At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pope Francis, Peace, and the Power of Resurrection

This morning, Pope Francis delivered his first Easter sermon during Mass at St. Peter's Square, his message going out to a quarter million people in the Vatican itself and many more around the globe. Although I'm not Catholic, I was encouraged by how His Holiness spoke clearly and directly to the pressing crises of our day, both to those in the grip of suffering and oppression and to those who are in the throes of war and dissension.

I've provided the English translation of Francis' sermon below. The line I find most memorable is "the power of the Resurrection, this Passover from slavery to evil to the freedom of goodness, must be accomplished in every age, in our concrete existence, in our everyday lives." In other words, the raising of Jesus Christ from death to life crushed the guilt of sin and means its power will be fully overcome. However, the degree to which that resurrection reality of victory over sin pervades the world, the depth to which it brings in shalom--God's dream for this world--also hinges on our living out the life of Christ.

On the first Easter morning, the angels asked the women at the empty tomb, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" Many times people today see deadness among Christians who have the most reason to be alive, to work out their faith in winsome, shalom-building ways. This should not be. Think it over. At the very least, read through what Francis said today.


Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, Happy Easter! Happy Easter!
What a joy it is for me to announce this message: Christ is risen! I would like it to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons.
Most of all, I would like it to enter every heart, for it is there that God wants to sow this Good News: Jesus is risen, there is hope for you, you are no longer in the power of sin, of evil! Love has triumphed, mercy has been victorious! The mercy of God always triumphs!
We too, like the women who were Jesus' disciples, who went to the tomb and found it empty, may wonder what this event means (cf. Lk 24:4). What does it mean that Jesus is risen? It means that the love of God is stronger than evil and death itself; it means that the love of God can transform our lives and let those desert places in our hearts bloom. The love God can do this!
This same love for which the Son of God became man and followed the way of humility and self-giving to the very end, down to hell - to the abyss of separation from God - this same merciful love has flooded with light the dead body of Jesus, has transfigured it, has made it pass into eternal life. Jesus did not return to his former life, to earthly life, but entered into the glorious life of God and he entered there with our humanity, opening us to a future of hope.
This is what Easter is: it is the exodus, the passage of human beings from slavery to sin and evil to the freedom of love and goodness. Because God is life, life alone, and we are his glory: the living man (cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 4,20,5-7).
Dear brothers and sisters, Christ died and rose once for all, and for everyone, but the power of the Resurrection, this passover from slavery to evil to the freedom of goodness, must be accomplished in every age, in our concrete existence, in our everyday lives. How many deserts, even today, do human beings need to cross! Above all, the desert within, when we have no love for God or neighbour, when we fail to realize that we are guardians of all that the Creator has given us and continues to give us. God's mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14).
So this is the invitation which I address to everyone: Let us accept the grace of Christ's Resurrection! Let us be renewed by God's mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.
And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace. Yes, Christ is our peace, and through him we implore peace for all the world.
Peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long. Peace in Iraq, that every act of violence may end, and above all for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort. How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?
Peace for Africa, still the scene of violent conflicts. In Mali, may unity and stability be restored; in Nigeria, where attacks sadly continue, gravely threatening the lives of many innocent people, and where great numbers of persons, including children, are held hostage by terrorist groups. Peace in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Central African Republic, where many have been forced to leave their homes and continue to live in fear.
Peace in Asia, above all on the Korean peninsula: may disagreements be overcome and a renewed spirit of reconciliation grow.
Peace in the whole world, still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this twenty-first century; human trafficking is the most extensive form of slavery in this twenty-first century! Peace to the whole world, torn apart by violence linked to drug trafficking and by the iniquitous exploitation of natural resources! Peace to this our Earth! Made the risen Jesus bring comfort to the victims of natural disasters and make us responsible guardians of creation.
Dear brothers and sisters, to all of you who are listening to me, from Rome and from all over of the world, I address the invitation of the Psalm: "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever. Let Israel say: 'His steadfast love endures for ever'" (Ps 117:1-2).
Dear Brothers and Sisters, to you who have come from all over the world to this Square at the heart of Christianity, and to you linked by modern technology, I repeat my greeting: Happy Easter!
Bear in your families and in your countries the message of joy, hope and peace which every year, on this day, is powerfully renewed.
May the risen Lord, the conqueror of sin and death, be a support to you all, especially to the weakest and neediest. Thank you for your presence and for the witness of your faith. A thought and a special thank-you for the beautiful flowers, which come from the Netherlands. To all of you I affectionately say again: may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace.

Seeing Easter Everywhere

Where do I see Easter?

- I see Easter in every sunrise wherever I've been, including the plains of western Kansas, the beaches of south Florida, over a horse pasture in Virginia, while sipping coffee on the porch of a New Hampshire cottage, and from our hotel window in the middle of Berlin.

- I see Easter is the rejuvenation of spirit in my students who "get it" and who realize that what we learn does have enduring consequences and that they can change the world.

- I see Easter in Narnia, when Aslan rose up from a shattered Stone Table, defeating the Deep Magic and setting death to work backwards.

- I see Easter when my daughter works through her struggles in math and--bit by bit, little by little--she understands it just a little better than she did before.

- I see Easter when I read a mystery novel and Adam Dalgliesh makes the arrest and justice can begin to work itself out.

- I see Easter when four dogs carry our son's neuromuscular disorder within their bodies, all the way to Seattle, so that perhaps many families like ours might have hope for a cure.

- I see Easter when daffodils bloom in our yard, when leaves come back to a maple tree, and when the temperature gets pleasant enough to eat out on the deck.

- I see Easter in my wife, who never gives up on anything, including me.

- I see Easter in the fact that my Grandpa Davis now recognizes everyone he sees, that my Grandma Davis' faithfulness is rewarded, that my Granddad Herron has regained his powers of speech, and that my Grandma Herron has cast her Parkinson's disease far, far away.

- I see Easter in a dislodged rock, disheveled soldiers, delighted disciples, and a definite hope.

- And I see Easter in the glorious truth that our sweet little Jordan runs and laughs to his heart's content, because every day for him is Easter.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Read Like Your Life Depends On It, Because It Does!

Sometimes people ask me what helps me to write effectively.

First of all, I have to be pleased by the compliment. When you get someone assuming you write well, hold on to those comments with a death grip. But some people want to know. Is it thinking through characters? Plot? Planning and organizing well? Those can help. But the reason why I got into writing seriously was that (seriously!) I woke up one day and said "I want to write a book and I think I can." Simple self-motivation like that plays a role, too. Yet what puts the gas in the writing tank is disarmingly more simple than that.

What makes someone an effective writer? Read. Read like your life depends on it.

The reason is the principle of causality: What is in the effect must be present in the cause. Therefore, if I want to write well, I must read relentlessly.

I won't exhaustively comment on every reason therein, but a few sprinkles of insight never hurt us.

For writers:
1- Reading a wide range of genres widens your writing skills. There's an internal conversation going on in your mental wiring (much of which we're not privy to) that slyly suggests "Maybe you should try a little of that..."
2- Reading novels especially assists writers because we get to see what works and doesn't work. We need to understand the right ways to create dialogue, plot, characters, and setting. We need to get a sense of when to insert flashback or foreshadowing and how to build conflict toward a story's apex.
3- Reading helps smack and crush writers' block. Imagination gets fired white-hot and we derive inspiration.
4- We find there is so much more we can learn from others. Perhaps we discover reading improves our own fluency and vocabulary. Maybe we tap in to the human condition that much more. Any little angle helps tremendously.

But what if you're not a writer? What then?

You don't get off the hook.
1- There's more you can do than endlessly and rootlessly cruising Facebook and Twitter, playing Ruzzle, and snapchatting. Don't get me wrong. The Internet is here to stay, and there are many benefits from the Web. However, technology can also give us more chaos (much of it self-inflicted) in our lives [Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of saying this on the Internet], and reading a book diverts you from that discombobulation, frees your mind, exercises the neural pathways in your brain, and instills peace from the practice of slowing down your life.
2- Your imaginative powers get a major anabolic steroid-like shot. You are taken into another world, but you also are invited to create the world for yourself in your mind and soul.
3- Reading also stretches your attention span, empowers you to sit still for longer periods, and strengthens your ability to sustain quality conversations by improving your active listening skills. Because you have constructed your ability to read stories, you are able to enjoy listening to others share their mini-narratives (what happened during their day, for example) to you.
4- Finally--and probably the best reason--you understand yourself better. You tap into your responses and emotions more deeply through reading. You make logical connections between words and life. You become both a better thinker and a better feel-er.

All good reasons if you ask me. One of the best ways to function in this world is to go into another one through a good book. What's stopping you?

