The Great Ask

Thievery, whether petty theft or grand larceny, is the simple act of taking something that does not belong to you away from the one to whom it belongs. We must be born with a thievery gene for wherever two or three toddlers are gathered together, one of them will take the toy of another.

There is no backstory on the two thieves that flanked Jesus. Of the four gospels, Matthew and John refer to the thieves in a passing reference. Mark does not even mention them, but Luke gives them enough coverage to show a distinction between the two.

One can only imagine what kind of life these thieves might have had leading up to their shared moment on either side of the Song of God suspended between heaven and earth. Were these two related…brothers or cousins? Did they work as a team? Were they strangers who just happened to be plucked from different cells and lead away to Golgotha? What had they stolen? How had they been caught? Were they seasoned professionals with a long history of scores or first timers?

Whether they were relatives, cohorts in crimes, been in the thieving business for a few days or years, or Jerusalem’s dumbest criminals, they both knew on this day their number was up. Early in the morning both thieves “heap insults” on Jesus, but as the day wore on, one thief has a change of heart. His insults turn into the biggest ask of his life. “Remember me.”

This thief wanted the Son of God to remember him. He went straight to the top with his request bypassing all intermediaries. He had nothing to offer in exchange. He was naked and dying. He was at his most vulnerable and he still asked to be remembered.

We all want to be remembered for our best moments. This thief asked to be remembered at his worst moment. He was fully aware of his own insignificance. Fully aware of the cruelty of the world’s response to his choices in life. And with his remaining gasps, fully aware that the one person who could answer his question with a positive response was right beside to him.

The plea was “remember me.” The answer was “yes.” The greatest answer ever given to the greatest ask.

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Walk With Me

There are many words I love to speak and hear spoken, but there is one simple phrase that elicits a special thrill: “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. 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 what had taken place in the city and how they had assumed a big change was coming 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.

They did not realize Easter had come. They did not realize that Easter was walking beside them. “Walk with me,” Jesus offered, and they did. The story reveals that 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,” as to why this “powerful prophet” they were lamenting had been crucified.

The traveling 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.

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A Wife’s Dare

Kay dared me to make up a story out of my imagination. “Just sit down and start writing and see what happens,” she said. With my historical fiction books, I have at least had a loose outline to follow, a commitment to be true to the known facts, but not with The Mercy Seat. At first, I had little to go on. I just knew I wanted this novel to be set in the present and in a metropolitan city.

But what of the characters? For the reader to identify with the protagonist, the character must face all sorts of difficulties, and so I created the character of Maxwell Crane, an ex-Marine chaplain and pastor of The Mercy Seat church. He and his wife, Kenda, have three teenage children, and together, they live in an underserved community in a large city. The Cranes are a mixed race family, and once that came into existence, I had to give each of them something that would test their characters and show their complexity.

I still needed a jumping off point. When I came across a newspaper article about a local pastor who held a memorial service in a city park across the street from the downtown public library for those in the homeless community who had died during a calendar year, my story was launched. The library and park were gathering places for this population of citizens who used these public localities as a rest stop on their nomadic journeys roaming the city streets.

The Mercy Seat began to write itself. Some days it was hard to keep up. Characters I didn’t expect kept appearing requesting a role. I always enjoy the writing process, but this one had a special pleasure because every character had a believable persona and came with specific motivations and desires that made them human. I kept out of their way and let the story unfold as they wished for it to be told.

I also included an up-close and personal look at the social, economic, racial, and spiritual dilemmas facing the urban population of a large metropolitan city. By dropping the Crane family into a challenging and dangerous community, I could then observe how they chose to live and serve these citizens whose lives are a daily battle.

The Mercy Seat is a tale of godly people trying to bring comfort to the persecuted and afflicted, protect the innocent, and stand against the oppressor. But what happens when the pastor crosses a line taking justice into his own hands? Will his family, his community, and his God ever forgive him? My hope is you will read the novel and find out.

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Giving Oneself Over

A new novel series is coming. Something completely different from my biblical fiction. The Mercy Seat is the first volume in The Urban Chronicles series. The story takes an unfiltered look at our modern society and how we humans try to navigate through its complexities and mysteries.

If I as a writer am to tell a story, they must give themselves over. As the power of the story begins to rise up with me, I must sit down and write. I yield. I isolate. I watch and listen. I resist the temptation to manipulate, and I allow the characters to speak true words, reveal true emotions, and make true choices of action.

I do not feel lonely as a general rule. Shutting myself up in my room is not a frightening prospect nor is staring at a blank screen. What does frighten me, at moments, is when those doubts begin to rise that all my dreams, my efforts to create, that any real value to my writing is just for me. No one will read. No one will see the worth. No one will pay any attention. No one will even notice. That I find lonely and scary.

When my narratives are flowing. When my characters are being generous. When my imagination is in full power, I am at my creative best. All of this comes from the giving over of myself. I am not discontent with my life nor am I railing against the wrongs of this world, or, God-forbid, trying to create the world according to my self-belief. I am not the star of my own story.

