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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Grace in Being Overlooked

          One of the quirks of life may be when we do what is required of us, but we get overlooked. We might be totally faithful--or as faithful as we possibly can be--to God’s plan, and yet we might not be fully in the limelight. How do we deal with those “trials”? 

          In thinking about these matters, a couple of years ago I decided to try my hand at adopting Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents”. The question I had in mind was "How could this be told from the perspective of the 'middle guy' who had two talents of silver?" The result was--for me--a fresh look at a message of undeserved love that had been sitting there staring me in the face long before I recognized it.
          Yes, literary liberty has been taken with the story, but please dwell on the main point rather than the details.

The Parable of the Talents: The Man in the Middle
            Without hesitation, I approached the king. He looked upon me with a warm smile as I held out my hands and presented the treasure chest to him. “Your majesty,” said, “You have given me two talents of silver. And look, through careful investment and planning, I have doubled that total to four!”
            True, I thought. That is not as much as Simon, who was given five talents and doubled that to ten. But hey, it’s the same percentage increase. The king must be pleased with me.
            And pleased he was. “Well done!” he smiled. “You have been faithful in smaller details, and so I will bless you with the oversight of even greater things! You have done well, Matthias, and I could not be prouder of you!” He laid a kind hand on my shoulder and gripped it lightly. With my eyes glistening, he waved me to his side chamber where I met with Simon.
            “Great work, Matthias!” said Simon. “And you too, my friend!” I spoke back to him. I had wondered why the king had given us differing amounts of wealth to steward well, but that seemed to be a distant memory. All was well now.
            But not for long! There was a crash and a thud from the throne room, and soon that worthless Thomas was racing past us to get outdoors. The king was hot on his heels, screaming, “ONE TALENT! I give you one measly talent, and all you do is STUFF IT UNDER YOUR PILLOW AT NIGHT and BURY IT IN THE FIELD and do nothing with it? GET OUT!”
            Shaking with rage, the king turned to us, and once he got a hold of his emotions, he handed the silver talent to Simon and said, “Here, my friend. You earned it whereas Thomas did not. Add it to your amount.”
            And then the king turned and was gone.
            Simon fingered the talent uneasily, looked at me, shrugged, smiled, and quietly shuffled out of the chamber.
            And there I was, stunned, along with my thoughts.
            Excuse me?! I thought to myself. We both work hard. We both do well. I struggle to succeed and do well just as Simon does…AND HE GETS THE SILVER? What about me? What about my efforts? I thought the king was pleased with me!
            I sat down, head in my hands, wondering why this was happening to me.
            And at that point, I heard the voice of my servant, Saul. In every situation, his wisdom and sensitive nature never wavered. And here it came again.
            “Sir,” he said, “Why are you upset?”
            “Isn’t it obvious?” I roared back. “I work myself hard and invest that silver carefully while the king is away on that long trip, present doubled income to him when he returns, listen to him praise me up one side and down the other, and now he overlooks me and gives that extra talent of silver to Simon. HOW DOES HE JUSTIFY THAT?”
            “I do not know the exact answer to your question, sir,” said Saul, “but I do know this. He was pleased with you, wasn’t he?”
            I paused, then answered meekly, “Yes.”
            “And,” continued Saul, “He gave you more rule, more responsibility, more opportunity to live well and please him, didn’t he?”
            “Yes,” I quietly growled, knowing where this was going.
            “So you are a bit upset about being overlooked when you performed well. Might I remind you that you have no right to be in this position at all?”
            I turned to him and quietly asked, “What do you mean?”
            Saul spread his hands and continued, “You owe your life to this king. He didn’t even have to choose you for this task, but he did. He didn’t have to give you the silver in the first place, yet he did. And he could have asked why you hadn’t done more with it. But he didn’t. Here you have a king who is proud of you, excited about your service, and loves you like he loves his own child.”
            I looked down at the small treasure chest I had brought in. I had come in looking for recognition from my king. I had received that, but in truth, I had been given so much more that I had failed to see.
            “And so, Matthias,” Saul finally said after a long pause, “given all that, because your king loves you, shouldn’t that be enough?”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spreading the Word

The word is getting out about Litany of Secrets! Sheila Rhodes of West NewsMagazine, a publication that reaches 75,000 households in west St. Louis County, has this teaser to share about Litany of Secrets.

