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The Sacrificial Lamb

The posts I did today on my crowdfunding site (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/centurion) all give context to the story of the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus.

So does the short video clip here. I have also included a link to a sermon by Tim Keller, which I think you will enjoy.

http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/story-lamb

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November 26, 2013 · 6:36 pm

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

When I was a young Christian in college, I had a lot of questions regarding the hows and whys of everything from creation to redemption. I knew Christ died for the sins of the world. What I didn’t understand is why. Because he loved us, of course. I knew that. What I was unclear about was why the problem of humanity’s sin couldn’t be dealt with in another way? I mean, why couldn’t God just forgive everyone with one sweeping judicial pardon? He was God, wasn’t He? He could do whatever He wanted, couldn’t He? But if for some reason He couldn’t do that, why then couldn’t He have just swept everyone away in judgment and simply start over again?

I can’t remember specifically asking God to help me find an answer to that question, but maybe the Spirit of God translated those unspoken concerns into words and breathed them as a prayer on my behalf. Who knows? But dim the lights and draw the curtains, and I will show you how God answered those questions.

*****

Two of the greatest love stories ever told. The one, at Camelot; the other, at Calvary. Two of the noblest kings ever to live. The one, King Arthur; the other, King of the Jews. The one is adorned with a jewelled crown; the other, with a crown of thorns. The one is staged in elaborate settings and costumes with scenes of pomp and pageantry; the other, shrouded in darkness, with scenes of hair matted from dried blood, of wounds throbbing with fever, of bones disjointed from the pendulous slump of weight that did not resist. The one is poetically carried along by musical interludes; the other, prosed in broken fragments of conversations, punctuated by the guttered tauntings of a mob thirsting for blood. The one is a stage and film masterpiece, play and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe; the other, a dark page from history, written simply by a few inarticulate friends of the deceased.

The comparisons and contrasts between Camelot and Calvary are many, but one scene from Camelot illustrates a great theological dilemma that only the Cross could resolve. Was there no other path than the rocky incline that led to Calvary?

A King’s Request Denied

Prior to his appointment with destiny on the brow of that fateful hill, Jesus agonized in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The emotional atmosphere surrounding those words is heavy with sweat and tears. The verses following tell of Jesus “being in agony” and “praying very fervently.” So exhausting was the ordeal that afterward it was necessary for an angel to come and strengthen him.

Understand, on an emotional level, that this is the pleading of a son to his father. If your child came to you in such agony, asking, begging, and pleading with such a submissive heart, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to grant the request? “Which of you,” Jesus himself taught, “if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Wouldn’t you give food to one of your children who came to you with such hunger? Certainly you would. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

But this Father, this time, didn’t. And that’s the theological rub. He denied the request of His son, His only son, His beloved son. In Gethsemane that son was asking: “Is there no other way?” The Father’s answer is found in the paragraphs following the request. The son is betrayed, arrested, deserted, denied, beaten, tried, mocked, and finally crucified. Tacitly the Father answers: “No, there is no other way.”

Instead of the removal of suffering’s cup, Jesus is given sour wine upon the Cross. An apparent stone for the requested loaf. A snake for a fish.

But why? Why was there no other way?

The Execution Scene at Camelot

I found the answer to that question in a scene from Camelot, where the adulterous relationship between Queen Guenevere and Arthur’s most trusted knight, Sir Lancelot, has divided the Round Table. When the scheming Mordred catches them in a clandestine encounter, Lancelot escapes. Guenevere is not so fortunate. The chorus sings her fate:

On a day, dark and drear,
Came to trial Guenevere.
Ruled the jury for her shame
She be sentenced to the flame.

As the day of execution nears, people come from miles around with one question in their minds:

Would the King let her die?
Would the King let her die?
There was wonder far and near:
Would the King burn Guenevere?

After the chorus posed the question, Mordred enters the scene:

Arthur! What a magnificent dilemma!
Let her die, your life is over;
Let her live, your life’s a fraud.
Which will it be Arthur? Do you kill
the Queen or kill the law?

The fact that Arthur was Guenevere’s husband, and, at the same time, her king, created the dilemma. If he carries out the sentence, he upholds the law and validates himself to be a just and impartial king. Yet, in doing so, he calls into question his love. “Would the King burn Guenevere?” His tender wife whom he affectionately called Jenny? Jenny, who gave sparkle to his eyes? Jenny, who gave joy to his heart?

