Prayers from the cave…

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I recently spent two weeks in Nashville, where I spent time with old friends, played music, and caught up on the years we’ve missed. I attended a function hosted by my publisher, and got to meet many fellow authors, and I made some new friends. It was a wonderful time, a period of self reflection, hope, and sentimentality all at once, and I learned a tremendous amount. The most important part of the trip, though, happened on the way home, somewhere between Valdosta Georgia and the Florida state line.

I’ve struggled for the last year or so with my faith. It’s almost funny, because one of the central conflicts in my first two books revolves around the battle between faith and doubt as darkness closes in. My own internal war ended up mirroring some of the strife I’ve put my characters through; my characters dealt with this better than I did personally, and when I wrote those books, I believed I’d put that particular struggle behind me. I was wrong. I’ve been embattled on a variety of fronts for the last year, and it took a hard toll upon my soul until it reached a point where I began to question that which I knew to be true. I wondered where God was, and I went so far as to question the validity of His promises, to wonder about His goodness. Heresy, I know, and wrong-headed, but I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of battlefield. Somehow, I’d managed to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, and I’d put myself in a cave.

A man bereft of hope is like body without bones; there is nothing to hold him upright and together. I’d become that guy, without really knowing it, without seeing a way out. And when that happens, the instinct is to retreat, to become defensive and withdrawn, to cast blame and doubt around with careless abandon. We isolate ourselves, which only makes things worse.I felt very much like an Object of Wrath, ignoring in my own mind the second part of that very important verse in Ephesians.

So, driving through the hills of Alabama, the long stretches of construction south of Atlanta along I-75, I had plenty of time to think. Mostly, I listened to music on Spotify, and I reflected on the new friends I’d made and the old friends I’d reconnected with. Right around Valdosta, my phone died, and the music ended. I couldn’t find anything to listen to, so I hit the “seek” button on the truck radio, and I heard Dr. David Jerimiah begin to speak.

It was a sermon titled Praying From the Cave, based around Psalm 142. David (the king, not the preacher)  was in a cave, running from Saul. He was depressed, isolated to the point that other men did not care if he lived or died. Yet within that dark place, David cried out to God, thanking him and praising him, laying his burdens at God’s feet, recognizing his own pain, and turning to God for refuge.

About ten minutes into the sermon, something happened.

I’ve had times where I felt God’s presence, singing in church with hand held high, a joyful noise on my lips and a connection to the Creator, like an electric thrum of peace and rightness. I’ve been touched by a sermon or a verse, and felt convicted, nudged, and I’ve had verses jump out at me as though they were highlighted in bright yellow.

This thing that happened somewhere in Georgia was different; God hit me in the head with a ball bat. I was driving down the road with tears on my face, broken. Facing myself and my doubt, my mistakes and delusions and bitterness. God slayed me, and I was shattered. I prayed then, and I could almost see a darkness, like ashes swirling in the wind, leaving from my chest. It sounds nuts, but there was a palpable, physical sensation of great weight being lifted, immediately followed by hope and joy.

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I thought I’d cried out to God before, and I’ve been on my knees. But there was something in me left then, some element of reserve or doubt  or perhaps pride which prevented the profound kind of healing I so desperately craved. I understood that God had been right there with me all along. That no matter what happens, I’m still a part of his plan, and that even though it may not seem so at the time, in the end, all things do work for His good. I’d forgotten that my hope lies with Jesus, and everything else is really the small stuff.  I’d neglected certain things and ignored certain truths. These things were made clear to me in an instant. I’ve got some work to do, but I’m not alone, and I never was.

Somewhere in Georgia, I reconnected with my best friend, the most important friend I’ll ever have; he was beside me all along.

Ephesians 2:3-5

“We were by nature objects of wrath. Because of his great love for us, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. It is by grace you have been saved.”

Psalm 142:6-8

“Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me. Set me free from my prison, that I may raise your name. Then the righteous will gather around me because of your goodness to me.”

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To Simply Be… A writer looks at fifty

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I’ve struggled for decades to be happy. It’s a character flaw, and while sometimes I believe this makes me a better writer, I think at the end of the day, at the end of a lifetime, it means I’ve missed much, moments of contentment when I could simply be. I’ve been poor, and raged against the poverty, and let chances slip away. I’ve been fairly well off, and then there was always something else… the desire to have children, the yearning for recognition and success at another level. Always living with the feeling I’m missing some vital piece, which if I could obtain, would make me whole at last, make me smile down deep in my soul.

