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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Essentials of Writing: Curiosity

I've written already about the joy and privilege of collaboration in writing. But writing is about more than asking what works and what doesn't. When you have a story to be told, all sorts of ingredients go into that literary stew. So many details play a role in the story. I'm convinced that what can often make an extraordinary difference between the mundane and the colorfully realistic in a novel is the curiosity of the author.

Recently, a friend (who happens to be reading through my novel, Litany of Secrets) asked me on Facebook, "How and where did you do your Eastern Orthodox research?" This is not a bizarre question; Chris was entirely within his rights to ask--and for the record, he himself has taken an interest in that wing of Christendom, what I call "the craft of Constantinople". Because Litany of Secrets takes place at a seminary that trains priests in the Orthodox faith, there were two realities at play.

One, I had to be precocious and do a lot of background research on Orthodoxy; it is a stream outside of my own (Presbyterian) faith tradition, so I needed to make up some ground in order to have deep knowledge of the practices and traditions evident in my novel. Because I didn't want my readers' B.S. alarms going off, I wanted the environment in which my story took place to be as true-to-life as possible, because alignment to a factual basis gives your story (and your reputation) credibility. So part of my curiosity about the Orthodox faith was driven by necessity.

But the second reality was much more powerful and meaningful. I thoroughly read, digested, and drank deeply of Orthodox liturgy, history, doctrine, and traditions simply because I wanted to. Yes, I had a novel to write, one which I believed in and wanted to be a true-to-life as possible. But the larger reason for my curiosity was that I wanted to learn about a tradition outside my own simply because I wanted to learn. I wanted to know for the sake of knowing. I navigated all over various Orthodox websites, read through various worship services, researched the distinctions between a regular funeral and one specifically for a priest. I found prayers that were appropriate for different junctures of my story and utilized them to that effect, keeping them word for word in order to maintain realism.

What drove that with me was that I found the whole process and every detail I ran across interesting. It was part of the length and breadth of what it meant for another person in that tradition to be human, to live, to worship, and to love. I might never be a part of that community. So what? Some people might say "Why do you bother with learning about it?" Because I both enjoy the process and because I believe it fills up something lacking within me, I say, "Why wouldn't I bother with it? It's different! It's fascinating."

Over the years, I've learned many things about others, but I've also learned a cardinal detail about myself. I love learning new things simply because I love the pursuit of knowledge, the chasing of wisdom, and the joining together of my limited life experience with the vastness of what's out there.

And writing is a place where that comes together with the force of a tornado. Indeed--in my honest opinion--writing is exactly where that should occur. Perpetually.

Why be curious? The real question is "Why not be curious?"

Monday, October 21, 2013

Life From Our Vantage Point

I think I do an okay job with words, but today someone--a parent in our community of families with myotubular myopathy children--beautifully inscribed the reality of what we MTM parents go through on a regular basis. Many people over the years have prayed for and encouraged me and Christy as we cared for our children and see to their needs, especially Joshua's. But it meant a lot to hear impassioned words coming from someone within our circle.

Because Beth Littman Josephson said it so well, I'm reproducing her words here. Have the Kleenex nearby.

With the recent losses of some of our MTM children, I feel compelled to comment on the life MTM parents and families give the children. 

From the pictures posted on Facebook with our children coloring or pumpkin picking, we are determined to give our children the best life possible. 

When we decide to have children we don't know what kind of parents we will be. Most of the time we plan to have a child and perhaps return to work, or be a stay-at-home parent for a few years. No one ever suspects that most of us would be forced to be that stay at home parent who turns into a critical care nurse, medically supply dispatcher, nursing supervisor and scheduler, and ventilator mechanic. The new role thrusted upon is is daunting, and most of the time we pull up our sleeves and delve into the new world with gusto. There are no choices when it comes to making sure this child lives. Then as time moves on, medical specialists inform us of the path that we are now on. MTM parents know that the lifespan of our precious children is always in question. Given that understanding, we live life with our children as if today is the last opportunity to do that. And the that rebel attitude that now encompasses who we have become, we nor only bring this child home, we educate him. We celebrate birthdays in a BIG way. We invite friends and neighbors over to our home because we are PROUD of the person our child has become. This is our one shot to create hundreds of special times in the time we are given to be with our child.

