Entertaining Angels Unaware

Hospitality was held in high esteem in the Arnold household. If we kids grumbled about the hordes flowing in and out of our abode, the parents might say, “We could be entertaining angels.” That biblical morsel would mystify us, but never fully mollify.

Missionaries, actors, teachers, journalists, writers, preachers, freeloaders, hoarders, artists, strangers, students, politicians, all racial stripes, all gender stripes, rich, poor, ex-cons, addicts, alcoholics, the terminally ill, the greatest of these and the least; if you were at our house at the dinner hour, invited or uninvited, a plate was set, and a bed was made should lodging be required. If there were any angels in this disparate group, they came and went undetected.

There were guests who stayed for a few nights or a few weeks, and sometimes those who stayed to infinity and beyond. The weirdest experience I remember was when a marginal friend from college brought his new bride to Nashville for their honeymoon. He said he was too broke to afford a hotel and asked to stay with us. We knew the Bible said, “Angels do not marry or are given in marriage,” so we did not expect the newlyweds to arrive with halos and harps.

Now, when “two or more were gathered” at the Arnold hotel, my siblings and I could be displaced from our rooms, but on this occasion my brothers and I could sleep in our own beds. My sister happened to be away from home, so her room was available for the happy couple.

The “just marrieds” hardly made a sound. We could only imagine what was going on, or not going on in my sister’s room. The couple was invited to our evening meals, and my friend accepted a few times, but the bride never made an appearance. He took her meals up to their room offering a mealymouthed excuse for her absence. We never laid eyes on her after their initial arrival, not even accidental bump-ins at the one bathroom we all shared upstairs.

After several days of this absurdist drama, the couple slipped away while we all were conveniently absent. No note. No “thank you.” No nothing. Raptured, maybe? Within a few weeks, we got word that their marriage had been annulled, which explained the silence in my sister’s room. You just don’t realize how peculiar a situation might be until you try to describe it.

If you open your home to the world, you never know who might walk through the door. Perhaps entertaining angels would not be that weird after all.

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Old Whine in New Whine Skins

Job was the first biblical complainer. The oldest book in the Bible is the story of Job and much of the content make up his complaints. When we think we we’ve been wronged or life doesn’t go the way we planned it, we take to social media to voice our rants and raves, but we have nothing on this man. Our reasons to whine can’t compare with his. Job has the bona fides.

Without warning, Job’s ordered life went into chaos. He lost everything and was reduced to sitting in a pit of ashes; his friends told him that his plight was of his own making; his spouse told him to blame God and commit suicide. All he had left was a broken piece of pottery that he used to scratch the painful sores on his body. What a metaphor: the pain of Job’s broken life alleviated by a broken piece of pottery.

And did Job curse and cry and howl? You bet he did. He cursed his birth. He cursed his bitter life. He cursed his friends calling them, “long-winded, miserable comforters.” (Have any of those friends?) He tried to justify himself. He tried to maintain his innocence. He tried to preserve his integrity as if to say, “I do not deserve this. I am a good person. Life is unfair to me.”

We work so hard to configure our world to protect us from chaos, and when the storms of life blow against us, our true nature is revealed. Are we over-wrought and obsessed, like Job, with preserving our “rightness?” If you can reduce your rant into the number of characters allowed by Twitter, then you probably have little to complain about.

Being right is a mirage of temporary power and comfort. Right beliefs, right behaviors, right feelings, right lifestyles, and keeping company with those like-minded/like-faith people, are erroneous constructs. Job had structured all the right systems and practices to prevent his life from spiraling out of control, but life had different ideas, and Job ended up in the ash pit.

When life does not cooperate with our belief systems, too often we do not humble ourselves. Instead, we whine about life’s unfair treatment and rail against those we want to blame for our ills. This misguided rationale turns the indigent belief of our rightness into self-righteousness, a much harder heart to crack.

Job was a consummate complainer, but he never cursed God. He never walked away from God. And when he finally ran out of complaints, Job saw the wonders of God. He humbled himself and said, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” The world is chaotic, and at times, our personal lives get battered and fried by life. But hold on until the wonders of God appear.

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nunc dimittis servum tuum

In this month of love, I revisited John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The work of art is hard to resist. It is impossible to imagine how Coltrane heard this music. I envision the thousands of notes spinning around in the air above his head, and as inspiration possessed him, how he must have snatched each note, causing his saxophone to overflow as he created his masterpiece.

