Thursday, December 22, 2016

After the Starlight faded



As so there appeared in the days of Caesar Augustus, after the reign of King Herod, a woman in the hills of Judea named Mara.

She was not a prophetess, nor did she proclaim dreams or share visions. She roamed the wilderness in dusty rags along the roads north of Jerusalem, raging at those passing by from behind matted locks of loose, graying hairs. Those who saw her ran until she was out of sight, though not out of hearing. She shouted at the young and the aged, but especially the very young. She seemed unnaturally old, though only at a distance. Those who felt her tongue lashings at closer quarters could see she was actually a young woman, though touched by fire. There seemed nothing within her to commend. Men shunned her, and women judged her insane and unfit for caring.

Mara had been this way since the dying days of Herod the Great, when the reprobate king had ordered the execution of the children of Bethlehem in hopes of killing rumors of a newborn messiah.

All children, the tyrant had ordered, up to two years old, must be slaughtered without mercy. There is no room in my nation for more than one king, he said, while fingering a coin with Caesar’s countenance staring up at him.

And so it was on a starry night that soldiers came to Bethlehem unannounced, the screams of frantic mothers the sole alarm. Mara’s only daughter Liat, a girl who had not yet formed her first word, was pried out of the home, and the point of a sword stilled the light in the child’s dark eyes. No visible angel had attended the birth of her daughter, but like all mothers, Mara felt the subtle yet flesh tearing power found in the creation of life. Each breath was a miracle, but in the end, a measured blessing.
Mara’s husband prevented her from dying by the same sword, and she would not forgive him. She expected that the world must pull itself apart in the child’s absence, but it mocked her by going on. The Scriptures are full of barren women whose prayers stir the heart of the Almighty, and weeping mothers comforted by the arms of their children. But her life was not written down in a scroll. Her life merely drained out of her child’s lifeless body. So she was left to rage by the side of the road, at souls who were oblivious to the life that had once been vouchsafed to her.

Then one day, a man coming down the highway stopped to look at Mara. He squinted into her face as she lashed him with her nonsensical words. And he smiled. It was the shepherd Betsalel, a man who had known her in Bethlehem when she had still been whole. His smile infuriated her, and she shouted all the more at him. But he would not move on. Not like the rest of them.

“Come with me,” he said. “Haven’t you been here long enough?”

She did not have an answer to this question, and so she followed him north.

Betsalel was a quiet man, dependable in his position; a little older than Mara but, in the way of shepherds, unattached to anyone. He laughed like a man with the songs of angels in his ears, a peace within pouring out and nourishing the parched ground around him. He did not have to ask why Mara had been alone with her invincible anger. He had once watched little Liat blow bubbles by the light of a flickering oil lamp.

It was many miles before Mara asked, “Where are we going?” For the first time in months, her voice was not annoyed.

“You will see,” Betsalel said. “You should meet someone. He has been away for a while.”

For many miles they walked. For more than a day. And over each mile, Mara and Betsalel began to talk to each other. In the night, they paused by the road and she asked about people she had known before – where they were and what they had done in her absence. Betsalel told her in a voice that understood somehow – in his tone she sensed he felt, as she did, that they had been too quick to continue with their lives after Liat was gone.

Many others had lost their children. They too had gone on. The king was dead, but the kingdom went on.

“Why is that?” Mara asked, all of a sudden. “Why should the world continue, just as it always has? Why should I?”

“Come and see,” Betsalel said, and the two began walking again.

They walked without stopping for much of anything for almost a day when they arrived on the outskirts of a town. Mara had never been there before. Betsalel asked a man about a carpenter’s family he knew which had just arrived not long before after an extended journey. The man eyed the two of them suspiciously from behind his beard – a shepherd reeking of the field and a distracted woman with storms in her face. He then pointed in the direction of a footpath toward a narrow house.
The two arrived at the home and Betsalel kissed the doorpost. The woman of the house seemed used to strangers showing up unannounced, though Mara perceived that the woman recognized Betsalel for some reason. She wore fabrics from Egypt and was warm in a way that unsettled Mara.

