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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Enjoy The Embellishments

Most of us don’t consider our individual life worthy of a novel let alone a series of novels. If you wrote the story of your life, most likely, you would reawaken lost joys and pains, feel them all over again, but perhaps with a greater understanding of yourself.

We all need to make sense of our existence, and the way we do that is to tell it as a story. To make a story streamlined with the logical build to a climax and resolution, one must go through the natural selection process of choosing those events and circumstances that best fit the sequence of thought and action to bring about the best effect.

There is so much information to the biblical account in my historical fiction series that as the author I have the challenge of picking and choosing which details to amplify, which ones to restrain, and which ones to ignore all together. While that might make me feel powerful, in reality, it makes me tremble at the responsibility.

In The Fugitive King, I chose to embellish the plotline and development of the characters. Much in the same way a gardener might trim and prune the tree to allow growth and accentuate the beauty. Or a sculptor chiseling away the excess marble. I admit this is an imposition of my artistic will, but it is done in service to the story and to deepen the meaning of the biblical accounts.

When we encounter a great work of art or a great story “our minds/Are nourished and invisibly repaired.” I borrowed this line from William Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude to make my point. So enjoy the embellishments I have chosen in The Fugitive King, available today wherever books are sold. But don’t confuse the embellishments with the facts. For those readers who have an affinity for the truth found in these accounts, it may deepen one’s faith. I know after taking a deep dive into the writing of these beautiful and rich stories, it has deepened mine.

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The Wow Finish

Of all the characteristics separating us from the lower species, a premiere difference has to be that we humans tell stories. The graphs, power points, and spreadsheets may give us knowledge but not wisdom. Stories offer us wisdom. We think in stories. It was words that created the universe, the first story, and gave us meaning. We need meaning.

Stories give us heroes and villains, conflicts, resolutions, happy or sad journeys, tragic or triumphant finishes. One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies is in Casablanca when Rick asks Ilsa if the story she is about to tell him has a “wow finish.” We love the wow finish to our stories. I have never seen a graph or spreadsheet that had a wow finish.

I recently had the privilege of playing two different roles in a new adaptation of The Hiding Place by A.S. Peterson. It was first a stage play, then made into a film, and released in theatres around the world. When I think of the stories that consistently catch my attention and draw me into their web, they are ones where the heroes and heroines are brilliant but flawed, prone to the cruelties of doubt as well and errant personal behavior, but also capable of tenderness and repentance that leads the contrite soul on a path of redemption.

Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place and King David in The Fugitive King are characters of that antiheroic vein. They lure me in because I witness their flawed humanity. Over the course of their individual stories, these two people are forced into unspeakably cruel circumstances, yet through it all, they emerge into human beings with a depth of being that comes only by walking through the crucible of trauma.

The Hiding Place will be released on streaming services in the coming weeks. My new novel, The Fugitive King, comes out on November 15th. Though the stories are told through different mediums, both are well-crafted narratives that will, for a moment, take over your reality and offer you a deeper understanding of the world and one’s place in it. And get ready for a “wow” finish in both stories.

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Mirror, Mirror

“Who is the fairest one of all?” A dangerous and invariably damning question. Truth: there will always be one fairer than you. Still, we keep going back to the mirror. Now that modern technology has equipped us with the editing tools and with so many social outlets, we can post our fair likeness as often as we please with bodies free of pounds, wrinkles, liver spots, or errant facial hair.

Narcissus had a similar infatuation with his “Selfie”, only this Greek demigod took it one step further. Narcissus never took his eyes off himself once he caught sight of his beauty, and he lost his will to live. We humans believe our bodies and personalities are upgradeable like our iPhones. We doggedly pursue the quest for perfection, and since most of us will never make the cover of a magazine, we will post our Best-Self for the world to see.

I read an article that used the term “aspirational narcissism” describing our culture’s obsession with ourselves and how we believe that science supports this through evolutionary brain circuitry. But remember poor Narcissus. The allure was so strong and so deceptive that when he finally realized his love could not be reciprocated, he died. I don’t believe our brain circuitry is telling us to die for a perfect reflection of our image.