Among other things, Sheila notes my passion that "issues of justice and order (and reactions to evil and injustice) are important to me," and that "I find that writing allows me to express that platform. Because my stories take place within religious institutions, I can deliver the shock and tremor of unspeakable evil occuring in what many would view as safe havens."

You can access the article, as well as some great nuggets about other St. Louis authors, here.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Let Nothing Stand in the Way

If you've followed me on Twitter or Facebook the last couple of days, you know I promised I'd be back on the blogging horse this weekend. I did say that I'd be dealing with alleged reasons for being a writer, separating truth from error in those reasons. And I will be getting to those matters. But I ran across something this morning that, in my opinion, is pure gold.

First, watch the video posted above. It's Louis C.K., star of FX's Louie. There some objectionable language (bleeped out) in there, and I personally would refrain from his characterization that kids with Smartphones are stupid, but he makes some incredibly sagacious points.

Watched it? Good. Now for some of my thoughts.

Louis is right on in so much of this diatribe. He says some great stuff about the whole bullying thing via text (and he could have easily expanded it to cover a lot of social media), and his words about how the cell phones short-circuit empathy and the ability to give complete attention are well-taken. But two other things struck me.

So much of what we do today--I'm convinced--is not taken up by living but rather by the whole avoidance of the entire spectrum of living. Louis is absolutely correct when he says we use these devices known as phones because we want to avoid any amount of sadness in our lives. The truth is--and I'll be blunt here--so often we don't want to be alone, we don't want solitude, we don't crave those quiet moments of introspection where we are subject to the magnificent ebb and flow of our emotions...ergo, we reach for something that will connect us--in whatever artificial, brain-dead way--to something that will help us avoid being alone. It's even gotten so bad that I'll see Facebook posts and Twitter tweets from people saying, "I'm bored, somebody text me."

You're kidding, right? Have you ever thought of going out for a jog or a walk and getting some fresh air? Of going for a swim? Of reading a book on your front or back deck? Of baking a cake? You're so bored that you'll take a text message (likely from someone else equally as bored and more shiftless) over doing something active? Good heavens.

Another related idea that struck me is the application to education. Don't get me wrong...I use Power Point and other technological blessings in my classes, but I do my darnedest to make sure they play secondary (or better, tertiary) roles. The primary way kids are going to learn is through the relational dynamic with the teacher who empowers them to wrestle with truth claims and their applications. Technology can assist in this area--for example, the school where I serve is experimenting with iPads in the classroom at the middle school level and moving it on up the grade levels--but it should never replace this relational dynamic. If it does--and if educational leaders are comfortable with that--we're in trouble.

I realize this sounds bizarre to say when this very blog is dependent on the Internet for you to read this, and yes, I have a functioning Twitter account, regular Facebook page, and a Facebook author page. But there's no way I'm allowing those items to be an artificial barrier between myself and the authentic life. Life is meant to be lived and enjoyed, not merely gotten through.

As P.D. James said in her dystopian futuristic novel, The Children of Men, giving us a window into Theo Faron's internal dialogue, “Feel, he told himself, feel, feel, feel. Even if what you feel is pain, only let yourself feel.”

What say you? Watch the video again if you need a refresher. Would love to know your thoughts.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Good Grief...and How We Should Administer It

Yesterday I was blessed to have an interesting and enriching email exchange with someone who lives across the country from me. This person had made a comment regarding a blog post I did back in May, as my discussion of my forthcoming (now published) novel triggered something in his life that affected him and his family for many years. Our cyber conversation bore a lot of fruit very quickly as we found much common ground and a lot of issues on which to commiserate together.

