Winner of the American Christian Fiction Writer's Carol Award for Dauntless!!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Women and Children on Crusade???




   You might be wondering why I included women and children on crusades in my new Valiant Hearts book, Courageous. This story is set in the early 1200s, a period known as the Fifth Crusade in the Holy Land. Of course at this time, battle was primarily for men. It was the men’s responsibility to protect women, not the other way around. And yet, perhaps because of the religious fervor surrounding the crusades and the pilgrimage nature of them, there is ample record of women and children going along as well. Sometimes even whole families. 

Typical male crusaders
Generally women supplied water and provisions and tended the wounded. But it was also considered proper for them to man launching weapons and shoot bows and arrows from a distance. According to Islamic legends of the crusades, there might have been some women disguised as knights fighting on the front lines, although European records do not concur on this issue. Certainly in times of desperation, women throughout history have done what they must and fought for their lives. 

An actual, historical, "Children’s Crusade" had two waves in the early 1200s. Thousands of children followed visionary young teens and set off on crusade, but there is no record of any reaching the Holy Land. Many died along the way, others turned back, and it seems some might have been lost at sea. I wanted to complete that legend, while still presenting the vast complexities of the crusades.

Now to the toughest question you might be asking, should the crusades have been fought at all? In the beginning, the Christian countries of Europe were trying to turn the tide of hundreds of years of Muslim invasion and oppression. They wanted to kick the Muslims out of Europe and take back land lost by their Christian brothers and sisters in the Byzantine part of the world. I would contend that those reasons were as solid and justifiable as those fueling any war in history. But war is messy.

From the start motives were mixed. Some wanted power and money while others had altruistic motives. Sometimes crusaders from different European countries cooperated; sometimes they undermined each other and broke treaties that other groups had made. Some crusades were led by strong, chivalrous leaders, and others turned into riotous mobs. And almost always the new crusaders from Europe failed to understand their enemy and the complex social structure of the Middle East.

 I think you'll enjoy the way I handled the potentially tricky subject of the crusades in Courageous. I attempt to take an honest look at both sides, showing honor to the Muslim natives, while still examining some difficult aspects of their religion and culture. This is one fictional adventure you won't want to miss out on.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Trapped in a War Zone

 In Courageous, a brave group of crusaders including both women and children face battles in Tripoli--the area known as Lebanon today. Believe it or not, I was once trapped in a war zone in Lebanon with my children. I'm not sure that I was quite as brave as the characters in my book, but I wanted to share that story with you anyway.

Trapped in a War Zone
(As seen on Inkwell Inspirations, January 18, 2010)


My kids and I enjoying Lebanon
During the summer of 2006 I was in Lebanon with my husband and three children visiting family. We were having a lovely vacation filled with mountains, beaches, caves, waterfalls, sunsets, rainbows, castles, shopping, and parties. Then with no warning, a war broke out between Israel and a terrorist organization (or upstanding, community oriented, political faction—according to the smiling roadside signs). The closest Hezbollah camp lay about two miles from my husband’s little Christian village of Aabra in the heart of the Islamic South where Jesus once walked. Right away we heard the bombs and felt the house shake.

Life went on.

Sitting on the balcony drinking coffee
Women sat on the porch painting their nails. Some old men dealt cards and drank coffee. Children played soccer on the sunny streets. This was Lebanon after all. You could hardly put things on hold for yet another war, and since neither Hezbollah nor Israel had a gripe with the little Christian village, people painted nails, played soccer, and drank coffee.

Later that evening we went to a party. When we heard a particularly seismic bang, they told the children someone had set off fireworks for the birthday celebration. My husband took me aside and informed me it was the bridge to Beirut. Beirut and the airport. The way out. They always bombed it first to cut off the South from supplies. I didn’t enjoy the cake so much. A trapped sensation began to squeeze my chest.

On the way home I watched red rockets shoot into the sky. Not in celebration of Clara’s birthday. Teens lined the streets watching them like fireworks anyway. That’s when I realized: although no one had a gripe with the neutral little village, sometimes innocent bystanders get caught in the fray. Hezbollah rockets flew willy-nilly across the sky after streaking Israeli jets, not at all concerned where they landed. I watched the flares apex and arch and spin back down to earth, without a care. The rockets. Not me.

That night I kept my children in an interior room of the house. Thank God Lebanese homes are made of stone. I prayed and sang worship songs and read Psalms on the vibrating bed to the whistling flute and booming bass drum of rockets blasts, until I couldn’t take it anymore. My eleven-year-old daughter Christiana picked up the Bible and continued. Here is a portion from the scripture she found.

