How many times have you said it or heard other people say they don’t like surprises? This phrase is as common as the head cold. Merriam-Webster defines surprise as “an unexpected or astonishing event.” I’ve had my share of those events, and not all of them pleasant.
I love author Alice Walker’s quote, “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” So when the occasional surprise finds me, and it also happens to be an enjoyable one, I try to “live” on it sparingly and appreciate the joy that comes with it.
I received some news that was totally unexpected and it astonished me. The K-LOVE Radio Network has placed my novel, “A Voice Within the Flame” on it’s recommended summer reading list. So grateful for the shout-out, and I am humbled and honored to be on a list with such esteemed authors. I will live frugally on the pleasurable taste of this surprise for as long as I can.
If you are still looking for that summer read, then “A Voice Within the Flame” might be your cup of tea. This is the first volume in my historical/biblical fiction series entitled “The Song of Prophets and Kings.”
In this first volume, we take a 3,000 year leap back to the tenth century B.C., when prophets and kings vie for power in ancient Israel. Royal dynasties clash with prophets of God in a brutal and bloody time; a time of conflict between religion and politics, between God and man. “A Voice Within the Flame” is now available in ebook, print, and audio book wherever books are sold.
Look for the second installment in this series, “Crown of the Warrior King”, to be released by WhiteFire Publishing on December 1, 2021.
A family tradition began 44 years ago on Whitland Ave in Nashville, Tennessee. My father and mother were a part of a small group of people who wanted to celebrate each July 4th in a special way. Over the years the program varied, which included my sister Nan Gurley singing patriotic songs.
But there was always one constant: my father would read from the Declaration of Independence while members of the Nashville Symphony would play Aaron Copeland’s “Ode to the Common Man.”
When Dad departed this life, the mantle was passed to me. I still wear the shirt he wore, read the same words he read, and experience the same thrill he experienced each year. I could not be more proud of my parents, Bud and Bernie Arnold, and the great legacy they left their family and the community they loved.
A shout-out to Wayne Gurley for the photo of Dad at the July 4, 2000 celebration (his last time), Nan Gurley in 2018m and to Michael Scott Evans for this cover photo of me at the 2021 July 4th celebration at Whitland Ave.
It was a Dad/Daughter time to celebrate Father’s Day. Our hike had been planned for weeks, and I had dreamed of taking this trek forever. A few years ago one spring, I did a solo hike from the Fiery Gizzard trail-head, beyond Sycamore Falls, up to Dog Hole trail following the ridge to Raven’s Point, and then down into the gorge circling back along the river. This section of the trail is beautiful but rugged. The ranger warned I’d be climbing over rocks and boulders beside the river, and that the trail was not well marked. He spoke truth. A few times the path disappeared into the landscape and I had to backtrack to find the blazes marking the trail. On one of my wrong turns, the ground was so wet from spring rains, that what I thought was a trail began to give way, and I had to grab a sapling to keep from sliding down the hill into the river. All a part of the great adventure.
To be able to trek the length and breadth of the trail required us to park a vehicle at either end. From the Foster Falls entrance to the Fiery Gizzard trail-head is thirteen miles, and when you add the spur trail to Raven’s Point, which we did, the hike is fourteen miles. This trek offers the verdant splendor of forests so thick that the sunlight struggles to get through, scenic overlooks along the tops of mountain ridges that inspires dreams of a homestead with a back porch full of rocking chairs, and gorges that descend so deep you swear you’ve stepped into the imagination of Jules Verne in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” What better companion to take on this Father’s Day hike than my daughter, Lauren.
I am a firm believer in preparation, especially when it comes to planning hikes. While no Boy Scout, I do study maps and watch the weather, and try to anticipate any possible contingency. I will bring plenty of water and food, walking sticks, braces for my aging joints, mole skin, extra shoe lace, matches, Swiss Army knife (I still carry the one given me as a wedding present). I even have duct tape wrapped around my walking sticks in case something needs binding; preferably a shoe or an article of clothing and not a broken body part, though a splint could be fashioned if necessary. When trekking solo, I stick my phone in my backpack, but on this day, I chose to leave it locked in my car since Lauren was taking her high-tech phone for picture opportunities. And since we were going to have a vehicle at either end of the trail for our shuttle, I brought along my extra car key.
My car was left at the parking lot at the end of the trail, and we drove Lauren’s van back to the starting point at Foster Falls. Before Lauren locked the van I took out my car keys and dropped the first one into the pouch beside the passenger seat. I remember holding that second car key in my hand and thinking “Aren’t you clever.” Both keys would be safely locked inside Lauren’s van. No chance of losing them on the trail.
