The Good Word

We are told that words are powerful, that words matter, that a spoken thought has a ripple effect in the world whether for good or ill. The main character in my novel, “A Voice Within the Flame,” is Samuel, the last great judge and prophet before the monarchy was introduced in Israel. There is a descriptive phrase written of Samuel that is used nowhere else in Scripture, nor is it used to describe any other character. It is stated of Samuel that God “let none of his words fall to the ground.”

This is biblical poetry and does not just refer to Samuel’s prophetic declarations. Those pronouncements, while profound in effect, were infrequent and not the everyday life that Samuel led. This idiomatic expression reveals Samuel’s deep and knowing character rooted in truth. Whatever Samuel spoke, either in the sacred language of God or the common communication of man, it could be trusted.

The ancient Hebrew phrase “fall to the ground” means that something is useless and carries no weight or power. In Samuel’s case, his words did not fall to the ground like “precious liquors if spilt upon the earth, or like an arrow shot from a bow not arriving to the target,” as one commentator wrote. As spilt liquor upon the ground or a missed shot of an arrow are useless, and so are thoughtless and foolish words when spoken.

When Samuel spoke what he said carried the full weight of truth. Many times people did not like what Samuel had to say, or the way he said it, but the measure of everything he spoke was bathed in the oil of truth and the people trusted him.

To expect the truth in others, we must first be truthful. To expect trust in others, we must first be trustworthy. Like Samuel, the truth flowed in his bloodstream; the truth was his core nature. If our words do matter, and if we want those words to produce positive outcomes and not fall useless upon the ground, then we must be devoted to the truth and walk in its light.

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The Vow

In the opening chapters of my historical novel, “A Voice Within the Flame,” the character of Hannah suffers under a terrible burden. She has one desire and she is obsessed by this desire. Hannah is able to function in her day-to-day world, able to care for and love those around her. But the one thing she wants most dominates her heart and remains illusory.

After years of being denied her one hope, the agony Hannah suffers becomes too great to endure. Nothing brings her comfort. Not the doting attention of a loving husband, not material luxuries, not food or drink, not personal sacrifice, not worship or prayer. Nothing can raise Hannah from the dust of her despondency.

Yet Hannah is bold enough to call upon God to look upon the “bitterness of her soul.” Through tears, she makes a vow. If the Almighty would give her a son, she would give him back to the Lord “for all the days of his life.”

It would be easy to be critical of Hannah. She is desperate and foolish to make so rash a promise. Contemporary culture does not understand an ancient time that placed such a high value on having a child. And yet, if we have lived long enough on this planet, we all have experienced times of desperation. We all know what it is like to obsess over a desire of the heart. And whether we want to admit it or not, many of us have made those bargains with God or the universe or another human being.

This is what gives us empathy for Hannah. Our individual circumstances can be much different, but the human heart is a great equalizer, and we understand the pain that brought Hannah to this place of last resort…the vow—a thing promised. Now imagine the pain she would feel if the Almighty agreed to the terms of her vow.

There were some “escape clauses” when it came to making vows (Numbers 30). But in the novel and in the biblical account, when it came time for Hannah to keep her end of the bargain, she chose not to take an option that would nullify the vow.

What great courage. What depth of character. When Hannah could not know the consequences of her decision, she kept her vow. The power of such dedication to one’s word can have a ripple effect across space, time, and history.

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Unrealistic Expectations

In the early days of my childhood I was influenced by the characters I saw on television. The standard cowboy or soldier did not stay with me for long. I was attached to one superhero. I believed then and do now that Superman was the best of the lot, an all-inclusive power machine.

My parents did not have the disposable income to purchase a store-bought Superman costume. So before my mother sent me out to rid the world of crime, she pulled an old blue shirt of my father’s out of the rag-bag and painted a red “S” on the front. For my cape, she attached a bleached-out towel to my shirt with duck-head diaper pins. Not quite the impressive wardrobe transformation of Clark Kent in the phone booth, but my mother’s genius proved worthy in the moment of creative invention.

I tested my super powers against the laws of nature leaping from the roof of our garage or from the ledge of our tree house or flinging myself from the tire-swing at the apex of its swing. The sound of my cape flapping in the wind was my heroic underscoring.