Nathaniel Mackey writes of Coltrane in his book of poems “Late Arcade,” that Coltrane seemed to “exhaust his horn as if there were infinite possibilities to it.” The infinite notes played in an infinite number of ways by a true genius is the proverbial strike of artistic lightening.

The story is told that Coltrane and his fellow musicians performed A Love Supreme only once in a live venue. When he finished and walked off stage Coltrane was heard saying “nunc dimittis servum tuum,” which translates “now dismiss your servant.”

This phrase was first spoken by Simeon from the gospel of Luke. It had been revealed to him that he would not die until he beheld the Messiah. When Simeon took the child into his arms, he knew he held the light of revelation, the glory of Israel, and the salvation of all people. For Simeon, this moment of perfection would never happen again.

How Simeon knew he held the Messiah could only be explained in mystical terms. How John Coltrane knew he had played a perfect piece of music is likewise a mystery. Both men knew the moment it happened that their quests in life were finished.

Coltrane and his fellow musicians had performed a perfect set of A Love Supreme. It could never be played like that ever again. To expect to repeat such an inspired level of excellence would be impossible. The performance was now a memory and such a memory can never be perfectly recreated.

Coltrane writes in the liner notes of the album that, “A Love Supreme is a ‘thank you’ to God.” He had come to a knowledge and understanding that he and his music were all about God and the gifts God had given him. Once Coltrane had that revelation, he was completely free to love the music and the great Giver of his gifts. Such is the beauty and mystery of all great art.

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Chaos, Hover, Create…Repeat

Human beings love order. When our world descends into chaos, we quickly begin the task of restoring a semblance of order. When the larger world around us becomes chaotic, we are fearful of being sucked into the wider maelstrom.

God chose to reverse the chaos of the amorphous universe. After hovering over the waters of turmoil, God began the process of creating form and beauty out of disorder.

Just contemplate what you do in the waking hours of a single day and consider all the ways you attempt to maintain order in your life. How do you react when your personal world order hits the turbulence of life and is threatened by upheaval?

We spend a great deal of physical energy bringing form out of our chaos and maintaining an ordered life. And when our world does spin out of control, too many times our natural response is to complain, curse, and blame.

In the book of beginnings, Genesis 1:2 reveals a simple three-step process to bringing order out of chaos. It began with the chaos. How and when the chaos in the universe came to be is a debate others can argue. But chaos existed in the dark, wet, void of the cosmos. Perhaps this image was in the subconscious minds of the creators of the lava lamp.

Then God hovered. The original Hebrew meaning for hover is “to brood; to be relaxed.” When we are relaxed enough to brood, i.e., ponder and mediate on a situation, the time spent in doing so allows our imaginations to consider new forms to replace the chaos.

After such a brooding time, one goes into action to create beauty, to restore the benefits of peaceful existence in one’s heart and to the community at large. God’s response when the creation process was complete was to say, “It is good.” What a wonderful appraisal to be able to say when one is finished creating something beautiful, that “It is good.”

From the beginning it was so. Chaos, hover, and create.

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The Trouble with Icons

I went through a rigorous audition process for the role of Atticus Finch in a play version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The artistic director had chosen nine actors for the final callback. Any one of them would have been an excellent choice.

When I was offered the role, I called Kay with the exciting news, then called both our daughters. I was able to reach Kristin, but not Lauren. Days later, when I spoke with Lauren, and dropped the “I got the role of Atticus Finch” bomb, her reaction was pure impulse: “Oh Daddy, I’m so excited. Atticus Finch is the father I always wanted.”

This was a moment of profound realization. I knew I was about to square off with a quintessential American icon seared into the consciousness of society. We still laugh at Lauren’s faux pas, but it is not easy to go up against the iconic Atticus portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.

One theatre patron’s comment to me outside the stage door after a performance was, “You out Gregory Pecked, Gregory Peck.” I assume this was meant as a compliment, but the truth cannot be denied: the image of Atticus Finch will forever be associated with one actor. I mean, he’s got his own stamp for heaven’s sake.

The trouble with icons is that they never set out to be icons, whether born of literary imagination or born of woman. When a kid gets asked what they want to be when they grow up, the answer is never, “I want to be an icon.”

An icon carries with it the implicit expectation of a virtuous character. Family members and friends of the icon know all too well the fallacy of such a notion. When the spotlight is not on the icon, he/she must continue their mundane life of just being human.

