Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Inspiration and the Harvest

I know I talk about Emaline’s Gift a lot, since it’s my first published novel and it’s my most recent published work, but you may have noticed in the sidebar of this blog that I also have a short story available called The Book of the Harvest. I thought I’d say a few words about that, and post the beginning of it right here for those who might be interested. If you like what you see, the story is currently available for Kindle, Nook and in paperback.

Inspiration is funny thing. We talk about it a lot as writers, I suppose, but I can’t get into any other author’s head to find out if it works in quite the same way as it does for me. I’ve actually encountered two different types of inspiration as an author. The first I sort of think about as “regular inspiration.” God made me who I am, and part of who He made me to be is a creative person. Sometimes I have ideas that don’t go anywhere, but sometimes I have ideas that seem to work okay and they turn into a finished story. Most of what I’ve written in my life, including Emaline’s Gift, falls under this category. God gets all the glory and all the credit because any talents and abilities I have are gifts from Him, but these are simply little ideas that came from here or there (I’ve said before how the Harry Potter series was a big influence in The Magi Chronicles) and end up getting fleshed out. I know that God can use these ideas, and He does, and this is what I imagine that many writers (or poets or musicians or whatever) experience as creative people who deal in ideas.

The second type of inspiration that I’ve encountered is much rarer. These are ideas too, but I can’t even take credit for them at that stage. Sometimes inspiration has just struck so suddenly, out of nowhere, and it’s been an idea much greater (or more inspired?) than anything I feel like I’ve just come up with on my own. These are the times when, when I used to write scripts on a regular basis for Stage Right Ministries, I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night with an idea and, thirty minutes later, the entire thing would be written. Reading through the script the next day with my wife, there would be stuff in there I couldn’t even necessarily remember. These were almost always the skits that would have audience members weeping, the ones that always seemed to have the greatest impact. Oh, people liked my other scripts too, for the most part, and they would get them laughing and God absolutely used the others to impact people (sometimes in ways I couldn’t even anticipate), but these “divine inspiration” skits were different. They were special. I can’t take any of the credit for them, except for maybe diluting their impact. I say that because the inspiration would come directly from the Holy Spirit, but it would still pass through my fingers and I’m sure I didn’t always get it all out on paper correctly. Of course, I’m not saying that any of my work is God-breathed like Scripture—just that I feel like I’ve been blessed sometimes with a very special sort of inspiration that really felt that it was directly from God.

This sort of thing  has happened a handful of times as a playwright. I think it happened most often while my family and I were traveling fulltime and relying on God in a way we hadn’t really done before or since. I couldn’t even tell you how we would always have food to eat and a roof over our heads during those days, because I’m almost positive the numbers don’t add up, and I know we weren’t bringing in enough money to make it work. It was all God. And I suppose I think that He blessed our obedience and our ministry and one of the ways was through this special type of inspiration. It’s awesome.

Since I’ve been working more seriously as an author and a novelist, I still think most of my ideas come through regular inspiration. Again, it’s all for God’s glory, anyway—that is why I write—but it may not change your life (although God can still use it; I believe that one hundred percent). But there have been two instances thus far in my life as an author where I believe that special inspiration hit. One of them is actually the novel I’m working on now. I can’t say how much I’ve muddled it up, but I honestly believe the initial lightning bolt of inspiration came directly from the Holy Spirit.

The Book of the HarvestThe first time this happened to me, the end result was The Book of the Harvest. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to praise this short story as the second coming of [insert your favorite author’s name here]. I’m just trying to share with you how it felt like to me when the idea came. I’ve seen people try to tell me what this story meant to them and they’re actually speechless. Every posted review I’ve seen has been five stars. I don’t have that power as a writer. I wish I did! I just believe it’s the Holy Spirit working. And, no, I don’t think that this means the story is going to be for everyone. No matter how great the inspiration was, it still passed through me. It is what it is. But I believed it was special when I first was struck by the idea, and I still do. I’ve seen God use it. And He gets all the glory.

And that’s a ridiculous and foolish amount of buildup, isn’t it? Well, temper your expectations. It’s just a short story! Let me clarify: when dealing with God Almighty, He will exceed every expectation because He is awesome, He is powerful, He is holy, He is perfect and He is truly everything we need! But be understanding when He chooses to work through us frail beings. My only prayer is that I haven’t screwed this wonderful story up too badly. Here’s how it begins:

The Book of the Harvest

by Brad Francis

There are no clocks in heaven.

No calendars, either. Of course not. How could there be? As eternity stretches into eternity, no time has passed at all. Time itself is nothing but a memory. There are no clocks and no calendars because there would be nothing for such devices to measure.

I say this to make the point that I don’t know how long I had been there. It’s not something that can be gauged. As hard as it is to comprehend, the idea is almost gibberish in the endless light of eternity.

When you step foot on those glorious streets of gold and find yourself suddenly in the presence of the One who was, who is, who is to come—well, let’s just say that all your priorities and plans and questions go right out the window. Finding that childhood friend who died too young or demanding to know why this or that storm blew through your life goes right out of your head, and that’s the truth.

Funny, the sense of urgency when the days are infinite, and yet that’s precisely what comes then, without exception: all of a sudden, there, in His presence, your eyes are opened. There erupts a fiercely urgent need to worship Him, to bow down before Him, simply to bask in His presence.

You remember everything you ever held as important your entire life? Everything you ever considered beautiful? Or excellent, or wonderful, or true, or pure? Comprehension hits you like a tidal wave, and you know how utterly, absolutely wrong you were before.

