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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


As I thought through the setting of Litany of Secrets, it became clear that if I was going to have a theological seminary at the center of the book, I needed a center to that center. In the daily life of the seminary, where is the heartbeat.

Answer? The chapel.

Several critical scenes unfold in the chapel at St. Basil's Seminary, a church structure which I gave the Chapel of the Theotokos. If you're confused by that title, it is the Greek label given by Orthodox Christians to the Virgin Mary. The literal rendering of Theotokos is "God-bearer" or "one who gives birth to God."

To whet the appetite for the scenes therein, here's a rendering of the chapel doors done by Ciarra Peters, who handled the cover art I showed on Sacred Chaos a few days back. The writing above the doors is Sanctify the body, engage the mind, transform the soul, which is the seminary's motto in the novel.

How We Met

In his autobiography, former President Ronald Reagan consistently said he was amazed at how the little twists and turns of life could turn out to make the largest impact.

Today I heartily affirm that truth.

On August 23rd of last year, we were barely a week into the first quarter of school. It was the evening of Westminster Christian Academy's Upper School IGNite (an acronym for "Information Gathering Night"), our version of back-to-school night. The essence of the evening would be a large-scale gathering in the arena with greetings from the administration, and then parents would shuttle through a mini-school day following their children's schedule (with "class periods" shortened from fifty minutes to eight minutes of each teacher giving an intro to the class).

It adds up to a long day at school for teachers, but it's great to see parents. From my vantage point, it's beneficial to reconnect with parents of past students. It was on August 23rd that I was passing through the mass of humanity in the Grand Entry of the school before the arena gathering. As an introvert, these moments can be very painful and normally I try to say as little as possible. But I happened to run into Kitty Scott, whose son Mike I taught the previous two years. Kitty has always been one of my most vocal supporters who was very helpful during a difficult issue in our Ethics classes last year. Even my introvert shell couldn't stop me from wanting to chat with her and catch up.

It wasn't far into our conversation that she asked me, "So have you found a publisher for your book?"

Kitty had always been interested in my writing. I was at the point where I really felt that Litany of Secrets, let alone the entire Cameron Ballack mystery series, would never see the light of day. I had just had a contentious meeting with a local publisher who was interested in the book but said it would be the spring of 2015 before its release. Not to mention I wasn't a fan of that company's inchoate, controlling fifteen-page contract. So I told them to take a hike. Thus, when Kitty asked me about a publisher, I was at my low point and told her that was the case.

And then came the words that would change everything.

Kitty said, "Well, you ought to contact a friend of ours. Mark. Mark Sutherland. He runs his own company and has published a few books."

Excuse me? Did that just happen?

Turns out Mark and his wife Amy go to the same church as Kitty, and Amy is involved in the same Bible study that Kitty leads.

According to Kitty, my story "might be the type of thing Mark would be interested in."

It turns out Mark was. Kitty gave me his contact info and Mark asked me to send him the manuscript for Litany of Secrets. We hacked a bunch of stuff out of it and smoothed a few areas out, but Mark liked what he saw. I still remember meeting with him at Einstein Bros. Bagels at Clayton Road and Hwy 141 and talking through the particulars of how the publishing process would look.

I gained an honest, energetic publisher who backs up his promises with actions and tells it like it is and encourages writers well.

And I have a seemingly chance encounter with Kitty Scott from ten months ago to thank for this journey.

Yes, the small things are often the most meaningful ones in life.

Monday, June 24, 2013


I've mentioned my student Ciarra Peters previously, raving about her talent and ability to tell a story through her artistic acumen. Over the next few days, I'll be releasing several pictures that Ciarra has sketched which bring home different parts of the Litany of Secrets story.

Today is the front cover, which beautifully captures the mystery and suspense through the dark hues, but communicates the hope of justice shining through the archways.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Day is Upon Us! LITANY OF SECRETS is almost here!

A process that began thirty months ago is about to head into a grand new adventure. My debut novel, Litany of Secrets, is set for release! The ebook version will be available the week of July 1st for Kindle, NOOK, and iBook users. The print paperback will emerge on August 1st.

If you are looking for some great summertime reading, if you want a great story with an unlikely protagonist, and if you are intrigued by a mystery which displays both the redemptive and destructive nature of love, Litany of Secrets delivers the goods.