Reading Reflections, March 30

We see people making shifts in emphasis all the time. I remember when Liam Neeson plodded through his exceptional roles in dramas like Schindler's List and Michael Collins, as well as master Jedi Qui-Gon Jin in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Lately though, Neeson has been trying his hand at the suspense/thriller genre and--given the success of Taken, Taken 2, and Unknown--his lateral move seems to have paid off.

For authors, shifts in genre can be calculated risks, and when an writer moves from one stream to another, one cannot tell how the reading populace will follow. However, L.B. Graham shows us in his crime fiction debut of Avalon Falls (Not Yet Books, 2012) that what is of essence is this: If you build a story, they will come.

Graham is more well-known for his fantasy novels. His five-part Binding of the Blade series (published by Presbyterian & Reformed) was a highlight of the Christian fantasy market during the last decade, drawing readers into the broken, warring, and then restored world of Kirthanin. He is returning again to fantasy later this year with the start of his The Wandering series, beginning with The Darker Road (AMG Publishers). But let not the reader be mistaken: Avalon Falls is a great story in its own right, because Graham knows that the proof of the story is in the telling.

Avalon Falls draws readers into the life of Jimmy Wyatt, a former FBI profiler who is running from his personal demons from days gone by. Leaving behind his career and home in Chicago, he drives cross-country, eventually settling down in the Rocky Mountain-nestled burg of Avalon Falls, Montana. Landing a job at the local lumber mill, he finds quiet but no peace, plenty of townsfolk but no friends. This is not due to the people of Avalon Falls, but to his reticence to draw any closer. Slowly, however, he gets to know a select few individuals, namely Eddie Carlson, who runs a prison alternative program, and Alice Miller, the waitress at Cabot's Restaurant.

The calm of Avalon Falls, however, is shattered by a vicious murder. Jimmy is called onto the case on a consultative basis by the local police. He puts his profiling acumen to the evidence available but little about the murder makes sense. Along the way, Jimmy increasingly comes face-to-face with his own past, minimally acknowledging his former wounds to Eddie but little else. When a second murder shocks the community, Jimmy follows the clues to a conclusion that baffles and buffets all sense.

The subtitle of Avalon Falls is "You Can't Run From Yourself", and while Jimmy Wyatt intends to make sure the perpetrator can't run from his guilt, in truth Jimmy discovers he can't outrun his past. Graham is able to intertwine these two threads in a way that draws the reader into the story, yet he never sacrifices one at the expense of the other. Graham's writing is well-paced. He doesn't have an overload of characters and this turns out to be a strength, as Graham keeps the major players of the novel colored with bold, memorable strokes. Interestingly enough, although the book is complete in itself, there is enough to leave the reader hanging at the end. There is much to suggest that a sequel could be birthed from this tale and, with enough details dropped about Jimmy Wyatt's past life, a prequel would be a most interesting idea, too.

In the end, readers should make it a point to work their way through a copy of Avalon Falls. One can't help but realize he will have sailed through the seas--not only of a good tale--but through the hallmarks and depths of human nature, as well.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fighting, Creating, Transforming

Before I unpack those participles (well, they could be gerunds!) in the post's title, allow me to share a few sobering facts before we get going:

* 50 percent of the world's population of 6 billion-plus people live on less than $2 a day.

* 20 percent of the world's population lives on less than $1 a day.

* 20 percent of the world's children never reach their fifth birthday.

* 50 percent of the world's children suffer from some level of malnourishment.

Those aren't statistics pulled out of my eardrum; they come from the United Nations Development report. As far away as those matters may seem to some of us in prosperous America, they should be a sobering slap of reality against the indifferent cheeks of many.

Thankfully, there are many who are trying to stem the tide of poverty, and they are making sure it's getting done in a responsible, sustainable way. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have already detailed traditional well-intentioned but untenable methods of fighting poverty in their When Helping Hurts. One of the more exciting initiatives on the table today comes from a union of Anglican churches, an organization called Five Talents. These folks take the company's title from Jesus' parable of the talents in Matthew 25, specifically when the master blesses the worker who made the most of his five talent share. (A talent was a unit of currency in Jesus' day.)

Five Talents has recognized there is a right way and a wrong way to fight poverty. The answer is NOT to throw money indiscriminately at a nebulous understanding that poverty exists. There's been too much of that done, both in the form of private donations and taxpayer funds. Five Talents, however, is convinced the problem goes deeper. Individual and family wealth is not the only issue; there's a clear link between that and employment/unemployment along with social stability. Little wonder that Five Talent's tagline is "Fighting Poverty, Creating Jobs, Transforming Lives."

The key initiative in the Five Talents program in microfinance. In developing world nations, no one would doubt there is much abject poverty. With high unemployment in many areas, this combines to bring the breakdown of much in society. The flip side is that if you want to fight poverty, you can! The key is creating jobs that will bring greater economic stability to others and help people provide for themselves and their families. This could seem like a daunting pecuniary task. But the good news is that intentional financial strategy can go a lot farther in those areas.

Here's an example of how this might work. A gentleman in South Sudan might want to provide more than subsistence farming and instead dreams of how he might help a lot of the farmers in his area. But how? Irrigation development might be one way. But he needs rudimentary materials, for example. Where Five Talents would come in could be in the way of giving him a $150 loan. Yes, $150. You'd be surprised how far fifteen Hamiltons can stretch in Africa. The loan, through arrangements, goes directly to the individual who wants to start this business, with the understanding that once it gets going, the loan is repaid (rates vary from country to country). And then as the business increases, more loans can be provided.

How effective is microfinance? To wit:

* An average of one job created for every $100 invested (much better return than our federal government, wouldn't you say?).

* Each job supports and positively affects nine people (ripple effect).

* Repayment success rate is 95%. Just to let you know how this compares to the average, it's downright outstanding!

You might be wondering..."Anglican church, eh? How 'religious' is this going to be?" Well, not in the Bible-thumping way. Five Talents is staffed by Christian professionals who emphasize local accountability and good stewardship. The social glue that accompanies the loans comes in the form of education and instruction. Each entrepreneur learns about "God's love, intention, and desire to transform her and her community."

Especially on today, being Good Friday, it is important to think about sacrificial giving, considering the total and complete sacrifice Christ made to secure our redemption and standing before God. There are many ways to exemplify this in everyday life, but Five Talents is one that really stands out. Consider participating today.

Again, you can get all the answers on their website, Five Talents.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday (A Poem)

Twilight stalks the dusty streets
Of Jerusalem this eve
The market bids its buyers
Firm farewells
Preparation for the feasts
On Jerusalem this eve
Give cover to One's anguish
Like a shell
With trembling steps He ascends
Into the upper room
Table spread, friends abound,
Traitor in the midst
First washing their feet
Before night's doom
The meal begins, He lodged
In sorrow's twist
Broken loaf is offered body
Though none understand
Questions come through murmurs,
whispers, and frowns
New covenant blood of wine
Poured by His hand
This is love, God and man
At table here sat down
The one among them leaves
Dismissed with sop of bread
They leave for Gethsemane
Where He will vie
In prayer for those he loves
In sacrificial stead
The Son of Man has now
Gone forth to die

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Professional Memories

I got a phone call out of the blue yesterday.

Technically, that's not true. The phone call actually lodged itself in my school voice mail on March 21st, during my spring break. And I didn't get to it until yesterday because Sunday's snowstorm (the sixth-heaviest snowfall on record in St. Louis history) kept us away from school Monday. So I check my messages and there's a gentleman leaving a message for me to call him back. Southern drawl. I mean, thick Southern drawl that would get him an instant casting spot in The Help. Even before he identified where he was calling from, my sixth sense told me Mississippi.

True enough, he was calling from the center of the Magnolia State. With a very pertinent question, but he needed to ask me personally. Could I call him back?

Thus began a day-long stretch of phone tag before he finally snagged me when I was headed home in afternoon traffic today. So why was he calling me?

"Well, Luke, I was given your name by Mickey Bowdon."

Explains it all. Mickey was my first headmaster from my first teaching position in Louisiana. It was Mickey who gave me my start in teaching; who was very--I would say extremely--patient with my stumbles, fumbles, and falls early on; who thought the best of me when I also believed he was crazy to do so. That Mickey still believed in me enough to pass my name along to this man, who happened to be a principal at a private school.

I smiled. Good times. If there's a wiser, cooler hand at the wheel than Mickey Bowdon, I haven't met that person.

But back to the phone call. It turned out that this principal had an issue on his plate and needed my help.

"We're creating a new position next year here, one of spiritual life director, and Mickey seemed to think you could help us with coming up with a job description. Is that possible?"

Usually, when I'm talking about job descriptions, I'm in the mix for the position in question. This was something new, being asked by someone I've never met to help in the quest to create a new position for them.

"I think I might have something in my files," I said. "Give me through this evening to find it."

And find it I did, which sent me back down memory lane again.

There it was, in a document in a folder on my computer. JOB DESCRIPTION: Campus Pastor, Wellington Christian School.