That’s like Heaven Phase One right there: realizing that you were so terribly wrong, the evidence so incontrovertible in the face of the One who is only Right.

I can’t tell you how long Phase One lasts because such distinctions hold no meaning there, and it’s probably different for each person, but at least I feel like I can tell you that there is a Phase Two. The urgency and the awe don’t ever go away. The need to be in His presence doesn’t go away either—it might actually grow stronger—but this isn’t a problem because to be in heaven is to be in His presence. Believe me when I tell you that it wouldn’t be heaven without Him.

The most wonderful truth here, then, is that no matter how much you explore this beautiful and fantastic world He has created for us, no matter how far you seem to travel from His throne, He is always right there. Climb a mountain, explore a rainforest, swim in a sea of crystal and He is always there, close enough to touch, close enough to throw yourself down at His feet and exult in His beauty, grace and majesty.

I daresay you don’t understand, or perhaps you simply think that such an idea is crazy and impossible, but that’s okay. I can’t describe it any better, but I had to try because otherwise the idea of ever leaving Phase One willingly seems beyond the realm of possibility.

I grew to know an angel by the name of Hezekiah. The first time we met, I pointed out that he shared a name with one of the kings of the nation of Judah.

“My name means ‘the Lord gives strength,’” he explained. “All of our names are designed to give glory to Him.”

“I didn’t know that,” I replied.

Hezekiah nodded. “Everything we are is about glorifying the Lord. Everything we do is to that end.”

I felt a little silly going on about mere human kings then, and mumbled something about Hezekiah at least being a pretty godly king.

“Yes,” Hezekiah agreed. “He was. I don’t mind the association. It’s much better than being named Ahab or Manasseh.”

It would probably be fair to say that Hezekiah and I became close friends, at least for my part in it. Angels don’t tend to wear their feelings on their sleeves. In any case, we explored the wonders of heaven forever, although I don’t suppose they were so new and magnificent to him as they were to me. We would talk about many things, about spiritual things. I suppose almost everything seems like a spiritual matter from this vantage, and Hezekiah and I would talk at length, most of our conversations ending by marveling at how good God is.

At times, some moment or experience from my mortal life would strike me with new questions or musings, and so we would talk about that. I didn’t like to dwell on this, because my human life seemed from heaven to consist of failure after failure. Hezekiah’s wisdom shone through even here, however, as he pointed out again and again that this was mighty evidence for the sufficiency of the blood of Christ. Even those conversations, then, would end up like the others: in praise, worship, exaltation.

It was during one of these times when memories from those earthly days seemed so prominent that I made the remark to my angelic companion.

“I wonder what happened to Mrs. Creller,” I said. It seemed like a perfectly innocuous bit of curiosity at the moment.

“Mrs. Creller?” asked Hezekiah.

“She was an older woman who lived next door in the first house I ever owned. Well, the bank owned, really, but anyway. What ever happened to her? Is she here in heaven? Do you know?”

Hezekiah pursed his lips, but did not make any immediate answer. This is one of the other inevitable hazards of dwelling too much in the past. The blood of Christ is all-sufficient, just as Hezekiah said, but so many in life do not truly put their trust in Him and follow Him. In the presence of God Almighty, there is no doubt of His judgment and righteousness. There is not even the slightest question of the justice of hell; we do not doubt for a moment the Great Judge, but our lament for humanity in hell must be everlasting, as is that punishment. Some believe that there are no tears in heaven, and I think it’s certainly true that it’s very different from life on earth, but God is here to wipe every tear from our eyes.

My question hung in the air regardless, and it was not in the angel’s nature to evade or deflect. Finally, he answered, “Ruth Creller is not with us in paradise.”

I nodded my head sadly. Hezekiah’s reluctance had already said this, of course. I would never say that I had been close to Mrs. Creller—frankly, I had no memory of her first name until Hezekiah spoke it—but she was sweet and kind, and even if she hadn’t been, well. . .

“I know I can’t ask why,” I said to Hezekiah. We were walking through a gorgeous, twisting forest path. The leaves above were an array of colors greater than Crayola had ever conceived. It always seemed a little surreal to even admit the existence of such a real and horrific place as hell when surrounded by such endless variety and beauty.

“The judgments of the Lord are without error or injustice,” Hezekiah said.

I nodded. I knew this, and said so. “And it’s foolish to think what if,” I said, “but part of me has a hard time holding back. Remember when Jesus said that the fields were ripe with harvest, and that the disciples should pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send more workers?”

“I remember,” said Hezekiah, grinning. “I saw it happen.”

“I know, I know,” I said, smiling myself. This was a bit of an ongoing joke between us. “All I did was read about it. I’m very impressed. But do you remember what else He said? He said that the workers were few.”

“Yes. This never stopped being the case.”

“That’s what I thought. So—how do I put this? Was there a worker, maybe, who was supposed to spread some seed there? To Mrs. Creller? A worker who could have seen fruit, but they didn’t go?” I paused, then quickly added, “That isn’t blasphemy, is it? I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Does the sovereignty of God even allow for something like that?”

Again, Hezekiah hesitated. I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t at a loss. Angels aren’t omniscient, but I doubt if any of us could stump one of them even if we put our heads together with the Mensa folks.