A more desirable aspiration is to become a genuine human being. Icons are placed on pedestals and put into stain glass windows with appropriate mythologies built around them. I never have to worry about being placed upon a pedestal or my image fabricated into a multi-colored window. My flaws are too numerous and apparent for icon status. I desire to be authentic in all things and in all ways. Others can have the status of icon. It is enough of a struggle just to be human.

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Cutthroats and Swindlers and Thieves…Oh My

John Milton of Paradise Lost fame, wrote in a letter to a friend, “Why is the Bible more entertaining & instructive than any other book?” Because the stories are addressed to “the imagination, which is spiritual sensation.”

More than forty writers are attributed to authorship, and the divinely inspired literary styles and stories range from historical, poetic, wisdom, prophetic, narrative, epistolatory, to apocalyptic. Some of my favorite passages are in the Psalms. Every human emotion is expressed in those one hundred and fifty psalms. Honesty at its most raw.

Scripture also does not shy away from revealing every distinguishing trait of human nature, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some stories are so outrageous that people can’t believe they are included in such a holy book. I say, how could they not?

This great quote from Bono describes one of many reasons I have such affection for the Bible: “That the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers, and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it is a source of great comfort.” Ancient times or modern times, nothing is new under the sun.

When I began to write my biblical historical fiction series, The Song of Prophets and Kings, I dreamed of gleaning truths from these three-thousand-year-old stories without altering any of the historical events and put them into an artistic context so a modern reader could relate to the situations and the emotional life of the characters.

With the publication of Crown of the Warrior King, the second installment of this series, the tension between the characters has sharpened, the conflict between the monarchy and the theocracy has intensified. The choices made by the main characters threaten to destroy the nation of Israel and bring down the reign of King Saul before it has barely had time to be established.

The human struggle in this novel is as relevant now for the modern reader as it was for those who lived through it so long ago. We can learn from our past. It is not inevitable that we repeat it.

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The Christmas Revelation

When my rational mind began to question the existence of Santa Claus, my parents pulled me aside and ‘fessed up. But they welcomed me into the myth-making business by insisting that I must not tell my younger siblings of my loss of faith.

Now I had to submit my requests to the indisputable givers of Christmas gifts. That year I had my eye on a clock radio, a pricey item. My parents reminded me that we “weren’t made of money.” If this gift was to be acquired, then a bigger economic plan would need to be devised: the monetary forces of parents, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle thrown in for good measure, would come together to make this purchase.

The big day came, and I anticipated the family gathering and gift exchange at my grandparent’s house where I hoped to receive the desired gift. It was torture to wait until the gifts had been distributed to all the family members. Then my parents forced me to watch as each family member opened their gift before my present was even revealed. When it was finally my turn, to add to the dramatic build-up, my mother had me sit in the center of the room, and I was instructed to close my eyes.

As soon as the box was placed in my lap, I grabbed it and began to shake it. The sound of the contents confused me. I should have heard the thud of a single object bouncing off the sides of the cardboard box. Instead, it was a rattling sound like a bunch of loose parts.

I tore away the paper and yanked off the lid, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a jumbled mess of radio parts with no instructions for assembly. If this was the best my parents could do even with economic support from other family members, then we really must be poor.

There was silence in the room as everyone awaited my reaction, which, after a few seconds of stunned disbelief, was a flood of tears. Not the reaction any of them expected from their “Dirty Santa” trick.

All the conspirators leapt from their seats and crushed me with love, comfort, and penance. My father dashed behind the Christmas tree and presented me with the real and assembled clock radio. Moral of this story: I should not have lost my faith in Santa Claus. He never would have done this to a kid.

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Mysterium Tremendum

When a modern person talks about having a religious experience, that could mean anything from having an excellent cup of coffee to watching a sunset. One could say the same when having a sacred moment in a house of worship, or listening to a piece of music, or standing on a mountain peak, or reading a book. No location is required, nor a prescribed activity, nor a pre-conditioned state of mind that must be in place for someone to experience a moment of other-worldly ecstasy.

A unique kind of joy can be had standing before a painting or in the company of another person when the conversation is both fascinating and enlightening, that too can give one a sense of bliss. While such experiences might be considered spiritual in a loose sense of the word, they are not necessarily holy. Holy moments are astonishing and rare, and often result in a complete change of one’s life and character.