Psalm 140 (The Message Version)
1-5 God, get me out of here, away from this evil; protect me from these vicious people. All they do is think up new ways to be bad; they spend their days plotting war games. They practice the sharp rhetoric of hate and hurt, speak venomous words that maim and kill.

Appropriate don’t you think.

After a while the kids fell asleep, but I could not. I struggled to calm my racing heart, to still my shaking hands, to swallow back my fear. I stroked their curly heads as they lay in peace, treasuring each child, each moment, the tranquil features of their small faces. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning I crawled to my own bed on the side of the house where the rockets zoomed. I didn’t care anymore. I was desperate to escape into dreams.

But with the first light of dawn I awoke to my husband’s whispered confession. “They bombed the airport last night.”

And panic set in.  I could no longer hold it at bay. It seized my heart, clutching it, cinching tight, threatening to smash the life right out of it. I could barely find the air to breathe. My husband spent the day on the computer and the phone. I curled in a ball and cried and tried to keep the kids from playing soccer on the sunny streets. My daughter read us Psalms.

Where to go? What to do? This was no child’s game. We were truly trapped. Should we go to Syria? To Jordan? Take a taxi? Steal a car? I couldn’t spend months in that village listening to bombs drop. I would never survive. Besides, there were things waiting for us back home: dance camps and church picnics, homeschool planning and season tickets to amusement parks.

This was not my life!

No good solutions surfaced, but we had to do something. My in-laws wanted us to stay there in that—can’t eat, can’t sleep, bass drums rumbling, must keep the kids from playing soccer on the sunny streets—hell. They’d been through wars before. We’d be trapped but safe. They seemed certain. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just sit and drink coffee on the balcony while waiting for my nails to dry. While waiting for the war to pass and the bombs to cease. Everything within me cried out to fight.

I called my kids and husband to the interior room. It was the most peaceful place in the house. We sang and prayed some more. I asked the children if any of them had a word from God. Lord knew I was far too much of a mess to hear. Adam, not quite four-years-old, piped up. “I do,” he said in his squeaky little voice.

Adam, not quite four, waiting for refuge
He proceeded to tell us the story of a boy who wandered away from home and ended up in a library. As he described it, we could picture the two sets of double doors and the foyer in between. The boy entered the first set and got stuck there. He couldn’t go in, and he couldn’t get out.

We didn’t know at the time that back home people were experiencing similar visions and dreams. But when Adam told us the story, we felt we understood. The library represented man’s wisdom. If we did what seemed wise, we would be trapped. I couldn’t be trapped again. I couldn’t stay trapped in that village any longer.

My husband said, “So, let’s go north to Beirut.”

Now, you have to understand traveling north to Beirut was the stupidest thing we could have done. The Israelis were on a mission to bomb out all the bridges and shut down transportation, and to get to Beirut would mean crossing many, many bridges.

But as my husband spoke those words, a peace settled over the room like a soft snuggly blanket. We knew. We had our answer. I knew. I wasn’t trapped. My mourning was done. The world was light and bright again, and I didn’t care about the crashing bass drums.

I washed off my tears and went to eat some food for the first time that day. My mother-in-law was furious and shouting at me in Arabic. “Don’t leave. Stay here. It’s safer here.” Mafais shi, she said in her own language. It’s nothing.

I had been married for thirteen years at this point, and I always pretended I didn’t understand my mother-in-law in such moments. But this time I stood up and yelled back. In Arabic no less. “This is the right thing to do. I know it. Look at me. I’m not crying. I can eat. I’m happy. This is my family. These are my children. We’re leaving. And you can’t stop us.” I’m sure my Arabic was broken, and I messed half of it up. I’m probably not remembering the words quite right. But you get the point. And so did she.

Dina and Jonny posing on the broken down car
Gathering up our suitcases, we smashed into an old car along with two of my nieces who longed to return to their parents in the city. We drove up and down the mountains looking for paths where bridges still crossed the streams. As we gazed at the sky and listened for whistling rocket flutes before speeding over each one—I felt free. Free and at peace with God and the world. Oh, and the car broke down for a few minutes somewhere along the way, but I didn't mind. I just sat on the hood and smiled.

Almost four-year-old Adam was right. If we tried to get out of the country we would have been trapped at the border for days. And the borders were being bombed.

Instead we piled into a two-bedroom apartment with my brother-in-law’s family in Beirut. It was crowded, but I felt free. I spent the next week hanging out at the local hamburger joint with a play place, swimming at an uncle’s high rise luxury condo, and watching my favorite American television shows in English or French.

