The Civil War, Messy People and Jesus: Why I Write

 

With my debut book release with Tyndale scheduled for summer of 2018, this week I’ve begun the daunting task of writing another story. It’s set in one of my favorite time periods…the Civil War.

This isn’t a new assignment for me. This will actually be the fourth Civil War story I’ve penned, uh, typed, but the research involved is always staggering. Always bloody and gruesome, yet filled with heroism, astounding tales of beauty and forgiveness…even humor.

lincoln beardPeople like 11 year-old Grace Bedell who wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter when he was running for President and convinced him the population would find him much more appealing if he grew a beard. (He listened.) Or fiery John Brown or the reckless zeal of Roger Pryor who, after firing the signal cannon that launched the attack on Fort Sumter, thought to celebrate by grabbing what he thought was liquor from the physician’s supply. Instead he swallowed iodide of potassium and almost poisoned himself to death. belle boydOr the eccentric Belle Boyd, who rode horses into parlors for attention and fancied herself the most beautiful, heroic feminine star the Confederacy could ever produce.

There are other stories of drunkards and misfits, spies and traitors, women and Zouaves, generals and cowards . All of them fascinating. I suppose what is most interesting to me in studying these odd assortment of lives is how often they acted, and reacted, and lived and died for a cause or an ideal. They all claimed to be ready to meet their fate with a hero’s fortitude, but peeling back the surface, most of these fascinating legends were terrified of one thing…the hole inside.

In reading their journals, the cry for significance screams from the pages of now still ink pens and dry blotters. They signed up to fight or spy or whatever their task was without a moment’s hesitation. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the Union or the Confederacy or the Underground Railroad or whatever ‘the Cause’ was. But for some of them, it was their chance to be seen. Heard. To matter.

They wallowed in insecurity. In fear. They were desperate for a father’s love. For a mother’s love. To catch the attention of a beau or a spurned lover. They were tired of being rejected, or had been pampered and spoiled to a sickening degree. Some were abused. Some were desperate. All were messy. All were broken. All were consumed with a need to “make their mark”. vinicius-amano-145607

Yet most refused to look deeply at the reason why. Scores of these legends would have rather thrown themselves in front of bullets or screamed through a hellish battlefield than look at the demons inside.

We’ve often heard it said “History repeats itself.” I don’t know that history repeats itself so much as human nature repeats itself. We’re all a jumbled mess of broken hearts desperately yearning for love, stumbling about in the shadows looking for that illusive something. No. Correction. Someone. Jesus.

Heart _But it’s easier to fight for a cause than look at our own pain. Easier to drown in noise than face the truth of silence. Easier to follow the crowd than stand the rejection of walking alone.

That’s just one more thing that makes Jesus so remarkable. As I sat watching the sun break through a cloudy sky during our church’s sunrise service, the pastor said someone I’d not considered. He spoke softly. “Upon having the nails driven through his hands and feet, and being lifted high, Jesus could have chosen at that moment to say ‘It is finished’ and breathed his last. He didn’t just die for us. Instead, He chose to suffer for hours and feel our pain as well.”

jesus painJesus chose to feel the pain. He leaned in to the crushing agony, the numbing screams of severed nerves, blood loss, asphyxiation, rejection, shame. He stared unflinchingly into the darkness. And because He smashed death and darkness to pieces when He arose, He offers freedom from the misery of it all.

This is why I love to write. Whether past or present, real or allegorical, all people are broken. Over and over, the human condition reminds us of our need for redemption. For Hope. For a Savior. As I write, I unearth more of my own brokenness as well. Writing is discovering the shadowed, scarred corners of my heart and understanding how God has redeemed them. How He has redeemed me…that discovery then bleeds over the pages of my story world and the struggling characters inside.

So I begin again. The names and characters will change. Plots and places will be altogether different. Their motivations and crises will alter but the Hope that will transform their lives will remain the same. Praise God, He is forever the same.

CHAPTER 1

Washington D.C., 1861

            Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, clutching her reticule to her middle. Her booted footsteps clicked loudly against the gritty walk. She winced at the echo that drifted back from the inky alley to the right. A shiver crawled down her spine…

dark street

The Mean Stepsister

 

fairytaleRedemption is a beautiful thing. There is something so poignant, something almost sweeping and, dare I say, romantic about someone with power and position plucking a nobody from the crowd and claiming them as their own. Perhaps that’s why I’ve so frequently heard the Gospel compared to a fairy tale story. A king sweeping the lonely girl away to a land where all her dreams come true.

Not long ago, I heard someone compare what God has done to the story of Cinderella. I understand the gist of this kind of thinking, but it just doesn’t ring true. Not for me. See, Cinderella was pure and sweet and perfect. She deserved to win the heart of the prince. We root for her from the very beginning. We see how blameless she is. We witness the unjust circumstances thrust upon her and pray that all will be right in the end. And it is.