Twentieth-century German theologian, Rudolf Otto, coined the term mysterium tremendum in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto describes that when one is truly in the presence of the holy, the first thing the person realizes is the state of his wretchedness. We modern people are too busy propping up a perception of our self-esteem to want to risk being confronted by the barrenness of our soul. It takes a deep vulnerability to be open to the presence of holiness.

In my new novel, Crown of the Warrior King, available today wherever books are sold, the prophet Samuel has one mysterium tremendum in the story that so overwhelms him, he falls on his face. For Samuel to understand the heart of God, he must feel what God is feeling. The Almighty invites Samuel into this shared experience, and he comes away with an understanding that the impact of a wayward soul breaks the heart of God and there is a painful cost in restoring it.

When Samuel gets back onto his wobbly feet, he knows he cannot be still. He cannot be silent. He must speak. He must act. There is no going back from this point. The course of history for a prophet, a king, and a nation will be changed forever. It is the inevitable result of an encounter with the holy.

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The Bible, The Ancient Greeks, The Drama

The invention of tragedy as a form of dramatic storytelling is often attributed to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. The basic construct of a tragedy is that the protagonist, one with outstanding qualities, rises to prominence, and then either through personal failures or circumstances beyond their control, or a combination of these two factors, succumbs to disaster and is destroyed. Tragedy has been a creative style of expression in multiple art forms ever since.

When told well, a literary tragedy gives an audience the opportunity to experience what is known as a catharsis. Simply put, when we become engrossed in a story, we experience deep and intense connection with the characters, and thus identify with them. With our imaginations, we enter the story’s unfolding action and see ourselves in the different characters. Our emotions are engaged, and by the end, we will have had a complete empathic experience. It is like a cleansing for the soul.

Long before the Greek playwrights wrote their stories and the actors donned their masks and began to orate in the amphitheaters, there was King Saul, the first true tragic figure of this kind in the Bible. Long before Sophocles wrote of Oedipus’ encounter with the prophet Tiresias there was Saul’s encounter with the prophet Samuel.

In this new novel, Crown of the Warrior King, release date set for December 1, 2021, the story of King Saul picks up where my first novel, A Voice Within the Flame, left off. Saul is in the early days of his kingship, winning the hearts and minds of the people of Israel with his success on the battlefield and benevolent leadership. But then personal hubris (excessive pride and self-confidence), creeps in, and the tragic formula begins to develop.

Art holds up the mirror of our humanity reflecting the tragic and comedic realities of our human nature. In Crown of the Warrior King, Saul reveals those human qualities we recognize in ourselves and will make choices that prove to have fatal consequences. It is a cautionary tale for us all.

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Read more about the article Late Bloomer
Second Volume

Late Bloomer

I have freely acknowledged in these newsletters my poor academic achievements in my K-12 education. Mr. Dyslexia was a sure hindrance in my scholastic endeavors, but I was also accused of having what was then, and still is, referred to as a “bad attitude” about…well, most everything, that kept me academically below average. “Bad attitude” has since morphed into “curmudgeon,” but somewhere along life’s way I became a moderately productive citizen.

As a creative person I believe being a “late bloomer” has worked in my favor. I have endured my share of the proverbial struggles while living the life of the starving artist. And though I maintain low levels of fame and fortune (no Paparazzi camped in my front yard); I have been blessed with enough opportunities to have what might be called a career in the business of making art.

The writing side of my life was decades in the making. I collected rejection letters from publishers and producers far and wide. Those letters have all been burned, by the way. I see no reason to keep tangible reminders that perfect strangers didn’t have the good sense to recognize my genius.

For years I sat at my desk and hammered away on my typewriter. In 1989 I won five hundred dollars in a literary contest and bought my first computer. The clicking typewriter keys and manually slamming the carriage at the end of every line became a by-gone sound effect, which I miss, but still the words did appear and eventually turned into complete stories.

I was age fifty-eight when my first book Hometown Favorite was published, and age fifty-nine for my second, Kabul24. Then came an eleven-year hiatus before my latest novel, A Voice Within the Flame, the first volume of my biblical fiction series The Song of Prophets and Kings, saw the light of day. Now I am pleased to announce that the second volume in this fiction series, Crown of the Warrior King, will be released by WhiteFire Publishing, December 1, 2021.

Writing for me is a three-fold process each one producing a specific emotional response: there is joy in the everyday discipline of writing; there is bliss when the book appears in print and may be purchased wherever books are sold; and there is rapture when someone tells me they have read my book and found it to be an enjoyable experience. It is not that my genius has been rewarded, but my perseverance.

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