“Is the boy here?” Betsalel asked. The mother pointed into the darkness of the house, and a laugh answered.

“Him?” the shepherd asked in an astonished voice. Was he already that big? he seemed to be asking.
The boy who came out of the shadows toddled across the room and stood at a distance from Betsalel. Mara watched as the shepherd put out his hands, as though the boy would recognize him. But instead, the child looked at Mara.

He had pleading eyes, enormous eyes – eyes full of the hidden warmth of the world, wiser than any child she had ever seen. His eyes grasped at the folds of her rags and encompassed the ends of the earth.

Stay with me, he seemed to be saying, without uttering a word. And the little boy walked forward with a certain step, embraced her leg, and smiled up at her.  

“Is he this way with everyone?” Mara asked the mother, her eyes filling up.

“He is different ways with different people,” the mother answered. “But he is never a stranger.”

Mara squatted down, and the boy embraced her. She felt as though the dirt of the wilderness was gone, the room filled with a mysterious but familiar fragrance. She had no idea how a child could do such a thing, when she had believed a child could never comfort her again. His finger reached out and wiped her wet cheek.

And then she remembered something she had heard once, read in the synagogue: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope in your future.”

“I came here because I was there the night he was born,” Betsalel said. “I could never forget the sight, or the light. The joy of God glorifying Himself in the sky, only for a gaggle of weather-beaten men such as I on a hill to witness.”

 The boy cupped Mara’s chin in his hand, and she felt the tears dry against his palm. For a fleeting second, she thought of how old Liat might be, if she had lived so long. The boy’s face beamed at her, and chased the anger from her brow.  

“I wish he were mine,” she said, not aware that anyone else could hear.

“But he is,” the mother replied. “He belongs to us all, and we belong to him.”

© 2016 William Thornton


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'Rogue One' and the Will of the Force

"God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform," states the old hymn, which many people quote as though it were from the Bible. The lesson of the song, though, sits well with Scripture - the Will of God is inscrutable, occasionally difficult to understand, impossible to predict, yet bending everything in His creation eventually back to Him. "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" the Apostle Paul asks in Romans.

I kept thinking about this while watching "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," the first of Disney's planned "stand alone" films apart from the main Episodes in the film franchise. Unlike the other seven films which follow some member of the Skywalker family, the heroes of "Rogue One" are not Jedi Knights but rebels fighting the Galactic Empire just prior to the events of "Episode IV: A New Hope." And "Rogue One" is more of a conventional war movie in the sci-fi mode, almost reminiscent of "The Dirty Dozen" or "The Magnificent Seven."

But what mysticism there is in the story is crucial, not only to this film but the others in the series.

The plot of "Rogue One" is simple - Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of the Imperial weapons engineer Galen, the designer of the ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Jyn has not seen her father in years, but through the intervention of the Rebellion, father and daughter are brought face-to-face. The rebels hope to secure the battle station's plans before it becomes operational, in hopes of destroying it.

All of the "Star Wars" movies hinge on the will of the Force, the mystical energy field which "binds the galaxy together." In the other seven movies, this mysterious will is often expressed in what might otherwise be considered coincidence. It is engine trouble which forces the Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn to land on the planet Tattoine, where he discovers the young Anakin Skywalker, a boy he believes to be the Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. Though Anakin will receive Jedi training, he must leave his mother Shmi back on his home world, which will later serve in the child's undoing.

It is a series of dreams that force an older Anakin back to Tattoine in search of his mother, where he arrives to reunite with her at the moment of her death. His anger at the Tusken Raiders who kidnapped her turns him into a covert murderer, and his ardor for Padme Amadala results in him secretly fathering a pair of twins. It is only later we discover that perhaps this wasn't coincidence at all, but the plans of the sinister Darth Sidious, intent on ruling the galaxy as the Emperor.