A conscious part of my creative life is to give myself the freedom to explore all aspects of human nature from the secret wounds we carry to the outward actions we choose to take. I am capable of making a thousand choices for good or evil. I face that reality head-on and try to bring illumination to myself and the reader. I think all acts of creativity is an investigation into all the fears and joys and needs and vulnerabilities that make and shape us as human beings.

I write because I want to taste real life. Yes, I mean taste it in all its bitterness and sweetness. I want to create because that act alone, the pure act of creation, is the act of living. And to live a full life requires the giving over of oneself, the giving over to all the beauty and passion of what it means to be fully human. That is the glory of living which is the glory of God.

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The Prophet as Artist

In the rich and profound language of the Bible, there are many stories and prophetic passages that can cause the soul of the reader to marvel at his or her place in the world. Such is the power of the word that can bring a sense of awe and wonder. The people who wrote and spoke these words were not extraordinary. Most were just everyday folks.

Some became prophets, but they were not just mouthpieces giving forth oracles. They were the equivalent of artists in our modern day 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. What all these prophet/artists 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 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.

Decades ago I embraced an artistic life, not really understanding what that meant, but I did accept it as an invitation from God. I’m no special case, the invitation is inclusive, but I innately knew this was a commitment of and for a lifetime. I certainly did not know where this long trek would take me, or who my 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 truthful works together. Many of them have been companions in faith, and I am thankful for the wonderful and enriching artistic works we have created together to extend grace, mercy, kindness, and compassion to the world.

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 loss and cried out from my wounded heart, but I have not once regretted accepting the invitation of an artistic life. 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. I am pleased with what I have contributed to the world. I look forward to future novels and future performances with my fellow artisans.

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The Mercy Seat

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Written by Henry O. Arnold
Published by
Mountain Brook Ink
Published: March 5, 2024
Reader: Henry O. Arnold

Hells Canyon is a neighborhood in Richland, Tennessee where tourists never venture, and locals fear to tread.

SYNOPSIS:

Maxwell Crane, former Marine chaplain and pastor of The Mercy Seat church, struggles to provide a beacon of hope.
But others have their eyes set on Hells Canyon: power elites, robber barons, and street gangs seek their own gain at the cost of the beleaguered urban neighborhood. For the people who live there, it’s been a fight to exist their whole lives, and that fight is getting harder.

Maxwell doesn’t have to stay in Hells Canyon. He and his family could leave to live a comfortable middle-class existence. Instead, Maxwell chooses to risk his life-and the lives of those around him-to stand against the oppressors.

But what happens when this pastor crosses a line, taking justice into his own hands? Will his family, his community, and his God ever forgive him? Will he ever forgive himself?

The Mercy Seat is Book 1 of my new contemporary fiction series The Urban Chronicles.

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 I Got This 

The word “idiot” may be offensive to some, but let’s not completely rule out its use. I am particularly fond of how the Irish use the word “eejit.” Through the art of literary conjuring, the Irish have expanded such a word into an art form. “Eejit” is one of more than a dozen words used in good-natured insults, though there are a few pejorative uses that can incite brawls.

One cold winter morning when Kay’s car would not crank I said, “I got this.” That should have been a warning that the “eejit” demon was lurking in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment to strike a blow to my hubris.

The positive and negative posts on my car battery were easily marked so I could attach the metal clamps of my jumper cables to the right connections. But when I looked at the battery in Kay’s car, I became unsure. I took a step back, looked at the posts, then at the cable connections and I thought I have a fifty-fifty chance, so what could go wrong?

I clamped the cable connectors onto the posts and jumped into the front seat of Kay’s car. Remember, it was a very cold morning and her windshield had frosted over. Also, the hood of her car was elevated, and I could not see what was happening underneath. When I turned on the ignition, I expected the engine to give me some sign of life; a grumbling turnover would have been encouraging.

Then I noticed a trail of smoke floating by the passenger side window. I thought it must be the condensation of exhaust fumes from my car, but the smell of burning rubber and melting plastic is not usually associated with exhaust fumes.

To my horror, I saw smoldering cables and a dark spot on the ground between the vehicles where the melting cables had burned the grass. I dashed into my car to turn off the engine, and raced back and yanked the clamps off the two batteries. On the front bumper of each car the burning rubber cable had melted a permanent scar.

I held up the clamps from the cables. The exposed copper wiring dangled from the clamps like viscera of the central nervous system. After calling down curses upon myself in what can best be described as non-church language, I closed the hoods on each car, tossed the burnt cables into the trash, and accepted defeat.

When I told my story to a room full of family, my grinning nephew responded, “You know, Uncle, people have gotten hurt by doing what you did.” Fortunately, the only thing that got hurt that day was my “eejit” pride.

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Real Life Immersion

My first experience with immersion was when I got baptized as a teenager. Our religious persuasion believed in full-body dunking, every molecule and corpuscle soaked beneath the waters of redemption. For several years afterwards, many folks believed the plunge “didn’t take” and I’m sure for my parents, they too wondered what went wrong. I eventually came around, but that’s another story.

