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The Polar Express

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Jason Clark

I was sitting in the theatre beside a 3-year-old boy named Ethan Wilde.  Ethan’s my son.  We were about to watch “The Polar Express.”  I was a little distracted because we just moved to North Carolina.  We were pretty sure God had asked us to.  Pretty sure.  We had spent our savings and were now digging into our “good credit.”  We were beyond strapped and spending eight bucks for the afternoon matinee caused that voice in my head to say: Are you crazy?

A 30-year-old man with a wife and two kids isn’t usually 100% certain of much, but I was about 97% sure I was to spend all my time and resources birthing a ministry, which I would later find out was a lifestyle. God had told me to believe, to stay the course.  But as the money flew out of our bank account, I was more than worried.  I was scared.
Dave Ramsey’s evaluation would have been: Uh, financial suicide.  Now I know Dave Ramsey has saved many people from financial ruin. But this was between me and another Savior; it had nothing to do with financial responsibility.  This was about irresponsible, unsound, downright foolish obedience.  I’ll come back to this a little later…
               
Back to The Polar Express.  If you haven’t seen it, try to; it’s wonderful. It’s about a young boy who, while growing up, loses his ability to believe in God…I mean Santa Claus. Fortunately, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God…I mean three variations of Tom Hanks, band together to guide the boy back into believing. I realize that sounds confusing, but stick with me.

It’s Christmas Eve and instead of dreaming of the best day of the year, the boy is in his bedroom agonizing over the universal question: Does God… sorry, I mean Santa Claus…really exist?  He used to believe, but now in the mind of this blossoming adult, a fat bearded jolly man delivering presents to the entire world’s population in one night seems impossible.  Add in flying reindeer, elves, a North Pole toy factory—it all seems completely foolish. The boy was in danger of becoming a realist.

And then a deep rumbling. It grew louder until it filled his room and even jumped out into our theatre seats.  Like an earthquake, it shook and rattled his shelf of sports trophies. The boy crawls over to his window, peers out and what to his wondering eyes should appear?  An enormous train decked in his front yard.

Dressed in his pajamas and rubber rain boots, he cautiously walks out to the train and meets Jesus… I’m sorry, I mean a train conductor played by Tom Hanks.  The conductor says, “Well…are you coming?”  That’s a question worth remembering.

This amazes the boy.  He really wants to get on the train, but at the same time, the idea terrifies him. Finally, as the train begins to inch forward, his heart wins out and he takes the outstretched hand of the conductor.

And so the journey begins, a grand adventure filled with mountaintops and frozen lakes and howling wolves and dancing waiters balancing hot chocolate. It’s exciting and dangerous all at the same time. Along the way the boy meets the Holy Spirit… I’m sorry, I mean a ghost who oddly resembles Tom Hanks…I mean, no, that’s right – Tom Hanks.

After several breathtaking moments, the train reaches its destination – the North Pole. There are elves everywhere and music, dancing and singing. It is truly a magical place.  I’d like to go there some day.
Everyone is awaiting Santa’s arrival, which signals the official start of Christmas. The Elves are singing Christmas songs. Some are whispering “Is He here?” and some are yelling, “Do you see Him?”  The anticipation is almost unbearable.

The reindeer harnessed to Santa’s sleigh are going wild! Their master is coming! They can sense it! The sleigh bells are ringing and all who believe in Santa can hear them, their pristine crystal tones adding to the beautiful chaotic anticipation. The children that made the journey are there too. The air is electric.

And then there is the boy.  He had all but decided that Santa was not real and yet wants – with his whole heart – to be wrong. Surrounded by a sea of believers, the boy dares to hope; in fact, hope is everywhere, and it’s contagious.
A slow hush falls on the crowd, and all eyes became focused on a building at the end of the square. The doors burst open. There is a bright light and within the doorframe a silhouette. Suddenly the whole square erupts.  “There He is!” shouts an elf. “I see Him!” says one of the girls, but the boy, pressed by the crowd, can’t see and still can’t hear the sleigh bells.  Why can’t he hear? Desperate, he jumps and presses his way through the sea of elves to the front. And then, there He is, God… I’m sorry, I mean Santa Claus, who is also played by Tom Hanks…

Suddenly the boy hears everything: the bells, the worshipping elves, the celebrating kids, the dancing reindeer. And I’m sitting beside my son, and I’m trying desperately to hide my face from the little girl next to me.  Why?  Cause I’m balling my eyes out and whispering I believe, I believe, I believe… I love you Lord, and I believe…

I’ve been given a promise from God.  But sometimes holding on to it can be rather difficult. Life moves along, things happen; the world is a very busy and noisy place. It’s easy to wake up one day and find you’re just not sure anymore. Believing has become a lost art and the promise has become a mountain that seems un-scale-able. In fact, it has often seemed the harder I try to summit the farther the peak is from me. But I’m convinced that the “God lived life” is one of learning how to believe. It’s learning how to cling to God and keep His promises alive in your heart.

