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  As a teen, I read continously as a means of escaping what I then saw as a quotidian, banal, meaningless, dysfunctional existence. All white plastered stucco on the outside, and while not wanting for food and shelter, my upbringing was nevertheless starved of affection, notice, approval. As a latch key kid, there were really no boundaries, and thus no real sense of security. And without security, there was no feeling, no bedrock, of love to fall back upon. 

So I read to feel something, anything. To know I wasn’t alone. To know that, as bad as I perceived things to be, some folks had it worse. Oftentimes, these folks were the characters at the heart of a Stephen King story. One of my favorites was Pet Sematary. I read that book through three times (something I didn’t normally do) in rapid succession. Due, I think, in part to its sheer visceral appeal, but perhaps unconsciously also to its parallel to my own (limited) life experience up to that time. Consider:

1) The Creeds move was supposed to make their lives better, bring them closer as a family. Likewise, my dad’s promotion, transfer, and my family’s subsequent move west was supposed to do the same. In neither case did that prove to be true. Both families ended up falling apart.

2) In both life, and art, there was a father haunted by demons he couldn’t shake; both, while the specifics are of course different, succumbed to their unholy siren song.

3) While my cat was named Cornelius, and not Church, I lost him in a neighborhood accident. Whether animal, or a vehicle, got him I don’t recall.

4) Much like Judson Crandall in the story, we had a kindly older neighbor named Johnny. Like Louis in the book, my dad spent many a night drinking with him.

These are but a few of the ways in which life imitated art. Though as I said I wasn’t likely tuned into at the time, being an isolated, largely self-involved teen. I just share this as a means of explaining the book’s hold on, and power over, me. It appealed in ways I couldn’t then even begin to understand. Much in the way I couldn’t understand why my dad grew more and more distant. More and more closed off; until he just wasn’t there anymore at all. Like Louis Creed, he had his secrets, and those secrets destroyed a family.

Family is what I wish to write of today. As a husband and father myself, I’ve seen the devastating effects of my own secret sins wreak havoc on my family. Things, as they do in Pet Sematary, have a way of finding is out. And there is usually hell to pay. Oftentimes in art, as in life, warnings are given; yet we stubbornly, steadfastly choose to trudge right past them into our own (metaphorical) burying grounds. We believe somehow, as Louis Creed does, that it will be different for us–that we’ll, if not totally unscathed, escape the brunt of the consequences. That is basic human nature.

It is this power of temptation to work upon the mind, and heart, its wiles which lies at the heart of the Pet Sematary.

You see after reading it three times, I did not again revisit the Pet Sematary until just recently. Perhaps as a married man and father, knowing the general content of the tale, I was afraid to? This is likely. Perhaps it was because I knew that tales have a way of growing with us as we grow older? Yes, this, too.

So with trepidation and not a little dread, I reread the book. My worst suspicions were confirmed. Rather than diminish, the power of the book had grown. For what man among us, and despite the dire warnings, if he called himself a loving father, would not be tempted to do exactly as Louis Creed does? That is the insidious appeal and power which King has placed at the heart of Pet Sematary. Louis Creed is everyman who, when faced with a devastating loss, turns to the only way he can see out of it. It’s his fault, and by God (or other means) he’s going to fix it.

Only never works out that way, does it? Despite trying over and over again, we never can quite manage to squeeze some good out of something bad.

That, my friends, is the power of temptation, and the sway under which all of us on this side of the grave live.

God help us all, darling.

thomascovenant1-6

These days, there’s one name which readily comes to the tongue with regards to adult fantasy: George R.R. Martin. It’s no wonder. First, his book series–A Song of Ice and Fire–took the nineties by storm; then came the HBO series, Game of Thrones, which is a cultural juggernaut. Fantasy as a genre goes back much further, of course. Just how far do we go back? Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf? Certainly not children’s stories. For brevity’s sake, let’s here confine ourselves to select works of the past sixty (or so) years.

Now in a sense all fiction is fantasy, as it’s all made up. But we shall here confine ourselves to what is contemporaneously termed adult fantasy. As I said above, George R.R. Martin is the name du jour in adult fantasy (there are others: Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, the late Terry Pratchett), but Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (though it evolved from a children’s work, The Hobbit) certainly qualifies. As does Stephen R. Donaldson’s excellent Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

And it is about Thomas Covenant that I wish to talk today. Coming on the heels of the release of Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara, Donaldson’s book ushered in a era of renewed interest in, and popularity of, adult fantasy. We’re talking 1977 here, folks–the year of Star Wars–and Donaldson wrote about about dyspeptic former writer turned leper who awakes in a mysterious world known as the Land. Unlike, for instance, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Covenant is no hero. He is a deeply conflicted man at odds with both himself and the world around him. At one time, he knew his place (knew who he was in relation to himself, others, and the world around him): he was a husband, successful writer, and father to an infant son.

Then he contracted leprosy, and his world imploded. Taught at the leprosarium in Louisiana to do a V.S.E. (“Visual Surveillance of Extremities”), Covenant built a new reality. Then the bottom dropped out again when his wife, Joan, left him citing contagion. Cut off from life, from those he loves, from others on his farm outside a small New Mexico town, he becomes embittered. V.S.E. becomes his life.

Leprosy is his only reality. And so little do others want him to be around that someone has paid his utility bills in advance. No one wants any contact with Thomas Covenant. Then it happens: he deliberately heads into town to pay his phone bill, only to find that it, too, has been paid. Enraged, he leaves the Bell office only to swoon in front of an advancing car.

The he awakes in the Land. He of course disbelieves all that he sees around him, chalking it up to a fever dream.