I know that sounds awfully vague (and frustrating to the reader), but it wouldn't be fair to divulge the specifics. One area we covered, though, was the varied reaction from people who profess to be Christians when their pastor-leaders (a) commit actual heinous moral failings or when (b) such pastor-leaders are accused of such actions but are shown to be either innocent or else the evidence does not sustain the accusation.

My friend's father was a pastor, and he was accused of something horrific. Yet there wasn't any evidence to demonstrably show the accusation could stick. What followed, however, was really bad. My friend's parents were pretty much shunned by their friends in the church, and they found no moral supports from the other regional churches in their denomination. It was as if the mere ugliness of the unsustained charge brought out a stench they couldn't ditch, a situation that--in my estimation--was unfair and grieviously uncharitable.

This is also the case even when some pastor-leaders get nailed for stuff they did do, whether it be embezzlement of church funds, adultery, fostering dissension, or (sadly) what seems to be the most devastating trend--pornography addiction. Now of course, there is a difference between those who are accused yet are innocent and those who are caught dead to rights. But very often the exceeding tragedy is found in the reaction of other Christians. We forget that "there but for the grace of God go I." We forget that in the midst of this, our leaders are fragile and hurting people who crave moral support and decency in these difficult moments.

Frankly, it angers me (and this is something my friend and I discussed yesterday) when pastor-leaders who end up having done nothing wrong get snubbed, yet there are those who screw around/adulterize get restored to the ministry and leadership in a flash (sometimes thanks to the good ol' boy system). But maybe that's a post for another time.

What this issue of how we react to leaders' moral failings and stumbles really underscores is how lonely the position of a leader is. You are really only a heartbeat away from disconnectedness. Now sometimes we bring this on ourselves. But there is something about being a leader that unfortunately brings on this stiff-arming from others, whether they be those you lead or your equals. During my time in North Carolina, for example, when I served as a pastor, I felt the most abject sense of loneliness. No matter how approachable you are, there is a barrier nonetheless. And people who write books on leadership cover a lot of good principles, but what is lacking is how leaders deal with the loneliness factor.

When leaders fail and try to redeem their failings, they deserve some latitude. I'm not saying they automatically deserve immediate restoration to all the perks of their position; there is a powerful redemptive quality to time spent in the wilderness. But they need to spend that time with willing folks who desire to walk the difficult roads with them. People who profess grace should be people who extend grace to others. Otherwise, what's the point of life together towards a common goal?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tragedy, Determination, and the Resolve of a School

Today is the twelve-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In a coordinated effort, Islamic radicals commandeered airlines on American soil, sending two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane was brought down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania by brave citizens who took on the terrorists on board, preventing it from reaching its target (which was believed to be either the White House or the U.S. Capitol).

Even today, the videos (one of which I posted above) are tough to watch. We can hardly forget the images of people desperately leaping from the WTC. We recall how life came to a standstill for awhile after Wall Street activity, no airline traffic, no football, etc. It has become the defining, seminal moment of a generation, much like President Kennedy's assassination was for my parents' time. Virtually everyone I know who consciously lived through this day remembers where they were at the time of this horrific tragedy that has profoundly shaped the way we live life now.

I remember where I was on that Tuesday during an Indian summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was in my second year teaching at the Covenant School, a K-12 Christian institution whose motto is "Academic Excellence Under the Sovereignty of God", and which emphasizes the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. It remains the most academically challenging and demanding community of which I have been a part, pushing students toward greater wisdom, virtue, and eloquence. It remains the most denominationally diverse school where I have worked, with many fond memories of laboring side by side with Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Catholics in that blessed ecumenical haven. The faculty was stunning and dazzling in their collective intelligence, the students rigorous in their efforts, and the grounds (especially after moving later that year to our new campus) were beautiful and stately.

But on that day--September 11, 2001--the Covenant School showed it was a family, as well.