But in "Rogue One," it is 20 years after the events that changed Anakin Skywalker into the Sith Lord Darth Vader, and turned the Galactic Republic into an Empire. The Jedi are "all but extinct" in this time, we are told, their fire having gone out of the universe. And the Kyber crystals which once powered their light sabers are now being used perversely to power the battle station which the Emperor believes will restore order to the galaxy.

So what happens? In "Rogue One," Jyn travels to the city of Jedha in hopes of finding the way to her father. Up until this point, the film has been silent on the question of the Force, until the entrance of the blind Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), who is identified as a Guardian of the Whill. This means he is a disciple of the Force, but not a Jedi. This shows in his fighting techniques and his personal affirmations.

"I am one with the Force," he says. "The Force is in me." This would seem to be an axiom, as the Force is "an energy field created by all living things."


Chirrut's entrance into the film signals the coming of the Force. Think about it - though Jyn is unaware of it all, she will transmit the Death Star plans to the Rebels. They will fall into the hands of Princess Leia, the as-yet-unidentified daughter of Anakin Skywalker. She will transfer the plans to the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who she doesn't know have already figured in the events of Anakin's early life. Then they will set out for the planet nearest their ship - Tattooine, where R2 will seek out the old general Obi-Wan Kenobi. Instead, the two are captured by Jawas and taken - to Luke Skywalker, Leia's obscure twin brother and the son of Anakin.

If Jyn doesn't transmit the plans, the twins might never meet, the Death Star will not be destroyed, Luke will not be trained as a Jedi, and Anakin will never be able to fulfill his destiny. The destiny of the thousands of systems hangs on the success or failure of a rag-tag band of misfits and cutthroats, only vaguely aware of the importance of their mission. Though they think they are saving the galaxy, they are setting in motion the events that will save the soul of a villain.

So what is the will of the Force? It's a question that is asked many times in the "Star Wars" movies, and "Rogue One" has its way of getting at an answer. Consider that Chirrut Imwe, in the middle of a firefight on the planet Scarif, chants his reminder to himself of the Force's presence as he walks through a hail of blaster fire. It is a scene that recalls the beginning of "A New Hope," when the two droids walk between a firefight as they escape the Imperial attack on their ship. The Force means to have its way. "I fear nothing. All this, as the Force wills it," Chirrut says.

I said earlier that "Rogue One" reminded me of a conventional war movie. One of my favorites is "The Guns of Navarone," another film about an impossible mission. The character who sends out its heroes says at its beginning, "Still, they may get there, and they may pull it off. Anything can happen in a war. Slap in the middle of absolute insanity people pull out the most extraordinary resources: ingenuity, courage, self-sacrifice. Pity we can't meet the problems of peace in the same way, isn't it? It would be so much cheaper for everybody." 

It seems painfully obvious but worth stating - "Star Wars" is about conflict. At its best, it's about good and evil fighting each other within souls and across the vacuum of space. Rarely when we watch one of these movies do we mourn the death of a Clonetrooper or Stormtrooper, Rebel or Jedi Knight, alien race or even planet. More often those casualties feel casual, like simple plot points to provide character motivation. One recalls Princess Leia comforting Luke Skywalker on the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, even though she has only within the last few hours seen her home planet and family destroyed before her very eyes.

The will of God would seem to be similar, and different. The will of God ultimately leads to His own glory, as all other competing wills are made to bow. But what happens in the midst of that conflict is that those who acquiesce, out of fear, reverence, or even love, find something not only for themselves but provide something for those who take courage from their struggles. And that too is the will of God. The Force, which more often than not seems an impersonal personality, is too mysterious to reveal much about what its will might be. That might reflect some of its eastern mystical DNA, but probably has more to do with the will of screenwriters than any overriding logic.

And that will marches ever forward. "Rogue One" feels different as a Star Wars story because the heroes of this tale must serve the needs of the larger conflict, not knowing what will happen once the plans are out of their hands, only trusting that from their exertions, someone, somewhere else in a different time and place, may enjoy hope.

I previously wrote about Star Wars here and here

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.