Over hill and dale, down into gorges, huffing and puffing up the steep ascents, fording streams, traversing ridge tops, and continuing on the winding path through thick forests, Lauren and I were having the best time sharing family memories, dreaming of future travels, and solving the world’s problems since we decided for this day our troubles did not exist. Oh, the hubris.
We stopped to have our lunch at Raven’s Point and enjoy the stunning view. It was at Raven’s Point that we learned a significant difference between men and women: when a woman eats a fresh cherry she will politely remove the pit from her mouth with her fingers and discretely toss it away. When a man is ready to discard the pit, he just spits it out, and for extra measure, aims to hit something with it. Some lessons I tried to teach my daughters just didn’t take. Except for the cherry pits, we left our lunch site with no carbon footprint.
It was around mile ten when the epiphany struck. Lauren was in the lead, and when she didn’t hear my footsteps behind her, she turned around to see me frozen in the middle of the trail with an addle-brained expression on my face. Now let me be clear. What I was experiencing was nothing akin to the light that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, or the flames of the burning bush that lured Moses, or Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven. No, my manifestation was more similar with Balaam’s talking ass.
The vision was so vivid: I saw myself standing inside the open passenger door of the Niedlov’s van removing the first car key from my pocket and dropping it into the pouch, and then removing the second key from my other pocket, holding it in my hand for a brief second and thinking, “I sure don’t want to lose this one on the trail, so let’s just leave it with the other one.”
Out of concern for her father, Lauren asked what was wrong, and I confessed that I had administered a self-inflicted blow to the back of my head with the stupid stick, and through no fault of her own, she was collateral damage. We were six hours into the hike, so there was no turning back. After expressing some non-church words of self-incrimination, we marched onward. Now was an opportunity to apply the art of solvitur ambulando and solve our dilemma by walking.
There was a lot of daylight left, but still our pace quickened as we played out the worst-to-best-case scenarios. Worst case: hike an extra seven-plus miles at the end of the trail back to Lauren’s car. Best case: hope to find a sympathetic hiker who might be willing to give us a ride. Problem was, we had only seen a couple of people on the trail all hiking in the opposite direction.
Then Lauren had a brilliant idea. My dear friend Steve Brallier and his wife Lynn lived just up the road in Sewanee, Tennessee. I could give them a call, and if they were around, they could meet us at the trail-head and drive us back to Lauren’s car parked at the Foster Falls entrance. Yes, brilliant.
“You’ve got his number, right Dad?”
“Yes, Daughter, Steve’s number is in my contact list on my phone SAFELY LOCKED INSIDE MY CAR!”
We paused once again for a second application of the stupid stick. Another few non-church words expressed, and we walked on in silence.
After a few moments it was Lauren who stopped on the path. She thought she might have Steve’s number saved on her phone when he had called her to place a special order at Niedlov’s bakery back during Covid. She whipped out her phone, found a “hot-spot” for the connection, and voila, Steve’s number appeared. The call was made. Three rings, and we heard Steve’s incredulous voice, “Lauren, is that you?” Yes, my friends, Steve had also saved Lauren’s number. All hail technology.
I quickly make my confession, and just as quick, Steve laughed and said, “Sounds like you hit yourself with the stupid stick.” Nothing like the insult of a best friend to keep you humble.
Steve was finishing a round of golf, and Lynn would pick him up. They would meet us at the Fiery Gizzard trail-head.
Speaking of best friends, I want to digress a moment and plug Steve’s book “Mitaka’s Secret.” Six years ago Steve and Lynn sat at our table, and over a long dinner, told us how they came to this incredible story. In the ensuing years Steve would occasionally read me a new chapter that he and Lynn had researched and written. This is a true story, brilliantly told. Release date is July 20, 2021, and will be available wherever books are sold.
The lesson learned from my Fiery Gizzard Epiphany was that all the preparation I need for these hiking adventures is to include my resourceful daughter who knows how to take care of her old man. And, of course, be lucky enough to have a best friend who lives nearby and will happily come to your rescue. Priceless treasures both.
Kay is always my first reader. When I came in this morning from exercise, I heard laughter from our bedroom. I walked into the room and found her holding the draft of this story. She looked at me and said, “This is so you.” I guess after all these years I have become predictable.
In the early days of 2021, I had the privilege to doing a podcast interview with Alison Treat. Ms. Treat has a wonderful podcast devoted to historical fiction, and she invited me to talk about the publication of my novel, “A Voice Within the Flame,” on her show. It was a free-wheel conversation about a writer’s life, and the long and winding road of bringing this novel and the book series “The Song of Prophets and Kings” into the world.