Hundreds of pictures are taken in Halloween costumes that incorporate a wheelchair/stroller and medical equipment. Our child soon becomes a rebel as well with the bandana he wears over his trach. That rebel mentality brings our children through colds, fevers, hospitalizations, "not so great" nurses, and medical equipment mishaps. And no matter what, they smile. Our child becomes our hero and role model for a life lived fully and with a strong determined tenacity to enjoy every moment they have.

Terrible twos? Zachary used to "hold his breath" if he didn't like something. If he didn't like a new nurse? He would purposely turn blue and then smile after I would tell him that the nurse will not be back. Laughing at other's misfortunes (like when his father would curse or a glass breaks, or his little brother getting yelled at) was amusing to watch.

What a beautiful opportunity to be able to be included in all your lives, the triumphs and the battles, along with deep sadness and loss.

Would I change anything? I wish I could have given my son muscles that worked. Other than that, I wouldn't change a thing. To have been blessed with the most amazingly strong and funny son was a privilege few can share. My heart and love go out to all of you who walk the path and continue on that journey. Bless the children and their amazing families.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Number 42 and Why We Learn

This is my 100th post on this blog, and as I am a teacher, I ran across this nugget provided by my friend Craig Dunham. It's an article by Adam Bessie on the issue of education reform. Basically, it asks the question, "Have we made education worse by burying our efforts under the weight of education theory?" It posits that what passes for a lot of education in America is a zeal for efficiency and progress. Not that those things are bad, necessarily. But one wonders what improvements are/have/can be made.

I don't post it as a criticism of public education. As I've stated before, I got a great education in public high school in central Maryland, circa 1984-88. I have a friend from college who is presently the principal of a large public high school in Alabama; I know from what he's shared that he is dedicated to make sure every student is well-educated.

But as I look at the wide sweep of American education in general, I worry. And Adam Bessie at Truth-Out does a good job of putting muscle on the bones of those anxieties. Since he says it better than I could and in shining, erudite fashion, I'll just tell you now, GO READ IT, NOW!

And when you have, share your thoughts. Is what he says true? Helpful? What correctives are there to what he says?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Essentials of Writing: Collaboration

I have three distinct vocational worlds. I am presently employed as a teacher. I have been a pastor before and am still ordained as a minister. And for enjoyment, I am also a writer and trying to become a better one.

Those occupations can be frightfully lonely. Teachers are often in survival mode and we have to be intentional about getting outside our room and talking with colleagues about what works and what doesn't and how to improve. Those conversations can often be more accidental than proactive, and what can happen is a teacher can spend more time navel-gazing on his or her daily needs to get the instruction across and precious little to share and collaborate and have iron sharpen iron (to quote a biblical proverb).

Being a pastor was excessively lonely for me. In my honest opinion, I think serving in that capacity in central North Carolina for a short spell was the primary catalyst in flipping my Myers-Briggs personality profile from extrovert to introvert. After that experience, I am more energized being by myself than around other people, brought on by a raised mistrust that I have of the human race in general. All that should be a blog post for another time to give it the attention it deserves, but suffice it to say being a pastor was a lonely time. People demand much of your effort but there can be little room for authenticity and genuine friendship.

Perhaps the alone-ness is part of what drove me to writing, along with experiences that I believe had to be shared. The written page serves an author as both outlet (for their words) and as a buffer (you can say things to people without having to share them face-to-face), perfect for an introvert like me who wants to make his points. But you can't stay there forever. What I've noticed in my short time (October 2009 onward) doing serious, intentional writing is that you can get energized by stepping out and--instead of keeping your insights to yourself--you collaborate with another, both giving your own insight into the writer's craft and receiving ideas from another soul.