But I’m not Cinderella.

I’m not perfect. I’m the one setting traps for the mice and chasing the too-cheerful birds away with a broom. Too often I’m the selfish, mean stepsister, demanding my own way, wanting what I want now! stepsisterScheming, manipulating, taking whatever scraps of affection are dropped my way because, deep down, I’m so hungry for love, I’m sick with it. The only way I know to get love is to whine, parade, beg, and needle. Be more. Say more. Be seen. Be heard. And I turn myself into a royal pain in the process.

So there I stand in the middle of the crowded ballroom, watching all the beautiful girls around me, feeling ugly and out-of-place. My Jimmy Choos are actually knock-offs I found in a bargain basement and they pinch my toes. My spanx are too tight and I feel fat. Worse yet, I know how cruel I can be to those I love most. I see the bright eyes and dazzling smiles of all the other women and I know…I’ll never measure up. The Prince will never want me.

But then He turns to me and smiles. He extends his hand and asks me to dance. Me? No. I shake my head. Tears burn my eyes. He doesn’t understand. If He only knew. If He could only see the ugliness inside. hand

“No, my Lord,” I cry, tears weaving warm tracks down my face, “I’m not worthy. I’m ugly and mean. Broken. You don’t want me.”

The Prince smiles and tucks my hand into his. “Ah, but don’t you know? I mend the broken.”

The Gospel is not a message of God reaching down to elevate those who already have it together. The Good News is that He laid down His life and rose again to save broken and messy people who cannot save themselves. The Gospel is power, dynamite, revolutionary…an inside-out and upside-down message of hope for the unlovable.

It turns murderers into preachers.

It changes thieves into saints.

It transforms mean stepsisters into Cinderellas.

And isn’t that good news?

 

The Redemption of Kip

“Runt.”

“He’ll never live.”

“He’s so scrawny.”

I don’t know what I did wrong. I was born, I guess. While all my brothers and sisters were cute, wriggly little pups, I was the outcast. Never expected to do much. To be much.

At the pet store, the chubby, groping fingers of girls and boys would rove over all of our heads, scratching our ears, picking us up and snuggling their cheeks next to ours. Such happy feelings filled me, I couldn’t help but lick their giggling faces with big swipes of my tongue. But eventually those happy feelings died as I was set back down in my kennel. And one by one, my siblings were slowly sold and taken away.

kip

All except me.

Day after lonely day passed inside the pet store. The rubber toys and squeaky play things lost their luster as I sat and looked out the window, waiting for…somebody. I didn’t even know who. But surely somebody out there wanted me. Surely someone would love me, if they could just meet me. I was getting bigger. Growing stronger, wasn’t I?

The bell overhead jangled and my ears perked up. The noisy parrot in the corner squawked as an old man entered. His pale blue eyes roved over the animals, his blue-veined, knobby hands grasping a cane as he shuffled from cage to cage. His gaze latched on to mine and I sat upright, wagging my tail and trying all the tricks that had worked so well for my brothers and sisters. Wag the tail, blink big, cock my head sideways. But the old man frowned as he turned to the pet shop owner.

“This pup here. What breed is he?”

The big man shrugged. “I don’t know. Mutt, best I can figure. Sold off his siblings already. Can’t seem to get rid of him though.”

The old man narrowed his eyes. “What’s his name?”

“Runt.”

Muttering under his breath, the old man turned and walked away.

Something cold and hard sank in my middle.

Days turned blurry and dull, until one afternoon my dreamless sleep was interrupted by rough hands shaking me, pulling me. I didn’t understand what was happening, what strange cruelty was being inflicted. The big man growled and pawed at me. His thick fingers hurt as I wriggled and thrashed. He cursed and clamped his hands around my legs.

“You little mongrel! I’m just trying to move you to a different crate!”

Something sharp knifed up my back and I did the only thing I knew to do. I clamped my teeth into his hand. He bellowed. The floor rushed up to meet me. Pain exploded through my body. Heart thumping, I eyed the front door, could smell the fresh air as the door swung wide to admit a family of shoppers.

Runt.

He’s so scrawny.

Can’t seem to get rid of him…

open door

With the sound of rushing water in my ears, I scrambled to run, my paws clicking against the linoleum as I sprinted through the door and into the crowded city street. Away from cages and cranky men. Away from mean words.

Freedom. Maybe my somebody would find me now.

I ran and ran. Maybe for days. Nights were the worst. So cold and dark. Hunger cramped my middle. I wandered in between buildings, nosing through trash for scraps of anything I could eat, stepping between waste and sleeping humans. I shivered, curling up in patches of light from back doorsteps, hoping the meager warmth would somehow seep deep inside my body.

alley

I grew bigger, no longer a runt, but still, no one wanted me. One day I found a group of children playing outside a park. I walked slowly towards them, my tail wagging. Was my somebody with them?

