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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So What Would I Write?

This past weekend, I finished the first draft of my sixth manuscript in the Cameron Ballack Mystery series. That means I'm rounding third base and heading for home, because the seventh installment of the disabled, agnostic St. Louis sleuth will be the last volume. 

That reality has brought on its fair share of nostalgia, for a couple of reasons. First, closing out the Cameron Ballack series, from the planning stages of the final novel to the last word written in revision, will have the feel of saying goodbye to an old friend. Investing that much time in creating, sustaining, and breathing increasing life into a character makes them somewhat a part of your own identity.

But the other reason focuses on the future, because once I'm done with the CBMS, I won't (indeed, I can't) stop writing. I will always possess the desire to create new worlds. Yet that raises the question, "What will those worlds look like?"

Thought you'd never ask! I have a number of ideas for future writing projects banging around in my head, but here are the top four:

(1) Historical fiction set in World War I: I love the Great War, as it is known in Europe. While WW2 inflicted more lasting physical damage and shifted the political chess board of Europe significantly for the next half-century, the Great War made a more lasting worldview impact on the populace of the entire planet. It brought a halt to the school of progressivism (at least to the idea that thought it really had a grip on what human nature was) and introduced the cold reality that humanity is brutal and capable of much evil. The lack of geopolitical trust has run in the veins of the world ever since. The texture of that world draws me to one day write a novel set in that time, with recapturing and redemption at the heart of the story. In fact, I've already begun research on it!

(2) Revisionist sports history: I've always admired Harry Turtledove for his novels of alternate history (e.g., Hitler's War exploring what would have happened if Chamberlain stood up to the Fuhrer). The more I thought about it, I began postulating "What if you could do this in the sports world?"...I've being thinking about the "what ifs" of sports, particularly the 1981 major league baseball players strike. The work rupture forced league executives to declare that the division leaders in the first half of the season in each league would play the second-half division leaders. The winner of each series would play the others for the league championship, and those teams would move on to the World Series. Intriguingly, the National League East winners were the Philadelphia Phillies (first half) and Montreal Expos (second half) and the West matched the Los Angeles Dodgers (first half) vs. the Houston Astros (second half). In truth, though, if you combine the records of both halves of the year, the best overall records belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals (East) and the Cincinnati Reds (West)! In fact, the Reds had the best overall record in baseball, but neither they nor the Cards made the playoffs. What if the league execs decided against this double-division format? Who would end up in the Series? That would be an interesting exploration!

(3) Speaking of sports, it's clear that college football has become a big time multi-million dollar business. Is there anyplace where the purity of decent, sportsmanlike competition still reigns? Look no further than the New England Small College Athletic Conference, an alliance of smaller schools in the shadow of Ivy League-land. In the NESCAC, the athletic programs are strictly overseen, student-athletes are part of the ordinary tapestry of academic and social life of each campus, and athletics is part of the overall academic mission (that is, books over ball). I have thought it would be great to take September through November off one year, go to New England, and travel to the campuses of Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Wesleyan, and Williams; to attend practices, meet with student-athletes--particularly football players--and coaches; to immerse myself in the spirit of smaller town Yankee life; and to tell the story of an eight-game season in which the purity of the sport trumps any win-at-all-costs desire. Yeah, with my schedule, it's a pipe dream, but I can hope, can't I?

(4) Finally, I have given thought to staying in the mystery genre while de-emphasizing the murder aspect. The British school of the cozy mystery has always held a certain appeal, and my latest favorite author in this tribe is James Runcie (son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury) and his volumes of The Grantchester Mysteries. I'll be doing a review of his latest effort, Sydney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, but for now suffice it to say Runcie has inspired me to try my hand at the novellas-within-a-volume approach, where a book contains loosely connected short stories. Runcie's clerical gumshoe, Sydney Chambers, is able to go where the police cannot, and so I've thought one could do the same with a prep school chaplain if the ingredients were stirred together in the right proportion. There are possibilities here...

At any rate, those ideas are well down the road of coming to fruition. But it's nice to know the creative waterfall is not running dry.

Monday, December 8, 2014

In Memory of Andy

Today marks eighteen years since my friend Andy Tant died. Today his father, Mike, shared a poem in remembrance of his son and my friend. I've received Mike's permission to share it in the blogosphere, and I hope the words bless you as they have me.


by Mike Tant

A leaf floats gently on the breeze,
As it spins and twists in an apparent random fall,
Only its Maker, the Lord of wind
Knows where it will come to rest

The leaf floats gently on the breeze,
And on the pond it settles as silently as the snow.
The pond struggles against its weight,
And sends out ripples announcing the invasion.

The leaf sinks quietly in the pond,
As the ripples expand from the source;
They travel to an unseen shore
And moisten, for awhile, a patch of dry ground.

A life well-lived for Christ is like that leaf upon the breeze;
The soul does not always understand the twists and turns,
But the Maker's plan is sure.
And He is able to make the slightest good--
A thing that impacts and endures.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Long Live the Queen

Today dawned like most other days, cold and crisp in St. Louis although slightly warmer than the last couple of days. People were getting ready for Thanksgiving dinners, and much of the citizenry of the area seems to be hopeful that things are turning toward a more peaceful and conversational journey in the neighborhood of Ferguson. In the 107th edition of the Frisco Bell game between Kirkwood High School and rival Webster Groves, the Pioneers of KHS won today. 