About a month ago, I think it was, another student here at Westminster Christian Academy made contact with me. Eichel Davis is a senior here at the Crystal Palace (my name for WCA), a leader, mover and shaker, aspiring writer and entrepreneur, and all-around great guy. I've never had Eichel in class, but he reached out to me via Twitter through his feed and that of his writing efforts, known as Created and Written Publications. According to Eichel, CWP is "all about writing what I want to write. It's all about thinking AS IF THERE IS NO BOX."

My kind of guy.

Eichel was working through his recent book, The Varsity: Darkness of the Light, after a couple volumes in his Seniors series (check out his stuff on Lulu here). He contacted me and after a series of exchanges he asked me to look over some of his work for The Varsity, to provide feedback, and to generally suggest any changes.

I did so, catching a few things that I felt would be good changes, and he was appreciative of my time and effort. To his credit, he was thinking along similar lines about the few changes that needed to be made, and so it was interesting to have that synergy thing going on the writing front. What I hadn't counted on was how much fun it would be. The back-and-forth, the "what if we tried this?", and the different pace of life that comes with thinking through someone else's creation was tremendously energizing for me. I was entering a short season--between finishing my fifth novel and then starting planning my sixth after Thanksgiving--in which I would take a short hiatus from writing. But not inscribing does not mean eschewing any thought about what writing is like.

Some people might view that as an interruption to my writing Sabbath. For me, I think Eichel came along and connected with me at the right time. In the immortal words of Ric Ocasek and the Cars, it was "just what I needed."

Now my friend Tom has asked me to read part of a novel he's written, and I have started doing that to grant him the feedback he's asked for. And I sense the blood pumping and the ideas starting to pop again. I can sense the hidden, inner conversations going on in my mind that will bear fruit once I sit down after November 28th and start outlining my next project. And Eichel and Tom will have both played a role.

The Protestant Reformers had a mantra about saving faith, that one's trust in Jesus Christ is not isolated, but is always accompanied by a new life marked by good actions, attitudes, and words. They said: "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone."

In a similar-yet-not-parallel vein, we authors may write alone, but the writing that is effective, memorable, and lasting is never an isolated phenomenon. A good writer has someone else's fingerprints all over the warp and woof of their drafts.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Play Ball!

The division playoff series of major league baseball is winding up. After tonight's Tigers-Athletics clash in Oakland, we'll know who the final four are in the race to the World Series. As the Fall Classic is right around the corner, I thought I'd ruminate a bit on America's pastime. You might not agree with everything I say, but passionate argument can be the heart and soul of this game.

1. I like that Pittsburgh has a reason to cheer in October. Despite the Pirates' thumping loss last night in Game Five of the NLDS to St. Louis, the Pirates have given their fans cause for future hope. And given that the Steelers have forgotten how to play in the NFL, it's good to know folks near the three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela) have a chance to enjoy something other than praying that Sidney Crosby stays healthy on the ice for the Penguins. The Pirates had endured twenty consecutive losing seasons until this year, and it looked like their blown Game Seven lead against Atlanta in 1992 has permanently cursed the franchise. But players like Andrew McCutchen have blossomed and pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Gerritt Cole have turned in good seasons. This is a team we could see in the World Series in the next couple of years.

2. The Cardinals keep chugging along. It's difficult to imagine a scenario when the opposition would be favored against a pitcher like St. Louis' Adam Wainwright. The Cards are in the NLCS for the third consecutive year and are brimming with the confidence that comes from playoff experience. Rather than the helter-skelter track of 2011 when they stormed from behind to win the Series (see video above), the Cards are moving along with all the expectations of what is arguably the best organization in baseball. Hits came off Matt Carpenter's bats this year like fire fell from heaven on Elijah's Mount Carmel altar. One would almost be tempted to mail the Cardinals into the World Series, if not for...

3. The Dodgers, who--like Cher, Barbra Streisand, and 99% of Christian rock--have quietly continued to exist all season and now the world wakes up and says, "Oh, my gosh, they're still around!" There is something spooky about this team that has crept to the verge of their first World Series since 1988 and the Kirk Gibson money shot off Dennis Eckersley. You can't discount a team that gets just enough offense from Carl Crawford, Yaseil Puig, and company. And that pitching...even if you're just talking Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke...can give the Cardinals fits.