“It’s not blasphemy,” he said at last, stopping beside a still pool of crystal clear water next to the path. His attention seemed to be captivated by a purple leaf floating lazily in the pool, but I wasn’t sure whether his eyes were seeing it at all. “The truth is that God, in His wisdom, chose man as His ambassadors almost exclusively. Only the Holy Spirit is capable of changing a heart, but humans were so often included in the process in a crucial way. The workers sent into the harvest are just regular people, after all. Regular people who obeyed.”

I looked up at him suddenly as I realized what he was saying. “So it’s possible then?”

“It’s more than possible. It was always the Lord’s desire for all to come to salvation, but He did not force His grace.”

“But everyone had a real shot, right? Of course they did. Creation proclaimed Him, but we rejected Him. We were enemies of God.”

Hezekiah nodded. “That’s right. There is no one in hell that did not reject Christ.”


“But if the people of God were more obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, then more seeds would have been planted and more people would have heard. Faith comes from hearing.”

My brow furrowed. “But what about His sovereignty?”

He shrugged. “There’s no conflict. You’re thinking of this through the mortal eyes of a man living in time. In eternity, earth’s timeline exists separately. The elect and the ones who give up everything to follow Christ are always one in the same, because all events can occur simultaneously to an eternal God.”

“I think all this would have given me a headache back during my human life.”

“Then you’re fortunate that they don’t exist in heaven,” Hezekiah replied, smiling.

I grinned, but it faded almost at once. I glanced back down at the leaf and then up again at Hezekiah. “Let me ask this carefully,” I said. “On earth, were there one or more Christ-followers who were prompted by the Holy Spirit to visit Mrs. Creller, but didn’t go?”

“I’m confident that this is the case, yes.”

“And if they had gone,” I continued, picking up steam, “would the Holy Spirit have been able to use them and their words to bring about a change in her heart? If they—whoever they are—if they had been obedient, would Mrs. Creller be here in heaven today?”

Hezekiah held up his hands. “Remember that she did have the opportunity to repent and follow Christ. Ruth Creller rejected Him, or she would be in heaven now.”

“I know that—but are you avoiding my question, Hezekiah? I’ve never known you to be evasive.”

“I’m being a little evasive,” he admitted, “but you need to understand that everyone had full opportunity to turn from their sins and follow the Savior. Nothing else we discuss here can diminish that very significant fact. Do you understand that?”

“I do,” I said. “Will you answer my question? Please?”

Hezekiah sighed. “It’s true,” he said. “Mrs. Creller still had free will, you understand, and could still have continued rejecting Christ until her death, which is what did happen—but, if the workers the Holy Spirit had urged had been obedient, then it is much more likely that she would have recognized her need for a savior, and turned to Him.”

“And then she would be with us. In heaven. For all eternity.”

“The blood of Christ is certainly sufficient to cover the sins of Ruth Creller, yes.”

I faltered. I had gotten the answer I had been pressing for, but it seemed so terrible now that it had been confirmed. Was I in heaven now because someone had been obedient when it came to me, and did no one extend that same offer to Mrs. Creller? She had certainly made her choice, but would another opportunity have made a difference? Another two or three, even? She had been my neighbor. Sweet and doting and—a horrible thought suddenly occurred to me.

“Hezekiah. . .do you know who?”

He eyed me with something like suspicion. “Who what?”

“Do you know who was supposed to be used to reach her? Is there some way to find out?”

I had never seen Hezekiah behave quite like this. He seemed almost flustered, almost disturbed. We had discussed a wealth of topics and issues in our relationship and never before had I gotten the slightest impression that he had ever felt uncomfortable; truth be told, I hadn’t had any idea he was capable of feeling uncomfortable. Until now.

“There is a way, isn’t there?” I asked.

He looked up at me and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re my friend,” he said. “Let me ask you: are you really sure you want to go down this road? Because I don’t know that I see any benefit to it at all.”

I considered the question with real weight. The truth is that I respected Hezekiah a great deal, and his apprehension seriously gave me pause. He had never withheld anything from me, so maybe this wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t a sinful idea or anything—that old nature was definitely and delightful purged at last here in paradise—but was there any benefit at all. . .?

Still, eternity is a long time to have a question nagging at you.

“At this point, I don’t know if turning away is really possible,” I said honestly. “This has really grabbed hold of me, Hezekiah.”

He smiled weakly and nodded, as if this was expected. “I was afraid you’d say that,” he said. “Come on, then. We’ll take a look at the Book.”

“There’s a book?”

“The Book of the Harvest. I’ll show you.”

“What’s in it, exactly?”

“Exactly what you’re looking for.”

I followed Hezekiah and he brought me closer to the heart of heaven. As I mentioned earlier, we were never out of the presence of the Lord, but moving nearer His throne still had some effect. It seemed good to me that we delay our quest for the moment to join the throng that lifted their voices in song, and Hezekiah was pleased to join me. We sang and bowed down and offered our praise and worship as a pleasing aroma for some period, and then moved out again, and on toward the Book.

It was in a small, open pavilion not far at all from the throne. I must have passed it hundreds of times, thousands, but never stopped to wonder what it held, or to look within. I had done so much exploring that I marveled that this place never piqued my interest. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but death had been defeated for good.

There was a podium standing in the center of the pavilion and Hezekiah indicated that this was what we had come for. I looked around at all the redeemed souls streaming by the structure; none of them paid us any heed, and I wondered at that, too. Perhaps this place was only found by those who sought it. Odd. I wondered whether there might be other places in heaven like that.