A job description that was created when I interviewed for and was offered that position in May 2006.

More memories. Christy and I flew down to Palm Beach County and met with the headmaster of Wellington Christian School, Mr. Joe Austin. I remember sitting around a conference table with Joe and several others, with Christy at my side. And I asked, "So do we have a copy of the job description?"

And Joe, bless his incredible heart, said, "Well, I thought we'd piece the job description here and now. There are some general things we think are a part of this, but we'd also like to hear from you, about your gifts and abilities, and then we'll tailor the job description to meet with your passions."

Blank look from me. What?

Joe shrugged with a smile and said, "I believe in putting people where their passions are. Simple as that."

What a man. It was taking a risk, to be sure, but it opened up an opportunity to join with a school (and church) community in a vocation that I truly loved.

So this has been a day of remembrance for me. Thinking back on what Mickey and Joe have done for me in the past has been a massive encouragement. Day in and day out in the present can go up and down. But when I think back to the people who have believed in me along the way, I remember only the good. Because that's truly what matters.

I sent the job description to the principal in Mississippi tonight. Maybe sometime soon it'll be part of a process where he hires someone for a new opportunity. A process that will be part of another young man's professional memory bank. If so, I'm glad to play a role in that, even from the shadows.

We have those memories. Sometimes they are what get us through the day. Don't ignore them for one moment.

Until later.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is "Marriage Equality" The Crux of the Matter?

I fully realize that wading into this issue is the literary equivalent of swallowing a hand grenade after pulling the pin. But this blog is not just about writing; it's about life; it's about addressing the social phenomena we see around us. And the hot button issue that has swelled to critical mass is the one before the United States Supreme Court. Call it what you will: gay marriage, "marriage equality", whatever the label we have the general contours of the debate. As an ethics teacher at a Christian school, I've been asked about this issue numerous times. And since we are discussing the issue of homosexuality in class next week (complete with watching the film Philadelphia), those questions will come at gale force.

Well, I guess I can't avoid it. Might as well talk about it. However, let me take it from a different angle, trying to inject some light rather than heat. Some random comments:

1. I think the federal legalization of gay marriage is inevitable. However, I don't think the federal government should be in the business of defining marriage. Of course, it's in the business of defining too much stuff lately, anyway. If people actually read and understood the Constitution, they'd be more shocked and angered.

2. While I'm open to listening to people when they are making their case on a topic, I'm not convinced of how critical "marriage equality" is. It could just be me, but I don't know of a tidal wave of marriages waiting to happen in that vein. All that being said, I'm humble enough to say I could be wrong on the numbers.

3. From the Christian point of view, I am embarrassed to say that the actions and attitudes of the church toward gays and lesbians historically has been, on balance, deplorable. When John Q. Churchgoer speaks out against homosexuality and decries gays and lesbians for sinning, he tends to forget that all people (gays included) have to put up with his sin, which might seem (to him) more subtle but in truth is no less damning or less odious to God.

4. This is NOT to make a slippery slope argument. Let's face it. I'm not saying that once you open up the gates to gay marriage, you'll open a Pandora's box of other practices like polygamy and other matters. We really don't know the future. But from a logical point of view, if you reduce marriage to "the willingness of any two people who love each other=the ingredient for legitimate marriage"...well, that same argument works for polygamy, incest, etc. I'm not trying to be gross or saying that will happen. I'm just saying the argument works beyond the gay marriage issue.

5. In every school I've taught (and remember, I've taught in four Christian schools), I've had students who were either practicing homosexuals or at least struggled with same-sex attraction. Those are students with whom I've had some great, honest relationships and whose stories are all too raw. It takes a lot of guts to honestly admit such matters to people in these environments when you're not sure of the response from your confessor. I can truly say that these students are among the bravest I've ever known.

Now, shifting gears. I don't think this is the place for me to declare myself pro- or anti-marriage equality. As a follower of Jesus, I believe my calling is to extend God's costly and transforming grace to all people, straight or gay. That being said, I don't see why the reality of grace forces me to affirm gay marriage. But when I look on the social horizon of America, that's not my primary concern.

I have to thank my friend Andy Kerckhoff for bringing this article to my attention [Speaking of Andy, you should check out his blog, Growing Up Well, and devour what he's written]. David Frum of CNN has--I think--rightly pointed out that straight marriage is the real issue. Whatever happens on the "marriage equality" front is one thing, but the real crisis lies elsewhere. Increasingly, young adults are jettisoning the idea of marriage themselves. When almost half of American children are born to unmarried women, that's significant. I'm not saying that automatically consigns a child to a rough existence; we know of powerful examples of wonderful people who flourished under the loving care of a single parent. But that's the exception, not the rule. Frum himself points out that "children born to married mothers and fathers are more likely to finish college, more likely to avoid prison, and more likely to form marriages themselves than children of single parents." Yet the problem runs even deeper, much of it arising from a rising number of males who finish less education, earn fewer wages, and in general set their sights on fewer and fewer responsibilities. In short, men are refusing to be men, refusing to achieve so that they can provide a stable environment for an exclusive partner to whom they pledge their life.

That doesn't sound so much to me like a conspiracy to force gay marriage on the American public. That sounds like we're facing an imbecile epidemic. That sounds like a generation has arisen that has nursed itself at the breast of self-indulgence and self-esteem and knows or cares little for other-centeredness, for promise-keeping, for choosing responsibility over entitlement, or for punching through the brick walls of hardships and challenges before them.

Family legend has it that my great-grandfather in Kansas suffered much, and at one time there was only a sack of wheat between his family and starvation. Yet he remained faithful and they stuck it out. I admit that compared to that hard-nosed fidelity and relational commitment, I don't see a lot of that in America writ large today. And that, folks, is the real crisis for marriage in America.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Finishing Well, Wherever You Are

Ah, the life of a teacher. Especially when the third quarter of the school year ends right at spring break and you feel like you've got enough grading to keep you busy until the Cubs finally win another World Series (depressing thought, indeed). Aside from all the administrative details of being a teacher (the grades, the paperwork, the evaluating), I really do enjoy this time of the year, the turn into the homestretch of spring semester.

Not that it looks like spring outside, given that God saw fit to dump 14 inches of snow here outside my suburban St. Louis home. That much snow is great until you have to take your ADHD dog out so she can use the bathroom. But that's another story.

Back to the home stretch. I'm especially excited because in my Ethics classes, we're tackling some heavy issues that have students really engaged. The seventh commandment (sixth for you Lutherans) on adultery has given rise to great talks on marriage, dating, and other matters. We'll be watching Philadelphia in class next week and discussing how to compassionately deal with people whose views and mores might conflict with your own. Students will be working on some collages to depict their views on chosen ethical issues. To me, it's clearly the most energetic time of the year.

There's a distinction, though, between having loads of energy and having focused energy. As we go down the final weeks of school, there's lots to do. Despite what some say, we do have time to get everything done (especially when you consider how much time people spend on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, games, etc.). The issue is "Are you going to use the time you have wisely?" Even more pointedly, "No matter what your performance so far, can you finish well?"

A good bit of the New Testament is taken up with specific charges to endure faithfully to the end. People in the biblical tradition could certainly look back on others who fizzled out toward the finish line, such as King Solomon--whose 700 wives flipped his passion from God to God-knows-what. No matter how far along the line you are--in life, on the job, in the school year--there remains the very real chance you could let your foot off the gas toward the end. And people can remember a finish more than they can a start.

All the more reason to remember that faithful living goes all the way to the finish line, wherever that finish line may be. In early 1994, I received a letter from my father when I was at seminary. There were many details in the letter itself, but Dad eventually turned his words to the needs of my grandmother (his mother-in-law), who was facing her final days and struggling with congestive heart failure. Now, you need to understand something about my Grandma Herron: The lady knew just about as much tragedy in life as one can imagine. During her first marriage, she lost (1) the youngest of her two sons at an early age and then (2) lost her husband when a mule kicked his in the stomach and the internal bleeding was too much. She remarried to my Granddad Herron, gaining two more children (my Uncle Bob and my mother), when in 1953 she lost her older boy from the first marriage (power lines fell on his pickup truck). Then in 1991, she lost Granddad to a heart attack.

During all these years, I'd never known her to complain or bear a grudge against the Almighty. She kept moving forward. Maybe it was her natural constitution; maybe that's the way people dealt with things in that era. Who knows. But I remember Dad's words on paper: "As the Lord brings her to mind, remember to pray for Grandma. It is important that she finish well." Dad was taking no chances. It was important that Grandma continue to show consistency and faithful living right to the end.