4. The Red Sox. I love Boston as a city. I love the Celtics; they are my NBA faves. I admire the resiliency of a city that endured the Boston marathon bombings and gave new meaning to "Boston Strong". The Red Sox pushed aside the Tampa Bay Rays and look poised to make the World Series. I just hope they don't. The one positive is that I don't hate the Red Sox nearly as much as I despise the New England Patriots (the NFL equivalent of Idi Amin).

5. The Athletics. I really, really would like to see this team get to the World Series. Plus, a 25-year anniversary rematch between them and the Dodgers would be a great storyline. It's tough being Oakland, a team that isn't really overflowing with money and resources, playing in the last of the critically-panned multipurpose stadia of the 60s and 70s (the Colesium), possibly looking at a move to Cisco Field in San Jose (The San Jose A's? Are you kidding me?). That being said, few teams know the curse of losing Game 5 of the ALDS at home like the Athletics do, and they need to overcome that tonight against the Tigers if they want to move on. Personally, there's a part of me that wants the dream of Moneyball to come true, and that GM Billy Beane will finally win the last game of the season.

6. The Tigers. You have to feel for a team that gets so much right in a city that has gone so wrong (by a year from now, wild animals might be grazing in Comerica Park for all we know). The Tigers are plucky and have good pitching, and they survived some decent runs down the stretch from the Indians and the Royals to survive and repeat as division champions. I just don't know--given Cabrera's injury--how deep they can go in October.

7. The Rays. Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games each of the last four seasons and five of the last six. But they always seem to be the bridesmaid and never the bride. It's hard to imagine a scene in which that changes, but their situation looks a lot more rosy than...

8. The Rangers, who collapse down the stretch each of the last four years. 2010, they go belly up in the World Series against the Giants. 2011, they are within a strike of the title...twice...against the Cardinals, who rally to win. And after Ron Washington's foul-mouthed motivational speech before Game Seven that year (which still doesn't compare to the Cubs' Lee Elia's 32-F-bomb tirade in three minutes on April 29, 1983), things haven't gotten better, fading to a late Athletics charge each year in the division and bowing out meekly to the Orioles and Rays with the wild card on the line. They are this close to irrelevancy, but that doesn't cause me nearly as much pain as...

9. The Braves. I used to hate the Braves. Hate them! But Atlanta is a fabulous city (and I'm not just saying that because my wife is from Atlanta), and I like how this team scraped out a division title in the NL East this year. They have a lot of good talent. I was in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1991 when they clinched the NL West title then, after years of suffering. But for all their success over the last two decades, they've managed to win only one World Series (1995). It's like they get close to the brass ring and lose confidence, drop their moxie, something. There is something missing in the playoffs every year, and no one seems to know how to fix it. It's a shame because those fans deserve better.

10. Team that needs to revolt against its owner: The Miami Marlins. And the gap between this team and whoever is in second place is this category isn't even close. Jeffrey Loria makes a career out of destroying ball clubs (Montreal Expos, anyone?). In 2006, he fired Joe Girardi...Joe Girardi!...after Girardi took a team with minimal talent after Loria's fire sale, somehow scraped together a 78-84 record, and was named NL manager of the year. Apparently, Loria didn't like it when Girardi told him to stop criticizing the umpires during a game when all of 3,400 fans found their way to the stadium. Loria's an idiot. The very fact he's allowed to be anywhere near baseball is a pimple on the sport's rear end.

11. Team that has bright days ahead: The Kansas City Royals. There's a lot of excitement in KC about the future, and it's not just due to the NFL Chiefs' (my team!) 5-0 start. The Royals have great young talent, good pitching, and a camaraderie that spills over onto the field. Their 86-76 record this year was better than the Yankees even though New York's payroll is $235 million and the Royals' is only $80 million. If they can keep their key pieces on the chess board and avoid injuries, we could see an AL Central division title in 2014.