I won't give away the ending (duh!), but the back cover summary should suffice:

In rural eastern Missouri sits St. Basil's Seminary, an idyllic center of reflection and study and peace.

But when the sudden, suspicious death of a visiting priest shakes the community to the core, Detective Cameron Ballack is called to investigate the matter.

Facing hardship and tragedy of his own, and confined to a wheelchair, Ballack finds that the seemingly devoted members of St. Basil's have skeletons in their own closets. And when one murder follows another, Ballack must redouble his efforts to cut through the clouds of past sins before death strikes once more, this time with Ballack in its sights.

We'll have more here in the days ahead, but for now I wanted all of you to know that we're almost there!

Friday, June 21, 2013

And Down the Stretch They Come!

I've always loved those words. It brings back memories of many Kentucky Derbies of years past. Being someone who used to live in Louisville, I tune in to the Derby every year and thrill to the sound of the race announcer as the thoroughbreds round the final corner and charge for the wire. Whether it was Seattle Slew in 1977 (the first time I watched the Derby on TV), or Swale's finish in 1984, or the time Grindstone won by a nostril hair (yes, it was that close) in 1996, those moments were preceded by the immortal call, delivered with all the grunt of someone lifting a VW with the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the backseat, "...and down the stretch they come!"

Now those words apply to something else.

In the winter of 2010-11, hungry to do something else professionally and personally, I began shaping the story of a murder mystery series in my head. I had in mind a detective who had navigated through much storm and stress of life. I wanted someone who that a skeptic edge to his worldview. I wanted this detective to be truly unique, a prodigy with a photographic memory that bordered on the bizarre but who held a certain warmth buried deep in his heart. And this detective would be wheelchair-bound.

From those initial dreams, I managed to come up with an eight-book story arc that starts to come to fruition this autumn. This summer, Dunrobin Publishing and Mark Sutherland have been hard at work in the editing, layout, and final cover placement of my first novel in the Cameron Ballack mystery series, Litany of Secrets. It's been quite a journey learning how the publishing industry works. There are many great things about Dunrobin. Their focus on traditional values and high quality means that readers will get an excellent product. Dunrobin is a young company that establishes clear communication and honest proposals combined with personal attention. With those things aligned, it means you get a great view of how things work up front.

I'm pleased to say that the editing process and the layout work have gone smoothly and this project is going forward like a well-stoked locomotive. The final piece of the puzzle is the cover design, and here we found an absolute gold mine! This past school year, I had the pleasure of having a diligent, high-achieving, and creative student in my 7th period Ethics class. For one project, Ciarra drew some corresponding pictures for each of her entires. Now, I've had students get artsy before, but this was several cuts above anything else I've seen. No lie...these drawing made you want to have a seance, bring up the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien and tell him, "Dude, whoever did the artwork for the Lord of the Rings just got surpassed." Ciarra is that talented. She has the ability to read something, hear a story, or watch a TV program or movie and re-imagine the scenery in her head, and then draw it with vibrant realism and emotion.

With that in mind, I asked Ciarra if she would be willing to try her hand at cover art for Litany of Secrets. Once she read a manuscript of the novel, she was locked in and had a vision for various scenes that told the story incredibly well. We have finalized the front cover and let me tell everyone, this is an amazing piece of work by an amazing student! When it goes public, you'll love it! Mark has married the front cover to the back cover and all systems are go as we move toward the book's release in the fall.

What's truly remarkable is what Ciarra is also doing this summer when she's not doing cover art. She is in a summer program at Washington University of St. Louis, working in the area of brain biomechanics, creating tissue mimics of the white matter in the brain. Yes, she loves art and she loves science. It's amazing to know someone who is precocious as that in different areas of education. To see how committed she is to excellence is very gratifying and humbling at the same time.

The journey to produce something lasting and memorable is never done in isolation. You have to have a great team of people helping you along as you seek to tell the story. Mark Sutherland of Dunrobin Publishing and Ciarra Peters of Westminster Christian Academy are truly the best imaginable for this grand project. When Litany of Secrets finally comes out, it's a tribute to their work even if it is my story.  Truly, no man is an island.

