Friday Fiction – The Trees

The Shadowlands – Prologue Part 5

Days passed.  Months.  Years, even.  Who knows for sure?

With the Three-in-One, one day is as a thousand years.

Adam and Eve grew closer and closer to one another; grew in grace and in the knowledge of Elyon, Logos, and Ruach.

Every day, they would enjoy exploring the delights of the never-ending Garden, taking in its sights and sounds, and the pleasures of the abundant food that the Three-in-One had provided for them.  Every evening, they would walk in the cool of the Garden with the Three-in-One.

At times, they would follow one of the rivers, ranging far from the Garden, exploring creation, fearing nothing, knowing that wherever they might be, they would always find their way home.  Knowing that wherever they might be, Elyon watched over them, Logos would be sure to encounter them, and Ruach would refresh them.  Wherever they went, they encountered animal friends that they had named.  Wherever they went, they knew and were known, intimately.

Adam enjoyed the physical activity of exploration, running and racing ahead with excitement, taking it all in.  Eve would walk more slowly, taking her time, thoughtful and grateful.  Adam would dive and swim and swing and jump and climb, while Eve would stop to gaze at the beauty of flowers and plants or to talk with the animals that they encountered.

It was perfect.  It was Paradise.

Until the day of the Separation.  The day of the Fall.  The day when their world came to an end – when Eden was closed off to them, their spirits died, and Creation became the Shadowlands.

*                    *                    *

Eve had been feeling a restlessness in her spirit, but wasn’t sure what it was.  She and Adam lacked for nothing; the Three-in-One had provided all they could ask for or imagine, and so much more even beyond that.  She was both contented and happy, all of her longings met.

And yet…there was something that nagged at her.  There were times when Adam would go off on his own to explore and she felt…alone?  No, that couldn’t be it.  She was never really alone.  The Three-in-One might not be with her at every moment, but she knew they watched over her.  Still…she felt as though she were missing out on something.

A thought came…what about the Tree?  The one in the middle of the Garden.  She and Adam had avoided it since the day that the Three-in-One had warned them about it.  They had explored so much of Creation, so much of the Garden…and there was still so much more to see.  But…that Tree.  What had They called it?  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that was it.

What would it hurt to just go look at it?  Why had they avoided it?  After all, the whole Garden was theirs, a gift – and the Tree was part of the Garden.  If they couldn’t eat from it, that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy its beauty.

So she set off for it.

She was almost there when Adam came jogging up to her.  “Whatcha doing?” he asked in his playful way.

“Going for a walk,” she responded.

“Where?”

“I wanted to go look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,” she said.  Adam began to protest, but she cut him off.  “I know we’re not supposed to eat from it.  But I just want to look at it.  This whole Garden is ours, including the Tree.  We’ve been so afraid of it that we’ve never really looked at it.  I just want to see it.  There’s no harm in that.”

“I guess you’re right,” Adam agreed.  “Let’s go see it.”

Before long, they walked into the clearing where the Tree stood.  A short distance away, another Tree stood – the Tree of Life.  Eve realized that they had never really looked at it either, and had never eaten its fruit because it was so close to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Both Trees were beautiful, standing tall and strong, alike in their grandeur but bearing fruit that was obviously different.

They stood together, holding hands, looking at both Trees, taking it all in.

A moment later, a branch snapped off to the right, somewhere in the smaller trees at the edge of clearing.  Then, more noise.  It sounded like a large animal was moving around in there.  Adam, curious, left Eve standing there to go see what might be making noise.

Friday Fiction – Eden

Beyond the Shadowlands Prologue Part 4 

Adam and Eve gasped at the panorama that sprawled out below them.

Eden may have been named a garden, but it was so much more – so much more vast than what we would think of as a garden being.

It was a tropical paradise.

Eden was a valley, bounded on all four sides by high hills.  Three of them, including the one upon which Adam and Eve stood, sloped gently down into the valley below.  Each of these three hills had a meandering path that led down into the heart of the valley.

The fourth hill, the one directly across the Garden from where Adam and Eve and the Three-in-One stood, was a sharp cliff-face with a towering waterfall rushing over it.  Behind it, a magnificent mountain range sprawled.  Clearly, that hill was part of the foothills that ranged out from the mountains.

The water that cascaded down the side of the cliff formed a large pool at the base of the waterfall.  From the pool, 4 streams extended out in different directions.  As Adam and Eve looked, they noticed that within the Garden, the streams eventually widened into rivers  that cut gaps into the hillsides where they flowed from the Garden.  Even from high above, the water was so clear that they could fish of all sizes and colors moving in the rivers below.

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The banks of the rivers were carpeted by rich green grass which extended into meadows filled with an amazing variety of plants and bushes, and wildflowers of every hue imaginable.  It was a lush paradise, teeming with beauty and life, and yet peaceful and beckoning.

Other parts of the valley were impossible to see because of soaring trees that clustered together – trees of every kind imaginable, providing a canopy of shade for the valley below.  Clusters of shorter fruit trees grew in small groves that dotted the valley.  Adam and Eve were speechless at first as they took it all in, and then they began to thank the Three-in-One excitedly for this incredible gift.

Logos smiled and invited them to descend the closest path into the valley.  “Come,” He said, “There is so much more to see inside the valley!  The deeper in you go, the bigger it becomes!”