Perhaps you have a major project at work; perhaps you're a student and major assessments and exams are coming; maybe you are in the latter years of life. Wherever you are, the foot of faithfulness must stay pressed on the gas pedal of action. In short-term efforts or long-term activity, people will remember whether or not you finished well.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Lesson From the Palestra: Work, Life and Love

In 1980, one Sunday in March after a post-church dinner, our family turned on the television to NBC and my nine-year old self was soon caught up in the Iowa-Georgetown basketball game. A trip to college basketball's Final Four on the line. The game, an 81-80 Iowa win, was exciting enough, but the game's location turned out to be the memorable item. Both teams clashed at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Now, in this age of luxury boxes and multimillion dollar arenas, the Palestra is a throwback, and I'm a sucker for old-school gymnasiums. For one thing, the Palestra is now over 85 years old, having opened in January 1927. When it was built, it was one of the first arenas constructed without any interior pillars blocking spectators' sightlines, so that was modern for that time. But its capacity of 8,722 makes it on the smallish side now, which explains that you see few televised games from there. Yet I have never forgotten seeing that game on TV and taking in the interior steel arches, the stained glass windows, and the bleachers that came right down to the floor on top of the action.

Still, the most memorable item about the Palestra sits in the lobby of the old barn. It is a simple plaque bearing a Greek proverb.

To play the game is great. To win the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.

Simple, profound, and right to the heart of things. Because those truths are not merely applicable to athletics, which is a small part of existence. They cover all of life.

You could transpose those words just as well: To have a job is great. To succeed in your career is greater. But to love your calling is the greatest of all.

That works for me as a writer. To tell a story is great. To be published (very soon) is greater. But to love writing is the greatest of all.

But back to work. It is true that in this economy, it's a good idea to have a job and to be thankful for a regular paycheck. Believe me, I've faced the axe before and it's no fun feeling unproductive and hoping you land something else before the severance package runs out. So yes, to have a job is great.

Of course, diligence and honor calls us well beyond this. I don't just want to draw a paycheck; I also want to succeed in what I do. I'm not content to be a Homer Simpson-like chair-moistener and watch the clock go by each day. I teach (which is what I do to put food on our table) because there is also a drive within me to do it extremely well, as creatively as possible, and to positively influence the students I can in the quality relationships I enjoy with them. So yes, to succeed in your career is greater.

But there is a higher reality still, and this can sustain you even during the greatest obstacles, uncertainty, and tribulation. To have a job is not enough, and success can be tracked by different measures. But what really counts?

Dr. Lou Voskuil, my history professor at Covenant College and one of the dearest, wisest people I have had the privilege of knowing, once summed it up well during a talk he gave in 1990. In short, he said, "If you have a job and go out there and make a lot of money, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you move on to graduate school and garner many accolades, that's fine. But you don't have to. If your labors are such that your success is lauded publicly, that's fine. But it doesn't have to. The only thing God requires of you is to be faithful, and He will take care of the rest."

And that's where love for what we do comes in. If you are determined to be faithful in your work--be it wherever you are called--I do believe that somehow God will instill an increasing love for your vocation. That's right. Not "job", not "career", but "vocation", a calling. To know you are doing something that God has crafted you for and it for you is truly thrilling. Who couldn't help but love that?

So with full inspiratory credit to the Palestra, "To have a job is great. To succeed in your career is greater. But to love your calling is the greatest of all."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How To Create a Villain

One day, well into the future, I'll write historical fiction. In fact, I already have some story ideas in mind, but the research and writing for the first book will take a good four-year stretch. Plus, I'm in no hurry to begin such ambitious work tomorrow. I have the Cameron Ballack series to finish, which means I'm living in the murder mystery world for a few more years.

All of which means a specific way of writing a novel. Crime fiction requires many things. You need a well-crafted story. You need to sit down and think through the array of characters, their own fictitious backgrounds. You need to plot out the flow, chapter-by-chapter--in some cases scene by scene and line by line. If part of a series, there are issues of flashback, foreshadowing, and things arcing from previous events into the present moment. But there's one aspect of writing crime fiction that has come more front and center than I ever dreamed: the construction of a believable villain.

Crime fiction requires a criminal. The murder mystery, a more focused subset of crime fiction, requires someone even more evil than a garden-variety criminal. You have to create someone cloaked in literary obfuscation until revealing him (or her) as the murderer. You have to hide the fact they are guilty but make the revelation of their actions make sense when disclosed to the reader.

A literary murderer--like onions and ogres--has layers...layers than can be developed in many ways. But one way I've tried to make it work in my stories is having the murderer reach out to me. Yes, you read that right. I write myself a letter to myself from the perspective of the murderer, detailing their background, their motives, their reasons, their excuses, their anger, their rage, and their pain. The letter gets quite personal and edgy, the more the better I think. The goal is to bring about a person who is calculating and strategic. Someone whom the reader might sympathize with, be ambivalent about, or doesn't matter. But I want the "why" of the murder firmly fixed in the heart of the criminal. The more definitively I can lodge it deep in the killer's soul, the better character I have.

All of which is to say this is one way to pull this off. It may not work for everyone. And it might not be the best way to build a murderous character. When Litany of Secrets finally comes out this year, we'll see how productive a path it is. But I do find it to be a fun challenge, and as a writer you can't ask for much more than that.

Reading Reflections: March 23

I sit here in my den on a still Saturday morning in suburban St. Louis.  My dog stares blankly out the window. There's a major front brewing and coming in from the Rockies with a load of snow. Another winter storm will hold us in its grip for a couple days. But the good news is, on the other side of that, spring is coming.

Nearly 2000 years ago, a band of dedicated yet crushed followers held together in the bowels of Jerusalem. Things looked bleak. It was Friday, and their leader--Savior and Lord--had been killed. But the good news that they didn't see was "Sunday is coming." It was a Sunday planned out from day one.

For all of us, Easter is coming. For those of us who are parents, who have responsibility for children, or who like to teach little ones, the question arises, "How do we teach our children the importance of Easter?" We look for something beyond bunnies but also need a resource that captures a grander story than just brief details of the first Resurrection Sunday. If you're looking for something along those lines, where do you go?

Thankfully, Mark Sutherland and Dunrobin Publishing have given a definitive answer with Mark's Why Do We Celebrate Easter? Now, keep in mind, there are quality Bible story books out there on the market; I was practically raised on the Arch Books series by Concordia Publishing House. Yet nearly every children's Easter story I've encountered limits itself to that weekend.

Mark widens the lens, and this is part of the magic of his book. He begins by asking the reader a question, "Do you ever wonder what Easter is all about?" It's less of a "let me tell you" and more of a "let's explore this together" feel that invites children into the story itself.

One great strength of the book is that Mark sets Jesus' resurrection as the grand culmination of a larger story. He moves briskly through the drama of biblical history: God created us, humans rebelled, Jesus was born, Jesus lived perfectly and ministered faithfully, Jesus died sacrificially. As a teacher in a Christian school, I've noted a fast slide by students into further biblical illiteracy. While students know isolated facts, they fail to grasp the wider biblical story of redemption. Mark's strategy doesn't reverse that instantly, but it is a fantastic corrective. Through this narrative strategy, Mark helps children see that this critical event of the Resurrection was part of God's intentions to intervene and save His people. Human rebellion required divine rescue. Divine rescue required both love and justice, and Jesus' death satisfied both. Yet sin has to be defeated, so Jesus had to break out of the tomb as well. Implicitly yet clearly, Mark's story helps children connect those dots.

As with any children's book, the question arises "How are the illustrations?" No worry. Julie Hammond  handles those with her artwork that complements the story and tone of the book. Her illustrations are drawn with soft colors that accentuate the feelings of hope that arise from the story. It's quite a gift to have an illustrator who assists in the storytelling, yet neither detracts from nor overpowers it. Julie finds that happy medium.

Easter is coming, so make sure you have this on hand for your own children or others you know. And perhaps you'll find yourself saying, "I never saw Easter that way before!"

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Madness of March: One Last Ride

No matter how little time I can devote to sports on TV, I always find time to sneak in a few college basketball games during the NCAA tournament each spring. And I've seen a lot of memorable moments over the years. I remember watching St. Joseph's stun number-one DePaul in 1981. I recall how a determined Princeton team upset defending champion UCLA in 1996. And as a Kansas fan, there is always the 2008 championship win over Memphis, when Mario Chalmers hit an overtime-forcing three-point shot.

Great athletic memories, all. And yet when someone asks me "What is arguably your favorite March Madness memory?", I have to say, "Actually being at the Final Four."

It was during the gut-wrenching 1991 championship game when my Kansas Jayhawks lost to Duke that I caught a commercial about the 1992 Final Four, to be held in Minneapolis. All that needed to be done was write for an application, complete it, and send it back to the NCAA with payment for your seats. The powers-that-be would put all completed applications into a lottery and select winning entrants from the general public.

I turned to my good friend and roommate, Paige Slyman, and we both had that glint in our eyes when we had the same idea. "Let's do it," we both said.