So if you’ve got a few minutes to listen and are curious about the process of how this novel made it into publication, click this link below and listen while you are cleaning the house or taking a walk in the woods or just relaxing. As always, I appreciate your time and interest in my work. There is a special pleasure I have when I know something I have created has brought a little joy into someone’s life. Thank you. http://alisontreat.com/2021/06/17/biblical-fiction-of-prophets-kings-with-henry-o-arnold/
I married a queen, not one of royal pedigree, but of the hometown variety. She was Homecoming Queen not once but twice at her local high school. I began courting the queen about eight years after she wore her crowns, and within six months of courtship, I started plotting and scheming my marriage proposal.
I’m a romantic by nature so it was important to set the right atmosphere for the occasion. I got out of rehearsal early that day and went by Kay’s office to get the key to her apartment. She had a fireplace, and I wanted to take full advantage of the ambiance a fire would offer. It was her birthday, and I planned to cook the one dish I knew how to prepare, Beef Stroganoff. Weeks earlier, while cruising antique stores, Kay had pointed to an early 20th century, American crafted nightstand she liked, and while her back was turned, I bought the piece and picked it up a few days later. (This nightstand resides on her side of the bed and holds a stack of books a foot high.) I placed the nightstand beside the fireplace and set a scroll of a sonnet I had written on top tied with a strip of lace. I’m no Shakespeare, but I could improve on the greeting card doggerel for this occasion. I believed what I had written would up the “wow” factor and help seal the deal along with a bottle of Merlot, some Grover Washington (the stereophonic sounds of a scratchy LP and the crackly popping of burning logs in the fireplace were perfect mood enhancers), and candles.
Dinner finished, the fire at a nice glow, a glass of wine consumed, the antique nightstand “ooed” and “ahhhed” over accompanied by a nice kiss on the cheek, the sonnet read followed by another kiss, this time on the lips, and did I detect a little moisture in her eyes at the tender care I was demonstrating on her birthday? O how she was in for the biggest surprise of all. It was carpe diem time, and I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. I sat down on the carpet in front of the fireplace, shifted around to face her, our legs crisscrossed beneath us, and took her hands in mine.
Now here is the moment in every romantic film where the music swells and the characters speak the predictable dialogue and respond with predictable reactions. But my “Would you marry me?” moment did not end with the joyous leap into my arms or the burst of joyful tears. Kay didn’t leap or burst into anything. She didn’t even say anything. Too much shock and awe to her system, I surmised. She bowed her head and her lips began to move. What was that? I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Was this prayer time? Was she consulting God? Couldn’t she have given me the “yes” I expected and then we both could pray? Sure, I wanted God to be a part of all this, but on my terms and in my timing. I had set this stage. I had scripted this scenario. God should just rubber stamp it, right? The romantic mood I had so careful orchestrated seemed to be disintegrating like the crumbling logs in the fireplace. The longer Kay continued in this silent and pious moment, the more my heart began to fill with anxiety. Was she talking to God just to avoid answering the question? Was she talking to God for an answer to the question? A wiser man would have sat quietly and waited. Instead, I blurted,
“Either tell me now that you’re going to marry me, or I’m leaving.”
Here is a perfect example of going up to the edge and jumping off, and to make it worse, using a terrible line of dialogue to launch myself into this abyss of my own design. What was I thinking? It is as painful to recount as it is to watch, however, watch we must.
There was no mistaking the tears in her eyes this time. The moisture on her cheek glistened in the firelight as she raised her head and whispered,
“Well, I guess you’ll have to go then.”
A wiser man would take a step back, take a deep breath of clean oxygen to clear his head, and maybe, just maybe, if he had only a fraction of the wisdom of say, anyone above middle-school age, he might admit that his brash and hasty, and BRAINLESS ultimatum, was spoken in jest or make up any excuse for blurting out something so outrageous. You would think that, right? Wrong. “Hoist with his own petard,” as Hamlet says of his Uncle Claudius’ knavery, which is to say, “He shall blow himself up.” Subtlety of action is not my strong suit. In my mortified condition, I untangled my legs, grabbed the half-empty (not half-full considering my state of mind), bottle of wine, and stormed out the door. I would finish the Merlot alone, thank you very much.
For what felt like an eternity, I remained in the “cone of silence.” Not only did I not speak with Kay or any of our friends, I stopped going out all together. I only went to the theatre for rehearsals and performances and then back to my cabin in the woods where I would look out my window and lick my self-inflicted wound. I shed a lot of tears. I uttered a lot of prayers. I walked for hours through the woods and pastures where I lived. The isolation was discomfiting and only contributed to my gloom.