I was seated in the gymnasium at 9:38 a.m. ET, waiting for chapel to begin, when Bob Fuhrman walked up next to me. Bob normally had an upbeat visage, so his morose look on his face immediately gave me cause for concern. As if sensing my anxiety, he walked up to me and said in a low voice, "Two separate airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center." I honestly could not process what he told me. I stared blankly around the assembly as the students filed in, unaware of what was going on several hundred miles to the northeast of us. I remember seeing our headmaster at the time, Dr. Ron Sykes, approach my friend Tom Foley (Covenant's chaplain) and whisper something in his ear. You could see Tom recoil internally at what Dr. Sykes told him. Tom ended up giving his chapel talk as usual--which I thought must have been like carrying an unbelievable weight under the circumstances--before giving way to Dr. Sykes, who came up and addressed the school community on what had just happened. We could not come to grips with the fact that while Tom had been speaking, the South Tower of the WTC had collapsed after burning for 56 minutes. We had no idea how much our lives would change because of this terrible day. One of my students, Brad Arms, would end up in Fallujah, Iraq, as part of the War on Terror that followed and was felled by a sniper's bullet in November 2004.

Numb, we woodenly staggered around the school, many faculty and students ending up in the library, watching the devastating events play out like some international horror film on the television. We gasped as we saw the North Tower fall at 10:28 ET, soon after many of us gathered in the library. I remember my colleague and our American history teacher, Matthew Davisson, lower the flag to half mast, and he was weeping as he did so. Pockets of students huddled together in the hallways. We gave no thought to going to class for a couple of hours. We had been thrown into the gears of a wicked and violent world that was consuming us with terrifying energy, and we needed help. We needed prayer. We needed each other. I staggered amongst the students, praying with some, sitting silently with others, dreading the death toll that would climb to three thousand and the scars that would straddle the hearts of so many more.

In the midst of that awful, awful day, though, I found there was much of which to be proud even as our nation was hit viciously below the belt. Teachers came alongside students, alongside fellow teachers. We had different ways of dealing with the shock and grief, but the remarkable thing was we gave space for how that would play out. In the sadness, we gripped tightly onto one another. Whatever differences in whatever areas we had, we cast them aside and instinctively knew this was a time to weep, a time to mourn, so that through the veil of tears we might come to a time to heal.

I've been proud of many of my employers at various times. It's hard to imagine being more proud of a school than I was of the Covenant School that day. The spirit of friendship and togetherness came home powerfully during those dark hours, and I remember with pride my fellow colleagues who played their parts well. Joining with Dr. Sykes, Tom Foley, Roger Munsick, John Collmus, Matthew Davisson, Bob Fuhrman, Debra Douglas, Liz DeGaynor, and others was a time of honor and privilege even when shards of evil cut deeply into our hearts. To come together in a phalanx of hope with such friends taught me that--as Sam-Wise Gamgee said to Frodo Baggins, "There's some good left in this world, and it's worth fighting for!"

You can take me out of the Covenant School. You can never take the Covenant School out of me. There's a reason for that, and it began on 9/11.

Remember the grief. Recall the sacrifice. Redeem the future.

Never forget.

And we do so together.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Christian Mutt Sounds Off

I have a running joke with some of my friends: "I was raised in the Presbyterian Church; therefore, I am overqualified to poke fun at it." In truth, as I get older, as I refine some areas of my thinking and as other areas of my soul grow (I hope!) more mellow, I discover a few things that I find bothersome. Lately, that has been within the general pool of white-bread evangelical Christianity. Now don't get hot and bothered just yet. I'm not sounding off against the Christian faith itself. What has grated on me for some time (and what the video above pokes fun at so well) would be the buzz-phrases in the evangelical subculture that cause me to grind my teeth.

Examples, you ask? Here goes:

1. "How's your relationship with Jesus Christ?": For the love of St. Stephen and all martyrs, the last couple of times I've heard this--or anything referring to Christianity as a 'relationship'--it's a miracle the bile stays away from my oral cavity. It's not that I'm averse to realistic connection to Christ as Lord and Savior. It's the unspoken leveling of the divine-human bond this statement implies. If Jesus is who he says he is, he's a King and Master, not a drinking buddy, not a chum, not a bro. Semantics matter. It's better, less misleading, and more biblical to identify as a follower of Jesus. Sure there are more layers to who Jesus is, but we get way off track if we cutesy ourselves into thinking he's our co-pilot or soulmate.