His heart tells him to set her free. If he did, it would certainly remove any doubt of his love. But by bending justice and showing partiality, he would call into question his right to rule.

Tragically but resolutely, Arthur decides:

Treason has been committed! The jury has ruled!
Let justice be done!

The chorus continues:

She must burn. She must burn.
Spoke the king: She must burn.
And the moment now was here
For the end of Guenevere.

High from the castle window stands Arthur as Guenevere enters the courtyard. Accompanying her are two guards and a priest. She walks to her unlit stake, where the executioner stands with waiting torch. Arthur turns away, emotion brimming in his eyes, as the chorus continues:

Slow her walk, bowed her head,
To the stake she was led…

A herald mounts the tower where Arthur has withdrawn:

The Queen is at the stake, Your Majesty.
Shall I signal the torch?

Arthur is devastated. Again the herald calls, this time with greater urgency:

Your Majesty…! Your Majesty…!

But the King cannot answer. In the background the chorus adds:

In his grief, so alone
From the King came a moan…

Arthur’s love for Jenny spills from his broken heart:

I can’t! I can’t! I can’t let her die!

Seeing Arthur crumble, Mordred relishes the moment:

Well, you’re human after all, aren’t you,
Arthur? Human and helpless.

Tragically, Arthur realizes the truth of Mordred’s remark. Being only human, he is indeed helpless. But where this story ends, the greatest story ever told just begins.

The Execution Scene at Calvary

Another time. Another place. Another king.

The setting: a world lies estranged from the God who loves it. Like Guenevere, an unfaithful humanity stands guilty and in bondage, awaiting judgment’s torch.

Could God turn His head from the righteous demands of the law and simply excuse the world’s sin? If not, then could He turn his head from the world he loved? “Would the King burn Guenevere?”

Like the wicked Mordred, Satan must have looked on in delight:

God! What a magnificent dilemma!
Let them die, your life is over;
Let them live, your life’s a fraud;
Which will it be God? Do you kill your
world or do you kill the law?

Without even waiting for his Guenevere to look up in repentance, this King stepped down from his throne, took off his crown, laid aside his royal robes, and descended his castle’s polished steps into humanity’s pot-marked streets. Paul’s words in Philippians are thought by some scholars to be the lyrics of an ancient hymn, singing about the King of Kings…

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

God became a man so that Jesus, unlike Arthur, would be neither simply human nor helpless. He stepped down from his throne, giving up the luxury of the castle to live on earth. We were his Guenevere. He was both our king and the lover of our soul. And he gave up his Camelot for our cross. When he did, God satisfied both his love for us and the righteous demands of his law.

For me that scene in the movie was an epiphany of understanding. Suddenly it all made sense. I knew now why he had to die, why there was no other way.

I learned that when I was a freshman in college.

Not from college.

Not even from church.

From a movie.

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November 25, 2013 · 5:43 pm

The Backstory to the Book

“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion quite in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life—in understanding as in work.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

*****

That moment in yesterday’s post led me to a deeper relationship with Jesus. Several devotional books grew out of the seed that was planted in me that afternoon at the office. And several years later, the book I quoted from in yesterday’s post grew out of it.

The process seemed so organic, one growing out of the other, growing out of still another.

“Centurion” was different. I felt drawn to the story years ago—perhaps 15 years ago. I hadn’t thought about it a great deal, though, when my agent and I met with a vice president from Tyndale Publishing House. The meeting was about 40 minutes or so, as I recall. I had a number of projects I pitched, and, as it turned out, he wanted three of them—“The Divine Embrace” . . . “The North Face of God” . . . and “Centurion.”

“Centurion” at that time was just an overview of a story, a little over a page long; not a detailed outline and three sample chapters as is the standard practice. So, by the time I got around to that one (the other two preceded it), I wasn’t really ready to write it.

I wasn’t ready on a number of levels. I wasn’t ready with the research. I wasn’t ready with the character development. And, most importantly, “I” wasn’t ready.

The soil of my heart, so to speak, wasn’t prepared. Between freshly fallen leaves and soil is a transitional stage—compost—a stage when all that has died and fallen to the ground decays, gets a little rained on, a little moldy, gets the dung of passing animals dropped on it, and the burrowing of insects to mix it. Not a very appealing process, but a necessary one.

