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Portrait of an alpine cow with a traditional cow bell in a Swiss Alpine Meadow.

More Cowbell

On a visit to the village of Murren, Switzerland, accessible only by foot or gondola, Kay and I arrived as the sun descended behind the Alps. After dinner in the village, we were walking back to our lodging and kept hearing these bells. Kay immediately said these were cow bells. The terrain was so steep, so I concluded, it was too treacherous for cows. Goats maybe, not cows. I spoke with usual confidence (personal motto: often wrong but never in doubt), and Kay kept her own counsel. Our personalities were on full display.

The next morning when we began our hike into the mountains, what should be coming toward us on the trail but a small herd of cows each one with a personalized bell around its neck. We laughed, of course, after my apology, of course. And to add to my shame, as we kept hiking, more and more cows appeared.

Murren was full of cows. Not a goat in sight. Cow bells decorated the entryways and front doors of chalets and private residences, some big enough for cathedral towers. Once again fissures in my certainty had appeared, opened up, and swallowed me whole.

Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard said of his adventures as a balloonist, “An adventure is a crisis that you accept. A crisis is a possible adventure that you refuse, for fear of losing control.” After forty-five years of the adventure of our marriage, Kay and I have learned, often through disconcerting experiences, that we need not fear losing control.

Control is an illusion in the first place. Accepting the daily messes and enjoying the unpredictable qualities of our life together has been the slow and steady process of transforming us into a sculpture of nearly perfect soulmates.

Falling in love is easy. Making a good marriage is hard work. Soul mates are not discovered, they are created; they are fashioned and made through persevering together because you love each other. When asked how we have stayed together, my answer is simple, “enjoy the cowbell moments.”

Like the Timex watch, our marriage keeps on ticking; a miracle, Kay likes to point out. Not only can God fashion two human beings and create the majestic Swiss Alps that awed us, but He can also drop in a “more cowbell” moment to remind me that all of this life is an adventure. This trek with my life companion is one of flourishing beauty.

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Can We Wrap This Up

The Sunday night before she died was the night of the Oscars. I intended to watch the first hour then go to bed because of an early rehearsal call the next day. When J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Whiplash,” and gave his wonderful acceptance speech praising his wife, kids, and then his parents, I was moved.

I am fortunate enough to have been parented well, to have married well (above my station, most would say), and to have participated in the rearing of two wonderful daughters. As Mr. Simmons expressed thankfulness that his children possessed more of the admirable qualities of their mother than of him, I too acknowledged my gratitude to Kay sitting on the sofa beside me that the deep gene pool of her virtues had dominated in creating the DNA of our girls.

Mr. Simmons expressed his humble gratitude to the most important people in his life ending with his parents. But it was his last words that brought my personal conviction: “…Go call your Mom and your Dad and thank them. Don’t text or e-mail them but call them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.” That was enough. I rose from the sofa and told Kay I was going to call Mom.

When Mom answered the phone in her bright, cheery voice, I naturally thought she was watching the Oscars and was anticipating this call from one of her children. However, she informed me that she had just come in from having dinner with my brother and his wife, thus the vibrant “hello” when answering the phone.

I explained how Mr. Simmons had inspired me, then said, “Mom, I wanted you to know how thankful I am for your love and encouragement over the years. You and Dad always cared for me and supported me, and I’m eternally grateful for all you and Dad have done.”

As I was about to settle in to “…listen to [her] for as long as [she] wanted to talk to [me],” she responded with: “Oh Sweetie that is so nice of you. I love you too and am so proud of you and appreciate what you’ve just said, but “Downtown Abby” is about to start and I need to go to the bathroom, so can we wrap this up?”

It was a perfect Mom moment. There would be other opportunities for a mutual-admiration-society chat so we said goodbye and hung up. Some time that night, I assume after watching the latest episode of “Downtown Abby,” she went to sleep and her body released her spirit. I’m sure no amount of praise from her son could compare to the joy she experienced when entering her heavenly home.

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Rocko Ride of Shame

For humiliation to work there must be witnesses. The act must have an audience. Humiliation in private doesn’t count. In my middle-school days (peak years for prize-winning humiliations), a group of us went to the State Fair. While we had to depend on the parents for transportation, I did not have to ask them for the money to pay the admission fee and incidentals. I was a paperboy at that time and could impress my girlfriend with my economic independence, money earned by the sweat of my brow.

As we strolled the Midway, my girlfriend and I indulged in a Cumulus cloud of pink cotton-candy, followed by the deep-fried goodness of a funnel cake. When the group spied the Rocko Ride, the girlfriend’s excitement was tangible. I approached the monster bravely concealing my trepidation. The steel cages were shaped like the old manual pencil sharpeners each one attached to a metal spoke similar to that of a Ferris Wheel. The cages were designed to flip end-over-end in mid-rotation.

My brave façade melted when the carney closed the top over our heads and gave a sinister chuckle. The first few revolutions were slow paced and I was lulled into thinking that I might be able to survive this experience. But then the carney kicked the machine into high gear and the cage suddenly flipped on its head. Gravity had failed and the axis on which our planet spins snapped in two.

“Please stop! Please stop! Let me get off! Please,” I begged, but with each lap the carney’s sinister grin widened further revealing a handful of stained teeth lodged inside the black hole of his mouth. This was the torturer’s glee during the Inquisition. He kept us inside the chamber for an eternity. During the long wait to be set free, I could not conceal the tremors in my body or the tears streaming from my eyes while my screeching pleas to stop the torture echoed inside the steel cage.

Once released from our confinement, I staggered past the line of people waiting their turn for medieval torment and lurched into the Midway just as the pink-colored and deep-fried barf spewed out of my mouth. The ride home in the car was long and quiet and the dissolution of the girlfriend/boyfriend relationship came within days; the message delivered by a snickering courier.

In the great scheme of things, my Rocko Ride was a low-profile mortification. By collecting the stories of my humiliations, I have discovered a meaningful link between living a well-rounded joyful life and the absurdity found in all of us. I can say with certainty that my absurd life moments provide entertaining stories at dinner parties.

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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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 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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