At some point in my misery the intervention came; a call from my sister. The news of my abrupt departure had traveled through the grapevine by way of mutual friends. Does my dear sister ask me how I’m feeling? Does she commiserate? Does she inquire after my side of the story and stick up for me? Does she offer encouragement? No. After all this time I can still provide the exact quote of her brief statement: “Big brother, you are the biggest fool in the world if you let Kay Patton get away. Get on your knees now and crawl back to her and beg her forgiveness.” Click, and like that, the phone line was dead.
Kick a guy while he’s down. No mercy; a trait my sister will use anytime she is confronted with her big brother’s foolishness. I waited a few hours allowing her words to stew, and finally, I did get on my knees, I did crawl, but only back to the phone, and dialed Kay’s number. After admitting my idiotic performance that night in her apartment was a huge mistake, I did ask for forgiveness. My groveling was the most honest actor’s performance I had ever given. No fabricated emotion. I was “in the moment” as we actors say when actor and character are unified in perfect harmony of expressing truth, and this moment was raw and real. And Kay’s response? She was gracious enough to accept my apology and allowed an opening for a second chance.
Our reconciliation led us to the altar six months later, and on May 12, 1979, we were wed. Now forty-two years later, we get to celebrate a designated day. But I count myself a most fortunate man to have shared a million joyous experiences with this lady since given a second chance. Oh yeah, and much thanks to my sister, Nan Gurley, for her take-no-prisoners’ phone call, or this day might never have happened.
Most of you know I love being outdoors and hiking on trails both foreign and domestic. Beside the joy of walking through the beauty of nature, I look forward to encounters with fellow hikers. I remember teasing my father once when we were headed out for a day of hiking that I thought he looked “too dapper” for the trail. His reply, “You never know who you might meet on the trail, Son.” Words to live by.
We are all smiles in this picture, but I met five of these ladies under a difficult circumstance. On this particular day, I had led a group of men on a nine-mile hike. As we were walking out we met up with two of these ladies who had gotten separated from the other three. They expressed some concern about their friends, but felt the stragglers were not far behind.
These ladies had read about the great waterfalls on this trail, but had no idea of the length or difficulty of the strenuous hike. When we got to the parking lot, I sent the guys in my group on home. The sun had set and the fading twilight was barely getting through the thick summer foliage of the forest. I told the two ladies that had walked out with us that I would go back for the other three. If I had not returned by dark, they were to call the rescue squad.
Fortunately, I only had to walk a mile when I found the three of them resting on the trail. They spoke little English, but enough to realize that I had been sent by their friends, and those friends were waiting for them in the parking lot. I was able to explain that I was familiar with this trail, and that even in the fading light, I would be able to escort them back to their friends.
It was completely dark when we made it to the parking lot. It was a happy reunion for everyone even in our exhausted state. Before I could slip away, they ladies insisted that I give them my phone number. “We cook for you. We cook for you and your wife.”
I was not sure this would happen, but within a few weeks, I got the call with the invitation. And so, Kay and I spent an afternoon with our five new friends along with some bonus friends. We feasted on a meal of Asian cuisine fit for royalty.
The blessing of a “chance” encounter led to the pleasure of new friendships. Dad’s words took on new meaning, a deeper almost prophetic meaning. “You never know who you might meet on the trail, Son.” Yes, words to live by.
There is a well-worn path in the back field behind our house. When Covid shut down the world, including our local gym, I took to doing laps around the perimeter of our acreage. The gym has since reopened, but I have enjoyed cutting large repetitive circles on terra firma and not jogging on machines with conveyor belts or on Nordic tracks so much that I have yet to re-up at the gym. May not for a while…may not at all.
I have traded in the sounds of heavy-metal cranked up to motivate faster fat-burning, or multiple screens of cable commentators or infomercials, or the audio spillage from the personal earbuds used by those on either side of me, not to mention the huffing and puffing from their accelerated heart-rates, for the early-morning sounds of the outdoors. I hear the wind in the trees, the chirping birds, lowing cattle, the scolding honks of Canadian Geese as I pass by the pond—it must not register in their little goose brains that they are the trespassers—my own footsteps crunching along the worn path. Funny how my soul wakes up a little brighter with sounds of nature. From this clarity has come a plethora of ideas, and voila, a newsletter is born. What? Another newsletter you didn’t know you wanted and can’t live without? Too much oxygen to the head, you say. Well not so fast.
The title “Conversations at the Crossroads” comes from the prophet Jeremiah in chapter six, verse sixteen: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’” Who of us does not face daily crossroads, desire good and wise council, and need peaceful rest for our souls?
My world-view is seen through the lens of an artist. It’s the way God cut me out of the miry clay, and I was offered two skills on my way out the door: acting and writing. I’ve tried to use those skills well, keeping in mind the physicians’ oath to “first do no harm.” These talents were not given to me solely for trade-craft as I slogged through life making a living. Through these gifts, I believe the Almighty was offering a wider, more inclusive vision for my future, if I chose to walk that path.