Wondering what this could mean, Adam and Eve rushed to follow Him down the path.  Despite the height of the hills, it seemed like the descent into the valley took no time at all.  Once they were there, Logos pointed to the next closest hillside, off to the east.  “Come,” he said.  “Let me show you something wonderful!” 

They followed, walking effortlessly at a quick pace.  But after walking so long that the sun was almost ready to slip beneath the top of the hillside, they found that they had not gotten any closer!  Looking back, though, they could see clearly that they had travelled a very long distance from the path they had descended down into the valley.  Completely mystified, Adam asked how this was possible.

“The Garden is larger inside than outside!  And as I told you, the deeper you move into the Garden, the bigger it becomes!   You can travel forever and still be within the Garden.  But if you follow any one of the rivers, you can leave the Garden for the wilderness, and then come back the same way.  We created the Garden this way for you to enjoy, so you could explore it and enjoy and never tire of it, and yet be completely free to leave it, explore the outside wilderness, and return whenever you like!”  As He spoke, Elyon and Ruach joined Him, all Three-in-One smiling with pleasure at the wonder on Adam and Eve’s faces.

Eve finally turned to the Three-in-One.  “It’s perfect!” she exclaimed.

Friday Fiction – The Gift

Beyond the Shadowlands Prologue Part 3

All of Creation celebrated.  The Three-in-One stood back and watched with relish as Adam rejoiced in Their gift of love – Eve.

Adam and Eve took no notice of any of it.  They had eyes only for one another.  Adam, shy at first but excited to meet someone like him – his own kind, and yet different – couldn’t wait to share everything with Eve.  But first, he just talked to her.  He was filled with questions, most of which she had no answers for.  And for her part, she was filled with questions as well.  Who was he?  And who was she?  What was this place?  Where had all of this come from?

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Finally, she noticed everyone around them.  The Three-in-One standing there, waiting patiently.  Angels, watching the whole scenario with joy.  Animals, timid at first but overcome with curiosity, looking to see who this was that their friend Adam was now talking with.

Adam somehow knew just what to do.  Putting his arm around Eve, he began to introduce her to everyone, beginning with the Three-in-One.  Eve bowed humbly before Them, but They lovingly raised her up.  “Daughter, Mother of all who will live,” Logos said.  “Welcome!  We have a gift for you to celebrate your arrival!”

Eve wondered what a “gift” was.

Elyon, her Father, spoke up.  “My child,” he said, “a gift is something special that I have chosen to freely give you – something that will bring you great joy and pleasure.  Adam,” He continued, “this gift is for you to enjoy as well, but it is in celebration of Eve.  It is a special place for you both – a home.  All of this Creation is for you to enjoy together, but this home is a place of rest, of tranquility – a place to which you will always return.  It is a place in which every night you will find refreshment and restoration for your souls.”  He smiled at both of them, the excitement on His face evident as He told them about this special surprise.

Logos continued for the Three-in-One.  “Adam, We formed you from the dust of the ground, in the wilderness.  You were created for adventure, but without Eve, your heart was incomplete.  Eve was created from your side, close to your heart – and so, while you love adventure and love the wilderness, she also loves adventure, but she will always long for home.  Her need and desire for home will complement your desire to explore.  Together, you will complete one another.  And just as in one another you will find completion, so both of you will only find completion in and with Us.”

Ruach swirled around Adam and Eve, colors glistening in a beautiful array.  “We have planted a Garden for you to the east of here – a refuge that, in all the world, will be your own special place.  Animals may come and go; We will visit you there and walk with you there.  But it will be your home.  Everything you will ever need will be provided there for you.  When you wander and explore and find yourselves hungry, thirsty, tired – return to this place and you will be restored.”

The Three-in-One now spoke together, their voices in complete unison, somehow both distinct and yet also indistinguishable from one another.  “This Garden is named Eden.  Come now and walk with us, and we will lead you there.”

As they journeyed together, the Three-in-One spoke of the bounty that Adam and Eve would find there – trees and plants and bushes, fruits and vegetables of every kind.   Living, sparkling water.  Shade from the sunlight, a gentle breeze.  All they could imagine or desire, and more.

“I give to you every tree and plant of the Garden to eat for food – all except one,” said the Three-in-One.  “There are two trees at the center of the Garden – the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for if you do, in that day, your spirit will die.  Our relationship will suffer separation.”

At these words, both Adam and Eve shivered involuntarily.  Neither of them had experienced death nor separation, and yet, as Image-Bearers, they knew the meaning of the word.

“Come!  Come up and see!” Logos beckoned joyfully, running on ahead of them, climbing up a sloping grass-covered hillside.  As Elyon climbed with them, His face beaming, Ruach blew at their backs, speeding them along.

In a moment, they topped the rise of the hill and stopped, shocked at what stretched out before the eyes in the valley below them.

“Welcome to Eden!  Come and enjoy!” the Three-in-One invited.

Wednesday Book Review – Room of Marvels

One of the truths of life that we don’t like to admit or even talk about is that life is a journey of loss.

Over the years, as we grow up and then grow older, there are many things lost – lost innocence, lost friendships, lost loved ones, lost pets, lost prized possessions, lost opportunities, lost potential, lost seasons of life, lost vehicles, and so many more people, things, and experiences.

