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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas: The Visited Planet

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”  (Micah 5:2, 4-5a)

            No, sorry to disappoint you readers, but there is still no Duck Dynasty follow-up to yesterday’s post. Enough has been said.
            Plus, when it comes to matters like that, I always begin by asking my “catacombs question.” As in: Think about the early Christians, persecuted and worshipping in hidden corridors and catacombs below Rome. Would ________ have been one of their primary concerns?
            I doubt the Phil Robertson quote and subsequent response would have been on their radar. But the God-Man, Jesus Christ would have dominated their minds and hearts. So let’s stick to that.
            And even though it’s Christmas Eve here in St. Louis, I’m making this my Christmas reflection. It is now officially Christmas Day in Bethlehem, after all.
Speaking of which…Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? Why that small little insignificant village as the birthplace of God who became human?
            Granted, there is the fulfillment of prophecy. And it gave Jesus royal legitimacy, as Bethlehem had been the hometown of his ancestor, the great King David. But it was hardly sized well for the arrival of the Savior and Lord of the world. There were maybe a couple hundred people living in Bethlehem during Micah’s day. It would be the equivalent of someone in 1900 predicting that the fiftieth president of the United States would be born in Grano, North Dakota. Even the name of Bethlehem was more befitting a bakery (the name means “house of bread”) than a birthplace of the Messiah.
            So why Bethlehem? Maybe its tiny nature was meant to show us how remote our existence is to the rest of the universe God created. We are just a speck of cosmic lint in the middle of nowhere. And yet to this planet Earth, God placed humans whom he wanted to enjoy and love. And to this planet Earth, God arrived in the form of a baby taking his initial gulps of air with struggling lungs.
            The author J.B. Phillips attempted to show this perspective through a short fantasy tale. In this story, a senior angel is showing a very young angel the entire universe on a dazzling tour. They view whirling galaxies, enjoy a variety of constellations, skip past black holes and the occasional nebula, until at last they enter a smaller galaxy of “only” 500 billion stars. Phillips says:
            “As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had previously seen.
            ‘I want you to watch that one particularly,’ said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
            ‘Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,’ said the little angel. ‘What’s special about that one?”
            He listened in stunned disbelief as the senior angel told him that this planet of white swirls and a mix of blues, greens, and browns, very small and not overly clean, was the famed Visited Planet.
            ‘Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince…went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should he do a thing like that? Do you mean to tell me,’ continued the little angel, ‘that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?’
            ‘I do,’ said the senior angel, ‘and I don’t think He would like you to call them creeping, crawling creatures in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.’
            The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.[1]

            So why Bethlehem? Maybe because it represents our human existence in city form. And yet Jesus visited. Jesus stayed. Jesus died. And Jesus lives.
            For you. For me. Who remain on this visited planet.

[1] J.B. Phillips, New Testament Christianity (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1958), 27-33.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Kerfluffle Many Christians Have Overlooked

Okay. Everyone and their pregnant poodle have commented on the Duck Dynasty/A&E/Phil Robertson/Cracker Barrel's foot-in-their-mouth controversy. So here's my opinion in short form.

1. What did Phil Robertson think a GQ reporter was going to do with his words?

2. What did GQ (and A&E, for that matter) expect a garden-variety Louisiana redneck to say about homosexuality, etc.?
3. Phil Robertson should have thought about how he framed stuff. His words on the appeal of lady parts over a man's backside, while the opinion of many people, in fact objectified women and the gift of sex. 
4. You can disagree with a lifestyle and still love the person. You can say greed is sinful (by the way, greed is one of the sins listed with homosexuality in I Corinthians 6…many Christians tend to forget that) and still love a greedy person. You can deplore drunkenness and still love an alcoholic. And you can say homosexuality is sinful but love gay people authentically. I do. Part of that is being willingly tempered by humility and admitting, "I need gay people to be willing to accept me with all my sin, like greed, pride, unrighteous anger, and the like."

Got that? It's all I'm saying about Duck Dynasty. Because it's not the issue with a Christian personality that I want to discuss.

This is:

Many people--especially evangelicals within what is commonly called the Neo-Calvinist movement--know of Mark Driscoll, the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church, a Reformed Christian megachurch in Seattle which could hold about ten to twenty of John Calvin's Sunday morning huddles at St. Pierre's-Geneva. Driscoll is a popular preacher and speaker and a prolific writer; his books Doctrine and Confessions of a Reformission Rev have been tremendously helpful to me. Driscoll is known for being forthright on being a strict biblicist, his strong complementation views on gender roles, and a master strategist on church planting and vision.

And he writes a ton. And that's the controversy that's going on.