I suggest taking our eyes off ourselves and embracing a love that is outward focused, one that sacrifices for others. Such a choice requires transformation of the heart. I am under no illusion; the practice of such selfless love is even harder than pursuing the “aspirational narcissism” of the magic mirror.

Two thousand years ago, St. Paul devoted an entire section in his first letter to the church in Corinth on what an outward focused love might look like: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud…” The list is extensive and truthful. This type of sacrificial love breaks the mirror of self-love and invites us into human connection, heals broken hearts, restores our joy and is capable of turning the world upside down. Let’s re-wire the brain circuity with this form of love.

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Man on the Run

In the tenth century B.C., the nation of Israel was an inhospitable place for a fugitive like David. He was a man on the run with few friends. Most of the people who had cast their lot with this outlaw were rogues themselves. The Judean countryside was sparse, each clan spread around the territory consisted of about fifty families. And while most of these families supported David, were they ever caught giving him aid and succor, their lives and property could be forfeited.

Who can you trust? This was the plight of David, the once and future king of the people of Israel, but one without a throne, a crown, or a populace to rule. After such a promising start in life—called from the hills of Bethlehem and thrust into the national spotlight after slaying a giant, then married into royalty—you cannot blame David for feeling lost. The dream had turned into a nightmare once he had fallen out of favor with the reigning king. 

On some level we all share a compatibility with David. We might not achieve the same highs and lows in life, but we do know what it is like to share similar emotions. There is more written about David than any other personality in the Old Testament, and in his lifetime, he experiences every human emotion imaginable.

In this fourth volume of my historical fiction series The Song of Prophets and Kings, I focus on the years David was a fugitive with “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters plastered all over the country. Imagine if social media was around three thousand years ago. Talk about a real sense of paranoia.

In The Fugitive King, David is forced to hide in dark caves, shelter inside thick forests to conceal his whereabouts, and rely on a handful of friends he can trust. In this novel we read of the great personal cost of David constantly having to look over his shoulder.

The Fugitive King will be released in print, e-book, and audio on November 15, 2023, and available wherever books are sold. Get ready for a literary ride with a man on the run.

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Consequences of a Bad Attitude

Kay and I and the girls had moved back home after three years in LaLa Land. I had racked up enough failed attempts to impress the Hollywood Moguls. My tail was tucked beneath my legs and I had no prospects for work. Unable to shake off the sense of defeat, I was pretty glum to say the least.

One day my dad called and said he had a connection with a local bus company that took daily trips down to Lynchburg, Tennessee during the summer to tour the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. The bus company needed people to be the “smiling face” liaison for those who bought tickets for the tour. I did not have to lead the actual tour of the distillery. That job went to local Lynchburgians.

I’m sure my kind father thought this gig would cheer up his son: a day killed, one hundred dollars earned, and a few groceries for the wife and kids. What’s not to like? When I arrived at the Nashville Convention Center to sign in for the job, an associate with the touring company sized me up, pulled a red blazer off the rack, pinned a bus company nametag on my lapel, and said, “Go get ‘em, tiger.” Given my disposition at the time, I did not feel like a tiger with any “go get ‘em” in my tank.

At least I can say no one died on my watch. I got the people on the bus from the Jack Daniel’s Welcome Center, checked them all in, handed the flock off to the authorized Jack Daniel’s guide, followed the group through the distillery tour, and got them back on the bus for the trip home, all accounted for.

On the trip there and back, I sat in the co-pilot seat on the bus. As we were pulling up to the Convention Center on our return trip, the bus driver pointed to an empty tip jar secured on the dashboard. I had been too self-absorbed to even notice it before now. The driver leaned in my direction and said, “We might have gotten some tips if you’d had a better attitude.” There was no disguising his contempt.