The realization that we can never return to a relationship or experience, that we will never again see a particular person, never again be able to drive that first car, and so on, can be devastating. As country artist Brad Paisley puts it, “there’s a last time for everything.”

Some losses are much more painful than others, obviously. James (Jim) Bryan Smith, an author and college professor, experienced three great personal losses in a very short period of time in his life.

First, his daughter Madeline. Before Madeline was even born, testing revealed severe birth defects and a rare chromosomal disorder. Jim and his wife were told to plan a funeral before their daughter was born. Miraculously, though, Madeline had a healthy delivery. She lived for about two and a half years, although she was constantly being medically monitored and treated. But following what was supposed to be a routine, simple surgery, Madeline coded and then died.

Six months after the loss of Madeline, Jim’s best friend, singer and songwriter Rich Mullins, was killed in an auto collision.

And then six months later, Jim’s mother, who was seventy but in excellent health, died of a sudden heart attack.

Room of Marvels is a fictional account of Jim’s struggle to reconcile what he taught and believed – that God is good, better than we understand – with the reality of the devastating losses he and his wife experienced in such a short period of time. It begins with a character who represents Jim taking a spiritual retreat at a monastery, searching for answers and feeling hopeless. He realizes that he feels like a complete hypocrite – while he writes and teaches that God is good, he no longer believes it because of his own pain and loss.

While on this retreat, Jim experiences an ongoing dream/vision in which he visits heaven and encounters a number of people. Some are friends, some are family. Some are people he knew, some are people he never met. Some were people whose lives he had impacted knowingly or unknowingly; some were people who had impacted his life, knowingly or unknowingly.

In the process of meeting these people, talking with them, discovering stories, playing checkers, remembering forgotten moments of his life, and discovering the beauty, grace, and love of heaven, Jim finds that his heart is being transformed. He discovers that he can be free to be his true self; that he no longer has to wear masks to try to impress God or others; and that God’s goodness and love for him are beyond what he ever even imagined.

2 Corinthians 4:17 (NJB) tells us that “The temporary, light burden of our hardships is earning us for ever an utterly incomparable, eternal weight of glory.” As James Bryan Smith puts it in the conclusion of this book, “heaven changes everything we suffer on this earth.”

If you have ever suffered a devastating loss, if you have ever wondered how God could be good and allow difficult things to come into our lives, if you have ever suffered and asked “why” then I highly recommend this book for you. Room of Marvels contains a message of hope and transformation that we all need to hear.

You can purchase the Kindle Edition here.

Before the Shadowlands – Part 2

Prologue Part 2 – The Image-Bearers

Together, Elyon, Logos, and Ruach shouted, voices thundering joyously, “Let Us make mankind!  And let us make them in Our image!”

Elyon spoke.  “Life!  Flesh!  Bone!  Tissue!  Corporeality!  Organs, vessels, and blood!”

As He spoke, Logos knelt in the clay of the Earth they had created.  As He touched the clay, it began to spin and grow.  He shaped the clay, the First Potter, forming physically what Elyon proclaimed.  In moments, what had begun as a lump of rich red clay stood, tall and majestic, mirroring Logos’ form.  All Creation held its breath, marveling at the intricate details of this new being.

Then Elyon spoke again.  “Life!  Breath!  BREATHE!”  As He spoke, Ruach swirled upon the form standing there.  Ruach-wind blew into his nostrils and his mouth.  The creation gasped, drew its own breath – and then opened its eyes.

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“IT IS GOOD!” the Three-in-One agreed, His joy obvious to all.

Elyon, Logos, and Ruach met in a flash of light and energy, appearing suddenly as one Being, yet each of their faces somehow distinct in one visage.  Together, they spoke to their creation.  “You are Adam, first of the Image-Bearers.  Welcome!”  Gesturing broadly at all that Adam could see, the Three-in-One said, “All of this is yours!  Enter into the joy of all that has been created for you to enjoy!  Subdue this Earth and have dominion over it!  Come, let us show you all that is yours!”

It was a good day, the sixth day of Creation.

And on the seventh day, the Three-in-One and all of their Creation rested.

Life on Earth was filled with wonder.  Every day, Adam would walk the land, conversing with the Three-in-One.  Sometimes, the Three-in-One would appear to Adam in one form, as He had on the day Adam had been created.  Other times, Elyon or Logos would walk with Adam, talking with him as Ruach would gently waft along with them.  After a while, Adam would run, dive into the water and swim, enjoying the beauty all around him.

Often, as they would walk together, animals and birds would approach.  The Three-in-One would stop and wait, allowing Adam to take the lead, for this world had been created for him and his kind.  He began to take the first steps in walking in dominion over this creation.  He would speak to the animals, listen, converse.  And he would name them, in so doing blessing them as the Three-in-One blessed him.  In this way he began to work out what it meant to be an Image-Bearer, to walk in loving dominion.

Every seventh day, all would rest.

Time passed. 

One evening, after a long walk with Adam, who had bedded down for the night, the Three-in-One began to talk about the next step.  Adam was ready, it was decided.  It was not good for him to continue to be alone, the only one in all of creation of his kind.  It was time to create his ezer-kenegdo – his mate.  His life-saver.

It was time for the Image-Bearers to begin to multiply and to have dominion over the entire Earth.