Hezekiah stood in front of the podium but looked at me steadily. “You’re sure you want to open this Book?” he asked. “You may not like what you find.”

“It can’t be changed now,” I said.

“So why open it?”

“Because I need to know.”

So my angelic friend put up no further resistance. He opened the Book, and found that he was already at the correct page. He looked at me again and I nodded for him to continue, so he looked back down at the open page.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Creation for Christians

The topic of Creation may not exactly qualify as the road less traveled, but I was inspired recently to blog about it. I don't have anything too new or revolutionary to say on the topic, but perhaps some readers will be presented with a position they hadn't heard before, or a new delivery on old material that makes one think. I know that I, personally, never think about anything before I first think about it and that everything I know is something I didn't know prior to having learned it, but that might just be me.

For us writers, one of the most crucial parts of what we do is being able to effectively and clearly communicate. It really doesn't matter how great the ideas in your head are if you can't put those ideas on paper in a way that the reader understands. I'm not saying that the picture in the author's head needs to mirror that in the reader's head precisely—imagination absolutely plays a part, and that's part of the magic of books—but, if the author is writing about a bank robbery but half the readers think that she's describing a night at the opera, you're going to have some very confused readers when the violinist makes off with $149 and a pack of Marlboros. There are times when an author can be deliberately obtuse, and some surely even write whole books in this manner, but most stories have basics that must be communicated fairly universally to the readers for the whole thing to make sense or to satisfy.

There can be no doubt that the Bible contains figurative language. Sometimes the authors of Scripture use estimates instead of precise numbers and figures of speech that are not technically, scientifically accurate (similarly to how we might say that the sun is setting, even though we know that the sun is stationary but the earth is moving). How can we tell which of passages are literal and which are figurative? I feel like it's usually (although not always) fairly obvious to ascertain what the human author's intent was and that the context helps a lot. I like to employ what I call The Desert Island Test: take fifty babies and raise them in isolation on different desert islands with absolutely no outside influences except nature and the Bible. Poll them about a given passage in Scripture to see whether they consider it to be literal or figurative or allegorical or whatever.

Okay, so I haven't actually done this test a great deal. A lot of parents don't like having their babies snatched for bizarre hermeneutical experiments, and this test wouldn't account for the context of the original human authors. But what it would do is take away all the bias that our own society would apply to text and probably get closer to the original intent. Someone might insist a certain miracle performed must be allegorical because their personal experience and worldview doesn't allow for such supernatural occurrences, but it seems fairly clear that the original authors were writing about something they believed had actually happened.

What does this mean for the Creation account found in the opening chapters of Genesis? You've probably figured out by now (especially if you've come 'round here before) that I believe in a literal six-day Creation (that's twenty-four hour days) that occurred thousands but not millions (or billions) of years ago. I think this interpretation withstands The Desert Island Test, and would, in fact, suggest very strongly that any doubt in a literal reading of Genesis originates not in a careful reading of Scripture, but rather in philosophies based in human tradition and understanding (see Col. 2:8). I think it's foolish to, when there is a conflict, rely on the ever-changing nature of science rather than the always-constant truths of God's Word. I'm not anti-science by any means. I simply think that the current theories are completely contradictory with what the Bible has to say. If one has to be wrong and the other right, I'm going to choose the Bible. Period.

But are the two really at odds? Some have gone to great effort to try to make what they think science has proven (which really isn't accurate) fit with what the Bible teaches. You're probably familiar with the various views. What they  all have in common is that they do not begin and end with God's Word; rather, they depend as much on current worldly theories as they do on Scripture. I'm not a scientist and I won't pretend to be able to know everything about that side of things (although come on. . .the Cambrian Explosion? Seriously?). I'm a writer, and, as a writer, I want to put the following question to Christians who try to force Genesis to fit with current scientific theories:

If God wanted to convey the message that He had created the earth in six literal days, what would He do differently?

Think about it before you answer. If His goal was to communicate clearly the Creation story, how could He have phrased it differently, so that all believers would take His Word over the opinions of man?

For my part, I think that the first couple of chapters are nothing short of brilliant. They seriously affirm my belief in a sovereign, omniscient God. I see how He refuted theories that would not be advanced for thousands of years, and think He did a marvelous job of communicating very clearly to those willing to learn.
To those who think that He isn't talking about literal, 24-hour days, He goes out of His way to say that He is: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5); “And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (Gen. 1:8). Six days of Creation are described, and six times, we are told explicitly that these are literal days with an evening and a morning (we might say morning and then evening, but this follows the Jewish reckoning of how days were counted).

In no other story would we take that information and try to look for loopholes.

Johnny awoke before his alarm went off on the morning of the third day. Everything—breakfast, coffee, the commute, work, lunch, dinner, American Idol—everything went by in a blur. When he lay down in bed that evening, he couldn't believe it, but  there was no denying the truth: day three was gone.

Raise your hand if you think I was trying to communicate that Johnny's day had lasted a million or so years. Now, those of you with raised hands, thwack yourself on the forehead because you are wrong. I was writing about a literal day, and even a semi-intelligent platypus would have understood that, assuming there wasn't a scientist reading over his shoulder and telling him he was wrong (that was snarky, but I was joking so it's okay).

I wonder what the original readers of Genesis thought when they saw that each of the animals reproduce “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:24). Did they think much about it? “Of course they reproduce after their own kinds! What else would they do?” It sort of takes on new meaning in light of theories about Darwinistic evolution, doesn't it?