Friday, June 14, 2013

I'm Not Embarrassed to Be Ordinary

This August, I will begin my fifteenth year in teaching, which also means that over the past fourteen, I have finished them all by sitting through fourteen different--yet remarkably similar--high school graduation ceremonies.

Well, that's not true. There were three of them I found to be somewhat riveting.

By an incredible coincidence, I was the speaker at three of these fourteen graduations.

I'll leave you to draw your conclusions what the overlap of those two claims happens to be.

But back to the graduation thing. One thing I've discovered in a lot of cases (and what I try to avoid whenever I speak) is that the gung-ho, here-are-the-principles-for-successful-living, we-want-you-to-make-a-riveting-impact-on-the-world-around-you pleonasms still blaze a trail through the commencement zeitgeist. Lately, I've come to believe we're doing students a huge disservice with exhortations and imperatives to grab the speeding rail of life and put their footprint on their social environment. First of all, we are feeding an already increasingly narcissistic horde a de facto message that this is their destiny. Secondly, we are setting a lot of these students up for a crash into vocational and metaphysical depression. If they engage in a life path or career that doesn't seem to "measure up" to the message we lay before them, they run the risk of feeling like failures.

That's when I wondered if I was wrong. Maybe we are meant to encourage to the nth degree and speak of students' futures like politicians of the nineteenth century waved the standard of Manifest Destiny as the justification for marching across the American continent, for provoking the Mexican War to precipitate a land grab, and heaven knows what else.

Nah, I said. I don't think I'm wrong. But that got me even more worried. Are we not only feeding this stew in academic context, but also in the church?

As I wondered and fretted about that, Dr. Anthony Bradley's article went viral at WORLD Magazine. Dr. Bradley is an energetic Acton Institute blogger, an insightful African-American thinker and theologian, and a former professor at Covenant Theological Seminary here in St. Louis (Alas, not from my days as a student.). And in this article, he points out a lot of truth. In fact, the conversation began with a comment he made on Twitter: "Being a 'radical,' 'missional' Christian is slowly becoming the 'new legalism.' We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt. 22:36-40)"

There has been an increasing surge in new churches that label themselves as "missional"--defined as communities of Christian believers who describe themselves as Christ-centered, theologically conscious, Spirit-led folk who bring the message and life of Jesus to their neighbors [a.k.a., "tribes"] in the local, everyday context of their lives. This is allegedly in marked contrast to the "traditional" or "liberal" ways of church ministry in the past. For a more evangelical view of what this looks like, check out Mark Driscoll's Confessions of a Reformission Rev to see how Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have pulled this off in Seattle, one of America's least churched metropolitan areas.

My beef--like Dr. Bradley--is not with the existence of such communities. Rather it lies with the unspoken but heavy-handed push that if one is to make impact for the kingdom of God, one must be a "missional Christian" or "radical believer" to do so successfully. Bradley makes this point in much more erudite fashion than I can, which is why you need to follow the above link to his article. In fact, if you haven't done so, do it now and then come back to this point. 

Done? It was a sweet write-up, wasn't it? Back to my thoughts. I would just say several things:

(1) By definition, EVERY Christian is a missional believer, called to engage those around them as faithfully as possible with the Gospel, in word and in deed. There is no real dichotomy between "missional" and "traditional", between "radical" and "ordinary". Not every Christian has been granted the spiritual gift of evangelism, but each believer is called to bear witness to others with the Gospel.

(2a) I fear that we are really putting evaluation before fidelity with this new paradigm of "missional" or "radical". There seems to be such a certainty of God's "blessing" upon these efforts that I wonder what happens if a young Christian moves to an urban area, links up with a missional church, tries to live out his faith "radically" (whatever that means, since Jesus was much more interested in a slow injection of God''s transforming shalom on the planet during his ministry than in blowing up the apple cart of empire and power), and does all sorts of relational and incarnational ministry amongst the unbelievers in his orbit...well, what if that doesn't work out? What if any of those items wither? What if he loses his job and has to move? What if he encounters friction in the small group Bible study he's a part of? What if he feels like he's not being radical enough (and then faith becomes not trusting in Christ but tracking the general feeling we have when trying to follow Jesus?) or--heaven forbid!--NO ONE BECOMES A CHRISTIAN as a result of his activity?