The next morning, Logos woke Adam.  Together, they walked and talked.  Logos explained that it was not good for Adam to be alone.  Adam didn’t understand – he had Elyon, Logos, and Ruach.  He had the animals, the birds, the fish.  Occasionally, an Immortal like Michael or Gabriel would come visit on their way to do the business of the Eternal Kingdom.  Adam was content.

“You must trust Me,” Logos told him.  “There is a need in your soul that you do not even realize.  You are created in Our image – you have much love to share.  Your capacity for love will grow as Our creation expands.”

Adam believed Logos, believed the Three-in-One.  As they gathered to him, he felt a deep tiredness wash over him.  He sat down, and then laid down in the clay – the same clay from which he had been formed.

And the Three-in-One danced and created again.

Elyon spoke words of life once again.  As He spoke, Logos drew a rib from Adam’s side and began fashioning another Image-Bearer – similar, and yet different from Adam.  And Ruach once again breathed life into this Image-Bearer – this new creation.

Eve.

Woman.

Stepping back, the Three-in-One watched, waiting for Adam to revive, and for Eve to wake up for the first time. 

Before the Shadowlands

Prologue Part 1 – Before the Shadowlands

The Three-in-One – Elyon, the Most High; Logos, the Son; and Ruach the Wind – were as their name.  They existed at Three, and lived as One.  They were the same entity, but three distinct persons.  They lived in eternity, outside the confines of time and space, complete and sufficient in Himself and Themselves.  Without beginning or end, their existence depended upon no one.  They are.

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They were self-existent, with no need for anyone else.  Although timeless, it could be said that their days were filled with love, joy, peace, and adventure.

Love so great, love without limit, by its very nature grows and creates.  Not from need – need to love or to be loved – but from desire.  Desire to share such amazing love, to pour it out upon others.

And so, the Three-in-One created.  First, time.  And then space.  Then, other sentient beings.  Immortals.  Angelic beings – warriors, musicians, guardians, messengers, craftsmen, scribes, and many others.  Each one an agent of Light; each one a beloved servant of the Eternal Kingdom.

Other fantastic creatures were fashioned.  Cherubim and seraphim.  Living creatures with four faces.  Messengers whose bodies were covered in eyes.  Beings whose voices could thunder and shake the Eternal Kingdom.

And still, the Three-in-One loved.  Their capacity for love was infinite.  They discussed, amongst Himself, a broader creation.

But in the midst of all of this love, in the midst of unrestrained opportunity, infinite joy and peace, complete satisfaction and absolute provision, a seed of rebellion was planted in the heart of Light-Bearer.  He was the chief worshiper; but he grew to desire that worship for himself.

He began to whisper, gathering others to his cause. 

And then in an instant, Light-Bearer acted.  He fought, challenging Elyon, the Most High.  He rose up in pride, and a third of his fellow angelic immortals gathered to his side, supporting his rebellion.

It was not even a struggle.  Their defeat was immediate and complete, and they were cast from the Eternal Kingdom into the outer nothingness.  Darkness and flames.  Condemned by their actions, they wandered, hearts full of rebellion and hatred, having traded everything for nothing in their coup attempt.

Shortly after this occurred, as the Eternal Kingdom mourned the loss of those who had fallen, the Three-in-One acted on their loving plans.

*                    *                    *

In the beginning, the Three-in-One created a physical, temporal universe.

Creation was a spectacle – an amazing dance of creativity between the Three-in-One.  Elyon spoke.  Logos brought life from nothing.  Ruach hovered over all of it, swirling in colors and movements of wind.

Darkness and light separated in an explosion of matter.  Elyon thundered, and day and night became.  Earth and air, fire and water, swirling from nothing into sea, land, heaven.  Life exploded forth – brilliant hues of green and red and purple and yellow, a swirl of vegetation and trees and plants, fruits and vegetables.

The dance continued, the creativity flowing and growing.  Elyon spoke, loudly and lovingly.  Logos moved in response.  Ruach flew, faster and faster, racing through all of it.  Lights flashed in the heavens, day and night growing more and more pronounced.  Life again burst forth on the earth – this time, animals and birds and fish, all of them colorful, leaping and swimming and flying in gratitude for their creation.  Animals that would someday become domesticated, animals that would always run wild, animals that would one day pass on into legend.  Lions and bears and cows and horses and dogs and giraffes and behemoths and leviathans and yetis and unicorns and dragons and basilisks and dinosaurs.

A cacophony of voices and sounds rose, newly living voices expressing the joy of all they were experiencing, seeing, and hearing.  The sound was a roar, but not a chaotic one.  Rather, it was a beautiful symphony of diverse voices and sounds, all directed in wonder and awe at the Three-in-One – Creator.

And the dance continued.  The love intensified – the more it was poured out into this creation, the more love there was to give.  More colors, greater contrast between darkness and light, more sounds, more beauty, more wildness, untamed by anyone or anything but the Creator.

Then came the pinnacle of creation.  A moment of silence, stillness in all that was happening.  The Three-in-One paused.  There was a collective gasp, all creation wondering what was next.  What climax could outdo what had already been done?  How could the Three-in-One do more than this?

The Three-in-One looked at one another.  Smiled broadly, their pleasure at what had come and what was to come evident to all.  “This is the moment!” they exclaimed in unison.

As the created Immortals looked on, the mystery was too great.  Michael cried out, “Lord!  What is it?  What can it be?” 