Beginning soon, you can receive my bi-monthly newsletter. Click onto my website: www.henryoarnold.com or sign up directly here http://henryoarnold.com/subscribe/ The first and fifteenth of every month “Conversations…,” will arrive in your in-box. The content will be wide-ranging: art, literature, insights into biblical themes and narratives, theatre, film travels, and family dynamics, each one written through the lens of my personal stories and life struggles. The newsletter will offer updates of my literary and acting projects, and first-look scoops of content from my books. For videos promoting my books and performances, I will use my Facebooks pages and my YouTube channel.
But remember, thoughtful brevity goes a long way should you choose to comment. With an open mind and heart toward others, I take the responsibility to be kind, genuine, vulnerable, and forgiving, practicing the “treat others as you would like to be treated” principal. “Conversations at the Crossroads” will be an honest window into my life as human being. You will read about many stumbles and struggles in my life, but my hope is that we might affirm one another as we trek those “ancient paths” together. I love a good conversation while walking, so I hope you will join me.
I have written often in the past of my hiking adventures. Taking journeys on my own two legs is a preferred choice of travel. Themes from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman has always fueled the wanderlust in my bloodstream.
I love the company of other trekkers, but also enjoy the solitary walk. There are those trails that are favorites that I go back to time and again just to be among the familiar: the landscape, the water falls, the rock formations, the twists and turns of the path through thick forests, but mainly I return to remember. To remember and process the circumstances, thoughts, and feelings that might have driven me to this trail. To remember the companions who walked with me, our conversations, our laughter, a shared meal.
A cherished memory of hiking my favorite trail is with my two brothers and our father. It was a few years before he died, and he was struggling to make the final ascent at the end of the trail. We had to stop more often than usual for Dad to catch his breath. In one of those restful moments, Dad said, “Boys, this may be the last time I can do this trail.” It was, and since then every time I make that final ascent on that trail, I think of my Dad and my brothers.
There is always an extra thrill of finding a trail that is new to me, every step taken into the unknown, every view is new, every smell and sound is fresh and different to my senses. I am able to imagine myself (or trick myself), into thinking that I am the first to trod this path, to see these wonders of nature. There is a heightened expectation and a marveling. There is also a level of trepidation with each new trail taken: come upon some scenic wonder that would take my breath away by its splendor or come upon something that might do me harm. To be awed by the sight of an avalanche tumbling down the snow-capped mountains or to freeze in fear at the rattlesnake stretched across the path. I am blessed with wonderful collected memories of trekking adventures. Still there is so much I have not experienced in the creation of God.
There are many words I love to speak and hear spoken, but there is one simple phrase that elicits a special thrill when I hear it or speak it: “Walk with me.” It makes me feel like a kid again when my friends would come to the house and shout, “Come out and play.” With each invitation, I bolted out the door knowing anything could happen that might bring pleasure or danger, and for me, growing up, there was plenty of both.
Such an invitation was given to Abraham, through whom the nation of Israel would come into existence. In essence, Yahweh said to Abraham, “Come out. Walk with me.” It was an invitation to leave behind everything and everyone he knew and take a new trail with new landscape, new skies, and new companions. All that was familiar and comfortable would be abandoned, yet for Abraham the invitation was irresistible.
Some two thousand years later Jesus made a similar invitation to a couple of guys walking a familiar road after the Passover celebration in Jerusalem. The two men were discussing the recent events of what they had assumed and hoped might be a big change in the fortunes of Israel. These two had put their hopes on a “prophet, powerful in word and deed…,” who they believed would set Israel free from oppression. Instead, the prophet was crucified. “Walk with me,” Jesus offered, and they did. The two men had no idea as to the identity of their companion. They accepted the invitation of a stranger. Turned out this unknown person was a Master Teacher who put into context all the biblical writings “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” why this “powerful prophet” they were lamenting had been crucified. The peripatetic lecture given by a mysterious stranger along a hot, dusty trail proved life changing for these two men. And it began with a simple invitation to walk.
In the Old Testament Bible, between Abraham and Jesus, Yahweh extended many invitations to the prophets to “walk with me.” These prophets were not just mouthpieces giving forth oracles. They were the equivalent of artists in our modern day. Certainly they were artists in their use of language, of having visions and explaining them, of giving performances that revealed the truth of the times, and of affecting culture. Those who witnessed these artistic performances by the prophet/artists had various reactions to what they saw and heard like any audience at any time in history when witnessing a creative work of art. What all these prophet/artist had in common was full-scale devotion to the truth. The words they spoke and wrote, the visions they described, the performances they gave were saturated in the truth. All artists are devoted to the truthful expressions of their observations of the world that come in a variety of art forms. So, in a way, all of us who live artistic lives could be considered prophets.