12. Finally, the Cubs. My team. Our 105th consecutive rebuilding season approaches. No World Series title since 1908. The housecleaning began last week when team president Theo Epstein fired manager Dale Sveum, which I believe was a great move. Epstein engineered the Red Sox renaissance last decade that brought that cursed franchise not one but two World Series crowns. The turnaround in Chicago might be slow but--to quote Ronald Reagan in 1981--such ills (though baseball ones and not the economic ones of which Reagan spoke) "will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away." The worm is turning at Wrigley Field. The Cubs will win the Series before I die. Book it. Yes, Phil Collins, I can feel it coming in the air tonight.

Hold on....

Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Truly Matters

Right now Washington D.C. is debating the blame for the partial government shutdown. Baseball fans here in St. Louis are hoping for the best and dreading the worst as the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken a 2-1 series lead in the National League Division Series. And I have to scramble to stitch together an Ethics test in time for Wednesday. Lots of things dominate our time. In our worlds, they seem to be quite important.

And then something happens that pulls you back to what truly matters.

Over a week ago, we received news from a couple in our network of parents of boys with X-linked Myotubular Myopathy (XLMTM). This is the neuromuscular disorder that afflicts our son Joshua and which also took our little Jordan from us nearly five years ago. Donald and Nancy Serafano sent out a report on Facebook that their son--little five-year old Matteo--was in the hospital with an induced coma. While XLMTM is primarily neuromuscular and compromises the respiratory system, some boys can suffer from seizures. Matteo had uncontrollable seizures that brought on cardiac arrest, and thus followed a flurry of days in which we waited on every update from Donald and Nancy. Hoping and praying, we swallowed hard as the news came in.

Oh, how we hoped. Every day is a race against time, you see. Trying to keep these boys, all our sweet boys, alive. We are racing to a cure because of the incredible work being done by the Joshua Frase Foundation. Gene replacement therapy could be just around the corner, and Paul and Alison Frase (who lost their own son Joshua in December 2010) have done yeoman's work in helping get us there. How badly we want all our boys to have the opportunity to maybe, just maybe, kick this disease straight in the groin.

And that's what made these final days so poignant. On Friday, October 4th, Donald posted on Facebook: "Nancy and I held Matteo until his heart stopped beating at 4:30 am today."

Yeah, a lot went on in the world that day. But to me, nothing else truly matters when it's about the life and death of our children, especially these XLMTM boys who bring such delight to our lives and then are gone.

I asked Donald if I could post a follow-up narrative that he shared with our MTM community on Facebook, and he gave me permission. Every time I re-read it, it brings me to tears.

Matteo's Gifts

Nancy and I can't begin to express how much we miss Matteo and how thankful we are to be part of such a wonderful community. 

Throughout this past week, Nancy and I have been able to and will continue to draw strength from each other, our family and friends. The love and support that surrounds us has helped us rise from our bed each day and make the most difficult decisions that a parent will every have to make.

Nancy and I witnessed Matteo's death twice. The first time was Friday September 27th at 4:30 pm at the end of therapy. The second was Friday October 4th at 4:30 am at the hospital. Matteo's first death extinguished the light behind his eyes leaving only his body behind. Matteo's second death freed his body from this world.

Even after his death, part of Matteo's body will live on in others. His kidneys and heart valves will help other children live longer and with less pain. His corneas will help other children see the faces of their loved ones and all of the beauty this world has to offer. Nancy and I were told that we would receive more details about the children that Matteo helped in about one year. Matteo also contributed tissue needed by the researchers to help continue the amazing progress that we witnessed at the 2013 MTM-CNM Family Medical Conference.

We had prepared as much as any parent could for October 3rd to be our last day to hold Matteo in our arms. We walked to the hospital from the Ronald McDonald House. Several people apologized for the miscommunications and delays during the prior day that culminated with my 'sit in'. Neurology examined Matteo in the morning and confirmed what we had known for several days.