Together, Elyon, Logos, and Ruach shouted, voices thundering joyously, “Let Us make mankind!  And let us make them in Our image!”

The Power of Story

Warning – this is a longer-than-usual blog post, and it is no way at all devotional.

I have always loved to read, and specifically, to read stories.

Don’t get me wrong.  As an adult, I serve as a pastor, and so I read a lot of non-fiction:  the Bible; books on leadership, communication, history, attitude, planning, different aspects of theology, sociology, the Church’s role in our society, living as follower of Jesus in a post-Christian, post-modern era, soul care and spiritual formation, sermons by other pastors, politics, Western civilization, philosophy – I am a voracious reader.  I believe it is important for me as a leader to be a life-long learner.  My Dad, who has been a pastor for well over fifty years, taught me early in my ministry that for a pastor, a wide variety of books and knowledge were tools as vital to ministry as a well-stocked, even overflowing Husky Tool Chest and Rolling Tool Cabinet Set were to an auto mechanic.

But I’ve always loved to read stories.

I can remember finding an old, red-covered hardback mystery novel in my Grandpa Hunter’s den called The Ghoul.  It was a gothic mystery about a haunted house and a frightened heir and a crazed twin brother who imitated his deceased wealthy brother, trying to scare off the heir and killing several servants in the process.

I remember hearing Mr. Young, my fifth grade teacher, reading a large portion of The Bridge of Khazad-dûm – a key chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, book 1 of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I went home from school that day determined to  learn about the rest of the story, and saved every penny I could until I could purchase a paperback set of the trilogy. I fell in love with the rich fantasy world that Tolkien created – a world of elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and hobbits, a world with both deeply flawed men and women and heroic men and women.  That amazing fantasy world led me next to Narnia, C.S. Lewis’ incredible fantasy world.  Both of these series taught me much about life, about the power of story, and about being a follower of Jesus in dark and difficult times.  I began to realize that story wasn’t just entertainment; it was also a powerful way of communicating truth.

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I remember checking out Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the school library as a high-school student.  I had to sneak that one home, because my parents didn’t want us reading sci-fi or horror or anything like that.  But I read Dracula in two nights, staying up after everyone else had gone to sleep.  And I discovered that I loved to be scared, which eventually led me to Stephen King.

You know that a lot of people would consider you to be a pretty unusual person when two of your favorite books are The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer and It by Stephen King.

But I found in some horror stories a pronounced world view of good versus evil, in which good eventually triumphs over evil.  And again, I recognized that story is a powerful tool for communicating truth.  (By the way, if it bothers you that I’ve admitted to reading horror at times in my life, you might want to check out my friend Mike Duran’s book, Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre.  It’s an in-depth theological look at the genre in light of Biblical teaching on the importance of our thought life and Paul’s call to live with a renewed mind.)

Early in my ministry, I finally figured out just how important stories were in the Bible as a whole, and in the teaching ministry of Jesus.  At times, it seemed like Jesus went out of His way to tell a story instead of directly answering a question or addressing an issue.  For example, there’s this classic:  Peter:  “How often should I forgive my neighbor?”  Jesus:  “There was a guy who owed his king a couple of lifetimes’ worth of gold…”  And of course, there’s this one:  Religious leader:  “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus:  “A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was robbed…”

About a decade ago, I read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart and discovered his amazing insight that part of the power of story is that we actually live in a story – the story of our lives.  Not only that, but we live in our Father’s larger Story.  And because God has writing eternity on our hearts, you can actually discover a representation of the gospel in many of the popular movies and stories in our culture, even though unintended by the authors or movie directors.  Gladiator, Braveheart, The Hunger Games, even Harry Potter – you can find a summary or a demonstration of gospel truths in these.  (That’s not the point of this post, but if you’d like to engage with me about that idea, I’d be happy to do so.)

So where am I going with all of this?

As I have begun to seriously pursue writing, I have recognized that I enjoy writing both non-fiction and fiction.  I set a goal this year for myself of completing both a non-fiction and a fiction book each year from now until when I retire.

But as I write non-fiction, I know that I am not a serious theologian like Tim Keller or John Piper.  Nor am I as creative or deep a communicator as Andy Stanley, Mark Batterson, or Bill Johnson.  I’m not a controversial pot-stirrer like Mark Driscoll or Brandon Hatmaker.  I am an encourager; I am a writer who tries to lift people up.  I’m not as funny as John Ortberg or as much of a wordsmith of Max Lucado, but I AM learning my own voice.

And as I learn, I am learning that while I love writing both non-fiction and fiction, fiction is my preferred niche.

And that’s the reason for this post.

I am going to be changing the format of my blog.

It seems like a natural time to do this, after having over a month-long hiatus due to surgery.

Over time, I will be transitioning more and more to fiction, perhaps even creating a separate blog for just that.

But in the meantime, this blog will change to a varied schedule.  My plan is that it will look like this:

    • Mondays:  A devotional or commentary on current events.
    • Wednesdays:  A book review or recommendation, mostly non-fiction spiritual growth books.
    • Fridays:  A short story or part of an ongoing serial story.

I’m letting you know about these changes because some of you will be excited and want more.  And some of you will decided “this isn’t what I signed up for” and will want to unsubscribe.  I will hate to see you go.  But it’s okay.  There’s no point in your reading these posts if you don’t feel they’re going to benefit you.  (However, I would ask you to consider waiting until Friday and reading the first fiction post before unsubscribing.  You might find yourself pleasantly surprised or intrigued by what you read!)