I sent off for the application and we put up the money. Before sending it back to Kansas City, I did a small yet ultimately significant thing. I checked a box on the paper acknowledging that if we didn't get the courtside seats we were applying for at $60 each (which should tell you this was a long time ago), we'd accept other seats further back in the Metrodome.

Months went by. I was home in Baltimore over that summer before our senior year at Covenant College when the mail arrived one day. The sole package addressed to me was a brown envelope with a University of Minnesota return address. I thought, "That's strange. I haven't checked it out for grad school." Being a curious soul, I ripped the envelope open.

Two 1992 Final Four ticket booklets fell onto the kitchen table at 3003 Oakcrest Avenue.

Three microseconds later, I went running around my house screaming like a piglet on amphetamines.

That's the backstory. The beauty of planning the trip was that we had a place to stay with family friends in suburban Minneapolis for that weekend. Nine months later, Paige and I flew up early morning on the day of the semifinals, leaving Chattanooga on that puddlejumper flight that went up, leveled off for two seconds, and then descended into Atlanta. Then it was a three-hour flight to Minneapolis, on a flight that had the temerity to serve breakfast casserole for our in-flight meal.

Of course, we find out that when Alamo says they rent cars to people under 25 years old, the company's memory can be very selective at the desk. That's how, in an utter rush, my friend Doug graciously picked us up and got us to their house, promising that we could use his wife's car to transport ourselves to and from the Metrodome. My memory tells me Gertie (Doug's wife) wasn't overly thrilled but she put on a gracious front.

And of course, the games. What were the odds that, during the Michigan-Cincinnati semifinal, that Nick Van Exel would make a fool out of Jalen Rose, and that James Voskuil (a relative of my history prof, Dr. Voskuil) would save the Wolverines' day? What were the chances we'd be in the same building when Bobby Knight got hit with a technical foul during Duke's win over Indiana in the other semifinal (scratch another item off my bucket list!)? The final, a 71-51 Duke blowout, was somewhat anticlimactic, but it was mitigated by the fact that I was at least there at the Final Four.

Correction: We were there at the Final Four.

In truth, that's what I'll remember most. Not the games, but the fact I was there with a treasured friend. Paige and I instinctively knew this was one last ride before graduation, before going our own vocational ways. Every conversation we had was important. Every laugh we shared rang loudly, especially at midnight after the final game when I filled a half-gallon bowl with what was left of Gertie's amazing Black Forest dessert and chomped it down as Paige cracked up into his own paltry amount as I whispered "This never happened."

Each year the Final Four comes around, the tail end of the comet known as March Madness. And every time it does, I remember one last ride with my good friend Paige Slyman. Memories like those don't come your way every day.

In the end, your life story will be known for many things, including the characters who come along for the ride. And they can often add a lot of color to your storyline. There's a lot we can remember our friends for. Above all else, we should enjoy them always.

Paige, if you're reading this, thanks for that wild ride, which still continues.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Of Book Titles and Linkin Park

The 2013 season of Lent has certainly been one of the more twisted I've experienced. Today I spent too much time on the phone dealing with my ex-wireless carrier over a bogus charge (I won't name the company; suffice it to say it's three letters--a vowel followed by two consonants that are the same) and then had to chew out another company over a bill settled months back. This on top of a total detox of 36 days so far without peanut butter (personal Lenten sacrifice). Nor have I written or edited any books since Ash Wednesday.

Yet that doesn't mean I can't think about writing. I know, call it a loophole if you may, but I can't just shut off the fountain of thought. With my first book Litany of Secrets coming out in the autumn, and with three more books already done, I've already wondered about book number five. With much reflection, I've decided on the title The Burning Glow, inspired in part by a Linkin Park song.

Several things converged here to bring about that title. Cameron Ballack and his team will be within the bowels of the St. Louis city limits more than usual. The plot line exhibits ethnic and religious violence amongst settled dwellers and foreign refugees. The worlds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims collide with devastating effect. The most disturbing thing--and the angle the story explores more than anything--is that when victimized, we can call foul. Yet when our oppressors are conquered and we are in the ascendancy, we might find it very difficult to keep from turning our weapons--real or rhetorical--on others. Powers may change, but destructive evil can reign in anyone hearts. And shalom--how life is meant to be--seems worlds away.

As a fan of Linkin Park (my wife takes deserved credit for turning me on to them), I was struck how the lyrics of their latest hit "Burn It Down" (from 2012's Living Things) captures the essence of this truth: People rebel against evil, only to disseminate it themselves. I've provided the video above, but if you're a word person, some of the lyrics are below:

The colors conflicted as the flames climbed into the clouds
I wanted to fix this but couldn't stop from tearing it down
And you were there at the turn, caught in the burning glow
And I was there at the turn, waiting to let you know
We're building it up to break it back down
We're building it up to burn it down
We can't wait to burn it to the ground
You told me "Yes", you held me high
And I believed as you told that lie
I played soldier, you played king
And pushed me down when I kissed that ring
You lost that right to hold that crown
I built you up but you let me down
So when you fall, I'll take my turn
And fan the flames as your blazes burn.

Brokenness and sin are equal-opportuity employers. To be honest, I'm thankful for what Linkin Park (inadvertently) teaches me: There but for the grace of God go I.

Until next time.

To Overcome

One of the grand aspects of writing is choosing a protagonist that has a certain niche about him. In my murder mysteries, that hero is Cameron Ballack. Ballack has a stratospheric IQ, a photographic memory, an ability to dissect what should be done--whether asking a penetrating question or analyze a Gaelic football match--and a need to complete his puzzles every day: Sudoku in the morning, the Jumble in the afternoon. But there is one more piece to the situation that makes Cameron Ballack unique.

He can't walk. He gets around in a wheelchair. Granted it's a top-of-the-line wheelchair that can hit top speeds of 9-11 mph.

But he's got a problem. He has X-linked myotubular myopathy. His fine and gross motor skills are such that he cannot fire a gun, or slap the handcuffs on a criminal, or pull a runaway thief to the ground. Much of his job occurs in weakness that he has to find a way around.

I tell Cameron Ballack's story that way because he has many like him on earth. One such young man is my son, Joshua, who bears myotubular myopathy (MTM) in his muscles, is wheelchair-bound, and shows a quirky side of him as well. Our late son Jordan also faced every day of his life with this genetic disorder coursing through his muscles. There are many boys in the MTM community who are not promised tomorrow. Few afflicted boys live past the age of ten. Many die early on.

So why make this part of Cameron Ballack's stories? Simply because of the wider context of the series itself. Hardship, evil, difficulty, weakness, pain. These are real parts of life, but we can either sit there and be overcome by them, or we can overcome those obstacles. Ballack chooses to overcome them by any means necessary. Not to survive, not to balance out and hope for the best, but to solve each case and bring justice. To win.

It's my hope that as this series (beginning with Litany of Secrets this autumn) comes out, people will enjoy the story itself. But I also hope they will be touched by the character of someone (and many who face more daunting challenges of MTM) with a passion to overcome.

I can think of no better way to finalize this point than to direct you to this video of Paul and Alison Frase. They spearhead fundraising and research efforts toward a cure for the afflicted boys of MTM. Paul (a former NFL lineman) and Alison lost their own MTM-afflicted son, Joshua, on Christmas Eve 2010, but they haven't stopped the desire to overcome. In fact, that was the mantra of Alison's words at Joshua's funeral. I implore you to watch it. Warning: Make sure you have some Kleenex nearby.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Doubt vs. Unbelief

It's been quite an un-spring break. Snow flurries today in our St. Louis suburb with temperatures that barely get out of freezing. My wife worked herself to the bone on cleaning the basement (which I willfully confess I should've been more proactive about keeping clean, as she told me). I graded a number of Ethics projects today and was able to finalize some third quarter grades, as well. I snapped at my home security company over the phone for a charge that I should not have received. And those delightful taxes, drowning in the federal 1040 form, Schedule A, and Missouri's tax papers. Thank heaven we should see an okay refund.

It was in the midst of all these details that one item on my to-do list came screaming out of the darkness: I have to prepare my teaching lesson for Sunday!

I have been team-teaching an adult education class at our church, under the topic of "under the radar sins", and so far we've been making our way through impatience, ungodliness, worry, and so on. Basically, while there are many front-page items that Christians tend to condemn (rather ungraciously in some quarters), these small-ticket matters still need to be rooted out and dealt with in order for your spiritual life to grow.

So for the final week of our teaching series, I've decided to facilitate a discussion on "Christian unbelief".

I don't mean where someone is a follower of Jesus and then definitively and callously move away from Him. I define Christian unbelief as "living and acting as if God isn't there."

Which is a huge problem for a lot of us, but that's a subject for another time.

When some people here me talk about Christian unbelief, they say, "You mean doubt, don't you?"

Uh, no. Doubt is good; unbelief is bad.