If God wanted to communicate that He created the world the way that He describes in Genesis, what could He have done differently?

For me, still, the most convincing biblical evidence for Creation comes far from Genesis. In Romans 6:23, Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Consistently, throughout Scripture, death is presented as a consequence of sin and the fall, and is even portrayed as an enemy defeated by Christ's work on the cross (1 Cor. 15:26, 55-57). Millions of years of life and death before mankind means that death existed before the fall, and that is a message very much at odds with the truth of Scripture. To suggest that God instituted death as an evolutionary device is so opposed to what the Bible teaches that it might be tantamount to blasphemy.

I read somewhere recently (I don't recall where) that anyone who deliberately chooses to reject any portion of Scripture cannot possible be saved. It's an interesting claim, and I can't refute it off the top of my head. Still, you won't hear me looking someone in the eye and telling them that they are not going to heaven because they deny a literal reading of Genesis. I just don't think that's my place, for one, and I don't see that requirement in God's gift of grace in salvation. But neither do I think that a biblical view and an evolutionary view can truly be reconciled (and I believe I've heard all the attempts to do so), and I wonder how one can follow Christ without believing what He has to say in His word.

If death is a part of God's design, then how can it be the consequence of sin? If sin and death are part of God's perfect design, then what does this mean about the cross?

For me, it just doesn't add up. If you have a different view, or would like to refute anything I've brought up, feel free to in the comments below. Differing viewpoints are welcome so long as everything stays civil."rs of Genesis thought when they saw thang over his shoulder and telling him he was wrong.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Saga Begins. . .

A fellow indie author recently posted the first chapter of one of his novels on his blog in its entirety. Those of us Kindle readers know we can download a sample of any book that interests us, but not everyone owns a Kindle, and it takes a minute to go out of your way to do that anyway; then, of course, once you have the sample, it’s easy for it to get lost in the backlog of books you intend to read or check out, if you’re like me!

So I’ve decided that I’ll go ahead and do the same for Emaline’s Gift. The chapters in this book are not long—it’s simply the rhythm that I found worked best for this story—so I’m going to go ahead and post the first two chapters. If you’re curious, go ahead and check them out. There’ll be more info on Emaline and The Magi Chronicles here in the future, as well as some tidbits about The Book of the Harvest, the short story I have published, but this blog’s never going to be exclusively about promoting my own work, so there’s plenty else in the works as well. But, for those who are interested. . .here’s how our story begins:

The Magi Chronicles: 

Emaline’s Gift

by Brad Francis


The alley was deserted, save for an old brown tabby that crept stealthily along the concrete. The tabby, which no one had ever bothered to name, used to have vibrant orange fur, but years of living on the street, soiled from the exhaust fumes and picking through dumpsters, had turned it a matted brown. It had been raining, and the tabby was careful to navigate around the puddles. There was a fish market off this alley, and the dumpster usually had a selection of tasty morsels.
From deeper in the city, behind it, there came a sudden commotion. The cat darted behind some pipes. Hidden in the shadows, in the most rudimentary way, the tabby considered its dilemma. Its stomach ached for want of food, and the dumpster was not far. But the banging and clanging was growing louder, and the cat was scared of the noises.
In the end, hunger won out. Even as the commotion—sounds of struggle, of conflict, not that the cat could know—drew ever closer, the tabby darted from behind the pipe and sprinted for the dumpster. Just as it hurried to within paces of its goal, golden sparks lit up the still night air and the cat began to howl in pain. Its tail was on fire.
Moments later, the cause of the disturbance burst into the alleyway. As the cat soaked its charred rear in a nearby puddle, mewing in discomfort, a tall boy with dark black hair came running along the pavement. “Sorry, kitty,” he called out, twirling around to face the darkness he had just come from and sending another stream of golden sparks flying from his hand.
He stopped for only a moment, then turned back and took off down the alley again. Purple sparks soared through the air where the boy’s head had been seconds before. The stream hit brick on the right side of the alley and mortar exploded in a small blast of brick and concrete.
The tabby cowered in the shadows. Its tail throbbed in pain, and the dangerous strangers were not done coming. Emerging from the darkness at the other end of the alley, the cat heard whistling and footsteps.
Three figures emerged from the shadows: two boys and one girl. The boys were big and thick, and could have been twins. Both had brown hair, a mix of muscles and fat and no neck. The girl was skinny and pretty, with a smattering of freckles and long red hair, pulled into a ponytail. The girl was the one whistling.
The girl stopped at almost the exact same spot that the dark-haired boy had stopped maybe a minute ago. The thick boys, who flanked her on either side and walked half a step behind, stopped as well. She finished her tune and called out.
“Oh, Anthony!” The red-haired girl called out, but didn’t move. Whether she expected a response or not was unclear, but none came.  “Do you have to run? Why not come out and face us like a man?”
Now, a reply came. The boy’s voice bounced off the walls in the narrow alley and could have come from anywhere. “Three on one? Is that your idea of a fair fight?”
The girl shrugged. “I’ll tell Simon and Brutus not to interfere.” Her eyes darted around the dark alley, looking in vain for her prey. Then, in a singsong, she added, “Promise, promise, porcupine. . .”
Anthony scoffed. “Your word means nothing, and you know it.”
She smiled in response. “Well, I can’t argue with that. Not that you’d face me alone. I think you’re too scared to fight a lady. Afraid of being beat.”
Laughter echoed from the shadows. “You’re no more a lady than Brutus there.”
The thick boy on the girl’s left raised his fists and took a step forward. “You want to come out here and say that? You’re pretty tough when you know we can’t see you.”
The girl put a hand on Brutus’ shoulder and he backed down. “Don’t worry about our scared little mouse, boys.  No sense in rushing him. Maybe we’ll just wait patiently. Bide our time. Maybe we’ll follow him back to that little secret base of his and burn it to the ground.”
When she said this, she raised her left hand with the palm up. A flame hovered there, just above the skin. It was a very deep purple, closer to blue.  
Anthony didn’t respond. The girl lowered her hand and the flame went away. She waited another few seconds, then started moving again.
“Come on,” she said to the thick boys. “He’s gone.”
They followed her out of the alley. The tabby stayed put for several minutes, every nerve on end. The alley was silent again. Finally, the cat slinked out of the shadows—moving more gingerly now in deference to its tender backside—and crept toward the dumpster for its reward.
After tonight, it had earned it.