In the movie it took the conductor, the ghost, and Santa working together to woo the child. One man played all three characters, a trinity working in unison, until ultimately the boy made the decision to believe. The boy’s heart had wanted to believe from the very start. And that desire was enough to push him into the perilous journey…

The little boy in The Polar Express, the one who stopped believing? I identify with him. Yeah, that was me, my story.

I chased the promise for so long, I lost sight of the Promise Giver. Somewhere along the way I had stopped believing. I became exhausted, unmotivated and unsure where once I had been positive. Life became random and dull. In one sense I still did what I thought God had created me to do but it no longer held meaning. I started filtering every experience through an attitude of hopelessness until every bump in the road was expected, while every triumph was fleeting. The fact was, I had begun living a life where the glass was neither half full nor half empty. It was just… half.

But years ago I made a decision that I am going to be a believer, whether it looks good or not, whether it feels good or not. I have made a decision to say yes. Now I’m putting all my money on the promise giver and following Him where He leads me, like moving my family to North Carolina and financially disappointing Dave Ramsey. Believing that God is good, that He is faithful, that He can be trusted, it’s really the only way to continue moving forward in my own story. It’s also the only way to experience fullness of life, immense joy and fulfillment.

Is it possible that God is asking you the same question the conductor asked the boy: Well…are you coming?

About Jason
Jason Clark is a singer/songwriter, author, speaker, and pastor. Jason’s passion is to know the love of God more each day. He lives to see a generation step into their identity as sons and daughters of the King and establish His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children. Jason’s new book Prone To Love is available now: Jason Clark Is

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 11.20.12 PM This is Dean Koontz. You may have heard of him. ;-) He is one of the biggest bestselling novelists in the world. After starting as a science fiction writer, he broadened the scope of his work to encompass multiple genres: thrillers, mystery, horror, humor, etc. He is now more of a cross-genre writer, as his work encompasses all of these elements–and all within the pages of a single book!

He can take us to the darkest depths, make us weep with despair, and then raise us to the highest heights. For no matter how dark his stories skew, there is always a ray of sunshine. Hope somehow not only survives, but thrives. As in our own lives, this doesn’t happen without cost. There are sacrifices to be made, lives are lost on the way.

But the journey! The icy shock of confronting the blackest of evils, the good guys–misunderstood, and on the run. Koontz’s books are like literary crack! One wants to put them down, but cannot! There is always the next page, chapter… until the final one is turned, and stumbles to bed, bleary-eyed, at three A.M., fallen into a fitful sleep.

Like all the best writers, Koontz often writes himself (and his characters) into a corner, and one just keeps reading to see how he is going to get himself (and them) out whatever outrageous pickle he has imagined. For my money, the best writing does this: posits impossible scenarios–creates problems–and then finds a plausible way out.

Koontz does it time and time again.

I share my exuberance for his work here because I would be honored if you would join the on Thursday, January 23rd at 5:00 P.M. EST. Dean will be chatting with his publicist, a Vice President of Random House publishers, and three lucky fans. Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 11.36.39 PM

I’m inviting you, my readers, to this event because, out of all of the people that applied for one of those three spots, I was chosen.

It feels a little like winning the lottery. It felt a little clandestine: there were emails, sample questions, and a phone call from New York to “triple confirm” my availability. I was like, Are you kidding me? Of course I’m there!

This is where you come in. Not only can you watch me blubber like an idiot (if you like), it’s also your chance to be heard! It may be my face being seen, and the sound of my voice being heard, during the hangout, but it could also be yours. In addition to, of course, taking questions via chat during the hangout, I would like for you ask any questions you may have for Mr. Koontz here in response to this post.

If you have questions about writing, about research, about the creative process, please ask them below, and I will do my best to get them answered on air during the hangout.

Thanks much for your support! I couldn’t do what I do here without you.

–Chad

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I’m a fan of well-crafted stories. If you know anything about his writing process, nobody spends more time crafting books than Dean Koontz. Seriously. His process–continually revising a page until it’s just right, then moving onto the next–would drive me crazy. But it works for him. Some accuse him of being formulaic, of being inferior to King. That may be.

There’s no discounting his success. The numbers don’t lie. And when he’s hot, he’s hot. Witness: Watchers, Strangers, Intensity, Lightning, and Odd Thomas. (My friend, Ricky Anderson stayed up into the wee hours last night reading Odd).

In my estimation, there’s more to Koontz’s success than just adrenaline-laced plots that keep the reader turning pages (as welcome as that is). No, it’s his characters. They feel like real people–people facing insane situations overwhelming odds, and yet somehow holding onto hope. These people could be you, me, or the neighbor down the block. And his villains are more, or less, than human. Their motivations are real, and they never see themselves as villains. Like Satan, Koontz’s villains usually see themselves as the aggrieved, misunderstood, party. Thus they are justified in their own eyes.