I kept the neighborhood crime-free until one day my super powers could not override poor judgment. I was in pursuit of two friends who drew the lot of “bad guy” in our after-school, make-believe play time. When they dashed into a hedge separating one backyard from another, I made a split-second decision. I assumed their intention was to emerge on the other side, and if my timing was right, I would fly over the hedge and crash on top of them just like on television.

I realized too late that I had miscalculated my foes cunning nature. They remained hidden inside the thick hedge. As I soared over the hedge I had not considered the possibility that my cape might get caught in the thick greenery. In mid-flight my cape was snagged, my forward momentum halted, and I was thrust back into the prickly branches.

My shirt and cape were shredded, my flesh was cut and scraped, and my Adam’s apple felt as if it was knocked to the back of my throat. I slogged home under a cloud of damaged pride, a grounded mortal, threw my costume back into the rag-bag, and went into disgraced exile. Gravity may have won that, but a dynamic imagination has kept me airborne ever since.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

“‘Curiouser and curiouser!’” cried Alice…she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.” This quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” comes after Alice experiences the effect of eating some cake that caused her neck to “open out like the largest telescope that ever was.”

Everyone knows the common and versatile definition of the word “curious:” being inquisitive; prying; showing keen interest; defining something as odd or strange. But the archaic Latin meaning has more depth: “something made or prepared with skill, something done with painstaking accuracy, with obvious signs of paying attention to detail and marked by intricacy.” We all have a degree of talent in some area, but it will not take one far unless the spark of curiosity ignites the imagination.

Once Alice saw the white rabbit, she was engaged, and curious enough to follow. When she came to the cake with the sign that read, “Eat me,” she did so. She had no idea what she would discover by chasing a white rabbit or consuming a magical cake. The formula was simple: being curious fired the imagination which afforded discovery. Think of all the discoveries Alice made about herself, her family, her society by following that white rabbit down the rabbit hole.

When the white rabbit appears in the imagination anything can happen. The act of creating is an act of bravery. Something is always at stake to the creator because they may lose something and never recover. That is the nature of creation. But there could be so much more to gain when one takes that risk: learning secrets, learning lessons, learning harmony in daily life.

Lewis Carroll began his story with Alice being very bored, and in her boredom she discovered the white rabbit. Don’t be afraid of being bored. There is freedom in boredom. A white rabbit could come along, so be on the lookout and be curious enough to follow. Stay curious and stir up the wonder of your imagination.

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Geworfenheit

Funky word, right? It sounds like a second cousin of gesundheit. The Germans know how to take meaningful phrases and form them into a single word. I recently met up with the word geworfenheit and found it means “thrown into the world.”

Credit for this phrase goes to Martin Heidegger, an influential German philosopher of the last century. I do not pretend to be a philosopher or a student of philosophy, let alone an expert in Heidegger-speak, but the meaning of the word hit me hard. If we have been “tossed out” by the randomness of natural selection or cosmic arbitrariness or systematic favoritism, then what sort of effect does such pitiless disregard have on one’s soul?

It does not take a world pandemic for someone to feel the pain of isolation. It is a brute fact that many people go through life unnoticed or unattended, no one looking, no one caring. Many struggle just to feel alive on any level of heart and spirit.

However one approaches the reality of our existence—how we got here, what we’re doing here, where we’re going from here—we each must decide what we do with the time before us, who we might do it with, and for whom.

If we believe we are here to indulge our moods, create the conditions to achieve success for our self-interests, and muscle our way to the top of the heap, then being “thrown into the world,” is nothing more than a dog-eat-dog world-view; any “means” to justify the “ends.”

I do not accept the premise that I have been flung out into the world to live solely by my wits and to die by myself. I suggest we adopt a different phrase to live by: “love thy neighbor.” If we weigh risk vs. reward, then a life of loving one’s neighbor has the greatest reward. We are not “thrown into the world.” We should grasp the world, look into the eyes of those who come across our path, embrace and love them. There will be pain, but it can be shared and the burden can be light.