Emaline shivered in the damp, but perhaps not entirely from the chill in the air. She didn’t like to be out this late, and certainly not alone. Nothing bad had ever happened to her, but this neighborhood took on a spooky, deserted look after dark. Everyone was shut up in their houses, watching TV and getting settled in for the night.
Which is precisely what Emaline wished she could be doing. She had been in her room, listening to music, when her Mom called for her to come downstairs and run an errand. It was nearly 10 pm, and Emaline had been thinking about reading for a bit before bed—until she was summoned, that is. Her baby brother was sick, and they needed milk. There was money on the table, and wouldn’t Emaline walk down to the convenience store and pick up a gallon? After all, it was summer vacation, so if she didn’t get to bed right away it wasn’t a big deal. Just sleep in tomorrow.

The milk was in a green reusable grocery bag that Emaline had grabbed from the hook near the door, and it swung gently around her knees as she walked, perhaps a little more quickly than she would have during the daytime.
Stop being silly, she told herself. You’re thirteen years old, and you’re acting like a child.
She shook her head as if responding to something spoken aloud and her long brown hair swished from side to side. Despite her chiding, Emaline quickened her step. She had actually just begun to settle her nerves when the arm reached out and grabbed her.
The three strangers seemed to have come out of nowhere. She couldn’t see the one who had her in a tight grip with an arm around her chest, but there was a large, brutish boy with dark hair and a tall, pretty girl with red hair.
“Hello there,” the girl purred. “I’m Violet. This is Simon and the one hugging you over there is Brutus.”
Simon and Brutus both grunted something that could have been a greeting. Maybe a half-greeting.
Violet took a step forward and took Emaline in with her eyes. “My, my. You’re a pretty little thing, aren’t you? Well, don’t worry, beautiful. We’re just using you as a bit of bait, that’s all. You’re very unlikely to be hurt—or killed.”
A shiver shot through Emaline, and she had the distinct impression that it would be foolish to believe any word that came out of the redhead’s mouth. Emaline kept her mouth shut and stopped struggling. Brutus’ grip was firm and strong and she had no chance of escape.
“Silent treatment, is it?” Violet asked, then shrugged. “No matter.” She turned and took several steps into the deserted street, raised her voice and called out, “Are you there, Anthony? Do you see? We’ve got ourselves a hostage.”
It wasn’t long at all before a boy a little older than Emaline emerged from the shadows. He had dark black hair, but a kind face. He seemed different from the others, and Emaline decided that they were likely enemies.
Anthony stopped far from the group and glared at Violet. “A hostage? Really? Why do you always feel the need to involve civilians?”
Violet laughed, and it was a cold, humorless sound. “Lighten up, Anthony. It’s just a bit of excitement in their otherwise dull, pointless lives.”
“I’m sorry,” Anthony said, and Emaline realized with a bit of a start that he was speaking to her. “This doesn’t involve you, and I’m sorry you got dragged into it. I want you to know that I’m going to help you, and I’m going to make sure that nothing happens to you.”
Emaline felt her cheeks flush with color, and was glad it was dark. Despite the danger, she couldn’t help but notice how cute Anthony was. She couldn’t quite make out his eye color from this distance, but Emaline thought she saw a glimmer of light blue.
She was snapped back to the reality of the situation when Violet grabbed her by the hair. Brutus did not relax his grip, and Emaline’s head was yanked to the side.
“How sweet!” Violet exclaimed. “Anthony’s going to be your knight in shining armor, pretty one. Maybe I should kill her in front of you, Anthony, would you like that? Make a liar out of you? Be careful—start lying and you’ll cut off your connection to the Almighty, and we all know what happens then.”
Emaline felt real panic surge through her, and she began to sweat. Her hair hurt, and she was very scared—very scared and very confused. What in the world was that about the Almighty? Did she mean God? Was this some sort of religious debate?
Anthony took a few steps forward. “A dead hostage is no good to anyone,” he said.
Violet jerked Emaline’s head forward, and extended her other arm. Emaline couldn’t believe her eyes. Indigo flames seemed to ignite from Violet’s palm, and then hovered just above her skin. Despite Brutus’ grip and the pain from Violet grabbing her hair, Emaline began to struggle again.
“Violet.” Anthony called her name in a warning tone and stepped forward again. Out of the corner of her eyes, Emaline thought she saw golden light, as if Anthony had conjured his own flames.
“You’re absolutely right, Anthony,” Violet said, and she brought the purple-blue flames toward Emaline’s face. “A dead hostage is no good to anyone. But a little torture. . .”
What happened next happened so quickly that Emaline surely would have doubted it all if not for the events to follow. Violet was so focused on bringing her flames nearer and nearer to Emaline that she didn’t see Anthony prepare to attack. Simon shouted something, and Violet jerked up, releasing her hold on Emaline’s hair, but in that moment, something very strange happened.
Brutus began to howl in pain. That’s what Emaline noticed first. Then she became aware of a very strange sensation flickering about her hands, which had been clamped onto Brutus’ arm where he held her. Her eyes widened as she saw tiny, mostly transparent flames seeping through her fingers and burning Brutus’ skin. Her first thought was that Anthony had somehow made this happen, but these flames were a bright red, not the gold she had seen out of the corner of her eye.