Forty-five years ago now I heard in my heart what I believed at the time, and still do, to be an invitation from God to “walk with me.” I chose to accept (I’m no special case, the invitation is inclusive), not really knowing the One who was offering me this invitation and certainly not knowing where this long trek would take me, or who my closest companions might be along this journey. Many of these companions have been and still are my fellow artists, and we have created some beautiful and always truthful works together. Many of them have been companions in faith, and what wonderful and enriching activities we have done together to extend grace, mercy, kindness, and compassion to the world.
For forty-one of those forty-five years my closest companion has been Kay. I could not have created all the works of performance and literary art without the infusion of her love and devotion. It is impossible to overstate the value of her companionship. The best thing to come out of accepting the “walk with me” offer from God, aside from the personal invitation of rescue and redemption, was the gift of Kay. She was a total surprise. Kay had heard her own “walk with me” invitation, and I had the great good fortune to be included in the deal. We were given the opportunity for our separate paths to become intertwined, at once still separate and yet interwoven; a work of art in itself. All the other works of art I have created pale by comparison.
So the journey continues. At times the traveling has tried my soul. I have felt abandoned and battered. I have been bewildered to the point of anger. I have grieved from loss and cried out from my wounded heart, but I have not once regretted accepting the invitation to “walk with me.” From such experiences true character, deeper faith, and steadfast belief are chiseled into the soul and frees the prophet/artist to shape his and her creations. Future prophetic/artistic creations are ahead for me. Future volumes of “The Song of Prophets and Kings” are in the making as well as other books. Future performances with my fellow artisans will be witnessed. And I leave you with the last lines from “Song of the Open Road” as my own invitation to “walk with me.”
“Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
Cover Art by Lewis C. Daniel
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When we returned home to Nashville from our one-year sojourn to Washington State in search of holograms and lazar-lights for our biblical epic, I heard about the British actor, Alec McCown, doing a one-man production of “St. Mark’s Gospel.” He had memorized all of Mark’s gospel, KJV no less, and given performances in London and New York to packed houses. I knew no one was going to hire me for such a venture (my name had no marquee value, nor did I have a British theatrical resume), but I began to test the waters of the church world to see if any might be open to having someone dressed in Levi jeans and a J. Crew shirt tell stories from the Bible in their sanctuary.
After our second daughter, Lauren, was born, I took the hologram/lazar-lights show of the famous apostle and transformed it into a simple one-man show with two wooden benches for a set. And, inspired by Mr. McCown’s success with his “St. Mark’s Gospel,” I created a second one-man show on the life of Jesus. Instead of using one Gospel as my source, I cherry-picked stories of Jesus from all four Gospels and compiled them into a dramatic sequence. I asked a few area churches to allow me to showcase my one-man shows of Paul or Jesus, and because of their kindness, I was able to get a few more churches to open their doors.
When it came to setting a fixed cost for those performances, I did not have the business savvy or plain old chutzpah to demand a set fee, so I accepted what was referred to as a “love offering.” After a performance the collection plates would be passed, and whatever came in, I took home. At times those love offerings did favor me with love, but many times what arrived in those receptacles was little more than a “like” offering, or a “This guy wasted an hour of my time that I will never get back” offering. And there were those times when my fingers and toes outnumbered the audience. Often discouraged but not defeated, I created a third one-man show on the life of David, which made up my “The Word Made Flesh” trilogy, and I pursued my quest to give live performances of these great biblical stories whenever possible.
An actor’s life is never predictable so I was pleasantly surprised when I was hired to produce a dramatized version of the New Testament using multiple actors. The text would be the King James Version chosen by the executive producer, i.e. “The Money,” because it was public domain and royalty free. Because of my theatrical experience and classical training, “The Money” wanted me to read the role of Jesus. The King James Version is similar in style and language to that of Shakespeare, so I was thrilled to have this opportunity. I embraced this project, heart and soul, but with no practical sense of what it meant to produce such a mammoth project. When I rode in “The Money’s” Silver Cloud Rolls Royce to the lawyer’s office to draw up the contract, I regretted not taking that business class in college. The contract favored “The Money.” I was given a fixed budget, which meant, by the time I turned in the finished recording, I was paid the equivalent of a convict’s wages. But I did get to hire several actor friends, including my sister and my father, which was a supreme blessing.