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My Stage Debut

I did not have to prepare an audition for my first role on the stage. I just had to be the right age (five), work for free, and the son of the producer, my father. It was a production of the Greek tragedy, “Medea,” and I played the younger son of Jason and Medea.

The play came in last in the competition at the Dionysia Festival when it premiered in 431 B.C. A mother’s fillicide as revenge against her husband’s infidelity was not acceptable behavior even to the Greeks back in the day. But it is a tragedy, and someone has to die. So I became the sacrificial lamb.

The death scene (thankfully carried out off stage), did not require a lot acting talent on my part. I just had to play dead on command. Just before the big “reveal,” my stage brother and I took our positions on the floor behind a closed door, and the stage manager poured ketchup all over our white togas. I remember vividly the door flying open, the stage lights flooding into the room where we lay, and the blood-curdling scream from the actor who played Jason when he beheld his dead sons. Trying to remain “dead” in that moment was my first big challenge as an actor. I wanted to jump up and run away.

Jason and Medea would not be put on the cover of today’s “Parents” magazine, but my parents did not seem concerned that this theatrical experience might scar me for life. While I might have suffered some nightmares from time to time, there was no permanent damage. I did not know it at age five, but the art of storytelling became firmly established in my psyche, and my artistic life had been determined.

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In The Beginning Was The Story

It is one of my earliest memories. I was four years old when I witnessed my father drinking, gambling, attempting a robbery, and then dying by his own hand from a knife thrust into his heart. I watched him die right before my eyes, and I had no ability to distinguish the degrees of the semblances of truth.

When Hamlet says, “…the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he means that he will use a dramatic performance to test whether his uncle, Claudius, is guilty of murdering his father. And when Claudius sees the reenactment by the players, he flees the scene. When I saw the performance of my father’s death, I too fled the scene, whisked away in my mother’s arms, screaming.

Dad was playing the role of Billy Bigelow in the musical “Carousel.” Backstage after the show, I hurled myself into his arms sobbing in relief. That night Dad lay the instrument of his death on our dining room table; a rubber knife no longer than six or seven inches from blade tip to butt end. He even demonstrated how he used it.

This moment was a marvelous reality, one not fully explained or understood, nonetheless, irrefutably before me. I was an eyewitness to it all, and afterwards, I was tucked into bed by the one who had performed the feat. This was the mystery of storytelling, the story of my father, all-powerful, who could create such a wondrous illusion. My impressionable heart was frightened and awed by the experience of life, death, and resurrection. I did not know that these powerful themes would become foundational beliefs for life.

 

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Old Dog / New Tricks
Life is a Balancing Act

Old Dog / New Tricks

I am very slow to commit to technology that might improve my daily life. Living in a high-speed, full-scale digital cosmos does not appeal to me. I still use a flip-phone, and it has not been that long since I began to use the texting feature, though with reluctance. My reading material comes in hard copy form, not electronic. I shoot pool, play poker, and pinball (all poorly), not video games. I have an antennae on the roof that gets about a dozen free channels, four of which I watch. When people tried to get me to open a Facebook account so I could gain a couple of billion friends, my eyes glazed over.

I live like an animal, you say, but no more. This old dog decided he could learn a new trick or two. I not only had a website designed for my professional work, I also joined the world of Facebook. Now to all of you who know of my snarky attitude regarding social media forums (much like the snarky naysayers in the early days of television who considered the box of tubes a “vast wasteland”), I deserve all the slings and arrows of snide comments you care to throw at me. Be brutal. Be brutal. I accept the barbs.

But hold on. I have taken one more technological step in my journey from cave-dweller to enlightenment…the newsletter, delivered electronically courtesy of Mail Chimp. This will be the first of many to follow. One may rightfully consider that I have lost my mind, but since I love to write stories and explore ideas, perhaps this new forum may be a pleasant experience for us all.

So the slippery slope begins. And who knows? Sometime in the not too distant future, I may upgrade to an iPhone allowing me to do live feeds on Facebook. But don’t panic. My navigational skills in this wide, wide world of social media are still quite limited. And the beauty of Mr. Mail Chimp is that should you ever cry “uncle” from an over-consumption on my musing, you can always click that “Opt-Out” button.

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