One of the best delineations of the two comes from a thinker named Alister McGrath, who says, "Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty. Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God...But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not and need not be a problem."

Simply put, doubt is to be occasionally expected. Any sort of spiritual faith--mine being Christianity--resides within our human experience. And because it is our faith, we should expect it to bear the burden of our weighted circumstances, daunting events, and abject confusion. No wonder your faith--if you call yourself a believer--has its ups and downs. And it's really easy to doubt in the valleys.

But that's different from unbelief. Which is why I cringe when I hear people say, "Why isn't your faith strong enough? Why do you have doubts?" Once when we lived in Florida, I addressed all the students in the high school where I served as a chaplain. Our family had gone through a nasty stretch. Jordan had a tough birth and first few months of life. Joshua was struggling in his recovery from spinal surgery. I was at the end of my rope and I said so. But I didn't want my students thinking that justified turning my back on God. I said something to the effect that doubting your faith is not the same as doubting God. Figuring how the pieces fit the puzzle can be taxing. But I think God is pleased when we refuse to walk away from the table and at least sit with Him to figure out the puzzle. Walking away is unbelief. Even if we sit at the table of faith in our doubts, the point is this: We are at least there.

Just my two cents, for what it's worth.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Love and Protection

I had a sleep study last night, which was a most unremarkable time (except that I was able to take along a Hamish Macbeth DVD and watch Robert Carlyle in action for a couple episodes). To make matters worse, by the time I woke up, showered, and got discharged, I had missed the coverage of Pope Francis' inaugural Mass. No problem, though. I'm a word guy, and I find myself enjoying the transcripts of speeches and addresses more than watching them on TV--it forces me to use my imagination to re-create the scenery.

As Francis' homily unfolded, he spoke about Joseph, the human father of Jesus. His emphasis was on St. Joseph's role as protector for the virgin Mary and for the baby Jesus himself. Naturally, he transitioned to making some applications for people today, that part of our everyday service to others is protecting those who need it. That's when one line from his sermon really resonated with me.

Only those who serve with love are able to protect.

That, people, is the gospel truth.

Obviously, there are times when people provide safety and security and have little or no emotional connection to others. A policeman can walk his beat and know few people in the area, let alone like them. Security personnel at an arena may have to shield music performers from a psychotic yet adoring throng without caring about whether they are protecting Madonna, Nickelback, or Justin Bieber (you can take fifteen minutes now to purge your stomach at the mention of Bieber).

However, I'd argue that the best protection for the people we are with the most is born out of love.

If someone breaks into my house, I'm immediately on the front lines doing whatever it takes to keep Christy, Joshua, and Lindsay from harm. My motivation? It's not "Well, if I lose any of them, that's one fewer exemption on my tax return..." The desire to protect my family springs from my love for each of them. If (heaven forbid) we have an intruder at school, I have to follow lockdown procedures and get my students to a safe corner of the classroom. My reason? It's not "You know, if I walk out and leave them exposed, I could get fired." I authentically care for them--even the annoying students--and want them to live through the danger.

Not that this comes close to personal survival and affection, but I've found this corollary holds true in writing, in crafting a story. An author is not only one who writes a story. The author is, in effect, a Joseph, the story's protector. As I write, I keep unhelpful storylines away from what I write, like when a little voice inside of me (a process which I call self-scouting) tells me "No, don't do that. That'll come back to bite you in the next chapter." I also have to protect my writing from confusing, or even wrong, details. If a dentist in chapter four has gray hair and blue eyes, I need to make sure I don't contradict those characteristics when he returns to the scene in chapter ten. It means I also have to be careful and selective about the characters I choose. Regarding my novels where detective Cameron Ballack is the protagonist, I've had to think "How will this person shape Ballack's work, Ballack's emotions, Ballack's whole line of activity?" I've thought up some characters, some events, some settings, and then I've had to eliminate them, simply because they would not have been good for my story.

In a way, stories are like our children, in need of shaping and growth. We want to be part of that process and should be. But at times we need to be protectors of our craft just as we must protect our children at appropriate times.

Literature reflects life more than we would guess.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Faith and Story: Redemption

In one of his comedic monologues when his situation comedy was running number-one, Jerry Seinfeld once opined, "I mean, the only reason we watch a TV show is because it ends. If I want a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life."

Granted, there is a kernel of truth there. We wouldn't watch a show or movie that has no resolution of any kind and merely wallows in pointlessness (Are you listening, makers of Highlander 2?). And there's no way we'd keep reading or watching something that literally has no ending (Which reminds me that The Never-Ending Story should face a lawsuit for titular false advertising).

Yet each story--oral, written, or celluloid--has a creation. It has a starting point. Each great story introduces some level of ruin, fallenness, or conflict. It has a movement of storm and angst. But admit it--one of the chief reasons we love stories is not just that they end, but that we desire a certain kind of ending.

A redemptive ending.

An ending where, despite the hounds of evil and the shrewdness of the antagonist, the hero really does rescue the girl on the railroad tracks, the prince finds the princess and gives her the kiss of her dreams, and the detective one-ups the murderer to make the arrest and bring definitive justice.

There is something inside us that cries out for a happy ending to our stories. And I don't believe for a second that it's due to insecurity, that we need happiness to keep a lid on perpetual anxiety. I do believe there's a more profound reason for our redemptive yearnings. They are woven into our nature.

Say what you will, from whatever perspective you come from: A secularist might say we look for the good in humanity, a Christian will say that God placed this craving within us, and people of other stripes might have other angles on this discussion. But the point is clearly made: We tend to want--even expect--light to come out of the darkness, the heroes to defeat the villains, and good to triumph over evil.

When my friend L.B. Graham was launching the first volume in his Binding of the Blade series, I asked him to give me a synopsis. He simply said, "Good triumphs over evil."


We watch The Princess Bride and root for Wesley to hold on to his true love and win the lovely Buttercup from the clutches of Prince Humperdinck. Children read Charlotte's Web and breathe a sigh of relief that Wilbur is spared and will live on, establishing relationships with the spider children of Charlotte even after their mother's demise. Those of us who enjoy P.D. James' murder mysteries know the satisfaction of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, in a perfect blend of logic and intuition, discovering the murderer time and again.

Yes, the landscape of our stories is one of hardship, nasty fault lines, and many hazards. It is much like life. Many live in poverty. A startling number of diseases still have no cure or treatment. The world is a tough, wicked place. But we struggle on, wanting life to get better, hoping that it will. We want a happy ending.

Many of us know that yearning more than others. Whenever I visit the grave of my toddler son Jordan, I feel the weight of this broken world. Yet I truly believe that is not the end of the story. Yes, it's part of the plot, but it's not the purpose. When spend those moments at my son's resting place, I remember that a God in whom I've placed my trust has promised to make all things new, including my son, including me.

There will be a happy ending to this story of life, to the grand sweep of human history. And we get to be part of what is written. And we get a whiff of that narrative writ small in every story we tell, read, hear, watch, or write.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Faith and Story: Ruin

We spent four wonderful years in Charlottesville, Virginia. There at the Covenant School, I was privileged to be part of a school faculty that was driven, resourceful, passionate, and eminently professional. One of my dear friends from those years was my department chairman, Tom Foley. Tom was not only a helpful mentor and spiritual director; he really had his pulse wisely on the world around him. He taught senior-level Bible and was known for his clear teaching and probing questions. One question in particular is so specific to Tom that I suggested he should copyright it.

Several times each year, Tom would ask his classes: "What is the answer to every human question?"

The answer? "The Fall."

Not the season known as autumn. Tom meant the biblical event labeled as the Fall into sin. The point when Adam and Eve--the initial humans--literally bit off more than they could figuratively chew, violating God's specifications for submission and delight, thus plunging the world into the disfigured and vandalized planet we experience every day.

Yes, I know that "the Fall" is not literally the answer to questions as specific as "Should I get my oil changed at Firestone or Jiffy Lube?" But in response to queries such as "Why are there days I don't enjoy my job?", "Why do my parents/children/acquaintances annoy me?", "How is it that someone can walk into an elementary school and kill children with a gun?", or the poignant "Why did Grandpa have to die?", the ultimate answer is "We live in a fallen, ruined world." Life on this planet isn't as bad as it could be, but I think we can all agree there is something in the zeitgeist that just isn't right. An alien presence has invaded our home and has been here for some time. And that presence not only affects us and wounds us. It also enters us and causes us to wound others.

What does this have to do with literature and writing? Simply that stories that are effective will often show how ruin, fallenness, sin--call it what you will--penetrates the normal world order that the story assumes implicitly (or displays explicitly) at the beginning. Like the scope of human history, creation is followed by ruin.