Just over a month ago, Driscoll was interviewed on Janet Mefferd's radio talk show about his new book A Call to Resurgence when Mefferd produced some alleged instances in Driscoll's previous works. In these books, information and statements that are clearly the work of other authors (like Peter Jones, Dan Allender, etc.) are used but credit is never given to these writers. There is more detail about this Mefferd interview, but rather than reproducing it here, you can read this summary here:

Read it? Good. Now why do I think this is a bigger deal than the Duck Dynasty schmozz?

1. It's not because I have an issue with Mark Driscoll personally. I like his preaching and--while I don't line up with him on every point--I marvel at how God has used him to reach an unchurched, postmodern area like Seattle with the Gospel.

2. I am very steamed over the sloppiness of his written work, even if these matters are careless work more than they are plagiarism. For one, if your name is on the cover of the book as the author, then own up to the fact you need to do all the work in putting it together. I might have some very modest sales of Litany of Secrets, but I can at least say the entire story is mine and mine alone and all the settings are rigorously authentic. Yes, P.D. James influenced my writing, but I had the integrity to specifically state that in my preface. Secondly, in all likelihood, Driscoll seems to have had a research team do the study work for his books. In my opinion, he needs to make a decision: Be a pastor, or write his own stuff from start to finish. Don't think you can do both authentically well. 
3. In closing, I don't think that the main issue here is plagiarism or sloppiness in research. It happens to be what seems to be at the heart of American culture, especially the soft underbelly of hipster Christianity. The problem is the idolatry of evangelical leadership by their followers. The center of the Christian faith is the Gospel, not the people who proclaim it or their understanding of it. But the way some of my acquaintances talk about people like Driscoll and others (trust me, I'm not raking Driscoll over the coals on this one), you'd never know the difference. And I can tell you this: We seem to have a major crush on the personalities who herald the faith when we should be more concerned with the God who gives that same faith as a gift.

Sorry for this getting so lengthy. Maybe you disagree with me. That's why there's a comment area. But that's my take: The idolatry present in the Driscoll controversy is more hidden, but more potentially deadly, than anything that Duck Dynasty will produce.

And that is all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent: Shocking Our Assumptions

     “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:11-12)

            How often we hear these words spoken during Advent, and how little we are shocked by them. A divine being is supposed to be decked out in glory and splendor. Imagine how confused the shepherds might have been to hear that Israel’s King was a little baby that was trying to take his first breaths.
            Humility was Jesus’ tagline from birth onward. Many religions proclaim that their “God is great” (an exact rallying cry of the Muslims), but one of the central truths of Christianity is that God became little. Jesus could have commanded the winds and waves by a snap of his fingers from heaven; now he was an infant newly removed from the womb who couldn’t eat solid food and only communicated through cries, fully dependent upon a carpenter father and teenage mother.       
            Philip Yancey describes the fanfare that accompanied Queen Elizabeth II on her trip to the United States. She brought along four thousand pounds of luggage, which included two outfits for every occasion; a mourning suit in case someone died; forty pints of plasma; and white kid leather toilet seat covers. She also brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and many other attendants. This sort of activity, while a bit much, was common for British royalty.
            By contrast, Jesus came to earth in humble fashion, shocking our assumptions about the manner of God’s arrival in the flesh. His first bed was a feeding trough. A mule could have stepped on him.[1]
            By virtue of his entry, Jesus affirmed many of the truths that would mark his ministry: The last shall be first. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Receive the kingdom of God as a little child. Such truths shock people out of their usual modes of thinking. But they are essential for us to live in God’s kingdom. Unless we humble ourselves and strip away our pride, we will never enter the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed by word and deed. And once in that kingdom, we keep living in ways that defy reason. Such is the life we are called to by our Savior, who knows a thing or two about changing the rules of the game.

[1] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 36-37.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent: Who Are We to Dictate Terms?