I just wanted to give you a heads-up as to what’s coming so you understand why and can decide for yourself.  I hope you decide to continue on the journey with me.

Thanks for reading!

Walking The Shadowlands

As I trudge along the damp dirt path, tendrils of smoke wisp out in front of me.  I squint as I walk, trying to see through the dark shadows that surround me.  On both sides of me, the high canyon walls cut off the light; above me, a thick canopy of leaves keeps the sky hidden from my sight.

I have been traveling through this valley for some time.  I didn’t enter it by choice, and likely wouldn’t have chosen it; the path I follow brought me here.

There are others walking this same path.  At times, we meet one another; occasionally, we will walk the path together, at least for a while.  Other times, we will spot one another from a distance.  Some of us help one another on this journey; some avoid all help and all contact with others, preferring solitude.

Yeshua, my guide, has assured me that I will not always be in this valley.  He is always with me, although I cannot always see Him.  Nor can I always hear Him.  But as long as I keep my mind on Him, my eyes on Him when I can see Him, and my ears tuned to Him when He speaks, I am not afraid.  Even in this, the darkest of valleys.

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I live in the Shadowlands.  All of us do, actually.  Despite the name, all is not dark in this world, because Elyon created this world.  And when He created it, He created it full of light and beauty and adventure and mystery.  And he pronounced it good.  He poured all of His love into this creation.  Back then, it was known as Eden, not as the Shadowlands.

That came later, after the Cataclysm.  After the Man and the Woman choose to listen to the dark whisperings of the serpent rather than the true words of Elyon.  They reached for knowledge rather than intimacy, not understanding that relationship with Elyon would have opened the door to true knowledge.  In that moment, with that choice, they broke what Elyon had created as good.

Since then, I am told, this good world has changed dramatically.

It is still filled with light and beauty and adventure and mystery. 

But the light – the light does not shine as brightly as it did in the beginning.  The colors are muted; the beauty has been marred.  There is adventure and mystery, but there is great danger – the serpent and his cohorts roam the Shadowlands, seeking to destroy and devour the sons and daughters of Elyon.  And sadly, they often succeed.  Many choose to listen to the whisperings of the serpent.  Many choose to blaze their own trail, not understanding that in reality, they are deceived and only follow the serpent’s trail.

After the Cataclysm, millennia later, Elyon sent Yeshua, His Firstborn, to rescue us.  It’s a long story – perhaps I will tell more of it another time.  Yeshua came to the Shadowlands and with His own blood, blazed a trail through the Shadowlands.  He has told all of us who follow Him that He will lead us along this trail – to Elyon.  To Home.

That’s where I’m heading.  That’s where many of my friends and family are heading – Home to Elyon.

It’s a long journey.  There are times it’s very difficult; times the path is hard to see.  Times too, though, of great joy and bountiful blessing.  And there are times like this – times when we walk through the darkest of valleys.

But valleys are not forever, and shadows are cast only because something tries to hide Elyon’s light from us.  And nothing can hide Elyon’s light completely – not even the final valley that I’ve heard is at the end of this journey.  That valley is called the Shadow of Death.  I’m not sure where it is, but I think it is a long ways off from here.  The thing is, I’m learning to trust Yeshua in this valley, as I have in other valleys that He has brought me through. 

And if He can get me through this valley, I know He will get me through whatever other valley I might face.

He can do the same for you.

Remember – these Shadowlands are wonderful and terrible and wild and beautiful and mysterious.  But they are only a shadow of what Elyon has for us – what we will one day see with our own eyes.

Home.

Just Believe

Note:  This short story is fictitious and was originally published in the Ridgway Record, December 17-18, 2016 Edition.


“I’m sorry, Ms. Peters, but we just can’t keep you on until Christmas.  We’ve had to make some cutbacks, and as the newest employee, unfortunately, you’re the first one to get cut.”  Rick Gordon frowned, looking sympathetic.

“But…it’s three weeks until Christmas, Mr. Gordon,” Jodi pleaded.  “I’m still catching up on my bills from before.  I don’t have anything for my children yet.  I was counting on every paycheck.  Please.  Isn’t there something you can do?”

“No, I’m sorry.  I wish there was.” Rick stood, indicating that their meeting was over.  Jodi followed his lead and stood too.  She looked out the office window at the falling snow, her mind racing.  What would she do?  How would she pay her bills, let alone provide Christmas for her children?  As a single mom, it was hard enough to make ends meet on one paycheck, let alone dealing with being out of work.

The next half hour passed in a blur as Jodi left the building, pulled onto 120, and headed back into town.  The drive through town itself was difficult – all she could think about was that there would be no Christmas for her children this year, but it seemed like everywhere she looked, there were reminders of the season.  Outside of St. Leo’s, a nativity scene proclaimed the birth of the Savior; the Chamber of Commerce was decorated with lights; the usual wreaths lined Main Street; and outside the Salvation Army, a lone figure stood ringing a bell over the traditional kettle.  Further on, as she approached the Clarion, she noticed that Ace Hardware was well-stocked with Christmas trees and a wide variety of lights and both indoor and outdoor decorations.  As she drove, the snow fell, light and fluffy, as if she were driving through a snow globe that had just been shaken.  It felt like Christmas cheer was in abundance everywhere but with Jodi and her children.