Brutus released his hold completely and fell to his knees, grasping at his wounded arm. Emaline saw two red handprints embedded on his arm before he covered them up. Her jaw dropped. She didn’t move. Brutus was sobbing and Violet and Simon were focused on Anthony, but Anthony was focused on Emaline. She became aware of his gaze and met his eyes.
“Run,” he said. He didn’t even shout it; there was a slight movement that indicated the direction opposite of the one she was facing, and Emaline did not stop to think. As she turned, she saw that Anthony was running her way, and he shot a golden stream of light in both directions, at Violet and Simon.
Emaline ran, blindly. She ran as fast as she could, but Anthony still overtook her after a matter of moments. “Follow me,” he murmured before passing her, and she was glad that someone was telling her what to do. Coherent thought did not seem possible at the moment.
They twisted and turned through dark alleys and shadowy streets. It seemed to Emaline that the pounding of their feet on blacktop was so deafening that it would pose no challenge for Violet and the others to pick up the trail. She had no idea if they were following close behind and didn’t dare risk a look back.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity and as Emaline was just wondering whether her burning lungs would be able to keep up with the pace much longer, Anthony grabbed her hand and pulled her into an abandoned storefront. Putting a finger to his lips to instruct her to be silent, Anthony led her deeper into the store, and they ducked down behind a counter.
She trembled with fear and excitement. Anthony leaned in and whispered quietly into her ear, “I know you have questions, but we can’t speak now. The obeah are not far behind.” She had no idea what the obeah were, but this was not the time to argue, so Emaline nodded her head. “I’m going to get us out of here,” Anthony continued.
He leaned back again and turned away from her. With his left hand, Anthony began tracing a golden circle in the air. The circle shone brightly in the dark store.
“This takes a couple of minutes,” Anthony whispered to her. “And the bright gold circle isn’t exactly subtle. We’ll have to hope that Violet isn’t searching this area right now, or she’ll see the light from the street.”
Emaline turned and slowly peered over the counter, toward the front of the store. Everything was silent and still, but the store was filled with a yellow glow. Given how dark the rest of the street was, they would be easy to spot.
She turned back. Anthony had stopped drawing in the air now, but the large golden circle was still there. A small pulse of golden light traveled around the circle clockwise. As Emaline watched, the pulse sped up until it was speeding around the circle and leaving its own trail in the light.
“Just a few more seconds now,” Anthony muttered, but a commotion from the front of the store captured their attention. Brutus had stumbled into some of the rubbish and it clattered across the floor. He froze when he saw them, and ducked out of the way as Anthony shot a stream of gold sparks in his direction.
“Violet!” Brutus called. “They’re in here!”
Anthony turned back toward the circle of light, but Emaline kept watching as Violet and Simon ran up to join Brutus at the front of the store.
Violet cursed loudly. “They’ve got a portal.”
Panic started to set in again for Emaline, and a hand on her shoulder almost made her scream. It was Anthony.
“Don’t worry about them,” he said. “Portal’s almost ready.”
 “Portal?” Emaline echoed. She glanced back anyway and saw Violet and the boys making their way across the small store.
Anthony pulled her back down behind the counter just as Violet sent a stream of indigo sparks at her head. “Portal’s almost ready,” he said, “but that’s no reason to give them an easy target.”
Emaline’s cheeks flushed pink, and she muttered an apology, but Anthony didn’t hear her. He was focused on the circle of light, which was no longer just an outline. It had filled in with waves of glimmering gold. It was strikingly beautiful, but Violet would be reaching the counter any moment.
Anthony grabbed her hand. “It’s time,” he said. Without any further warning, he darted through the portal and pulled Emaline behind him.
The last thing she remembered before blacking out was a sea of gold.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Many Loves of the Batman

Potential spoiler alert: If you have not played the game Batman: Arkham City and intend to, then you might want to stay away. But, seriously, do you really intend to? And even if you do, the gameplay and atmosphere seem to outweigh the story which, like its predecessor, is really more a fun excuse to shoehorn as many characters from the Batman mythos as possible than the second coming of Bioshock. In any case, I fully intend to spoil a major twist (well, again, as far as this level of storytelling goes) in the game so be warned!

Okay, so, with that out of the way, let me preface this all by saying that I am not the obsessive connoisseur of all things Batman as I may appear. I’ve never even read so much as a single Bat-comic book (but I’ve read very few comic books in my life), although I’ve seen the movies (and greatly enjoyed Nolan’s trilogy) and have played both of the great video games from this generation. It’s just a coincidence that I am now playing this and wanting to weigh in on it so soon after my post about The Dark Knight Rises. I clearly am saying this so you don’t think I’m a bigger nerd than I am, but this is pretty much impossible since I’ve seen every film and episode of Star Trek ever created, so it’s just that my nerd flies in a different direction than graphic novels. That’s all.