When the project was complete, “The Money” began a direct-mail sales campaign. His hope was to get a big-time televangelist to endorse the product and pick our dramatized New Testament as a give-away for their fundraising appeals. When “The Money” got word from the leading televangelist of the day that he liked the product but could not stand the guy who played Jesus, “The Money” made an executive decision: re-record the Gospels with a new Jesus. I was replaced by the silky-smooth voice of a small-time radio host. I only found out about the switcheroo because the radio host called me to apologize. The televangelist had not liked the way I spoke the King’s English with such passion or dramatic intent. I guess Jesus used his silky-smooth voice when kicking the merchants out of the Temple, or sweating blood in Gethsemane as he prayed, or crying out to God while dying on the cross. So silky-smooth beat out the classically-trained actor. But it was not long before the big-time televangelist got his show canceled because of inappropriate behavior outside of the marriage bed. It was hard not to gloat when witnessing the proverbial “pride goeth before the fall” on full display.
It was my father who picked me up and dusted me off after that experience. My father was always a rescuer. As head of the theatre department at Lipscomb University, Dad produced and directed two full-length plays I had written on biblical subjects. One was entitled “The Mighty Have Fallen,” about the rise and fall of King Saul, the first king of Israel. This beautiful production spurred my imagination to dream of writing a series of novels on the first three monarchal dynasties of ancient Israel. But at that moment in my life I had to make a living and writing biblical/historical fiction was not paying the bills.
During those years I was experiencing an intense soul-crushing. God was not cooperating with my transactional, quid pro quo plan I had so carefully laid out for Him to endorse. My theology was misguided. My ego was being broken and it hurt like hell. Kay and many other dear people held onto to me as I went through that emotional, white-knuckled period in my life. I was deep inside a spiritual crucible and there was a lot of dross to be burned out.
Then in the mid-nineties, Michael W. Smith asked me to open for him on his “The Acoustic Tour.” We had performed together off and on for several years. He would play his songs and I would do an abridged version of my show on Jesus. But on this tour MW had a full band, and we played twenty cities, in mega-churches or arenas, with a combined audience count of over ninety-thousand people (Far beyond the count of my fingers and toes). And it began to dawn on me that all those years of performing for those small houses and small love offerings, that not only was I improving my craft as an actor, but my soul was beginning to experience an imperceptible transformation.
The next year I was in Africa shooting “Acts of the Apostles,” a film based on the book of Acts that was word-for-word New International Version. I played the role of the apostle Paul, and had to memorize long passages of scripture. Because it was an exact translation, there was no wiggle room when it came to the wording. It was hard work, and the discipline was good for me. This was all a part of a “slow drip” process allowing those sacred words to flow through my system with a power and a truth that I had not expected.
Once I complete a play or a film, the effects of the skin and bones of my character and their words of dialogue begins to evaporate in a short amount of time. But not the role of the apostle Paul, or any of the roles in my “The Word Made Flesh” trilogy. The words I memorized and spoke are true, and most important, the words reveal the One who was and is the true source of power and life, and I am not the same man.
From these collective professional experiences, I began to feel a deeper sense of calling and purpose, a deeper sense that what I would write in the future might bear more of an eternal weight. By “eternal” I don’t mean a “stand the test of time” longevity like great literature that survives for centuries. My literary skill is modest at best. Rather it is the source from which I draw inspiration that has already stood the test of time. The Scriptures bear the eternal weight of its truth, and I am only borrowing from it to write my stories. I take very little credit for originality. All these experiences played their part in sharpening my focus to become a writer. In the next installment of my story/blog I will write of how all of these events came to a head, and I finally sat down to begin writing “The Song of Prophets and Kings.”
What do all these factors have in common: engagement, marriage, unemployment for one spouse, pregnancy, eviction, multiple living quarters including an unfinished attic, the kickoff of a writing career, the arrival of a first child, unemployment for the other spouse, all followed by a cross-country move with their four-month old daughter leaving behind kith and kin in search of fame and fortune? You guess it…Kay and Chip. Oh yeah, and cram all these events into just over a year’s time.
I can think back on some of the decisions and choices I’ve made in life and wonder, “What was I thinking,” but marrying Kay was not one of them. The hardest job I’ve ever had was to convince her to be my wife. It wasn’t easy, but we signed, sealed, and transacted the ceremony on May 12, 1979, and headed off to Green Turtle Cay for our honeymoon. Green Turtle is a three-mile long, one half mile wide island accessible only by boat. There were a few bungalows scattered about on both ends of the island, and on the central part there is the yacht club and a small gated community of luxury homes owned by the gentry from other countries. We were the only ones to have rented a bungalow for that week, so the whole southern end of the island was ours. To see other humans required a walk into the village. We made the trek a couple of times.