'The Force Awakens' and a lifetime's regret

I wrote this earlier this year after screening "The Force Awakens."

His eyes had a way of avoiding mine, even as he told me what he thought were hard truths.

He sat there under a cloudy sky embarrassed by the can of beer in his hand, his eyes aged by tobacco and regret. My wife and I were there trying to convince him and his daughter to come to church, a place it seems that haunted him, yet a place that he longed for.

“I need to get her back up there,” he said, his voice on the edge of breaking. “She needs rehab.” She was not there, but in his words were a lifetime’s worth of regret, denial, and anger. Then he looked down at the beer, and an easy, familiar bravado took hold as he began telling us how he figured it was all right, different from the drugs she took. His doctor, he announced, had told the man he’d rather have him drink beer than Dr. Pepper. We didn’t care. The judgments he assumed where in our minds were more exacting in his own, perhaps wrapped up in self-deceptions long rehearsed and recited.

Regret, Proverbs tells us, crushes the spirit.

For some reason, this moment, still fresh in our minds, came back to us when my wife and I recounted the pivotal moment in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

“This will begin to put things right,” announces Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) in the film’s first line of dialogue. While this is sometimes read as a subtle promise to undo the damage supposedly done by the series’ prequel trilogy, it also announces that the galaxy is still out of balance. Darth Vader may have been redeemed at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” but the conflict he left behind still rages on in the hearts of those engulfed by it. 

Face to Face with The Force

The major characters in this newest chapter all deal with the pain of running away from decisions suddenly pressed upon them. Rey (Daisy Ridley) would rather not take on the droid BB-8 or his secret mission, yet she cannot bring herself to trade it in for several weeks’ worth of food. And for all the parallels found between her and the young Luke Skywalker of Episode IV (desert planet, droid on a mission, secret information) she differs from Luke in that he desperately wanted to leave his home on Tatooine, unaware of what awaited him. Rey wants to stay on Jakku for reasons only hinted at.

FN 2187, a stormtrooper on his first assignment, is sent there as part of a search and destroy mission in search of the droid. But unlike the mindless drones of the previous episodes, Finn (John Boyega) asserts his own independence at the first sign of death, eventually leading him away from the evil First Order. Why is he doing this? “Because it’s the right thing to do,” he tells Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).



Finn and Rey later fall into the hands of the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who we learn is no longer with Leia (Carrie Fisher) or the Resistance. “You’ve been running away from this fight for too long,” Solo later learns from the 1,000-year-old Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).

Why has he been running? Because of the tragedy of his son Ben, who is now the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the apprentice of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). When Solo lost his son, it split the union between himself and Leia, sending them both back into their familiar roles as pirate and patriot. It also set in motion the search that is the heart of “The Force Awakens” – for the vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

As the film’s opening crawl tells us, the First Order will stop at nothing to find Skywalker, the last Jedi, who had set out to reestablish his religion until his nephew was pulled to the Dark Side.

Both Lors San Tekka and Maz Kanata seem to agree on one thing – where in the past the Jedi and Sith operated in a world of their own apart from the politics of the galaxy, now is the time for all creatures to make a stand in the light, or the darkness. All are being pulled toward order, or resistance. “There has been an awakening,” Snoke announces, and we get the sense that something much deeper has stirred.

At moments throughout the film, characters are forced to choose their allegiances. This is in keeping with the series, where the players have often been told they cannot escape their destinies, seemingly written out for them in some lost Jedi scripture. They are told that they “know” the truth, and that they need only search their feelings to discover it is already within them.

Finn embraces BB-8’s mission, but almost flees to the Outer Rim systems to avoid the clutches of the First Order. Rey wants to return to Jakku and resists the pull of the Force, when she is called to by a light saber that belonged to both Luke and Anakin Skywalker.