We asked the staff to stop drawing blood gasses so that we could spend time alone with our little boy. We took turns cuddling Matteo, sobbing in uncontrollable fits and holding each other. We played lullabies and Matteo's favorite songs. We helped each other get into Matteo's bed by climbing through the ventilator tubing, medical lines and probes. Several times, all three of us managed to precariously balance in the hospital bed at the same time together.

Earlier during our hospital stay, someone had misinformed us that Matteo's organs were not suitable for donation due to MTM. Just about the time that we were ready to talk to the PICU staff about turning off the ventilator, One Legacy talked to us about organ donation. They were going to need many hours to get everything ready including a surgical suite and the surgery team. Had we known, we could have requested to speak with One Legacy two days before. The rules prohibited One Legacy from contacting us until after the second exam confirmed that Matteo no longer had any higher brain functions. One Legacy spent as much time with us as we needed answering our questions and explaining the details. We learned that Matteo's trusted Dr. J would be with the three of us every step of the way and that we would have only five minutes to hold Matteo after his heart stopped beating.

We knew that our 2012-2013 Anderson Elementary Student of the Year would want to help as many children as possible. Therefore, Nancy and I knew that we had to wait as long as needed even though we were days past emotional and physical exhaustion. The tentative time was set for 10 pm.

Matteo was exhausted as well. His heart rate slowed and his blood pressure dropped. If they fell below the minimum for too long, his organs would no longer be suitable to help others. We had given our permission to resume treatment. Dr. J and the PICU staff kept Matteo stable. We had time to thank some of great staff that had taken such good care of Matteo during our many PICU visits. They shared our grief.

Our surgery time changed several times. We gathered our personal items from Matteo's room. This was the first time that we were not packing all of the extra medical supplies for use at home. We selected and downloaded three of Matteo's favorite songs that we wanted to play during our final moments together.

At 4 am on October 4th, we walked down to surgery with Matteo. At the point where we would usually kiss Matteo goodbye, we changed into clean wear for the surgical suite. I gave the staff my phone so that they could play Matteo's music over the speaker system.

In the operating room, the lights had been dimmed, divider curtains were placed around us, our music was playing, kind supportive words were spoken, and Dr. J was close by.

I took off Matteo's g-tube extension. Even now, I did not want to take a chance of pulling out his g-tube during transfer. Nancy and I were seated together. I asked for and was given a pillow to put under Nancy's arm so that we could hold Matteo together just as we did at home.

The ventilator was turned off and Matteo was gently handed to us for the final time. Nancy and I cried and the staff cried with us. We sang You Are My Sunshine, Let's Fly a Kite and Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Matteo as we held him close to us in our arms and hearts.

Time passed and Dr. J confirmed that Matteo's heart had stopped beating. At the appointed time, we surrendered Matteo's body to the surgical team and Nancy and I were helped out of the operating room so that Matteo could give what he no longer needed to help others.


As you say good night to your kids tonight--if you have them--treasure them. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Give a prayer of thanks to God for the days He has granted your children. Pray for those like Donald and Nancy who are dealing with the pain of grievous loss. Pray for the parents who toil on behalf of their children with conditions like XLMTM. Pray for a cure, so that despite losing boys like Matteo and Jordan, there might be hope at the end.

Because waking up and hoping for that--for me--is truly what matters.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Everything Must Change

Over the past few weeks, I've been involved in a private series of Facebook messages with a friend. I've known this guy for some time but we have only recently reconnected within the last five years. We starting having this exchange because he had, in his words, "a number of issues" with the Bible. In short, he has spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the Bible, reflecting on its words, etc., and he has come to the conclusion that the Bible makes many claims that are irrational and implausible. As a result, he no longer qualifies himself as a Christian believer. However, he was very happy to have a running conversation with me where we could hash out our questions of each other's beliefs in a cordial, civil environment. Although I was unconvinced of his contentions--and he was unconvinced of my assertions--I think we'd both admit the good-natured dialogue was handled very well. In fact, I told him how thankful I was for his engagement, tone, and the way he kept pushing the questions.