     And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:33-35)
            We pick up today at the point where I left off with Simeon a few blog posts ago. Here he says some tough words to Jesus’ mother Mary. While many people think of Jesus as a sweet child and a unifying public figure, Simeon here seems to indicate that Jesus will rough up the social structure. Nothing is safe.
            Is this cruel of Simeon? Not at all. He at least lays out exactly what we can expect from Jesus. Hard moments may lie ahead; dark journeys may follow. Even Jesus would be no stranger to conflict. But this is what will be. And before we start to complain and say, “This isn’t the kind of Jesus I envisioned!”, we have to face this reality: Who are we to dictate terms to Jesus? Who are we to say how he should conduct his ministry in our lives?
            A number of years ago, a professor in a graduate school in the Deep South[1] was besieged by complaints from many students. You see, they were approaching the final exam in the course, and the students couldn’t figure out how to get started on studying for the test. So the professor, in a moment of academic tenderness and wondrous compassion, went through the semester’s worth of material that night. The next time the class met, the professor handed out a comprehensive study guide of some eighty-five questions. And now the complaints erupted in earnest! Why? Because the students griped there was too much information to study for the final exam! Was the professor cruel? I think not.[2] The students now were at least aware of what they needed to study. They had been brought face to face with the honest truth. And who were they to dictate to the professor how the exam should go?
            That is a little bit like following Jesus. We may read the Gospels and discover a wildly unpredictable Savior,[3] or we may see how our relationship with Christ creates more lurches and bumps than smooth paths. You know what? The Bible at least is honest about what you can expect. We are not designed to dictate how our spiritual journeys should go. But we can discover a Messiah whose grace and mercy run wild, crazy and free. And while living that life may seem like being a kite in a hurricane, for me it certainly beats the alternative!

[1] Yes, this was my father. It explains a bit about my quirks. Read on.
[2] And I’m not saying this just because he’s my dad!
[3] To get a good picture of this, read Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Birthday Boy

Today we will make shrimp paprika on request. We have a German chocolate cake already prepared. All because of something that occurred sixteen years ago today.

On the morning of December 15, 1997, I was putting my Ethics and Worldviews exams in my briefcase for the drive up to Westminster Christian Academy in Opelousas, Louisiana. Christy's was going to be induced the next day, so I thought my firstborn would be sharing a birthday with Ludwig van Beethoven. It was then that Christy called out for me in our smallish Lafayette apartment on Pont des Mouton Road.

Find someone else to take the exams to school and proctor them, was her message. From her feel of what was going on, our firstborn was going to crash the party a day early.

Thus followed a flurry of activity: getting the music teacher (who lived nearby) to transport my exams to school, confirming backup so other teachers could proctor the exams, getting Christy into the car, and navigating our way down to Lafayette General Medical Center. We were there by 8 a.m. On the way, I stopped at a red light, stared at the steering wheel, and said to no one in particular, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to be a father by the end of the day."

The fact that I was getting a son was not what overwhelmed me. It was the fact that my son was getting me as a father.

But I digress. The day plugged along, with Christy getting the battery of getting her water bag punctured, a pitocin IV drip, an epidural in the early afternoon, and non-stop ice chips. The way she fought through the pain was staggeringly incredible.

My parents drove down from Mississippi that day, arriving early afternoon to be there in plenty of time for the arrival of their first grandchild. It seemed to take forever for all the stars of delivery to align, but after dinnertime, Dr. Bourque (yes, I chose my wife's OB/GYN on the basis that his last name matched that of former NHL All-Star Raymond Bourque) said we were ready.

I'll spare you the details, but the short story is we had to switch to an emergency C-section. They gave Christy some more drugs for the pain and got to work. At 10:18 pm, Dr. Bourque lifted a six-pound, eleven-ounce, twenty-and-one-quarter inch floppy bundle from my wife's interior. Joshua Cameron Davis, meet the world.

It was then we learned (as Soren Kierkegaard wisely said, life is lived forward but understood backward) we were not at a finish line but a starting line. Joshua opened his mouth to cry and gave all the effort he could, but no sound came out. His limbs dangled like bratwursts from paper clips as his rib cage expanded and contracted in a furious quest for oxygen. Eventually, he stabilized, but it was clear there was something amiss.

Over the coming months and years, we spent a lot of time and energy going down various medical paths. Muscle biopsies revealed Joshua was afflicted with X-linked myotubular myopathy, and while we have often questioned why this was part of the big divine picture, we have also connected with other families whose boys are afflicted as well, searching for a common Holy Grail, a cure that is coming within reach.

More than anything, we received a son who has fought through more physical issues than I can imagine. One who nearly died six years ago after spinal fusion surgery but bounced back, despite doctors who felt we should "accept the inevitable". One who bravely made the call to be re-trached nearly five years ago so he could breathe and rehab better. He is the inspiration for the hero in my Cameron Ballack mystery series. An intense video game player, an inquisitive reader, and a never-ending dreamer (he still maintains he will switch citizenship and try out for Germany's national soccer team when he is cured and is able to walk again). 

Yes, a difficult life. But it's been sixteen years of wonderful all the same. Happy birthday to Joshua, our son.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent: Ending In Order To Begin

I find it fascinating that for something new to come into being, sometimes a former thing has to pass away. There are times when this is sad, sometimes there's an air of necessity about it.