She slowed as she approached the fire station, and turned right up Ash Street.  Passing the Faith Church, Jodi realized that she was just a few more turns from home.  She hadn’t thought through how she was going to break the news to Danny and Allie.  It seemed like there had been nothing but bad news for the three of them this past year.  Jodi had been looking forward to Christmas – it had always been her favorite holiday, and she had shared that love with her kids.  Christmas was about hope, Jodi thought, but this year, it felt like there was suddenly no hope.  There would be no presents for the kids, and nothing for her but a stack of overdue bills with more to come.  She had no family to turn to for help, and she knew that the odds of getting a job anytime soon were against her.  The economy was still pretty shaky, and in another few weeks, most retailers would be laying off the extra help that they had hired for the Christmas season.

Jodi pulled her well-used ’97 Buick Century up to the curb and parked.  She took a moment to collect herself, and then got out and trudged through the snow to the front door and let herself in.

*                    *                    *

The house was chilly, but the glow of the Christmas tree in the living room made that part of the house seem as if it were warmer.  Jodi called to Danny and Allie, letting them know she was home, and asked them to come join her in the living room so she could talk to them.

Allie, nine years old and full of energy, came running in and bounced on the couch.  “What is it, Momma?  Am I in trouble?”  Danny, who was fourteen, took his time.  Jodi was about to call him again when he finally sauntered in and slumped into a large, threadbare easy chair.

“Danny, Allie, I’ve got some bad news.  I don’t know how to tell you this other than to just say it.  The plant has to cut back, and I lost my job today,” she explained.

“Awww!  Momma, I’m sorry!  But it’ll be okay, you’ll see – it always is,” Allie assured her.  Danny didn’t have any comment – he just looked down at the floor, the way he always did when something was bothering him but he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Here’s the thing,” Jodi continued.  “You both know Christmas is coming.  But I haven’t had any extra money to start buying presents.  I have…well, I have nothing.  Not one single present bought and hidden away, nothing at all.  We had too many bills that I had to catch up on, and now, well, I lost my job and…I don’t know if I’ll be able to find another one before Christmas.  I sure hope I do, but I don’t know.  So this kills me, but there aren’t going to be any Christmas presents this year.  I’m sorry, kids.  I love you.  I hate this for you.  I’m going to do everything I can, but I don’t think we’re going to have much of a Christmas at all.  I’m really sorry.”

Silence for a moment.  Then Danny stood up, shook his head, mumbled “it figures,” and headed back up to his bedroom to finish his homework.

Allie snuggled in beside Jodi.  “It will be okay, Momma.  It’s Christmas.  You’ll see.  Don’t worry.”

Jodi closed her eyes against the tears.  “I know, honey.  I’m sure it will be okay.”

*                    *                    *

But it wasn’t going to be okay.  Over the next week and a half, Jodi put in as many applications as possible.  Jodi filled her gas tank a couple of times with gas she couldn’t afford just so she could drive to Johnsonburg, St. Mary’s, Kersey, even Brockway, putting in applications everywhere she could think of.  She went to the library – how she loved Center Street and some of the stately old homes in Ridgway – and spent several hours putting in applications online.  She went to CareerLink and applied for as many positions through that office as she could.

She also went to every agency and church that she could think of and tried to get help.  But everywhere she went, she heard the same basic things – “It’s the end of the year and we don’t have any funds left.  Come back after the first of the year.”

“We’d love to help with presents for your kids, but we’ve already done everything that we can.  You’re way past the deadline and we can’t help.”

“We’re sorry, but…”

Jodi’s friends and neighbors didn’t seem to be much help, either.  Money was tight for everyone right now, and most people either had nothing to share or lend, had already spent it, or made excuses.

Her landlord, Fred, had lived in Ridgway all his life.  She asked him for ideas.  He didn’t have any new ones, but promised to let her know if he heard of anything.

Christmas was approaching, and Jodi was out of options.

*                    *                    *

Two nights before Christmas Eve.  The kids had both gone to bed.  Jodi had come back downstairs to sit in the living room.  She loved to just look at the Christmas tree lights – she could sit there for hours and stare at them.  It brought back memories of better times, better Christmases.  But tonight?  All she had was a stack of bills, and shut-off notices from a couple of the utility companies.

Almost three weeks of trying to hold it together for the children’s sake had taken its toll.  As she sat there in darkness, watching the lights twinkle, the tears finally came.  Jodi cried herself to sleep.

*                    *                    *

“Jodi.  Wake up.”

She came around slowly.  Who was it?  Who was in her house?

She sat up and looked around, but there was no one there.

“Jodi.  It’s going to be all right.”

She looked around again.  Nobody.

But the voice sounded like it came from the tree.

She looked at the tree, wondering what was going on.

As she watched, the tree looked as though it were growing brighter.  From the top down.  Looking up, she gasped.  It actually appeared as though the angel on the top of the tree was – growing?  It couldn’t be!

But it was!  The angel grew until it filled the room, taller than the tree.  “Jodi.  It’s going to be all right.  Just have faith.  Remember – Christmas is a time of good news, that will cause great joy for all people.  Just believe.”

This couldn’t be real.  “Who are you?  Is this a dream?” she asked.  She closed her eyes, shook her head, and then opened her eyes and looked again.

