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By Christine Sunderland

In the early stages of writing a novel, in the choosing of themes and characters, research must be done to create a grand design. In my novel-in-progress, (working title) Angel Mountain, I have chosen to write about the creation of the world in terms of evolutionary theory and genome mapping.

I became intrigued, more and more, with the character with which I had the most difficulty, a hermit living on the side of a mountain. I sensed that he and the mountain were a central focus.

In my third novel, Inheritance, Brother Cristoforo preaches from the hillsides of Oxfordshire and Somerset in England. Was it time to return to such a scene, albeit with a different mountain and different character?

I began to research the mountain that rises behind our house. In my story, the hermit Abram has named it Angel Mountain, and as I discovered its many faces, its facades and seasons, doors opened upon one another, revealing miracle, creation, and beauty.

I knew, after doing rough biographies of my four main characters, that I needed to focus next on plot, starting with a central crisis. Like the mountain, all else would fall away from that peak, all subplots, all chapters and scenes, would stream down, water falling into grassy pools.

I could see and hear my hermit crying from a ledge, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” I could see his white robes blowing in the wind, his ragged beard flowing down to his rope belt, his silver hair matted and knotted and hanging down his back, bound by a string.

A crowd gathers, for they had heard of the crazy Abram with his hate speech. The trigger warnings had been many and frequent. It was said that he called men and women sinners. He called them to change, to be reborn. But, they whined, who was he to judge them? So they came to see, they came to seek, but they also came to heckle and hurt.

Abram leads a group to a waterfall that streams into a shallow pond. He stands in the water, beckoning, calling for repentance, baptism, a turning and returning to God, with power of water and Spirit. The first penitent kneels on the grassy edge, and Abram dips his cupped hands into the pond. He pours the water upon the man’s head as he proclaims, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The young man solemnly stands. As he turns to go, Abram commands, “Go and sin no more.” Abram lays white muslin on the penitent’s shoulders. They look into one another’s eyes, and the young man nods. “I will try,” he says.

A stone flies through the air. Another follows. The police are mingling along the edge of the crowd. They are too few and there are far too many others, and the crowd undulates in its passion, hollering, waving signs, and throwing stones.

Two women, one old, one young, and a man of middle years, rush to Abram, to protect him, to lead him away. But he stands straight and tall and gazes to the skies where dark clouds form in the distance. He begins to cry silently, and the tears could be seen by those nearby. The women on either side, risking their own lives, knew they were tears of love.

The baptized ones, their white muslin draped over their shoulders, disappear into the crowd, hiding, fearful, keeping their distance.

Abram sings as the stones fly.

“Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters rise,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, o my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.”

Charles Wesley, 1740, Tune: Aberystwyth by Joseph Parry, 1879

Is this the old hermit’s end? Or his beginning? Is this the peak from which all falls away? Birth and rebirth, dying and death, second comings.

Billy Graham died recently, or rather, as he said, he changed his address. He was a powerful man preaching in a stadium, not a hillside. Is Abram a Billy Graham of our times or a John the Baptist of old? Indeed, there have been many John the Baptists through the centuries. Charles Wesley, author of the above hymn, traveled the roads of Oxfordshire, preaching in the fields with his brother John and fellow Anglican cleric, George Whitefield, just as my Brother Cristoforo did in Inheritance. They all followed in the tradition of their Lord who preached from the hillsides and walked the paths. Hymns came naturally.

Through the years those who knew Christ sang to him. Hymns – musical poetry praising God – became a beautiful conversation between Earth and Heaven. Why did I choose this particular hymn? I had found it in a prayer book that belonged to the late Robert Sherwood Morse, my friend and bishop for over forty years. The book included not only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but the hymnal as well. One of three satin ribbons opened to the page, “Jesus, lover of my soul.”

I found online choral versions of the hymn, sung in cathedrals and parishes around the world. But a version sung solo by Fernando Ortega, one which intoned a haunting melancholy rimmed with joy, seemed right for Abram. Ortega’s songs are influenced by the language of the Book of Common Prayer and traditional hymns. He had moved from evangelical to Anglican and back to evangelical. He sang tributes to Ruth and Billy Graham, having served with Anne Graham Lotz Ministries.

Billy Graham called for repentance for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Today is Wednesday in Easter week, a time of joy born of suffering. So too the created world suffers the birth pangs of spring; seeds long buried in the dark soil sprout with new life. The hills are a lush green, the grasses reaching for the skies, the universe and eternity. Wildflowers blossom. Nature sings with the glory of creation.

The music of creation, of the universe, of the spheres, rings through the land, for from death springs life, and in crucifixion, we find resurrection.

Designing gives order to creation, and creation reflects and reveals the intelligence of design. As Christian writers, we must do the same.

Designing: How hermits and hillsides created my novel, by award-winning @Chrisunderland #ACFWBlogs Click To Tweet

Christine Sunderland has authored six award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set in England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, The Magdalene Mystery, set in Rome and Provence (all Oaktara), and The Fire Trail (eLectio), set at UC Berkeley. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union ( Visit Christine at (website and blog).


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