Before gestation could take place, the broken-down matter of my life with all its failures and regrets needed a season of moldering before it could nourish any life other than its own.

The beginning of that process began one day when I was working on the book. I took a break and skimmed the newspaper. The sidebar on the right-hand side of the paper announced that Mel Gibson was in production for a film, titled, “The Passion of the Christ.” My heart sunk.

A big part of the reason I wanted to write my book is that I didn’t think the crucifixion of Jesus had ever been shown in a feature film in a realistic way. Most reenactments were little more than Easter pageants, I felt. My entire first act was going to show the crucifixion the way you would have seen it if you were on that hill the day of the executions.

By the time I had finished the first act, the film came out. It was a wonderful piece of film-making—accurate, compelling, and for many, life-changing.

For me, though, it was a crisis of faith. I had wanted to be involved in the film industry since I first became a writer. And this was the story I felt sure would be what opened the door to that dream.

My dilemma was that my book would come out after the film, and so it would appear derivative. When I explained this to my publisher, he wanted me to hurry up and finish it so they could get it out as soon as possible. I couldn’t do that, I said. Then he said he could find a writer to finish it for me. And I said I couldn’t do that either.

The only way I felt the dilemma could be resolved was if I were to buy the book back. It took me four years of monthly installments, but I finally paid it off.

The years that followed were compost years, in every area of my life. I threw away most of what I had written. What little remained I put in a box. It felt like a cold-case file to me now.

I felt alone, rejected, and hurt so deeply. It almost seemed a cruel joke. I prayed. I called out to God. But nothing. I felt forsaken. A horrible feeling but a necessary one, at least for this project.

Years later, I picked it up again, and figured out a way to tell the story without focusing too much on the crucifixion (I’ll talk about that in another post).

What l learned about writing was that every project has its own gestation period. Some take months; others, years. My job as a writer was to tend the growth, not to force the growth.

Rilke was right. Here is what he went on to say . . .

*****

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

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November 17, 2013 · 11:50 pm

One of the Reasons That Drew Me to This Story

Our faith is based on an NC-17 event that took place two thousand years ago at a public place where many of the people gathered there had come solely for entertainment. Even though it was our Lord who was crucified there, we don’t want to look. The scenes are filled with R-rated language, full-frontal nudity, and violence that is both grotesque and gratuitous.

I would never want my children to go there and be exposed to such things.

But I would want to go there.

I would want to stand with John and Jesus’ mother and the other women who stood there, watching, weeping, wondering how such a bad thing could happen to such a good man. I would want to be there to pray for him. I would want him, when he had the strength to open his eyes, to see that he was surrounded by the faces of those who loved him. And I would want one of those faces to be mine.

I would want to be there so I could look into his eyes, and so he could look into mine. I would want to be there to tell him how much I loved him, and hope that, at some point, he would have the strength to tell me. I would want to hear what he had to say to God who had forsaken him, to the ones who had cursed him, and to the ones who had crucified him.

I would want to see how he suffered and how he died.

Because it was for me that he suffered and for me that he died.

I would want to be there so I would never forget what happened there.

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November 15, 2013 · 4:58 pm

Theme Music for Centurion

A few years ago, I heard this music in a restaurant and immediately fell in love with it. I asked about it and learned it was from from a group called ERA. It has an epic feel to it, and there was something noble about it, like the hymn of some ancient race that had long since died out, leaving behind only this song for others to remember it by, and maybe, just maybe, by it be inspired in some way.

I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to it, and each time it resonated with me in ways I can’t explain.

Amazing how music can do that, don’t you think?

The more I listened to it, the more I felt it would be good theme music for a soundtrack if the book ever became a film.

Though it is an instrumental piece, I just learned only minutes ago that ERA had written lyrics to the music, which I found quite compelling. Suddenly I knew why the music resonated within me. I’ll let you read the lyrics, then I’ll give you a peek into something I wrote later in the novel, and you’ll see why I felt the music a kindred spirit.

I Believe

One day I’ll hear
The laugh of children
In a world where war has been banned.

One day I’ll see
Men of all colours
Sharing words of love and devotion.

Stand up and feel
The Holy Spirit
Find the power of your faith.