Crammed onto the refugee boat taking us to the larger ship
All the while, I tried to convince my parents back home that we were fine. Because, you see, over 1,200 civilians died during the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Understandably, my parents were trapped in their own—can’t eat, can’t sleep, bass drums rumbling, must keep the kids from playing soccer on the sunny streets—hell. Thousands of Americans were praying for us by this time. I got emails from old college buddies. My mother became close friends with our local congresswoman, Thelma Drake. Hi, Thelma. What’s up?

And although I empathized with my parents back home, I had discovered a secret in the midst of the war. Sometimes in the middle of being trapped, you can wind up feeling oddly…free.

When the US government finally announced they would send refugee ships, we were a five-minute drive from the departure spot, precisely where we needed to be. Adam’s vision proved true yet again. God had spoken. God is always speaking if only we will stop and listen. He had been our hiding place. Our refuge in that storm.

Happy refugees!
I have more great stories about mobs and two days roasting on a concrete bridge and my kids being passed over the heads of US Marines. But finally, we sat on the deck of the USS Nashville watching the Lebanese skyline slip past. Feeling the cool Mediterranean breeze under the clear blue sky. We slept right on the deck under the stars. That might be my favorite night ever.

There’s something great about living through a war. The next year when my then twelve-year-old daughter asked to go on a foreign mission trip, we said to ourselves, “She survived a war in Lebanon; she’ll survive this.” And when we decided to put the kids in public school we said, “They survived a war in Lebanon; they’ll survive public school.”

There’s something great about being trapped in a war. Something that leaves you oddly…free.


Back safe in the states!


For more info on the 2006 War in Lebanon visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Lebanon_War

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Middle Eastern Experiences

Courageous officially releases today. In this story, a group of men, women, and children go on crusade to the Holy Land, so I wanted to share about some of my own experiences with the Middle East.


Historically speaking, Courageous is the hardest book I’ve ever undertaken. While there's plenty of research available on the politics of the crusades and the battles fought, there's very little available about day to day life in the Holy Land at that time. Everyday issues are often ignored by history because they are taken for granted by the chroniclers. I was able to find little snippets here and there that helped me to picture the clothing, architecture, and food. I learned that the crusaders in those areas tended to fuse the native and European cultures. However, the best fact I found was the simple explanation that life in that part of the world changed little from around 1000 A.D. until today.

Suddenly things became much easier for me because my husband is from Lebanon—which was called Tripoli and the northern part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the time of the crusades—and I have taken several extended trips to that part of the world. I've danced their Debke, drunk their Turkish coffee, smoked their argileh, and eaten their tabouli, hummus, and pita bread. I even speak some Arabic--at about a two-year-old level, complete with continuous grammar mistakes. LOL. Lebanon has an amazing and varied landscape. You can easily swim in the warm, blue Mediterranean and visit the snow-capped mountains in the same day in this area located just north of modern day Israel.

Lebanon is varied in its religions as well. In addition to being home to Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze Muslims, and even a handful of Sufi Muslims, Lebanon is also one of the only Middle Eastern countries to have a strong Christian presence from the time of the apostles until today. During its last census, taken in the mid 1900s, the majority of Lebanese people were Christian, mostly Maronite (their own denomination which is recognized by the Catholic church), Catholic, and Orthodox. The current Lebanese political system is set up to split key government roles between the dominant religions, with the president being Christian. But perhaps partly because of this diversity, Lebanon has been the setting for war after war throughout history.

Me and my kids in Lebanon, 2006.
My familiarity with the Middle East and its customs and religions is a large part of why I chose to tackle this story in the first place. I have even been caught in Lebanon during fighting between the Muslim group, Hezbollah, and the Israeli forces in 2006 (I'll share more about that in an upcoming post). So I understand the sorts of challenges they face in that part of the world.

Muslims are people just like us. There are many types both religiously and ethnically, and I am blessed to call many Muslims my friends. While there is in fact much violent and negative teaching in the Muslim holy book, the average Muslim person just wants to live a peaceful and prosperous life. They want to be surrounded by friends and family and bring some good to the world. On the other hand, perhaps even more so today than during the crusades, there is a deep religiously based hatred instilled in children throughout the Middle East toward the Christians and especially the Jews. That sad reality cannot be ignored. But there is one more interesting factor to keep in mind. Muslims have been coming to Christ in surprising numbers during recent years. Some through dreams and visions, and many others through the new openness brought to that part of the world by satellite television and internet.

            I hope that by taking a historical trip through the pages of Courageous, you will begin to better understand this complex and fascinating part of the world and the conflicts and challenges they still face today.

Have you ever been to the Middle East? Would you like to travel there? Do you have any Muslim friends or acquaintances?