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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The Baker’s Bench

In the early days of Covid-19 Kay and I found ourselves standing at the baker’s bench in Niedlov’s Bakery in Chattanooga. My grandson asked his father why the baker’s bench was so long, and he replied that it took many hands to prepare the bread dough for baking. The heartbreaking fact at that time was that the professional team of bakers that once formed the assembly line along the Niedlov’s baker’s bench were now in the long lines of the unemployed.

Niedlov’s was deemed essential in those early days and so the larger orders for bread had to be filled after hours and by unprofessional hands. So four adults and two grandchildren took up positions along the baker’s bench and went to work.

While we worked I listened to my son-in-law, Erik, explain his philosophy around the idea of the baker’s bench and why it is so long. It is an assembly line of sorts with different stages of preparing the dough before it can be placed into the individual pans and put into the oven to bake. I learned quickly that the preparation process is labor intensive.

At that time, those of us in our little group were/are literal family connected by blood and marriage, but most who gather around the baker’s bench are not so related. Regardless, everyone who comes to the baker’s bench gathers for a single purpose. Those who come to the bench would rarely gather in other situations except for bread making. It feels like church, Erik remarked. As different as we all might be in life and likely never to congregate outside the sanctuary of the baker’s bench, by this simple act of making bread people become one in heart and mind.

By such action we are in community. We are honoring our labor. We are bearing witness of and to each other. And in our unity we are serving the world at large. Yes, it was like church. Most of us will not have the experience of gathering at a baker’s bench. But in countless other ways we can join others in putting our physical and mental and spiritual energy in the service of others. By thinking less of ourselves and more of other people we get to experience a unifying moment that could very well be transcendent.

Whatever form the baker’s bench takes in your life it offers opportunities to show simple acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion that can boost the morale of the world with demonstrations of love to our neighbor.

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Faustian Bargain

Way back in the day during the early years of my theatre training, I read Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus. It was my first literary experience reading about the human power of choice and its consequences. We like to think we have power, and on some level, we do, but most of our perceptions of power are mere illusions. The real power we have is the power to choose.

In the years that followed my first exposure to this medieval tale, I read Wolfgang Goethe’s Dr. Faustus, followed by Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. Then several years ago Kay and I did a Pacific Coast Highway adventure from Washington down to northern California. We took the inland route back to Seattle and spent twenty-four hours in Ashland, Oregon. That night we saw a production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The language was powerful and the visuals stunning. It was one of the many theatrical experiences we shared that we still remember years later.

Dr Faustus decides to sell his soul to Lucifer in order to obtain power. What he gets in exchange for his soul is the luxury to travel far and wide, to gain great knowledge, to learn and perform different types of magic, and to indulge in every kind of sensual pleasure. Faustus spends the majority of his time using his powers to his own amusement and advantages. When faced with the opportunity to repent, thereby saving his soul—he comes close a few times—but never actually does it. When Lucifer returns to claim his end of the deal, Dr. Faustus has now lost the power of choice and is dragged off to a very unfortunate end.

Since the beginning of civilization we humans are always in search of a bargain. We believe we have to sell something to gain something. We can easily become dissatisfied with life and believe we are owed something better or that we can achieve something better. Ambition is a worthy notion when in service of the greater good. But too often pride will turn ambition in on itself and the end result is never pretty.

There are great things out there in the world to discover and enjoy. There are great people out there, as well, to share in the pleasure of all sorts of creative activities. So, in that powerful moment of choosing, remember what the old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade advised Dr. Jones, “Choose wisely.”

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A Family Tradition

In 1976 a small group of friends that included my parents wanted to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of our nation. What started out as a small block party on Whitland Ave in Nashville, Tennessee grew into a major event with a few thousand in attendance each year who gathered to enjoy a parade, music, potluck, and a special program honoring our collective experiences in what it meant to be an American.

Each year the program included a featured moment. Two stand out in my memory. Due to poor health, a Navajo Code Talker who lived in middle Tennessee was unable to attend a ceremony in Washington D.C. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, so he was brought to the Whitland Ave celebration. He sat in his wheelchair surrounded by his family and members of his native tribe while an official military delegate spoke of his heroism and awarded him his medal. But then members of his tribe began a rhythmic beating on their drums and a Navajo dancer came out from behind the crowd in full tribal dress and danced a warrior’s dance in honor of this brave veteran.

Another year a Federal Immigration Judge spoke of the many reasons people give for wanting to become an American citizen. After his speech he turned to a group of about thirty people seated in a special section off to the side of the podium and led them in the Oath of Allegiance. This is the final step of naturalization in becoming a citizen. It was so moving to hear a dozen or more international accents repeating the words of the Oath that has been spoken by every new citizen since the eighteenth century.

Over the years, the program also included my sister, Nan Gurley, who lead the crowd in singing patriotic songs. But regardless of the variety there was one moment in the program that never changed: my father would read from the Declaration of Independence while some of Nashville’s finest musicians played 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 prouder of my parents, Bud and Bernie Arnold, and this great tradition they left their family and the community they loved.

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Son of a Teenage Runaway

How does a father teach a son to be a man? What is it to even be a man…to be a father…to be a son? In 1944, Dad ran away from home at the age of seventeen, hitchhiked from Richmond, Virginia all the way to Ft. Lauderdale, spent a few nights on a park bench, lied about his age to the Army recruiting officer, and then worked as a bellhop in a swanky hotel until he was inducted into the Service. Somewhere between bellhop and paratrooper, Dad called his parents and told them what he had done.

Before Dad ran away from home he had suffered a few blackout spells, and the doctor had cautioned against overexertion. He could have had a medical deferment for his unreliable heart, that fact, plus being an only child, would have kept him out of the military, but then Dad would never have had his personal odyssey, an adventure he had been planning for some time. He had run away in his mind long before he slipped out the door when his parents weren’t looking. My father understood who he was and dreamed of what he might become, then made the bold choice to defy his overprotective parents.

Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel said his father once told to him, “If you don’t know me you can never know yourself.” Two nights after Dad died I was sleeping in my old bed in my old room. We were in the midst of the wonderful chaos of family and friends sharing our grief and celebrating a life well lived. It was easier to stay home with Mom.

That night, Dad appeared to me in a dream. When he walked into the bedroom, I sat up with a start. He was wearing his Army dress uniform with a chest full of medals. He was smiling as he sat down on the foot of my bed. He gave my legs a gentle slap, and said, “Son, you’re gonna be just fine.”

I believe I went to sleep a boy and woke up a man. That began a journey for me of knowing my father, remembering experiences we shared as father and son, and hearing stories of my father from other friends and family members. Maybe for the first time I was really paying attention.

Dad taught by doing. Watching him in my memory, I began to know myself, what it meant to be a man and a father. I wish I had paid more attention while he was here on this earth but thank God for memory. If running away from home helped produce the kind of man my father became, then I say I am the proud child of a teenage runaway. Oh, the wonder of fatherhood and the miracle of manhood!

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