Like most Catholic writers I’ve read, Koontz isn’t afraid to let his villains be villains. Thus he portrays evil as it is. And thus the light of hope, of the protagonists, shines out all the more brightly in contrast. That is what I love about Koontz: he is an eternal optimist: no matter how dark, how bad things get, there’s always hope. Good will triumph on the end. (Now this is not say that his good guys aren’t flawed people–they are. They overcome these shortcomings, confront themselves, and the darkness in their own hearts).

The genius of Koontz is that, while not writing sermons, his work is infused with his faith stamped upon every page. His is the voice of one calling us out of the darkness into the light. It will, like life itself, be a bumpy ride. If you know any of his personal story–raised in poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father–you know that Dean is an overcome. He doesn’t see himself (or his characters for that matter) as a victim of circumstance.

By extension, he is calling us into the same life. We are not victims of circumstance unless we choose to be. We, like the people of which he writes, can overcome whatever life throws at us.

In this way, Mr. Koontz is an evangelist.
An evangelist of hope.

Have you read any Dean Koontz? What are your favorites?

Because this is the Monday of the week of the American Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to share something I’m very thankful for. Apart from the gift of salvation found in Jesus Christ, having a loving, drop-dead gorgeous wife, two wonderful kids, a great job, a nice house, etc., one of the things I’m most thankful for is that I’m a reader. Stephen King has said that books are a special kind of portable magic.

This is true.

For by them, I have lived a thousand lifetimes, visited strange and wonderful places, met people whom I may never have otherwise encountered. And all by the cracking the covers of a book. I’ve been Middle Earth, Narnia, Perelandra, Christmasland, etc. I’ve visited the darkest corners of Africa, been beneath the catacombs of Europe, seen the splendor of a thousand sunrises…

I’ve been with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect when the Vogons destroyed the Earth to make way for an interstellar bypass. I was there when the Earth was newly remade.

As I said, I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes. And all without every leaving the confines of my own skin. There are unaccountable wonders, thrills, chills, splendors to be encountered between the pages of a book (or in your favorite e-reader).

Why not pick one up today, and see where it takes you?

You’ll be glad you did.

What’s your favorite book?

I have put off writing about Packing Light for some time. Reading it, for me, was like the frigid splash of a mountain stream to my slumbering face. It represents the antithesis of how I have lived. For somehow, rather than packing light, my life has been one of encumbrances; both the emotional, and the physical.

I hold onto things.

God knows why. Perhaps it’s growing up a child of divorce, having my family sundered, that compels me to hold onto the things I think which will make me happy. Yet, it never seems to work. Not the books I buy (I have hundreds sitting on the shelf unread), nor the gadgets–phones, tablets, computers, televisions, what have you–not the clothes with which I try to regain my lost youth (“Dad,” my son says, “stop dressing like me”).

Nothing, not one blessed thing, has been able to fill that gaping void left in my soul.

And yet how I’ve tried. How we’ve tried, my wife and I. The house we moved into twelve years ago, the one we called our “dream home,” came with the reality of a mortgage, maintenance, upkeep, stairs that we we tire of climbing…

The dream has become a reality. And expenses multiply. Yet, we hold onto it, for where else would we go? We have family here, friends here, our kids have lives here. But when the air conditioner needs work, when the carpets need replacing, when the garage is full to near capacity with clutter–it feels far more burden than blessing.

The weight of the quotidian obligations weighs far heavier on my shoulders than I ever thought they would. And this Atlas can’t shrug: a family counts upon him to provide: basic necessities, stability, love.

There is (it seems) neither time, nor energy, for the kind of journey which Mrs. Vesterfelt’s book describes.

All the energy goes to holding on…

It is into this life, this mind and heart, that Packing Light came as a slap in the face. I wanted to hate it, to vilify, and excoriate it. But I could not.

First, because the prose was so lithe and supple–beautiful in a way that I was both jealous, and couldn’t stop reading: “Your starting point matters when you go on a trip. It is your only frame of reference for what to bring, and what to leave behind. It is your foundation, your beginning. If, along the way, your realize you’ve been heading the wrong direction, you might change your trajectory, but you can’t change where you started. You have to leave home to go on a journey, but you can’t leave home without having a home.” Second, because I knew she was right: it is not the things to which we should cling tight, but rather the people:

It’s relationships, and shared experiences, that are to be savored.

None of things will take us–take me–anywhere in life. And I certainly cannot take any them with me when the faith shall become sight. This deeply personal tale of a trip across America was a deeply convicting read. Which, if I’m at all honest, is reason number three why it’s such a necessary tonic:

The book made me uncomfortable.

I do not presume to speak for you, but I’ve seen–particularly in conservative, evangelical America–uncomfortable is not something we like to be. It’s far easier to call down fire from heaven upon our neighbors (or family) than it is to traverse the dark rivers of our own hearts. We don’t want to go there.

We want, and know we need, to cast off our baggage. But we don’t want to do the work.

Because we’re afraid of what we’ll see there.

In Packing Light, Allison Vesterfelt takes our hands on this inward journey, and says in a gentle voice (redolent of Another’s voice), “You can do this. I’ve been there. It’s not easy. But it is worth it. Come along. You’ll see.”

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How are you, or are you not, packing light?