But when they turned and saw me, they chased me, throwing rocks and calling me names. Kicking and hitting.

I never approached a human again.

One cold afternoon, a man in a uniform sneaked up behind me and somehow managed to get me into a big moving box that carried me to a building. It was like the pet store but different. The crates were smaller and there were no windows. I could hear other animals barking and meowing. The man who’d caught me patted me on the head as he eased me into the crate.

“Poor fellow. We’ll find you a home. Somebody will want to adopt you.”

I put my head on my paws. He was wrong. I don’t have a somebody. No one has ever wanted me.

Each day passed, people came and went. Eyes peered in to see me but I barely noticed. I gave up the tricks to catch their attention. They didn’t work. Never had.

One day, the Nice Man who always stopped to pat my head strapped a red tag to my crate, his eyes sad. I knew what that meant. I had seen it happen enough. Red tags were attached to a crate. The next day the animal inside was taken away. They didn’t come back.

Bowing his head, the Nice Man murmured some soft words and scratched my ears with a sigh. Then he left.

I guess I fell asleep, for the sound of a slamming door jarred me awake. I didn’t sit up. In truth, I barely cracked open my eyes. What was the point? I would be taken away soon, never to come back.

Footsteps approached. The Nice Man was speaking softly, his voice echoing off the loud walls.

“This fellow is scheduled to be put down tomorrow. Shame too. He’s seems awfully sweet. Sad.”

Another man stooped down to peer inside. I sighed and looked away, not interested to be poked, prodded or ridiculed by another cruel human.

“Mm. What’s his name?”

“His tag was hard to read when he came in, all scratched and busted up. Looked like he’d been out on the streets for a while. We think it said Runt.”

The stranger with the deep voice stepped closer and squatted, resting his arms on his knees and watched me. This one wasn’t going away. With another sigh, I kept my head on my paws and turned to give him a disinterested stare. He met my look with a smile.

“No, Runt doesn’t suit this guy at all. He’s far too big. Aren’t you?”

His eyes looked into mine and something deep inside me flared to life. I lifted my head.

kip adult

The nice man motioned to the other crates. “If you’d rather see some of the pups…”

“No.” The stranger stopped him with a raised hand. “This fellow and I are talking.” He chuckled. “May I?” At the Nice Man’s nod, he unlatched the crate and reached in, rubbing his hands through my fur with a soft touch…caresses that both soothed and made me feel protected. Like how I used to feel nuzzled up next to Momma so long ago. Loved. I savored the sensation, needy for it as they talked.

“I’ve been away fighting.”

“Finally home?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve wanted a dog ever since I was a little boy.” He chuckled when I leaned into his hand. “This fellow and I, I think we belong together.”

This stranger wanted me? No, I must have heard wrong.

The Nice Man watched us. “Most folks come in here wanting a cute little puppy, some perfect looking puff of fur that will make their kids squeal.” He smiled. “Runt is older, bigger. He’s not cute and fluffy like the other breeds. You sure?”

The stranger cupped my face in his hands and leaned in so close, his eyes were almost touching mine. “Love doesn’t only rescue the pretty or the preferred. Love pursues the broken, the needy, the unwanted and the outcast.”

He leaned his head against mine and rubbed his hands through my fur. I shivered as my chest beat in loud thumps. This stranger was my Somebody. He wanted me.

My Somebody leaned back and smiled. “First things first. We must get rid of that name. You’re no Runt. Not in my eyes. Let me think.” His eyes lit up as he snapped his fingers. “How about Kip?”

I barked and leaped from my crate, wriggling and squirming around my Somebody with prancing steps. I have a new name! Kip!

My Somebody laughed. “Kip it is! And it means ‘one from the high hill’.” Leaning down he rubbed my head and winked. “Appropriate, since I live in a big house, high on a mountain.”

Lifting my front paws, I scooted and wiggled as long as I dared on my back legs, barking with happiness when my Somebody burst into laughter. The Nice Man watched us, his mouth open.

“Look at that. I’ve never seen Run—er, Kip so happy before.”

My Somebody scooped me up in his arms and I laid my head on his shoulder, my entire body quivering with joy. He placed his hand on my head, and for the first time I noticed the scars that marred his palms and wrists. somebody and kip

He turned to leave but stopped and smiled over his shoulder.

“Well, that’s the thing about love. Not only does it pursue the unwanted, love also transforms.”

A big thank you to Donnie Haynes for inspiring the story of Kip. A simple, yet profound thought in your sermon at Bogg Springs let my imagination take flight.