(2b) I take you to the career of the prophet Jeremiah. Called by God to warn the people of Judah about their impending national doom because of their spiritual decline. Ordered and empowered by God to call them to repentance. Driven by the Holy Spirit to enter the fray of extraordinary resistance...And you know what? You can't find any evidence in Scripture that he ever converted a soul or that his words or message changed the situation. Was he a failure? Heck, no! As LeBron James would say in the foul lane in Game 2 of the NBA finals, "Get that crap outa here!" If Jeremiah followed God's call, that's the bottom line for success, not whether he was strategically missional or radical enough.

(3) As Dr. Bradley shared, we seem to be losing our grip on the dignity and worth of the ordinary Christian. Yes, we will always have our megachurches doing great things, we will always have a need to transform the urban centers of out nation with the Gospel as the financial and cultural capital shifts to different places in different times (Atlanta and Nashville are hip today, but Indianapolis and St. Louis can be the next decades never know). But we will always have the 120-member non-denominational church in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin that ministers to the homeless by providing hot meals and thick blankets. We will have First Baptist Church of Scott City, Kansas, which is quietly growing its community groups ministry and where school teachers, coaches, farmers, and shop clerks draw strength from one another in various hardships. And we will have my church here in St. Louis, which doesn't have a Book of Common Prayer or some sweet icons throughout the sanctuary (we are Presbyterian, after all, even though I'm a high church guy myself), but where the members--in much of their coat-and-tie Monday-through-Friday existence--find ways to interact with pagans, pre-believers, seekers, and all manner of folks in between. And there are individuals like me who--despite that I haven't joined a commune and even though I live in the suburbs--think I do a fairly competent job teaching Ethics in a conversational manner at a Christian school to students who are more and more wrapped in the secularism of today. Some days I hit, some days I miss, but God's in the midst of that.

"Missional" and "radical" are not primary markers for God's people; "faithful" should be. The world needs more ordinary Christians in ordinary places. And I'm not embarrassed to take my place among them.

And one last thing: If people are all screaming that you need to think and act outside of the box, then if everyone is doing their thing outside the box, wouldn't that make what goes on in the box that much more unique?

And necessary?

Yup, my point exactly.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Writing: Never Give Up

I figure I should pound out a post tonight, since I'll be separated from my trusty laptop for a few days. Our school is overseeing a computer upgrade for all faculty, and so tomorrow I'm taking mine in so they can transfer everything on it to my new laptop. At least, that's what they told me, that everything would be fine on the transfer. Thus, my Calvinist self, eschewing trust in the future, put all my stuff on flash drive to make sure I lose nothing.

It will mean a few days off from writing, but I've made my peace with that. For one, I've been busy enough. My publisher and I have had an efficient week, emailing my final edited manuscript for Litany of Secrets back and forth, then finalizing the layout that Mark pulled together. Plus, my cover artist has done some amazing pieces for our perusal, and I must say I am really excited about the cover!

But back to writing. Back when I first started writing fiction, I felt like I had to ram through at least a thousand words a day or my efforts would be considered a failure. Now I don't have daily goals. I mean, it's nice if I can put out about eight to ten pages, double-spaced. One day, I reached eight thousand words. But those days are rare. And not getting stuff done now and then doesn't bother me like it used to. Because I know I'll get it done because I've finished things before.

Precedent. And that takes me back to the first book I ever wrote.

Our first year in St. Louis was an absolute heart-smashing mess. We moved here in July of 2008. In November, our 19-month old son Jordan died suddenly. In January 2009, our eldest son Joshua went into the hospital with respiratory illness (RSV virus). With all the hardship and tragedy with our two sons, Christy and I figured that our daughter Lindsay was slipping through the attention cracks. All that pressure eventually plays havoc with the threads of a marriage, and we went through some difficult and transformative channels. Finally, we got to a point where God brought us through enough fire where it had truly changed us for the better. And so--to show Christy how much she meant to me through it all--I decided to do the most natural thing to celebrate.

I decided to write a book. Not just any book. A retrospective of our life together from the time we met to the present day. I went back through my mental Rolodex (let's face it: I was born to be a history major!) and recalled two hundred different events over thirteen and a half-years. And yes, through either embedded memory or tracking back on various calendars, I managed to nail down the dates of every event. And I just wrote about each time from my perspective, a story of our life.