Maybe with the recognition of it, I can change on a fundamental level, but this flaw runs deep. I am blessed with wonderful children, and when I walked home alone from the bus stop a few minutes ago, the sun bright and the air cool, missing my boys already, I began to reflect on this thing within me. How it will feel in the not so distant future to be me.

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When the swing set is silent and rusted and I am grey, when the patter of little feet no longer graces my life and the light in my eyes grows dim and I have those memories and pictures, what is it I will recall? How will I feel on those mornings, drinking a cup of coffee at my desk and staring at a computer screen and bleeding onto the page, remembering the things I should have paid better attention to in those fleeting moments, the things that matter. Trying to get the memory right.

My five year old coming to me with a Bernstein Bears book for his bed time story, happy and shining with pure love for me, a love I can never deserve because it is so true. Holding my baby, his head in the palm of my had because he is no longer than my forearm, dancing around the living room at three o’clock in the morning with him to sooth him back to sleep while Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons plays on the radio, and I am sleep deprived and worried about getting to work on time the next morning, but still dancing, still infused with a sense of wonder at this life I hold in my hands. My boys, the oldest ten now, decked out in army gear, complete with helmets, load bearing vests, holsters and assault rifles, running around the house shooting the attacking Russian zombie horde. In a year or two, he’ll be too old for that, and I miss it already.

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Walking through the woods as a family, a tiny hand in mine, questions about the trees and wildlife, and the sunlight filtering through the canopy of Live Oaks and Spanish Moss and the air fresh and cool and golden. Such joy, such fleeting perfection.

Christmas morning, together with grandparents, all still with us now, the excitement electric in the air to see what Santa brought, toys and paper flying all over the floor beneath the tree, laughter sweet music. But was exhausted, stressed about money, tired of long days working in the cold and the rain, and I did not let that music in me the way I should have, not in a way that fills the soul. Looking back on it, it fills me and brings tears to my eyes, but when it was happening, I did not appreciate it enough.

There will always be another thing. A better job, a nicer car, keeping the lights on, selling more books, writing a masterpiece, drama with jerks, stormy weather, and bad traffic. Somewhere along the way, even the joy of writing itself has been dampened by the need to promote, to sell, to succeed. I resolve to do my part, but I am sure I can’t do it alone.

I’ve got a God-shaped hole, and the only way to find true, lasting happiness is to fill that with Him. Unless I do that, the world will forever be bereft of its proper color, faded and less vibrant.

When I look back years from now, I want to remember things as they were, not as I wish they had been. I’ve still got a chance at happiness, and it’s time I start living.

 

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The End of Times… War and Rumors of War

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Mankind has always possessed a morbid fascination with the apocalypse. From the Biblical Flood and Mayan calendar to modern day science fiction, civilizations have been aware and intrigued, sometimes terrified, by their impending doom. In fiction, this is entertaining, but the reality is more chilling. Societal collapse has been a recurrent theme in our history, and perhaps this is one of the reasons we are drawn to books like The Stand  and television shows like The Walking Dead.
For many Christians, the End of Times means the rise of the Anti Christ, Armageddon, and the return of Jesus. Christians have been looking toward the heavens for about two thousand years now, wondering if this is it.

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Sad ruins remain to remind us that the world as we know it is far from eternal. Entire cultures in the Pacific rose and fell, and disappeared. The mighty Mayans are gone, the Roman Empire fell, sacked and destroyed from within. Yet, even those breakdowns did not lead to the destruction of the human race. Life went on.

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Only in the last sixty years, the blink of an eye in terms of history, has mankind developed the ability to cause its own extinction. While in the past, a meteor strike, super-volcano, or a blast from a star light years away could have erased us from the planet, we now can do it ourselves with the push of a button.

A global nuclear war is one obvious way this could happen. To put this in perspective, consider that Russia and the United States possess thousands of nuclear weapons. Russian weapons are dirtier and their largest nukes are more powerful than those in the United States’ arsenal, but it’s irrelevant. The tipping point for a nuclear winter is roughly one hundred explosions, according to the most recent science. There has been debate over the years on this topic, with some estimates coming in at only thirty or forty simultaneous explosions causing the planet to go cold. If thousands of these weapons were launched, that’s the end of us. The atmosphere is choked with radioactive ash, obstructing sunlight, the temperature falls, plants die, and there is no more food. The animals die, and homo sapiens  perish right along with the rest of them.

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In the last sixty years, we have also decided to come up with other, creative weapons of extinction. Biological weapons could do the job just as well as nuclear bombs. Our scientists tinker with viruses, which actually alter DNA, finding ways to make these things more deadly. A genetically altered virus could end our species. We’re looking at the worst outbreak of Ebola, a virus as scary as its name, which according to Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “is the world’s first Ebola epidemic, and it’s spiraling out of control. It’s bad now, and it’s going to get worse in the very near future. There is still a window of opportunity to tamp it down, but that window is closing. We really have to act now.”

