her one.

This is the second crime novel in Allen’s series of mysteries set in fictional McCown County in southwest Missouri. Like the first novel, The Code of the Hills, Allen’s writing is pitch-perfect in its depiction of the Ozarks, right down to a throwaway mention on page 116 of the Assemblies of God—“No drinking, no cussing. No dancing”—which is headquartered in Springfield. (I’m an AG minister and Springfield resident.)

Elsie Arnold is an assistant prosecutor in McCown County, and she wants to try a murder case to advance her career. The problem is that her boss, Madeleine Thompson, hates her and takes the case herself, assigning second chair to Chuck Harris, the newly hired chief assistant from Kansas City. (Newly hired in no small part to block Elsie’s advancement.) But when police capture a suspect, who’s a 15-year-old juvenile from St. Louis, Thompson and Harris get cold feet and had Elsie the legal briefs.

The suspect, Tanner Monroe, is an unlikable kid who insists on an ODDI defense (“other dude did it”). His cagey defense lawyer, Billy Yocum, seeks a “MD or D” defense—“mental disease or defect”— since there’s no evidence of the other dude, but Monroe refuses to cooperate. What starts out as a strong case gets weakened due to questionable prosecutorial decisions and Elsie’s romantic entanglement with Bob Ashlock, the detective running the investigation. Will these errors doom Elsie’s prosecution, or will she close the case?

I liked this novel in most respects. What Sue Grafton did for Santa Barbara in her Alphabet Mysteries is like what Nancy Allen is doing in these Ozark Mysteries. The book has a strong regional flair, the plot is believable, and the legal ups and downs of the story reflect the author’s years as a Missouri prosecuting attorney.

Even so, the last few pages have a deux ex machina feel to it. Allen drives the story line forward and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she takes the solution of the case in a suddenly different direction. To this reader, that ending just didn’t set right.

Still, I liked the novel and read it in one sitting. I look forward to reading the remaining two books in the series and hope more are forthcoming.

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, A Killing and the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery (New York: WitnessImpulse, 2015).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

5 Lessons I Learned by Fasting Social Media | Influence Magazine


My wife Tiffany could tell something was wrong with me. We had just spent a day with the kids at the local amusement park, Silver Dollar City. (Tiffany calls it “Steal Your Dollar City.”) The weather was perfect, the ride lines were short, the food was delicious, and the kids had a great time. And yet, my face gave away my inner turmoil.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Tiffany asked.

“My emotions are off,” I replied. “I’m not responding emotionally as I should.”

The immediate cause of my unease was an exchange on Facebook. A friend posted about a national tragedy that had just occurred. Rather than grieving about that tragedy, I commented about how people were using that tragedy to score political points. A third person jumped all over me for my comment, going so far as to question my Christianity. It got ugly.

All this took place while my family enjoyed their day out. In the midst of an amusement park, I was angry and unamused. My kids were riding rides. I was on my iPhone arguing with a stranger.

My wife asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to fast social media for a while,” I finally responded.

Right then and there, I resolved to fast social media through the month of November. When I got home, I announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that I was taking a break from social media — except for work-related matters— and then deleted those apps from my iPhone and iPad. I kept my resolution, except on a handful of occasions, for which my wife gently reproached me.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that my fast instantly solved the problem of my emotional out-of-whackness. It didn’t. I’ve still got work to do. But my fast did teach me a few lessons about myself and social media that I think are worth sharing, five in particular. Here they are:

First, I spend too much time on my iPhone. According to my most recent Screen Time report, I spend, on average, four hours, 7 minutes per day on my iPhone. And that’s after my social media fast. Evidently, I was spending even more timeon my iPhone before the fast.

In my defense, I do a lot of work on my iPhone. Plus, I usually stream TV shows on it when I’m at home. (At my house, Tiffany controls the remote.) Still, more than one day out of every week seems like an excessive amount of time to stare at a small pixelated screen. And yet, studies I’ve seen peg the average time Americans spend on smartphones at between three and five hours daily. So I’m average in my excessiveness. That’s not good.

Second, time is an exclusive commodity. Each day, God gives us 24 hours. Time doesn’t come with a pause button, let alone one for rewind or fast-forward. We use it; then we lose it.

The question I have to ask myself is whether spending more than four hours a day on an iPhone is the best use of my time. Just asking the question answers it. No, of course not!

Even granting that I need a smartphone to do smart work — which is true in a modern economy, to a certain degree — I’ve been reminded again and again that there are other things to do than stare at my iPhone. At the very least, arguing on Facebook with a stranger while my kids are riding roller coasters at an amusement park is a waste of time — mine, his, theirs.

Third, I have learned that I am easily distracted. In his Pensées— “Thoughts” — the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In other words, we long for the distraction of constant activity. If you don’t believe me, try sitting quietly in a room for an hour all by yourself. No TV. No radio. No book or newspaper or crossword puzzle. And definitely no smartphone or tablet.

It’s difficult. In my case, it’s difficult in large part because I have three kids, ages 5, 6 and 10, clamoring for my attention, as well as a wife who likes to unwind by watching reality TV. There’s not a quiet room at Chez Wood.

And yet, it’s also difficult because I don’t like being left alone with my thoughts. So, I unlock my iPhone and browse the web for news. I like and comment on friends’ posts on Facebook. I unleash a string of bon mots on Twitter. I look at pictures on Instagram. I stream a movie on Netflix.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Think about that for a moment. It implies that unless we can be still, we cannot know God. No wonder Pascal thought all of humanity’s problems stemmed from our inability to be still!

Fourth, I fear missing out. When I am still, I know God. I know that He loves me because of what Christ has done, not because of what I have done. This roots my identity in His grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than in any accomplishment on my part. And this identity gives me a deep satisfaction with life, whatever my lot in it might be. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” Paul writes (Philippians 4:11).

Compare that statement with what social scientists call FOMO — the fear of missing out. One of the reasons I spend so much time on social media is because I fear missing out on the news, on the latest gossip, on the newest and best in online entertainment.

And yet, there is an irony at work on social media. Think of it this way: I present my best life online. I take (and retake) pictures to get just the best one. I write (and rewrite) posts to be the funniest or most insightful. What you see of me is the me I want you to see.

And that means what I see of you is the you that you want me to see. I’m not seeing reality online. I’m seeing filtered reality.

The problem is that when we view others’ filtered lives online, we get jealous. We think others are leading better lives than our own, and we want the lives they appearto be leading more the lives we ourselves are actuallyleading. Ironically, then, we end up fearing that we have missed a reality that is in fact fake.

No wonder studies indicate that people who spend too much time on social reality are depressed! After spending nearly a month off social media — with clearly defined exceptions — I found that my mood had improved considerably. As I said above, I’m still working on out-of-whack emotions, but I’m in a much better place than I was at the end of October.

That brings me to a fifth and final lesson: I need discernment and discipline. At one point, I considered trading in my smartphone for a dumbphone and deleting all my social media accounts.

I didn’t do that for two reasons. For one thing, my iPhone has become a helpful tool at work. For another thing, the real problem isn’t the tool; it’s how I use the tool. The abuse or misuse of a thing doesn’t destroy its proper use, after all.

So, after my social media fast, I’m trying to be more discerning about how I use my iPhone, starting with simply using it less. Less time on it is more time for my wife and kids, friends, coworkers, neighbors … and for God.

I’m also trying to be more disciplined. Instead of reaching for my iPhone to distract me from my boredom, I’m trying to sit quietly in that room, attentive to God and to how He might be leading me. That’s always more important than whatever is happening online.

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Code of the Hills | Book Review


The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”

The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.

You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.

I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.