2. "Well, I believe in the Bible, not creeds.": Some people will crack this one off as a way of ignoring not only creeds or confessions of faith, but of dismissing the consensus tradition of Christian orthodoxy that people have built, argued for, and--in some cases--died for. Evangelicals aren't all this way, but I've run across some pretty severe chronological snobbery from people who are blissfully unaware of Francis Schaeffer, or even C.S. Lewis, let alone the Nicene Creed. Another thing, when you say you believe the Bible, the next question is "Well, what to you believe the Bible says about (insert subject here)?" Then a creed is a pretty handy digest to have in mind, eh?

3. "Do you know of any books on that from a Christian perspective?": Bile alert, folks. I'll just echo C.S. Lewis on this. "What the world needs is not more Christian books, but more excellent books written by Christians." This whole dividing stuff into secular and Christian is not what God has in mind, and you can't find justification for it in Scripture. This thinking has wrought sub-par copycat garbage that we see pervasive in any "Christian" subculture, like Christian music, for example. Now in literature, we actually have Christian vampire fiction and--the horror!--Christian erotica. I'm not making this up, unfortunately.

4. "I like Christian vampire fiction": Just kidding. That's not a buzz phrase....yet.

5. "I don't like the idea of doing that in church; it's too Catholic/Anglican/(insert pre-21st century paradigm here)": Some people don't like the idea of a pastor wearing a robe, saying "It's too Catholic", as if that's a taboo thing. Really? Um, just so you know John Q. Protestant, do you know what else Catholics and Anglicans do in church? They read the Bible. They preach. They sing. Want to get rid of those things too? The discussion of what is beneficial and wise to have included in a church service is a debate that should take place on biblical grounds, not personal preference. And what is the sin in casting your tradition net wide? (As you read this, you can probably see my self-description on the right hand side of this web page: Presbyterian body. Lutheran heart. Anglican blood. Orthodox spirit. There's a reason for that.)

6. "God won't give you more than you can handle.": Excuse me, but God is in the business of giving you more than you can handle. Constantly. That's what gets it through our thick heads and even more dense hearts that there is a God, and we are not him, and we need to cling to him like mad in the midst of life's hurricane. If you could handle what's thrown at you in life, you wouldn't need grace or strength. You wouldn't even need God. You'd be God.

7. "I'll pray for you.": I can be generally be appreciate of this sentiment, but honestly I'm of the "don't say you're going to do something, just do it" school of thought. I'm much more encouraged by hearing this on the back end in the form of "I prayed for you." Much better.

8. "God told me...": I'll just say this...In one of the churches where my grandfather pastored, there was a well-meaning person who had a burning conviction that he needed to confront another church member about some pretty serious spiritual wandering. So he went to this man's house and the other man's wife answered the door. He asked for her husband. Well, he's not here, said the wife. Oh, said the man in response, he should be here because the Holy Spirit gave me a message of repentance and told me to confront him today. To which the woman said, "If the Holy Spirit told you to come over to speak to my husband, the Holy Spirit would have made sure my husband was home!"

9. "God loves us just as we are.": My final choice buzzphrase runs through our American evangelical landscape like a greased pig at a rodeo in western Kansas. Let me first of all affirm that it is absolutely true and biblical that God loves his people, and there is nothing we can do to earn his love, his grace, his mercy. All that is completely unconditional. But "just as we are"? He loves our rebellion, our sinfulness, our selfish core that would rather spit in his eye and stab him through the heart? Does God believe those are good aspects of our very selves? Does he not desire to change us? If we come to God as we are, he most definitely does not want us to stay that way! Maybe a better option is to say, "God loves us in spite of who we are" for that seems to be more accurate about the intersection of God's affections and the human dilemma.

As my friend Cameron Kirker once eloquently said, "Why does God love us? He loves us simply because he loves us."

Now that's a phrase and a truth I can affirm and build my life around!

Romans 8:38-39