Today’s world offers a variety of immersive experiences, not much different than that soggy one of my youth. Whether it is the waters of baptism or spheres of light and sound that you can either attach to your head or walk into a dome at Las Vegas’ latest attraction, it requires just one thing…the complete surrender of the participant.

Such multimedia bombardments are an all-out assault on the senses. The complete attention of the participant is focused on the object. There is no escape. There is no distraction. There is only the object to behold. Such control over one’s attention reminds me of the stories of ancient mystics or prophets enraptured by visions. Was not Moses immersed by the vision of the burning bush?

For those of us who are not in the category of mystic or prophet, the imagination is a great equalizer. An active imagination is the original immersive experience; a do-it-yourself solution that takes you out of the mundane world and rivets your attention onto whatever peaks your curiosity.

The attraction for out-of-the body immersive experiences is powerful. It is a chance to trade in your current environment for a more appealing one, however temporary. A chance to slow time down or bring it to a stop. To allow some great force to take over and sustain your concentration.

No man-made attraction can replace one’s imagination. These high-tech milieus produce all these immersive attractions: high visual, high sound and light, and high dollar experiences. Last time I checked, we humans came equipped with the most powerful immersive capability known, an imagination, part of the standard packaging. Enjoy your imagination. It’s unpredictable, spontaneous, infinite, and free.

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The Christmas Tree Fairies 

Our Christmas tradition was born out of a refusal to have a fake tree in the house. We had to have a live one. When our grandchildren came along we felt the need for an infusion of creative wonder for this new generation, and viola, the Christmas Tree Fairies were born.

The plan was simple: That night before the hunt, we announced to the grandkids that we had gotten word from the Christmas Tree Fairies that they had left us a Christmas tree back on the farm. All we had to do was go find it in the morning. This meant that I was up with the sun the next day before the grandkids were stirring, went to our local store where dozens of freshly delivered Fraser Fir trees were lined up; all healthy specimens, and each one neatly cut at its base.

I would then drive to the backside of the farm and find a concealed spot in the middle of the woods to place the tree and return home. After a big breakfast it was time to go see where the Christmas Tree Fairies had left our tree. It was never easy to find. We had to tramp through overgrown shrubbery, fallen limbs, brambles, and bogs. A few times I cursed the fairies under my breath when I got snagged by the bramble bushes, but the difficulty of the adventure always made the discovery sweeter. Once they spied the tree, there was great rejoicing throughout the land.

Over the years the grandkids expanded on the folklore of how the Christmas Tree Fairies procured and delivered our tree. But a couple of years ago we thought our covert plot would be exposed. A precocious and borderline agnostic nephew had heard the tales and asked to tag along. While he was about to hit the Age of Enlightenment, he wasn’t quite ready to shed his long-held belief in the magic of Christmas.

While trudging through the woods, the ever-observant nephew asked me why I had not brought my ax to cut down the tree. Kay and I looked at each other in fear and trembling. She came up with a quick, “Let’s just wait and see what happens,” which bought us a little time, but the pressure was on.

Once the tree was spotted, they all ran over to where it had been propped against a large tree. Kay and I were preparing our hearts for the reckoning of truth, but in wide-eyed disbelief the nephew exclaimed, “Look, the fairies even cut it for us.” And God bless the child. The magic and wonder of the Christmas Tree Fairies survived for another year.

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Dancing David

Pictured here is the image of a sculpture of David by artist Phillip Ratner on display in The Ratner Museum located in Bethesda, Maryland. I have no idea what inspired Mr. Ratner to envision David in such a fashion, but after seeing his sculpture it is hard to think of David any other way. Music and poetry are so ingrained in his soul that the strings of his instrument have become woven into his flesh.

I have seen a lot of “Davids” in my life—pensive Davids; heroic Davids; lustful Davids; repentant Davids; all legitimate. However, this is the first one I’ve seen to be a joyful, dancing David. The piece captures an exuberance that lifts one off one’s feet, and I believe, depicts a deeper truth to David’s artistic soul.

As I follow David’s life, he never seems to lose the true sense of himself. Here is a man who could so completely loose himself in joyful exuberance that he could strip down to his undergarments and dance “naked” before the Ark of the Covenant as it was escorted into the city of Jerusalem.

The Ark was Israel’s most holy object and for David to become so absorbed by joy was to not only risk complete humiliation but also death. We know what happened to one of the Levites who touched the Ark while being transported to Jerusalem. And don’t forget the villains in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Don’t mess with the Ark.

David was roundly condemned by some who completely missed what he was doing. They had no concept that in the depth of his soul, he would risk humiliation and possible death to express the artistic impulse when in the presence of the Almighty.

I’m sure there were gaps in his life when David did not have time for artistic expression. He was a king after all and as Henry IV says in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” David was busy ruling a nation and it’s hard to find the time to take up the harp and pen when the Philistines come calling.

Still, to the end of his days he could not deny the creative force he held within his soul. It was forged within him and the joy of its expression could not be stifled.

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