A reluctant messenger is a familiar story in the Bible, as is the overwhelming nature of Providential design. In Genesis 15, God seals His covenant with Abram, and reveals covenant heirs’ future in a dream, the promise sealed in a vision of a burning torch. When Rey touches the light saber, she sees the past (and future?), hearing the voice of Luke, the breaths of Vader, and the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, along with scenes from her life and the life of Kylo Ren. “These are the first steps…” she is told.  The scene also tells us, the audience, that it is Rey whom the Force is exerting its will through, and the Force will not be denied. 



A Certain Point of View

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” says the prophet Jeremiah (17:9 NIV) “Who can know it?” A few verses later, he discloses the fate of those who run from God. “Those who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.” Time and again in Scripture, God confronts reluctant souls in the comfortable wreckage of their lives and hurls them into seeming peril at the speed of His will. Those who reject Him in search of peace chase phantoms.

Deceit. One of the great unacknowledged themes of all seven Star Wars episodes is the simple ease with which our seemingly righteous heroes can delude themselves and others in the name of good. In the prequels, it is the Jedi Order’s reluctance to acknowledge its inability to properly see the threat of the Sith that brings about its doom. Later, Ben Kenobi tells Luke a lie – that his father was killed by Darth Vader – in order to speed him into his training as a Jedi. Even Finn finds it necessary to pose as a member of the Resistance in order to seek safety.

But like Ben’s lie, Kylo Ren now sees himself as a new creation, having killed the weak Ben Solo. The destiny he has been fleeing has been his temptation – toward the light.

Han’s reluctance to step back into the fight, and his son’s rejection of the light, meet like so many others in Star Wars - on a bridge over a great abyss.  Perhaps like my friend with the beer, it was his child that turned Han Solo from a skeptic to a believer in the ways of the Force. For Solo, it is the decisions of his son that he has been running from. 

Tempted by the Light

In the midst of presenting the Ten Commandments, God announces that He visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5.) Sin has consequences, and when we see Kylo Ren speaking to the melted helmet of Darth Vader, we realize that we are still dealing with the awful effects of the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One who apparently brought a kind of balance to the Force with his death, but an all-too-fleeting kind.

Kylo Ren wants to believe he has the strength of Vader, a presence Han believes dominates him. But it is on that bridge, when father and son speak face to face, that Ben confesses he wants to be “free of this pain.” Han says he’ll do anything to help his son, and his son’s solution is to embrace the darkness, and so he kills Han. “It’s too late,” he explains, echoing his grandfather’s words to Luke.

Anakin never had a father, and Luke was repelled and then drawn in by his dark and defeated patriarch only at Anakin’s death. But what should we make of Ben Solo, who derides his “weak and foolish” father a moment before impaling him on a light saber? A few other questions arise which may not find their answer just yet but in future episodes. Such as, who is being deceived? Is it Leia, who still believed there was good in her son? Is it Kylo Ren, who believes he has traded his father’s life for a certainty within the Dark Side of the Force? Has he finally succeeded in killing Solo’s son, or can he be “brought home?”


“As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance!” Poe announces during the attack on Starkiller Base that is the climax of the film’s action. Evil is again temporarily frustrated with the destruction of the latest ultimate weapon, and the search for the most reluctant of all characters can at last be completed.

In a distant, secret corner of the galaxy, Rey finds Luke Skywalker waiting on her as she climbs to meet him, holding out the weapon that was his birthright. He alone can train her. With a look of reluctance, he is confronted by the birthright he cannot run away from, the destiny he cannot reject, the truth that was always within him.

Even while he was a baby, the parents of Christ were told that He would be a sign to reveal the thoughts of many hearts (Luke 2:35). Everyone must make a choice. The man my wife and I spoke to that overcast day wasn’t unacquainted with the church we invited him to, nor with the truth proclaimed inside. But decisions lead to other decisions, and choices lead to responsibilities. All have consequences.

Yet the light is insistent, tempting us and plaguing us even behind the masks, both of darkness and light, which we don to chase it away, smashing all our illusions in the process.

The Light’s always been there, the film assures us. It will guide you.

I also wrote about Star Wars here and here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.