There was another thing that I firmly came to believe. I think my friend--though he has landed off the "faith map"--is someone who takes the Bible more seriously than a lot of professing Christians. He has at least studied the Bible, prodded it, tried to make sense of the discrepancies and blind spots he believes are there, and is willing to ask the questions like "Why does the Bible condone these actions? Why does God act this way in this passage but is totally different here? Why do there reports contradict each other?"

Those are his questions, not mine, although I have considered them over the years. For the record, I think there are good, humble reasons for the trustworthiness of the Bible (and hard questions to ask about how much human reason and strict rationalism can be trusted to judge the Bible itself). But I also understand why my friend got from point A to point B. And I'm willing to give him that latitude to express himself. Likewise, he has given me the same space to express why I doggedly hold on to faith even despite the difficulties and hardships of life. Even if I disagree with my friend, I respect him.

And now back to what I said before: that my friend takes the Bible more seriously than most Christians.

I've taught in Christian schools for awhile. I'm in my fifteenth year. I've seen a lot of change as students drink from the postmodern wells around us. I teach Ethics. In short, my professional life is wrapped up in the question of "How do we justify how we make the call on what's right or wrong?"

Sometimes I run into people who contend that there are some issues we shouldn't deal with in class. The students in a Christian school, they say, shouldn't have to be exposed to certain explosive issues. Issues like suicide, abortion, and homosexuality...things that "kids know are wrong anyway."

Okay, before I explode...

First, issues like those mentioned above are much more complex than we can imagine. I'm not saying that Scripture, church tradition, and human reason don't speak to those matters; they do. But beyond the surface understanding, they are much more thorny and complicated. I've had students who have contemplated suicide; I've had those who have considered and possibly had an abortion; and I have had (and likely have) students who are gay. These are not ivory-tower reserved academic matters.

Secondly, and more to the point, students--even professing Christian students--do not automatically know what is right or wrong, nor do they automatically know good reasons for defending their choices.

I realize I might get some serious heat for this, but today was a prime example. I had students rotating the classroom in packs of five, going to different stations where there were several ethical quandary questions waiting for them. One question was: "If you were happily married, but then became convinced you could find deeply passionate, intoxicating love with someone else, would you leave your spouse? What if you had kids?"

No lie. Several students--professing Christian students--did not see the problem with skipping out on the marriage. For some of that subgroup, the presence of kids might give them pause on walking out on the marriage, but that was hardly a comfort. Apparently, following your heart on the spur of the moment is more important than a covenant vow made before God and others. Self-interest (which wavers) trumps the fundamental adherence to someone else (which should never waver).

People, the way to teach Bible/religion in a Christian school has to change. I've been beating this drum for awhile in bits and pieces to others. I'm going public with this one.

You cannot make assumptions that students will be clear thinking or even consider that God's prescription automatically outweighs any entitlement we feel to follow our shifting emotions. You cannot assume students will ask, "What does the Bible, or my faith tradition, require of me?" In some locales, I didn't have to assume it because those institutions didn't require a profession of faith from students or parents. I could put the cookies on the bottom shelf and not assume students knew a lot about God or the Bible.

Memo to Christian school teachers: You still can't assume that, even if you believe a lot of your students are good kids from Christian homes. That means nothing when it comes to having a coherent, biblically-informed worldview. The Biblical illiteracy among the emerging generations--as well as in evangelical churches--is appalling. There's a lot of cognitive dissonance going on. We have to begin with the basics, with true critical thinking, and get people to think about if and why the Bible makes sense. No lip service to it. I don't know fully what kind of shape that new teaching takes. But we can't assume we are here to nurture good kids to polish them off and become better "champions for Christ" (or whatever evangelical tagline one has). We are here to shepherd students through a lot of logical disconnects and loose religious wiring. Jesus' compassion on the crowds who were like "sheep without a shepherd" rings true here.

Rip the old ways down, and build something new in their place. It's a different age with disconnected ways of justifying one's life vision. My friend--no matter that we differ on the Bible--at least knows it's important to be consistent.

I know that's a long ramble, but there you have it. Everything. Must. Change.