After miraculously surviving seven grueling months as a prisoner of war, Sergeant First Class Hamilton Riley maintains his spiritual cover in the US Army as a recruiter to embark on his next kingdom mission-saving four lost souls in Central Illinois. As he continues to surrender to the leading of the Holy Spirit, he encounters Hoyt, Salinas, Bradford, and West and ushers them into the journey of their own spiritual transformations. The four new believers enlist in God's army and begin their own basic training, preparing for their mission in the real battlefield of life.
The God story of each of these new recruits unfolds over the course of their spiritual training camp that mysteriously mimics that of the modern-day military. Their eyes gradually begin to open to the spiritual warfare that exists in and around each of them as they participate in exercises that utilize their gifts, the spiritual disciplines, and their relational bonds.
Hoyt, Salinas, Bradford, and West have answered the call; and now, as soldiers, they must prepare to don the armor.
Sergeant Riley lay naked, battered, and bruised, yet the odd floating light that emerged from the wee farthest corner brought him warmth and peace as it expanded and filled the alcoves of the container. Soft pillows of air crept through the spaces beneath his deadened limbs as a cool breeze brushed across his lacerated face, filling his nostrils with new life as he inhaled and expanded his lungs in relief. In desperation, the déjà vu of joy clung to the most remote recesses of his mind while the blasting sound of the music that had bombarded him from the outside with its random chants of quick rises and falls, off-beaten chimes, and snake-like rattles against the relentless pounding of the Doumbek faded into the distance.
His captors had been diligent about breaking him, housing him like a rabid dog in a box-like contraption that confined his shoulders and constricted his knees in a bent position. Although even his mind fogged in the depravity, he calculated that he had been their prisoner for about seven months now, the raising and lowering of that aggravating music aiding his count.
The captive had long given up on deciphering the noises; instead he cradled up next to one of the two air holes to avoid the onset of claustrophobia. When the fighter first had the strength, he used the foreign melodies to cover the sounds of his own music, but the caged one had been trained to keep it down. "Quiet down in there!" a low, raspy, accented voice shouted from outside the door as a dull thud further emphasized his point. "Or you'll get no food!"
The small amount of gruel or hardboiled egg seemed worth it at first, but the gaunt skeleton became too emaciated to gamble that away. As the prisoner lost the ability to muster much of a voice, he resorted to worship in his head even though that effort became a challenge as his days were filled with slipping in and out of consciousness.
As memories of his childhood, his initial tours in the service, or even his most impactful relationships swirled through his mind, the prisoner lost awareness of whether they were dreams or just thoughts that occupied his time.
* * *
"Hamilton, did you get those weeds pulled around the tomatoes?" Mrs. Riley hollered from the front porch as her boy walked down to the park with his bat and glove in hand. "Yes, ma'am," the ten-year-old bellowed back over his right shoulder, determined to reach his destination.
"Hamilton Clyde Riley, you hightail it back here right this moment!" his mother insisted in her most serious voice.
Although the middle name intended to honor his father, the use of it made the hair rise on the back of the child's neck every time. With all due respect to his hard-working patriarch, that name sounded so old-fashioned and downright embarrassed young Ham.
However, he knew when Mrs. Clyde Riley resorted to her baby's full name, she meant business. A lack of immediate obedience would either mean a good whoopin' from dear old dad right after supper, or worse yet, no dessert. Now given that Irene long held the coveted title of the best baker, according to every Sunday social he had ever had the privilege of attending, missing out on that night's specialty served as torment. Flaky, doughy peach cobbler, light and moist German chocolate cake with homemade coconut praline frosting, or even sweet and tart apple crisp from their very own tree in the yard motivated even the orneriest of boys into compliance, and smelling the delicious desserts cooling in the breeze of the fresh summer day stopped him dead in his tracks as he contemplated his next move. "Blasted woman!" the stubborn child grunted under his breath while still gazing with fleeting desire at the edge of the ball field. "Why do you tempt me?"
Sergeant Riley's cramping stomach and lower intestinal growl alerted him back to his present state.
"Food!" the husky, foreign voice yelled from the other side of the manmade cage as a narrow chuck hole fashioned from a mail slot opened and a tin plate of slop hit the base and splattered over the edges.
Even though it pained the soldier to bend his body farther to retrieve his nourishment, no matter how minuscule or how undesirable it tasted, his thin, frail, claw-like fingers reached for the dog dish as his mangy foot tapped and swooped it closer to the other end of the box. How the withering fighter would have withstood additional scrapes or a few more bruises to get his head down there to lick up the spilled scraps, but he just could not manage the contortions anymore. With the air holes fixed at the opposite side of the entrance and his body long since depleted of strength, the weary and rigid captive remained in a steady position for the optimal amount of oxygen intake.
"Flutter kicks! Now push-ups! Now flutter kicks! Now push-ups! Now hold!" his drill sergeant barked at the platoon full of eighteen- to twenty-year-olds that had volunteered to be shipped into shape. "Don't let your chest touch the ground, Private Riley! Don't you do it!"
The soldier's breathing raced and the tightness of the muscles around his ribs ached as his eyes opened to face the discouragement of the darkness that had surrounded him for eons. Not even the faintest of shadows slithered through the end of the long pipe protruding out of the side of the contraption. Defeat crept in as the distant memory of his old drill sergeant threatening him to persevere, build fortitude, become battle ready seemed like kid's play in comparison to his present circumstance. Would the military man have enlisted if he had known what his service to his country would ask of him? How many of his fellow combatants would have run back out that door instead of signing on the dotted line if they were forewarned of possibilities like this? Would the servant still have come to know Jesus as Lord if he hadn't?
J. M. Cranford is a veteran logistical officer in the US Army and served stateside in both active and reserve capacities during the First Gulf War, the Somalia Conflict, and the drawdown in Bosnia. She holds a master's degree in Bible and theology and has served as treasurer of a nonprofit mission organization as well as a team member of a local church's mission board for many years. She and her husband have five adult children, many grandchildren, and live in Pontiac, Illinois.