And fell off of the couch.  It had all been a dream.  But it had felt so real.

“Just believe.”  Could she really do that?

She had tried everything else, and nothing else had worked.  So.  Just believe.

*                    *                    *

Christmas Eve.  Jodi had done everything she could, tried everything she could, gone every place she had been told to go – and nothing.

She decided that she and the kids would walk down the street and go to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  It would be all the celebration that they would have this year.  Maybe the service would lift her spirits a little.  Before they left the house, Allie pointed out that it was snowing for Christmas.  Danny asked if they could have hot chocolate (with marshmallows!) when they got home.  Jodi thought it was a great idea – at least it was something for them to look forward to.

*                    *                    *

Jodi and the children were just walking into the church when she heard someone calling her name.  “Ms. Peters!  Ms. Peters!  Could I speak to you for a moment?”

She turned, surprised.  It was Rick Gordon, her former boss.  “Hello, Mr. Gordon.  What is it?”

“Merry Christmas, Ms. Peters,” he said, handing her an envelope, and turning to walk away.

She looked down at the envelope in her hands.  It was a pay envelope from the plant.  “What is this?  What is this about?” she asked.

He paused and looked back at her for a moment.  “It’s a severance check for three months pay,” he said.  “I’ve never seen the company do that for anyone who wasn’t in management.  I don’t know who or why, but someone in the corporate office decided that it was the right thing to do for you.  No need to worry about the check bouncing – we called and checked into the whole thing.  It’s legitimate.  I brought it down myself this evening because I figured you could use it as soon as possible.  Anyways, Merry Christmas, and again, I’m sorry about the job.  Hopefully this will help out some.”  He nodded his head, turned, and walked off into the night.

Jodi stood there for a moment, shocked.  She couldn’t believe what had just happened!  It didn’t solve everything, but it was a huge help and would definitely enable her to hold things together until she was able to find a new job.

Filled with gratitude, Jodi found Danny and Allie, who were already seated in the sanctuary.  She slid in beside them, lost in her thoughts, and waited for the service to begin.

“Jodi!  I’m glad you’re here!”  The loud whisper startled her.  She turned and looked over her shoulder.  Ella Griffiths, one of her neighbors, smiled at her.

“Thanks, Ella, I’m glad I’m here too.  You know how much I love Christmas,” she responded.

“Yes, I do,” Ella said.  “I love it myself.  Especially when I get to bless someone.  This year, it’s you!  Here you go!” And Ella handed her an envelope.

“Ella, thank you, but you didn’t have to do anything for us.  I feel bad that I don’t have anything for you,” Jodi replied.

Ella smiled again.  “Don’t worry about it.  I was just praying this morning about who I should bless this year, and in my mind’s eye, right away, I saw your face.  So you can thank God for this gift – He’s the one who told me to give it to you.”

Jodi thanked Ella again.  She tucked the card away to open later when they got home.  Just then, everyone around them stood up as the service began.

For the next hour, Jodi took comfort in the familiar carols and cadence of the candlelight service.  The ancient words brought her hope – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  And as the candles were lit, Jodi thought that perhaps, with the unexpected check from work and Ella’s gift, some light was beginning to shine into her personal dark time.

After the service, the kids couldn’t wait to get home – the hot chocolate was calling!  So the three of them hurried home, leaving footprints in the freshly-fallen snow.

When they arrived at the house, Jodi was surprised to see several sets of footprints on their walkway.  It looked as though someone had been in and out of the house!  Panicked, she rushed to unlock the door – someone must have broken in.

But when she walked in, she received another shock.

The area under the Christmas tree was filled with presents!

How?  What had happened?

Danny walked in behind her.  “Hey Mom, someone left this envelope stuck to the door,” he said.  It looked like the landlord’s handwriting on the front.

She opened it, wondering what was going on.  A note fell out, scrawled on legal paper, along with a couple of ten dollar bills.

Hey Jodi – sorry about letting someone in without your permission.  But I was walking by and two different people were standing at your door knocking.  I asked them what was going on and they said that they had presents to deliver for your family from their charities.  You weren’t home, so I let them in and made sure they really were delivering stuff, not taking stuff!  Anyways, hope you have a Merry Christmas.  I know times have been tough for you recently – here’s a little gift from me too.  Treat yourself and the kids to something.  – Fred

Jodi was overwhelmed.  She didn’t understand any of this.  Where had the presents come from?  All of the charities that she had spoken to had told her it was too late; so she hadn’t submitted her kids’ names anywhere.  And what was up with check from work?  And the gift from Ella?

She decided just to enjoy it.

For the next couple of hours, she and kids sipped hot chocolate and opened presents.  And there plenty of presents – for all three of them.

What a Christmas Eve it turned out to be!  And Jodi couldn’t grasp why, or how.  She was grateful, but bewildered.

*                    *                    *

Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed, Jodi sat in the living room, drinking in the lights and surveying the unwrapped presents.  She closed her eyes and said a simple prayer of thanks.  When she opened them, she thought she saw a flash of light at the top of the Christmas tree.  She looked up to see the angel looking down at her.  And she could have sworn she heard a voice say, “I told you it would be all right.  Just believe.”


Copyright © 2016 by Donald W. Hunter

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a review.

Printed in the United States of America.  First Printing, 2016, The Ridgway Record.

www.donwhunter.com