Was it that obvious? I knew I was morose on the inside but apparently it had seeped through my pores and hardened like wax on my face. I was mortified, but it was too late to salvage the situation. I could not get off the bus fast enough, turn in my red coat and badge fast enough, and get home fast enough.

Now in my defense…well, I guess I don’t really have a defense. I still wake up with a bad attitude from time to time, but I usually stay home to minimize the damage done to mankind.

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The Face of Smug Superiority

There is an old joke about St. Peter leading a group of new arrivals on a tour of heaven. When they get to a certain neighborhood in the heavenly city, St. Peter asks the group to remain silent as they pass by. Why? “Because these people think they are the only ones here and we don’t want them to know any different.”

This notion of theological exclusivity is nothing new. The Catholics developed it over centuries from indulgences to the Inquisition. The Protestants co-opted their distinctive takes on righteous living as the Reformation movement dissolved into splintered factions. This need to be right on all points might be designed to make believers feel closer to God, but it can have the opposite effect. Being right on all things theological can make congregants fearful and anxious when they get it wrong. And yes, we all get it wrong.

The same oppression happens among people groups whose tribal instincts encourage one race to feel superior to another. Bad things happen when that instinct is allowed to run rampant. Jesus got into trouble when he embraced the outsiders of society, those who were marginalized because of race, economics, politics, gender, and even physical disabilities. He faced great opposition from the powerful elite and even from his closest circle of friends.

The Samaritans in Jesus’ day were considered an inferior race, and brothers James and John, dubbed the “sons of thunder,” were soundly rebuked when they offered “to call down fire from heaven” upon a Samaritan village for not showing the proper respect to their leader. Such a story would be laughable were it not for the racial prejudice exposed in the story and the arrogant misuse of power the brothers’ thought they possessed.

On another occasion Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan and asks us to get over ourselves and embrace the other with love regardless of skin color or social status or religious and political incompatible beliefs. The face of smug superiority is one of grotesque distortion that cannot be airbrushed away. Best not to wear it to begin with.

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Failures in Behavior Modification

When my sister Nan was engaged to my future brother-in-law, Wayne Gurley, a big step in this development was for Wayne’s parents to meet the parents of the bride. Since his parents lived in Dallas and would be making the trip to Nashville, elaborate plans were designed so the Arnold clan could make the best possible impression.

With military precision the house was cleaned, the landscape manicured, and Nan’s strict orders regarding her three brothers’ spontaneous and unpredictable behavior in front of her prospective in-laws was, “Not while the Gurley’s are here.” The parents were in full support of this edict: bad table manners? “Not while the Gurley’s are here”; wearing sloppy attire? “Not while the Gurley’s are here;” ill-kempt bedrooms? “Not while the Gurley’s are here”; loud voices, coarse language, and boorish behavior? “Not while the Gurley’s are here.” There was no escaping it. We ended each day with the mantra, “Not while the Gurley’s are here.” And were the brothers to stray from the order at any point in the Gurley visit, well, hell hath no fury like a mortified sister.

The pressure was on. We brothers wore dress shirts and ties to the table; as rare a sight as Sasquatch. And we were called upon to act as servers for our guests during the meal. Things were going swimmingly when Mom asked if I would go around the table and refill everyone’s tea glass, an easy task I was happy to do.

When I came to Mrs. Gurley’s empty glass, I extended the pitcher with its deep bowl and long spout. I inadvertently bobbled the pitcher creating a tsunami effect. The tea formed a wave from the back of the pitcher that built in force as it flowed its way out of the spout and exploded everywhere except for intended receptacle.

In my attempt to regain control of the pitcher and reduce the spillage, I stepped back and caught my heel in the floor-length curtains hanging from the window. I then used my other foot to regain my balance but it too got tangled in the hem of the curtain. The flimsy curtain rod could not take so much abuse and came crashing down on top of me. In the shocked silence that followed my acrobatics I blurted, “Aw hell, not while the Gurley’s are here.”

And who said slapstick is dead? There is only so much one should expect when trying to mold one’s life through behavior modification. Some things are just impossible to man. 

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