Examples abound (and perhaps you have many of your own) but several come to my mind. In the epic poem Beowulf, the thanes' celebrations at Heorot is cut short when the monster Grendel comes forth in his destructive rage. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the vast economic potential of the American industrial enterprises find resistance from an insidious, interfering federal government (although one could just as well say that unrestrained, secular individualism will eventually bring about its own ruin itself). George Jonas' Vengeance, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel and was the basis for Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich, opens with the gathering of nations at the 1972 Summer Olympics but quickly moves into the Black September massacre of eleven Israeli athletes.

Certainly, ruin and human fallenness plays a literary role; one could hardly expect to have a decent plot without it. A story usually is not all flowers and smiles, and readers practically cry out for some sort of conflict to build the tension. But all that, I believe, is due to the fact that we innately recognize there is something abjectly wrong with the world around us and we practically expect to find some level of that brokenness in the stories we read. And it's not just that we see those cracks in our wider environment, but if we're honest we see streaks of that ruin within us as well. St. Augustine once said that evil passes one's door as a stranger before entering as a guest but finally installing itself as master. Maybe that's what makes us shudder: the brokenness in a story is our story, too, even among the greatest saints. The words of Dwight Moody are instructive here. Moody was asked once if he as a Christian was filled with the Holy Spirit, to which he replied, "Yes, but I leak."

People leak ruin. Stories reflect that brokenness of a fallen world. The good news is that the enduring stories we love don't leave us there, but point to redemption and restoration. But that is a post that is yet to come.

Faith and Story: Creation

I have managed to get a new perspective on writing since February 13th. No, there wasn't something intentional about seeking said perspective. And no, I haven't gained this insight due to doing any writing. February 13th was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season that leads to Easter (for Catholics and Protestants at least; our Orthodox brethren follow the Julian calendar and so their Lent begins this coming Monday, their Easter being May 5th). As I try to do every year, I made a point--for the entirety of Lent-- to give up something that normally I want/need/enjoy regularly. This year I decided to sacrifice two things. The first was peanut butter and, except for a couple of initial withdrawal tremors, that has gone without a hitch. The other thing I gave up was writing or editing any of my books. No new ventures, no corrections of old stuff. Take a break cold turkey.

The lack of writing my fiction has opened up more time for me to enjoy reading, so I've been filling my time with general fiction (like my wife's copy of Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love) but especially mysteries. As I've shared before, I have a staggering affinity for crime fiction and murder mysteries, so I've stocked up over the past month, and police procedurals and classic whodunits are adorning my bedside table yet again.

Ah yes, back to this new perspective. It really begins with an old perspective that comes from the faith tradition in which I live. It is that of viewing human history as an interweaving series of meaningful events through the movements of creation, ruin (which many call "the Fall into sin"), and redemption. I would also add "restoration" to the end point, but for the coming days I want to focus on the first three, because I re-discovered just how embedded these elements are in much of fiction. Hence, today I want to talk about creation in story.

This is not to get into the evolution-creation debate, or to talk about the age of the earth (I don't think the Bible concerns itself with that latter issue). Rather, it's important to note what the consensus Christian tradition has said about creation. Namely, it is God's joyous, special work to craft a world that reflects Him and bears His imprint. The Artist constructs the ultimate art gallery. It is a space--to quote Gerald Manley Hopkins--"charged with the grandeur of God." And the ultimate evaluation comes from the Maker Himself. At the end of each orchestral movement, each creative act, God pronounces that what He has put in place is "good". Each time, that is, until he creates humans, which he designates as "very good."

It is a world as the Author meant it to be. It is normal existence as the Architect desired. And somehow this has come together recently as I've read through several books of note:

Francinc Rivers, Reedeming Love: Even though much of the book depicts the prostitution of a woman named Angel and her resistance to Michael Hosea's love, the book begins with Angel's earlier years as Sarah, a beautiful, sweet girl in New England holding on to whatever innocence she can.

P.D. James, The Murder Room: Despite the dysfunctionality of the Dupayne family, the setting of the very unique Dupayne Museum of the inter-war years gives the reader a sense of normalcy and human creativity.

L.B. Graham, The Binding of the Blade series: Prologues, hints and flashbacks show us that the land of Kirthanin was originally a place of hope and happiness, created by Allfather and under the wise rule of the Titans.

M.C. Beaton, anything in her Hamish Macbeth mysteries: The idyllic village of Lochdubh (pronounced  loch-DOO), with its picturesque lake and bucolic environs, is the picture of contentment until the plot thickens.

And perhaps the best two examples:

C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Even before the White Witch, King Miraz, the Green Lady, Rabadash, and others can work evil, Aslan sings a wholesome world of Narnia into existence in The Magician's Nephew.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Is there any more memorable fictional world than Middle Earth? Yet many of us forget that Tolkien's universe began with music from the Ainur spirits created by  Eru Illuvatar, with a plan to make a beautiful musical score of Illuvatar's design.

My point is that fiction--even if not imitating life--can function in a way that reflects the movements of our history. That history has a beginning, a good beginning, and even around us--broken though this world may be--we can still see traces of a good creation that bears its Maker's heartbeat. Good fiction introduces the reader to a world that bears a sense of good function and form and where the reader wants to find himself or herself.

But nothing lasts forever. Including a good beginning. But that's a post for next time.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading Reflections: March 16

So far, much of what I've done is pontificate about the craft of writing or the journey of life, but the weekend seems to be a good time to take a step back from all that and talk about books I've recently read or re-read. Call it part reflection, part recommendation, part good-way-to-pass-the-time-before-Kansas-plays-in-the-Big-12-final-later-today. I'll try to keep it lucid and focused since I've got the Everton-Manchester City match on right now, as well (Everton just struck first in the 32nd minute to take a 1-nil lead).

As I've read a lot of books over the course of the past year, there's much to choose from, but I thought I'd begin with two novels that I both devoured and savored recently: Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, both by Glynn Young. Glynn spent a lot of time putting these stories together into a tale that began with a vision of a priest dancing on the beach. Dancing Priest introduces the reader to Michael Kent, university student, future priest, and Olympic cyclist for Great Britain. A young man of incredible faith, transparent honesty, and undying courage, Michael encounters Sarah Hughes, an exchange student from the US. The novel traces the interflow of their activity, through both love and loss, in settings that range from Edinburgh to Athens to Los Angeles to San Francisco. Michael discovers that he can have impact anywhere, whether that be in parish ministry or in the Olympic village. Sarah comes to recognize that neither life nor her artistic creations can make sense without the presence of the Creator at the center. The pace and tone change in A Light Shining. Michael's ministry flourishes, but at great cost, and both he and Sarah are caught in the crucible of international terrorism. Coordinated parries of evil are met with profound and memorable acts of heroism. The plot takes the reader on a bumpy, thrilling literary toboggan ride that ends with a royally surprising resolution, but leaves the reader wanting yet another sequel (Glynn, are you listening?). I would say more about both stories, but spoilers aren't in my blood at this point.

Yes, these are Glynn's first two novels, but he is already a master of pace and hooking the reader into the story. His characters, even the less central ones, are memorable and vivid. Michael Kent will impress you with his faith and honest heart, but Glynn infuses enough consternation and brokenness into Kent's character that he is a realistic. Even the events of the story, while profoundly memorable and  hardly mundane, are not so far out there that you think "Oh, come on! No way that happens!" I can't remember any point when my suspension-of-disbelief alarm went off.

More than anything, for a novel that grapples with issues of faith, the story in both Dancing Priest and A Light Shining is refreshingly honest. A good deal of what passes for writing by Christian folks is "no swearing, no sex, and plenty of cheesy stitched-together scenes." Glynn is a very thoughtful believer, and he refuses to sacrifice quality in a story that grapples with questions of love, suffering, vocation, and wisdom. It is both a robust, realistic, and enjoyable world into which he beckons the reader. I'd suggest you grab both novels today and begin that journey. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Building a Home for One's Story

Six years ago, when our son Joshua spent a considerable amount of post-surgical time at Miami Children's Hospital, I read to pass much of the time. Notably, I read a lot of P.D. James' mysteries. I had worked through The Children of Men and loved it, but her murder mysteries really took me away. In fact, my Litany of Secrets was inspired in part by James' work in Death in Holy Orders, which remains my all-time favorite from her cornucopia of novels.

James, who turns 93 this year, strikes the perfect balance of plot, character, and setting--a balance which I will never be able to imitate. In fact, I've discovered that although a writer should concern himself with all three categories, eventually they pick one area as a starter point for working on their novel. When I began pre-writing for Litany of Secrets, I decided to begin with building the setting. I had the protagonist in mind in Cameron Ballack, but not the rest of the cast. I was playing with several storylines when the idea of murder at a seminary came into view. And once that hit, I thought Well, given all that, I probably want to construct the home for my story. It's not as if there wasn't precedence for my type of story (the seminary I attended suffered through an on-campus murder before I arrived and that case is still unsolved). But more than anything, I wanted my readers to be able to feel like they were walking on the seminary grounds, to be able to take in the bucolic environment, to smell the burning of the incense in the chapel, the snow shaking from the trees, and the darkness of the guest lodge where the first victim meets his end.

