Guest Post By Jason William Karpf
Isaiah 61:3 NLT
To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory.
Ashes. The sign of destruction. Growing up geographically in Southern California, I saw ashes as the recurrent symbol of the brush fires that would obliterate the wilderness ringing the megalopolis, raze homes in those scrubby hills, and rain smoky residue on the flatlanders. Growing up economically and spiritually in Hollywood, I thrashed in the ashes of incinerated show business careers—my mother’s and my own. Ashes meant destruction literally and failure figuratively, a cosmic stopwatch hitting zero. Three decades of assignments and produced credits for Mom was a better window of opportunity than most get, more than I got as she tried to hold the window open for me at the end.
Isaiah presents a crown of beauty, a glorious replacement for the ashes that settle on our heads and swallow us eventually. Mom was a believer but did not divine this promise when the metaphoric flames overtook our family. The fallout of failure entombed us. I struggled to dig out—enraged, bitter, my brash bet of dropping out of college to make music and write scripts not paying off. It was easy to blame Mom, and I did. She accepted the pain and shame too willingly, her contributions ebbing in my final push to sell a script—any script—to put us back on the map. In the mid-1990s, a parent myself now with two young children, I walked away from Hollywood and Mom, shaking the dust from my shoes.
Isaiah 48:10 NLT
I have refined you, but not as silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.
Had I read the prophet in those distant decades, I would’ve understood fire belongs to God, not Satan. The father of lies said I failed. Actually, my Heavenly Father was recasting me (Hollywood pun intended). Burning away the dross, the waste product of Malachi 3:3, takes heat, pressure, and time. The young man’s alloy of fury, woe, and entitlement sloughed. The born-again man stepped from the crucible, finer metal showing. Ashes were strewn about but not smothering me, simply evidence of my Father’s flame.
Today, as I approach my sixties, I’ve returned to creative writing. My novel, Brimstone 1, is a sci-fi/action tale of the first Christian rocket. It would’ve been impossible to write without the intervening years—going back to school, learning marketing, becoming a teacher, and most importantly, finding Jesus when I met my wife, Anni, in 2004. It would’ve been impossible without my Hollywood past, when I fell in love with Twilight Zone and James Bond and strove to tell stories that followed suit. And it would’ve been impossible without Mom, now resting in Jesus, who always did her best for me, even when I thought it wasn’t good enough. Forgiveness settles the ashes.
Your ashes are not a wasteland. They mark the Lord’s workshop. You may be in midlife like me, a season when the ashes have accumulated. Praise the heat, the destruction of the destructive, the refinement of the positive. Here is a process to take inventory of God’s glory in you:
Forgive. The Bible has a wealth of lessons on the subject. Our energy is precious in midlife. Don’t waste it on anger or fantasies of revenge. Recognize the gifts entwined with sorrows. You can’t separate them. My anger at my mother for home life and career deficits ignored the blessings of her intellect, creativity, and teaching. That’s unrealistic and unchristian. Everything in my being that gives me purpose and satisfaction comes from her. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God.
Dream. I hated myself for daring to dream as a young man, only to see the vision vanish. Life without dreams is sackcloth and—yes—ashes. This public penitence never works. I didn’t stabilize by stifling my heart to offset my giddy days. Dust off the old dreams. What form do they take after the refining fire? As I entered middle age, God turned my love of writing into a career in marketing and PR. How can your dreams be applied anew?
Plan. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah show good things happening after prudent thought and hard work. God’s grace and glory drive us to action in his name. How can you convert the first, small part of your refined dream(s) into reality? In 2000, I learned about the marketing industry and going back to college as I plunged into a new life. In 2020, I learned about Christian sci-fi and book publishing before making my next leap. In the 1980s and early 1990s, my goal was to become the next James Cameron—or else! I’ve modified the dream today, not losing its essence, but receiving great joy during the process of planning and executing, a joy absent in my youth.
Technology has given us tremendous access to knowledge, networks, and tools. Need to learn more about the technology needed to learn and grow? Make that first on your planning list. Resources and support abound.
Pray. My actions and aspirations as a young man lacked God. Today, I do everything in His name. Still, I constantly forget to pray. Luckily, my wife, my pastors, and an in-box of daily devotionals remind me. Midlife has brought new confidence and excitement, but I must remember these qualities are gifts. My gratitude and humility are good. Deprivation is not. I deprived myself of God’s love and strength for much of my life. Reconnection and renewal are a short prayer away.
Ashes. The scorched hills of Southern California surround me. The old infernos are exhausted, the charred remains deep, cold, and quiet. This is my framework, my establishing shot in the ancient argot. Step free of your ashes but don’t worry about tidying up. As you shine in God’s radiance, you look good against the backdrop.
Jason William Karpf is an author and professor who lives in Minnesota with his wife, Anni. A history and trivia aficionado, Jason was a four-time Jeopardy champion.
MUSIC WE LOVE
Fires – Jordan St. Cyr
Beauty For Ashes – Crystal Lewis & Ron Kenoly