Reality, as it so often does to us, has gobsmacked him. He is in denial. All of his carefully constructed realities have gone whoosh! with the wind. With a name like Thomas Covenant, he is contractually obligated to doubt! And doubt he does–forcefully and actively. To the point where he, and bear in this is well before it became de rigueur to pen tales about antiheroes, does despicable things because “none of this is real.” His only reality, as stated above, is his sickly flesh. As he says, “dead nerves don’t regenerate.”

But in the Land, they do.

I don’t want to allegorize, but instead make an application to our real world: the Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins until Christ makes us alive. And are we not like Thomas Covenant, holding onto our unreality–because there’s no such thing as a free lunch? It seems to good to be true. Dead things can’t live again. So we hold onto our sin, because it’s all we know. Moreover, even after coming to Christ, how long and hard do we work to hold onto our carefully crafted selves, and our comfortable lives? God comes in, has a work for us, and we like Covenant figuratively put our heads in the sand, saying “La, la, la can’t hear you, God.”

Allow me to circle back around here; what I believe The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to be about is simply calling. And he gets himself into the most trouble by stubbornly denying that calling.

How very much like us. “There’s no way God could use me,” we often say. Like Thomas Covenant himself, God doesn’t call the equipped–He equips the called. In Covenant’s world, he has the wild magic, bound up as it is in his white gold ring (symbolic of commitment, purity, purpose); we in ours have the Holy Spirit–the very mind of Christ available to us. “We are more than conquerors,” as the Bible says. Yet why is it that we don’t live in that place? Because, like Covenant, doubt.

Friends, it’s time stop denying, and embrace the calling placed upon you. If it feels too large–good! Because it is.

But you’re not on this journey alone.

The very Creator walks with you. Lean into Him today.

And read The Chronicle of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I guarantee the books, with the questions of life, faith, calling it poses, will hit you where you live.

It’s no secret that I’m an avid reader. Everything I’ve written here this week has been about reading. How do I–while having a family, holding down a job, writing stories of my own–manage to get so much reading in? Like anything worth doing, it’s simple (but not easy!):

1) Make reading a priority. That is to say, ask yourself “What am I willing to give up so I can do more reading?” It’s simply a matter of like vs. loves, e.g., what likes (for instance: T.V. shows, movies) am I willing to give up to pursue my love of reading?

2) Keep a book (or books) with you at all times. Paperbacks are small–and so are Kindles, smartphones, etc. With the advent of the eBook, and associated reading apps, there’s really no excuse to not have a book (or two, or three) with you.

3) Audiobooks. With Audible, and indeed the digital collections of your friendly local public library, you can listen to your books, i.e., be read to whilst you do something else (exercise, drive, perform domestic duties).

4) Combine the above so that, in essence, you’re reading more than one book at a time. For instance, some of my favorite books are either out of print, or only available in physical formats; so I’ll have a paperback with me at all times. At the same time, I’ll have another book going on my Kindle for late night reading. Additionally, I keep a book in each of the lavatories in my home so that I have yet another book going. To which I may, or may not, add an audiobook to the mix for listening to in the car (or at the gym).

Really what it comes down to is priorities.

Do you want to do more reading, or not? How have you found ways to work more reading into your busy life?

Reading, like anything else worth doing, requires intentionality. It’s a discipline. People who view reading as a leisure time activity are not, in my estimation, actually readers at all. For only someone who doesn’t read could so readily overlook the commitment of time, mental acuity, and emotional investment that reading requires of the reader.

It may be passive in the sense that one is typically not up and moving around while reading. But there is much activity occurring underneath the cranium. To look at a reader is akin (in a sense) to look at someone suffering from a chronic illness: just because one doesn’t see something going does not mean that nothing indeed is going on.

Think of all the time people these days put into binge watching Netflix, for instance, and multiply that 100x for a reader engaged with a beloved book. There is an investment there. It takes discipline to tune out: the T.V., music, Twitter, Facebook, etc. It takes commitment to continue. The characters become in a very real sense friends–we live, laugh, love, suffer, and die with them.

They become family.

Which is why this Lenten season I’m committed to reading as many books as possible which confront in my comforts, skewer my denials, challenge my assumptions; in short, bring me up short, showing me my abject poverty, mortality, and my utter need for Christ.

Who’s with me?

My ecclesiasial experience began in my youth by attending services with my maternal grandmother. This only happened in her company, and then only in summer. The rest of the year, my family was so very protestant we didn’t darken the doors of any church with our presence. Not at Christmas, nor even at Easter.

God was simply a paradigm with nob practical relevance for me. Yet interestingly, most of my reading consisted of works within the genres of horror and fantasy. Even then, there was a hunger in me for something more, something numinous, supernatural. In a way, those books became my church, a way of joining a world greater, darker, lighter, more mysterious than the one in which I lived.

Like Emeth, in Lewis’s The Last Battle, my allegiance may have been to Tash, but heart (perhaps even unbeknownst to me) was seeking. Seeking something more, something other: a new, a different, life.

That search was to have its fruition when I met a girl, right around Easter time, 1988. The girl, of course, invited me to church. And in May of that year, like Lewis before me, I admitted that God was God, and that it was He Whom I had been seeking. Casting off the books, I embraced my Savior.

To honor that journey, this Lenten season, I am returning to some of those books I loved as a child, the ones which first awakened in me that desire for a different life. In looking back I am taking stock of whence I’ve come to more clearly see the signposts of where God was at work when I didn’t know Him. My hope is that in so doing is to thereby kindle the fires of faith for the road ahead.

What are you doing for Lent?