The setting crystallized when I went biking on the Katy Trail near the town of Defiance, Missouri. As I drove around beforehand, I scooted down Howell Road and saw to the north a massive swath of open farmland and thought, "This is the place!" From then on, with that territory in my memory, I spent the next two weeks mapping out the grounds of the mentally-created St. Basil's Seminary. Even now I can close my eyes and see the campus, dream-like, laid out before me. The massive bronze-colored tri-bar cross at the entrance to the seminary. The brownstone chapel with its colorful icons and the perpetual whiff of incense. The grove of trees between the guest lodge and the main building. Every square inch of the library.

And to me, that's part of the excitement of setting for a writer. You're practically building a home for your story. And it's a home that you've built, unique in your mind and soul. Nothing like it in the world. And what gives me the most joy is that I get to share this world with the others in just a few months.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Best Defense Is...Well, Uh

Today at school I was bustling around in a rush and entered my colleague Larry Hughes' room as he was in an equal rush trying to get his laptop's DVD drive functioning properly to play a Seinfeld episode (which, trust me, does have something to do with what we're discussing in Ethics). He let me know that the coffee was almost ready and so I was exiting to grab my thermal mug when a voice spoke from the assembled sophomores.

"Hey, Mr. Davis, the Flyers lost last night."

Big mistake. When it comes to hockey, I am a devoted Broad Street Bully, bleeding orange and black nonstop. I respect teams like the St. Louis Blues, the Montreal Canadiens, and even the normally woebegone Winnipeg Jets. But love? That is reserved only for the Philadelphia Flyers.

And to make this burgeoning face-off more combustible, the girl who said it was a Pittsburgh Penguins fan.

Blasphemy. I accept no smack-talk from Penguin fans. The atmosphere at a two-foot radius around me froze to absolute zero. Time for revenge. Time to bring up how the Penguins blew a three-games-to-none lead in 1975 and the New York Islanders captured the series and the Pens snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Only another student asked "What's an Islander?" Which goes to show that sarcasm is wasted on such folks. New tactic.

In the next three minutes, I ran copies of the results of every playoff meeting between the Flyers and Penguins out of my Total Stanley Cup book, conclusively demonstrating the dominance by my beloved Flyers in the 1989, 1997, 2000, and 2012 playoffs (to be fair, I also included when the Pens beat us in '08 and '09). Re-entering the room to grab my second coffee of the day, I sidled up to Lara's desk and tossed the reading material in her direction before leaving the room in triumph.

Triumph? Maybe not. Why did the Flyers need my defense? Why do I get so chapped when someone makes a dig at my team?

As students, as teachers, as leaders in business and industry and the service sector, the chances that we will need correction are very high. In my profession, administrative superiors evaluate my performance each year. If they don't like what I've done, I might not get a contract for next year (which reminds me, I need to sign my contract and turn it in). If my performance as a teacher meets or exceeds their expectations, they ask me to stay on. But throughout the year...throughout each week, actually, people prod me to improve, make suggestions, and push me to be better. Sometimes they might say stuff that isn't warranted. For example, if someone says, "I heard you did this or that in class and I don't see what place that has in the curriculum," I tend to think Well, you weren't there. Hinging your whole argument on hearsay is flimsy. You're the one being unprofessional. But is a defensive posture really helpful? Is that going to be your default mode? You can't keep that going forever! If you can't take criticism or if your students' or colleagues' views conflict with yours and you can't stand it, you shouldn't be a teacher (I can think of several people over the years who fall in this category). In fact, you just can't expect to function or thrive in the professional workplace. To work is to commit to improvement. To improve implies you are not where you should be. And if you are not where you should be, you should be able to take constructive criticism well. The need for improvement is not a mortal sin.

Although being a Penguins fan is a mortal sin. But Lara can sort that one out before the throne of the Almighty and find there is always grace and forgiveness for her wayward deeds. ;)

Tell Me A Story!

If you are a parent, one of the continuous refrains you might hear from your children is "Can you read me a story?" It's an instructive request, really. I've never known my children to ask, "Dad, can we analyze the stock market?" or "Can we outline this car manual?" Children normally (with the profound exception of the pre-redeemed Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) want you to capture their imagination. They want you to take them away. They don't want to absorb facts. They want to live a story.

Something goes askew--albeit not intentionally--as we advance in our schooling. We can begin to think that literature is primarily something to be analyzed and dissected, judging how well the author has advanced his or her objective, pontificating about structure, meter, and rhyme. All this has its place, to be sure. But along the ways we forget the primary goal of why we read: to savor words, because at our core, we are primarily lovers who need to feed our passion for life. Pretty much the reverberations coming from Robin Williams in a cinematic classroom.

What makes us love what we read, whether it's historical fiction, a memoir, a murder mystery, Twilight (shudder), poetry, a collection of presidential speeches, a chronicle of life in Depression-era Kansas, or a children's picture book? Simply, if we are transported to another place and feel like we are living the experience given us, if we feel like this has become our world, our new world, and we can savor it, even for a brief time. When was the last time you picked up a book and said to it, "Come on, tell me a story?"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pat Conroy and Teaching Greatness

As you probably can tell from the title of this post, one of my all-time favorite authors is Pat Conroy. I don't know of any other writers who can fill me simultaneously with joy and angst chapter after chapter. Not to mention, I'm a sucker for the Southern gothic, and you don't need to convince me it's a good idea to spend some more time vicariously in South Carolina.

Conroy himself began his post-collegiate life (he was a 1967 graduate of the Citadel) as a teacher, instructing young people on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. His experiences there formed the basis for his memoir, The Water is Wide, filled with insights on how he was stretched as a teacher, battled with the principal, and worked hard to communicate with the islanders (many of whom were slave descendants) in a poverty-stricken environment. It's a fascinating tale about the art and struggle of teaching. And yet when I think of teaching and Pat Conroy, my thoughts are drawn to a different book.

It's almost a passing thought in The Lords of Discipline (still my all-time favorite Conroy work) that Will McLean, the story's protagonist, shares thusly on his way to British history class one day. He says

“I developed the Great Teacher theory late in my freshman year. It was a cornerstone of the theory that great teachers had great personalities and that the greatest teachers had outrageous personalities. I did not like decorum or rectitude in a classroom; I preferred a highly oxygenated atmosphere, a climate of intemperance, rhetoric, and feverish melodrama. And I wanted my teachers to make me smart."

One of the most striking things about that passage is what it is lacking. There is no mention of carefully crafted lesson plans, deep knowledge in one's subject matter, a full set of classroom management skills, and the like. There's not so much an emphasis on what a teacher does but I see a whale of a lot of weight on what type of person a teacher is.

This is not to say teachers shouldn't be well-trained. I believe firmly in the logical reality that whatever is in the result must have been in the cause. But we can also over-train to the extent that if we just have more professional development, attend this seminar, be licensed in this area...yada, yada, yada--well, then we will be effective teachers. Now you can improve as a teacher, but I've really come to believe that teaching is a gift that you either have or you don't. For a lot of people, no matter how much time you invest in them, they shouldn't be anywhere near a classroom. And for others, you realize that teaching fits them like a hand in a glove and the experience is intoxicating in the best sense of the word.

Knowledge, organizational skills, "collaborative learning community", and curricular vision aside, the number one thing I believe a teacher can bring to their classroom is a passionate personality. Students are looking for that "highly oxygenated atmosphere." They are seeking an arena in which they can capture greatness, and if we love what we do, then they'll smell the hunt.

In referencing my earlier post on sacred cows and edgy questions, students are also looking for a safe environment to ask rugged questions, to get out of the box, and to challenge traditional thinking. Are teachers the type who absorb the edginess and authentically leads people to discover the truth for themselves? Or do they lash out when their students "threaten" them by disagreement or finding a different interpretation to a reading?

Students are looking for honesty and authenticity. Are teachers being real and genuine? Are they teaching truth and living it out? Young people may not have cornered the market on knowing wrong from right conclusively, but they can smell hypocrisy and disdain a mile away.

And students want teachers and mentors who will shepherd them through the rough spots of life, who understand that school is preparation for life but is not the whole of life. Teachers, your class may be important, but it is one of several (at least in middle and high school), not the only one. What you demand from and how you evaluate your kids should reflect that.

You're free to disagree with me (just to emphasize this blog is also a safe place, too), but I think it's true: Who you are as a teacher speaks more loudly and effectively than what you've done. I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as great teaching. But I do know there are great individuals in my life who have taught me well. And that counts for a heck of a lot.

Passion. Safety. Truth. Authenticity. Care.

Or as my first headmaster, Mickey Bowdon, once said, kids are asking three questions: "Do you love what you do? Do you love me? And can I trust you?"

Pretty simple, really. That is greatness.