Open your heart
To those who need you
In the name of love and devotion.

Yes, I believe.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
Where light will guide us
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
Where light will guide us
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

Yes, I believe.

I believe in the people
Of all nations
To join and to care
For love.

I believe in a world
And giving our love
We’ll make heaven on earth.

I believe

Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/era/i-believe-lyrics/#EJsyBopUxItryf1e.99

Now (I can’t tell you how excited I am to share this!) here are my words. The centurion has just returned to Alexandria, the city of his childhood, and he goes to the library that became the womb to so many of his childhood dreams.

*****

Lucius goes to the library alone, feeling the company of other officers an intrusion on this most sacred of places that occupied so much of his childhood. As he enters, he takes a deep breath. In that musty moment, his youth comes back to him. How he loved the woody smell coming from the honeycomb of shelves that held scrolled papyri, loved the luxuriant feel of leather parchments, loved the slightly cool sensation of clay tablets warming in his hands. He especially loved the codices, books of folded papyrus with holes bored in them near the edges and their wooden covers, all held together by leather thongs. The wood, smells of forest. The leather, of herded cattle. And the papyrus, of marshes around the Nile in summer.

It was like sniffing a goblet of aged wine, where he could smell the earth from which the grapes had been harvested, with all the fragrances in the loamy soil, the moldering leaves, the broken twigs, the darkness, the moistness, the sweetness. It was all there in one whiff. And it was wonderful.

Lucius touches an ancient scroll, then moves his fingers from one to another, slowly, reverently. He has missed the feel of Egyptian papyrus, something he has forgotten. The texture is smoother than what he encountered in Syria and Judea, because the process for making it is more painstaking and the raw materials more pure. It is as if the reeds along the Nile, from which the papyrus was made, grew up knowing the value of words in shaping ideas, the value of ideas in shaping citizens, the value of citizens in shaping cultures, and the value of cultures in shaping history.

At his fingertips lie shelved the greatness of three cultures—Roman, Greek, and Egyptian. The Egyptians were better farmers, he had concluded as a boy. They were better breeders and more awe-inspiring builders. The Greeks were better thinkers, better writers, better at almost everything. But the Romans, the Romans were better soldiers. They were, in fact, the best the world had ever seen. As a boy, he stood in awe of their stories, dreaming of the day when he would be old enough to join their ranks.

These shelves were the safe harbors that launched his boyhood dreams. Dreams that caught the winds of adventure and made chesty sails of his slackened years in Alexandria. How he loved the sea—the sight of it, the sound of it, the smell of it. It is what separated him from distant lands and, at the same time, what joined him. He was just a voyage away from anywhere. How many voyages had he stowed away on in his imagination so many years ago? So many he can’t remember.

He sees a scroll of Gallic Wars, written by Julius Caesar himself, a chronicle of his military campaigns, battling the barbarians, from the Germans to the Britons. It was the first book that set his young mind to dreaming . . . of the greatness of Rome . . . of the glory of war . . . of going off to sea.

His hands move across the numerous scrolls that make up Virgil’s Aeneid, which extolled the greatness of Rome from the day of its fabled beginnings. Then his eyes fall on Livy’s monumental work, History of Rome. How he loved Livy as a boy. Fragments of stories come back to him. He remembers one fragment where Terminus, the god of boundaries, had refused to be present at Rome’s birth. Its citizens interpreted this as an auspicious sign. So did Cicero, who concluded in The Republic, “The empire of the Roman people shall be extended to the farthest ends of the earth.”

Lucius suddenly realizes that he has helped fulfill this prophecy, having returned from those far reaches and extending the Empire there.

It had seemed so noble. It had all seemed so noble. Once.

The man in him wonders. Will a day ever come when men will clash with words rather than swords, and weaker ideas will fall in battle instead of fathers, sons, brothers, friends?

Or is it the boy in him that wonders such things?

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November 13, 2013 · 9:22 pm

A Visual Tour of Rome As It Would Have Been in 320 A. D.

Although this visualization of the city of Rome is of the city in 320 A. D., much later than my story, it was really fascinating, and I thought you would enjoy seeing it. Some of the structures would have been there during the time of Nero, but others, like the Colosseum, weren’t.

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November 13, 2013 · 12:41 am

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Film clip is from the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”

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November 8, 2013 · 7:58 pm