Over three hundred pages. In excess of one hundred ten thousand words. Counting the two weeks of planning out the events and how to organize the story, it took me four months to get it done.

Yes, without Christy realizing I was doing it at all. But that's not the point.

The point is that for the first time, I realized that I could undertake a massive writing project, from beginning to end, and bring it to completion...while enjoying it at the same time. More than anything else, writing that book for Christy taught me that I could be a writer.

So nothing dissuades me anymore. I know things will get done. It's happened before.

Never give up. It's the key to all good writing. And all of life.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing and the Brain

One of my ongoing frustrations (although to be fair, it's not a daily thing) happens to be the student who refuses to take notes in class or write down anything, telling me in effect that "Oh, I'll just listen and remember what was said. Taking notes doesn't help at all. It's better this way."

Oh, really?

As an emerging writer, I confess looking for evidence that supports the fact that writing helps your recall of things, that stories are preferable to bare facts, and so on. But I don't like monographs that drone on and on about the neurological research that shows it.

Finally, an infograph that makes the point quickly, cleanly, and creatively!

I think it makes the point. What about you? Thoughts?

Anxious for Nothing

It was my fifth grade year, and my book report was due the next day. I confess memory failure that I cannot recall what book at was, but I was in a deep scramble because I was certain I was going to screw it up. My teacher, Miss Harrell, had given out an outline (what we called in those days before the word "template" came into vogue) and I had followed it, but I was throwing a fit. I believed I had messed it up by writing the report in regular prose and "forgetting" to put the outline headings before each section of my report. My parents looked at me like I had three heads, likely wondering how this child could have been thrown into such a frenzy over a little thing. Dad even told me the outline was something to be followed, not a skeleton to display in my work. As I still disbelieved him, standing there with tears on my face and snot bubbles in my ten-year old nose, Dad finally called Miss Harrell, who assured me through him that the way I had done my report was fine and she looked forward to reading it the next day.

I blew a worry gasket for nothing.

The next morning at breakfast, Dad got out his Bible and--in a rare moment of going off script--handed it to me. The presence of Holy Writ next to our cereal wasn't bizarre--we always had devotions of some sort before going to school in that day--but the strange thing was that Dad asked me to choose a passage of the Bible to read out loud.

I flipped toward the back of Dad's well-marked Scriptures and landed in the First Epistle of Peter. It made sense to me...I always felt Peter's writings got short shrift and went largely overlooked (Today, that's the way I feel about my favorite underrated epistle of Jude). So I chose the fifth chapter of I Peter and read, when I got to the words of verse seven: "Cast all your anxiety on Him, because he cares for you."

To which my mother, never one to miss making a point on the spur of the moment, said, "Now that would've been a good verse for you to read last night!"

There's a good bit of that we all can pull into our own lives. Even if you're an atheist or agnostic and God has no place in how you approach the concerns of your life, you can probably affirm that out of every ten things we worry about, nine of them never happen.

I'm not talking about clinical anxiety, the type that can occur in reaction to past trauma or other issues and must be battled with medication, so don't think I'm saying everyone in that camp just needs to buckle down and try harder. I'm talking about general reaction to situations. Exam week at school. Making sure your family can meet budget this month. And such and such.

Some of these things we control to a certain respect. We can study for exams. We can control spending. But there are other things that vex our minds and hearts. This past week I was sent my edited manuscript for Litany of Secrets and needed to look it over...all 380-plus pages. Lots of work. Friday night we had a tornado slice just a mile south of us and were without power for some time. I talked with a friend who is in the throes of what looks like it may be a fairly painful divorce, and my heart went out to this friend. We have a vacation to Atlanta in July to plan for. And on and on it goes.

It's at times like these I have to pull back and realize that my life and my very self are bigger and more important than all of my circumstances, emotional reactions, and restorative attempts put together. If God exists, then he is the sounding board to whom I have access. I can dump my reactions on him, knowing he can absorb them but also that he can help me see a way through everything. And no matter what, that's a lot better than obsessing over things I have little (if any) control over in the long run.