Against this backdrop, we now have the greatest level of danger in the world we’ve seen since World War II, with Russia poised to trigger a global war over the Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin on the throne and his finger on the button, not the kind of man to face in the ultimate game of chicken. Because, he’s the guy that doesn’t swerve at the last minute. Then of course, there is the militant, insane, ISIS movement which is spreading like the black plague, a tide of evil which is consuming countries torn by war. The radicals are willing to stop at nothing, bereft of the slightest shred of morality or human decency, killing innocents without remorse or hesitation, and seeming to relish every shot  Shia, every cut throat.

In Gaza, Israel sends in armored vehicles to stop rocket attacks on civilians, and levels schools, homes, and lives. Israel is defending itself against attack, against those who use children as human shields in order to gain support from around the world. Hamas WANTS to provoke Israel into these attacks. It’s Terror 101. Israel becomes more isolated from the rest of the world, increasingly vulnerable to attack from neighbors who have invaded time and time again. Israel also has nuclear weapons, and while they will never confirm this, everybody knows. If Israel is attacked, and it’s really just a matter of time, they will use these weapons if it looks like the war is lost. It’s called the Sampson Option, and it is chilling.

The Old and New Testament in the Bible lay out some things which have come to pass that are irrefutable, though seemed highly unlikely. Israel, it was foretold, would cease to exist, and it’s people would be scattered. That happened more than once. The temple would be torn down. The Romans did that. Israel would become a nation again. This seemed impossible, yet in 1948 Israel was again a nation. One of the last important pieces of scriptural prophecy is the rebuilding of the Temple. There are plans underway now in Jerusalem to do just that.

Whether one believes in the prophecy or not, those things did happen. The book or Revelation, the last and scariest book of the Bible, is rife with images and verses open to debate, with the scrolls and seals being opened, the four horsemen of the apocalypse coming, and death on a pale horse riding to doom mankind.

These may not be the end of times, and perhaps humanity will figure out a way to become better, alter its essential warlike nature and selfishness and transcend the hatred we wield like a sword. At no time in all of human history, though, has the end seemed quite so imminent or possible.

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Keeping the darkness at bay… Thank you, men and women who serve.

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I write military, survivalist fiction, yet I have never worn the uniform. My deepest gratitude goes out to those men and women with the guts to go to the darkest places in the world, braving gunfire and bombs, blazing heat and freezing cold, and separation from loved ones. You folks are keeping our country safe, while I’m sitting at home in front of a laptop in my pajamas.

I almost joined the military twice. The first time was back in college. I took the ASFAB, and I was gung-ho. I thought it would be a great way to gain some discipline and pay for college. I ended up joining (this is really sad) because my girlfriend was going to go through basic with me, and then onto MP school. She didn’t meet the height requirement. The recruiter, who was a genuinely nice man, competent and I’m guessing an outstanding soldier, slayed me with the look of disappointment when I told him I was backing out.

The second time I almost joined was about a week after 9-11. I’d been living in Nashville, and until then believed that evil was more of a concoction by the military industrial complex than a reality which would come stalking U.S. citizens here at home. When the towers fell, I wept. I was stunned by this evidence of evil unchecked, and it was a feeling of violation that I think almost every American felt. I wanted to do something about it. I felt I should act.

I didn’t, though. I thought about it and I made some phone calls, and one day I wandered into a Marine Corps recruiting office. I was already past thirty, and the guys looked at me like I was nuts. They took me about as seriously as I did, I guess. It was justified, because I did not have the balls to go ahead and enlist.

I like to think I’m tougher than I actually am. When I see American citizens getting beheaded on the news by these ISIS lunatics, I think, okay, lets go to war. Let’s blow them off the map, because that kind of evil has to be stopped.

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But that’s easy for me to say and decide, when I’ve got nothing at stake. I don’t have a child ready to ship out, a brother waiting on his third deployment. I’m not writing a will and a note to leave for my wife in the event of my death someplace in the sand.

I told my wife last week that if I were younger, I’d enlist right now, being outraged at the atrocities taking place in the Middle East. I realized later what a stupid thing to say that was. I’m angry, but I’m not that guy, the soldier on the wall while the enemy storms the gates. I write about heroes, but I am not one.

So it is with great humility I say thanks to all of you who have the intestinal fortitude to risk your lives for your country. I am in your debt. You folks are heroes.

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