There's precedent for this in the Bible. When Christians celebrate Advent, they de facto profess that the era of the Old Testament--with all its historical vigor and moral fluctuation--had to come to an end to usher in the birth of Jesus Christ. Galatians does say, "In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman…" (And on the subject of Christ, even when Jesus left earth, it turned out to be a boon for the growth of the church despite much persecution.)

And then there are events that happen around Christmas that you hope will turn out for the best, because all you can see for now is the sadness.

This week, I received news from some friends in Palm Beach County, Florida. It was there that I served for two wonderful years (2006-2008) as the campus pastor [i.e., chaplain] at Wellington Christian School. This opportunity came at a point in my life when I had been dismissed as pastor of a North Carolina church for declining numbers during my time there. It was the first time in my life when I had worked as faithfully and well as I could, but the  perceived level of success was lacking [Interestingly enough, the person who engineered and spearheaded my dismissal is now on trial for 208 counts of inappropriate sexual contact with minors]. I was burned out and questioning myself, but this opportunity in Florida turned out to be quite the tonic. I was able to pastor in an educational setting, grow relationships with students and speak into their lives, and craft vision and leadership for the school's chapel program and spiritual life.

And it was a few days ago that some friends there let me know that the high school at Wellington Christian was--in almost all likelihood--closing at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Declining enrollment is one factor married to lack of funds. How they got to this point is not my point of order here. There is still much to be considered about the K-8 school, which will be discussed over this weekend. What I do feel the need to say is that it hurts to see this happen. I have many close friends among the faculty and staff at WCS. For almost all of them, the closure would drastically affect their income. For all of them, this is a severe blow because--whatever their pay is--this is a calling. Teaching high school kids is their oxygen and really cranks their tractor every day. I have served on the gifted faculties of four Christian schools; I would put the high school teachers at WCS up against any institution when you consider ability, passion, commitment, and love for kids.

So what if what is probable becomes a reality? I don't want that to happen, and I pray there is some sort of miraculous turnaround. But both experience and hope teach me that all is not lost. A lot of what education happens to be is not polishing the final diamond, but unearthing the rough jewel and beginning the process of tending to it, shaping it, and making the initial chisels over what will be a long journey of beauty.

If Wellington Christian's high school closes--in fact, whatever happens regarding any school, or church, or agency that comes to an unintended end--its impact and efforts will not have been in vain. I mentioned on Facebook a couple days back that truth taught is never done in vain. I honestly believe that.

Even Christ had to die in order to rise again, one could argue.

Ending is not necessarily evidence of failure; it can begin a new era of blessing in ways we might not initially foresee.

No matter what, WCS has been a success in the way it needs to be.

And the school will always be in my heart.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent: Words From a Friend

This evening I saw that a friend, my former student Rebecca (Koenig) Rich had posted some more thoughts on her own blog. I really enjoy it when Rebecca posts (in fact, I'd love it if she did so more often, but I won't force it), and she made today's words really resonate with me. 

Rebecca's been doing this for some time. She was one of my most outstanding students when I taught at Westminster Christian Academy in Louisiana. She was/is diligent and would go to be nth degree to make sure she'd studied everything she needed to for a test. She also had good instincts about right and wrong, and sometimes things just dropped in her lap…once she had a dream the night before a final exam about what the extra credit question would be, and wouldn't you know it, she was dead on correct!

Yesterday, Rebecca shared on her blog about the subject of lament, sadness, and the occasional crushing wail that can hit out of nowhere. What she said was so instructive: "Another peculiar thing about lament is that it opens you up to gratitude. It's as if allowing yourself to see and share the darkness in your heart is the only way to notice all the light shining through the crevices. Yes, some things are very, very bad. But other things are good. Admitting that certain things are broken in ways they should not be makes me aware of other things that are good in ways they should not be. It opens me up to see grace."

The last time I read something that put that subject that well, it was St. Augustine: If there is a God, how is there so much bad in the world? If there is no God, how is there so much good in the world?"

Rebecca then gave a litany of many tangible items for which she is grateful: her husband Tom (whom I am long overdue to finally meet), her dogs, her friends, where they live, and some other matters. It's a profoundly wondrous list.

And then she comes to the last thing, and my heart sang.

"…thankful that I am not afraid of Jesus anymore. I don't know when it happened, but I finally stopped feeling like he was disappointed in me and started to believe that he is good and caring and gentle. This is kind of huge, because our picture of God affects everything. And my picture of him these days is pretty great."

Trust me. That's the quote of the year.

It's the Rubicon we all need to cross to truly understand and believe that grace is effective and good and lasting. 

It is a major thread of the fabric of the Advent tapestry.

I couldn't be more thrilled that my friend Rebecca has shared it with us.