Once we returned from Green Turtle, life rapidly descended into chaos: lost jobs, lost housing; and within two months of our “I do’s,” lost autonomy of our couple-hood. My mother fondly called our honeymoon spot, “Fertile Green Turtle.” Nine months and four days after the wedding (Yes, Mother was counting the days), we were blessed with our first daughter, Kristin Alisabeth. Now when faced with the heavy realities of life, I should step up and take responsibility, get that “real job,” I was told by one relative, and “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” I was informed by another relative. Well-meaning advice, I’m sure, but I did not have “ears to hear.” In the midst of our topsy-turvy world, I had the brilliant idea that it was the perfect time not to look for that “real” job, but to write a play, a biblical play on the apostle Paul that would turn the world upside down just as the original Paul had done in his day (He had a “real” job until he took that road to Damascus). What had Kay gotten herself into, you ask, and was it too late to get out? The simple answer is no, she did not know what she had gotten herself into, and yes, it was too late to get out.
My parents gave me my first Bible on my eleventh birthday in 1961 with the inscription written in my mother’s hand: “To our son with the hope that this book will serve as your guide all the days of your life. Our love and prayers will always be with you. Mother and Daddy.” It was the standard KJV translation. “If this translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough for us,” was the occasional argument heard among the brethren back then. It sits on my desk: dog-eared, held together with a rubber band and petrified masking tape, with the pages inside marked and worn.
Now do not be deceived. As sweet as this sentiment might be, I tested the inscribed words of my parents. Their “love” was tried and their “prayers” were many when I took a prodigal turn and remained “in the wilderness” for what, I’m sure, seemed like ages to them. At one point Mother said that she stopped praying for me to make good choices and have good friends. Instead, she began praying for the Lord to just keep me alive. I am very grateful to the faithfulness of my parents, and like the prodigal son, when I “came to my senses,” a discovery of an active, loving relationship with God and an intense thirst for Scripture came with it. A devotion to tell or retell stories from the Bible would soon follow.
By the end of our first year of marriage I had written several drafts of “The Voice of the Lion” on the life of Saint Paul and had sent the latest one to a director friend in Washington State who I had worked with for a couple of years in several professional productions before getting married. He loved the play and agreed to help me develop it with the hope that we could mount a production that could tour theatres and churches up and down the west coast. When we announced that we were taking the first grandchild in the family and heading west, the fat hit the fan. Mount St. Helens had just blown her stack and the atmosphere was thick with volcanic dust. Some family members were sure we were dooming our child to a lifetime of lung diseases. Forty years later, the child is fine, thank you very much. And so are we, by the way.
The first “Star Wars” movie had come out, and the director and I thought this play deserved laser lights and holograms. Surely every potential investor we approached would catch our vision and write those checks. To keep body and soul together, I worked all sorts of jobs from a well-digger’s assistant to production stage manager for an orchestra. After a year of energy and money spent on the “pitch,” we were exhausted and down to a few hundred dollars in the account. We moved to Washington with four hundred dollars and returned to Nashville one year later with that same amount.
Before we returned home, the small country church we attended honored me by devoting a Sunday night service to a public reading of the play. My cast consisted of a farmer, a postman, a teacher, a well-digger (former employer), the pastor, and an ex-witch and warlock from a local coven who had been born again. I’ve always believed in equal opportunity. And I read the role of the great apostle. Our dream of laser lighting was reduced to the on/off switches of the ceiling lights (no dimmers in this house of worship). But the house and the stage lights were separate, so we were able to darken the house and keep the stage lights on to create some level of theatricality. And there were no holograms, though the suggestion was made by the ex-warlock that we could hold flashlights under our chins during a couple of the more dramatic moments. Perhaps being born again had not taken its full effect, and he still had one foot in the coven. Ours was a flesh and blood production, warmly received, and shortly afterwards, we returned home with our second daughter, Lauren Blair, in utero.
The experience of forty years ago has brought me to this point in my writing life with the coming publication in December, 2020, of “A Voice Within the Flame,” the first volume in my biblical fiction series “A Song of Prophets and Kings.” Inspired by Old Testament stories, thisseriestakes a 3,000 year leap back in human history. In tenth century B.C., three great kings ruled the nation of Israel and three great prophets asserted their divine authority to hold them accountable. These ancient stories show the inevitable tension between the human and the divine, replete with murder, rebellion, romance, and betrayal. No matter how much time we are given or how hard we might try, Homo sapiens have changed little; nothing new under the sun, as the ecclesiastical saying goes.
Between that first public performance in the small country church forty years ago to the coming release of “A Voice Within the Flame” this December, there were many adventures for Kay and me. In my next story-blog, I will recount a few more, some disastrous and humorous, some poignant and tender, on our journey to this moment. And not once in my artistic and literary odyssey did I ever encounter a hologram.