The plot of Arkham City, as I indicated earlier, while fun, is not one of the great reasons for playing the game. Oh, I think it’s perfectly enjoyable, but it’s clearly driven by the desire to include as many villains as possible, that’s all. It’s not like we need a realistic explanation for anything in a game where the lead character dresses like a bat anyway, and it’s just fun to interact with Joker, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Two Face, Ra’s al Ghul aaand a bunch of characters that I didn’t even know existed, but I’m sure Batfans everywhere appreciated it.

I want to fast-forward through most of the shenanigans to put us toward the end of the main story. Joker gets the upper hand on Batman at one point, but the Dark Knight is saved by Talia al Ghul, a sometimes-villain and sometimes-Batlover who, at one point in the game, is called the only woman Batman ever loved. Talia is intentionally putting herself in danger by going off with the Joker, but she wears a homing device that lets Batman track her down.

It’s bad timing, though. As Talia goes off with Joker, missiles start rocking the massive prison complex called Arkham City. The Powers That Be have implemented a sort of “final solution” for the prisoners and the criminals—which include innocent civilians locked up as political prisoners—are being slaughtered en masse. Talia is in danger, but the death toll is already reaching the hundreds just minutes after the bombing begins. It’s the whole “the needs of the many” versus “the needs of the few (or the one)” dilemma. But come on. This is Batman. We know he’ll prioritize the greater need of Gotham over his sometimes-girlfriend.

So Batman prioritizes his sometimes-girlfriend over the greater need of Gotham. Or he tries to, anyway. He actually needs Alfred’s help, back in the Batcave, to follow Talia’s homing device, and Alfred refuses to help until Batman deals with the countless deaths that are racking up while they debate the issue. Begrudgingly, the Batman—who would give his own life to save Gotham most days of the week—agrees to save the lives of the prisoners before going after the woman he loves.

I totally get it. I feel like self sacrifice is much easier than sacrificing those we love. Those of us who are parents have dealt with the disappointments and broken hearts of our children, and I don’t think there’s been a time when I wouldn’t gladly take that pain upon my own shoulders if I could spare my daughters. I’m always shaken up when I’m reminded of the story of one of the apostles (Philip, I think) who reportedly was threatened with the slaughter of his daughters in front of his eyes if he did not compromise his faith. The apostle refused to recant or worship another, so the threat was carried out. His three daughters were each, one by one, slain in front of him before his life was taken as well. I can’t imagine he cared much about his own life at that point. Death, quite frankly, was probably a relief.

I cannot imagine denying Christ. I also can’t imagine standing by while someone hurt my girls. I pray I’m never in a situation like the one described. I would rather die a thousand times over than to sacrifice my daughters.

And that’s why I’m eternally grateful that God is greater than the Batman (not that there was any doubt, right?). God did not spare His Son, but gave Him up willingly—for us (Rom. 8:32). I know it’s not Christmastime as I write this—and this thought may well recur in these musings at some point in December—but I always think, in the midst of our joy and celebration, how God must have felt on that first Christmas. We can and should rejoice because our Redeemer had come! But His birth was the first step on a road that would culminate in the cross.

It’s the ultimate act of love. That of God the Father is even greater, I feel, than the self-sacrifice of the Son. He loved us so much that He gave up His only Son. It’s incredibly. You know those arguments, so often born of genuine hurt and pain, that start with, “How can a loving God. . .?” I’m sorry, but I feel that it doesn’t matter what the grievance is; I feel that His act of sacrificial love trumps all.

Because He gave His Son.

He gave His Son.

He did it for us. As a parent, I can’t even imagine the love that God possessed for us, that He was willing to give up His Son. I can tell you that I don’t think I have ever loved someone that much, but God is love (1 John 4:8). He is love, and that’s not referring to gooey feelings or mere affection. It refers to action, one of the most powerful actions this world has ever known.

And when I think that God
His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die
I scarce can take it in
That on the cross
My burden gladly bearing
He bled and died
To take away my sin
-          How Great Thou Art
Written by Carl Boberg and Stuart K. Hine

Monday, September 10, 2012

You Have a Chat Invite!

This is just a quick public service announcement to let people know that I would love to interview some authors—especially authors of Christian fiction—in this space. This blog isn’t exactly going viral, but I very much appreciate everyone who swings by and hangs out for a few. If you’re a Christian author, or you know someone who is, and they’d like to arrange for a bit of free publicity, send me a message, send me your book, and, after I read it, we can sit down and talk about it. There are some questions that I think I’ll ask most authors—very eager to talk about what other Christian authors think is their responsibility, if any, to point toward God or sow seeds in their writing, and what that can look like—but I’d also like to focus on the author’s work specifically and have a discussion based on what they wrote. I figure this will be good for both of us, as my audience and the audience of the author will come together a bit and we both may find ourselves with new readers.

I’ve thought about it and decided not to actually write any book reviews here. Since I have a horse or two in this race, it just seems fairer to leave the criticism to the readers, although I think I might gush here and there about a book I’ve really, genuinely enjoyed—and I’m inclined to read as much indie Christian fiction as I can get my hands on!

For the time being, my offer to interview is open ended and available to anyone interested in it. If I get too busy to really do this in the future—not to suggest I’m not busy now, but this seems a worthwhile pursuit—then I’ll amend the policy at that time. In the meantime, let me know if you’d like to do an interview for my little blog!