But in the midst of these events, I opened up my Facebook page to some devastating news. Yes, there are more tragic details in the world right now, but this sadness washed over me in a massive tidal wave.

P.D. James, the greatest crime novelist of the modern age, died this morning at her home in Oxford, England. The reigning mistress of the murder mystery, the one who penned the Adam Dalgliesh novels as well as the dystopian novel The Children of Men, gone from this earth.

I've mentioned before how high school teachers such as Deb Clarke inspired me to write well and bring stories to life. But P.D. James--although I never had the pleasure or opportunity to meet her--was the one who inspired me to become a novelist, to craft mysteries, and to pursue and love the murder genre.

In 2006, Children of Men hit the movie screen and Christy and I both prepped for the film by reading the book. While the film dazzled due to its intense themes and amazing cinematography (not to mention the numerous single-shot sequences), the book greatly moved me. Here at last was an author who found the perfect balance of threading plot, setting, and character so expertly together, who told a story so well that at its end you were equally satisfied and yet hungry for more.

It was in the spring that I was lunching with my colleague Mack Gray during a break at Wellington Christian School when I mentioned how much I enjoyed Children of Men. He responded, "That was a switch from her usual stuff."

Usual stuff. As in her murder mysteries.

That summer, as Joshua struggled to recover from his spinal fusion surgery, I gallivanted through Death in Holy Orders, followed by A Taste For Death, then The Murder Room, before finishing Devices and Desires before the school year rolled around. I've read every one of her Adam Dalgliesh novels with the exception of Death of An Expert Witness. Her output includes the aforementioned The Children of Men, as well as two Cordelia Gray novels, the stand-alone Innocent Blood, and the Jane Austen-inspired murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley.

It was through P.D. James that I learned a great deal of how to be a novelist, as I experienced many of her personal suggestions in the depth and breadth of her stories, as well as her Talking About Detective Fiction. She and I both have one thing in common, as we both published our first novels at the age of 42. But that, trust me, is where the similarities end. 

Her life was never an easy ride. Her mother was committed to an asylum when James was only 14, so that she had to care for her siblings by herself. Her husband--flagellated by the horrors of serving in World War II--ended up in an institution as well, leaving P.D. to care for their daughters Clare and Jane.

But her writing, far from being an escape, was drenched heavily in realism from her work in Britain's National Health Service and other areas. Her pen created the last of the line of gentlemen detectives, Adam Dalgliesh, although his humanness is more relatable and believable than Dorothy Sayers' creation of Lord Peter Wimsey.

And the street jargon of pot-boilers had no place with James, nor did the speculative suspension of disbelief one finds in some areas of the cozy writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. One finds only crisp, elegant, proper-use English and undeniable, uncompromising realism with the Queen of Detective Fiction.

My first novel in the Cameron Ballack mystery series, Litany of Secrets, was heavily influenced by the first James novel I ever read, Death in Holy Orders. The seminary setting was too good to pass up. And even now as I work through another Cameron Ballack manuscript (my sixth novel in a series of seven), I keep using Dalgliesh as the yardstick by which Ballack is measured. James' use of character is just that good.

The influence of Phyllis Dorothy James in my writing life is incalculable. And with her death, which took place peacefully at her home, the true age of the gentleman detective is over, and we shall not be seeing the likes of someone like James again. The world of literature is a vastly more beautiful place because she has lived and written, and the world itself is a sadder place because she has died.

That is both a tragedy and an appropriate selah. Just like her books, James satisfies you and yet leaves you wanting more. In my opinion, there neither will be nor should there be another P.D. James.

Rest in peace, O Queen. May you live long in the memories of your devoted masses. You have found an eternal place in mine.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

From Father to Son

My dear precious Jordan,

Six years have gone by since the last time I held you in my arms. Six years of thoughts, tears, warm memories, and all other emotions. I've shared so many things about you to others, written about you, and from time to time have wished that you could come back--even for a few minutes that we might have together. The final wish is, of course, impractical although I think it's understandable. But there is one river I've never crossed, although my journey toward it has been building for some time. And that tributary is to tell you the things I never got to share while you were with us.

You crashed-landed into my life at a time when I was weary yet comfortable. It was the day we moved to Florida when Mom found out that night that you were on the way. I said "comfortable" earlier because I thought we were done having children. And having another boy meant the possibilities of one with the challenges that your big brother continues to face. Yet the pregnancy test didn't lie. You shook up my world--our world--but it was in a way we desperately needed.

And I was weary. Mom and I were both coming up on 36 years of age. I had run my course with being a pastor in North Carolina and was running on fumes. I was still in healthy adulthood and had the tepid energy reserves of old age. My body, my heart, and my soul were shot.

And at that point...something akin to what the Scriptures say, "in the fullness of time" came. You came with a silent cry and flailing limbs and a NICU residence with a reflux problem that we had to fix with surgery when you were a few weeks old. And of course, myotubular myopathy, just like Joshua.

That was the time when I felt God throw away an emotional anchor and thus liberated my heart. Your smile, your feistiness, your adorability (if that can be a word) gave light to my soul. Yes, there were many reasons why the days of your life might have been physically draining. Joshua's spine surgery and recovery, lack of sleep for Mom and I, scrambling to land a new job and ending up in St. Louis. Sometimes I wonder how we lived through the challenges, but you rolled with it. Not to mention you loved getting extra snuggles with Mom or I when you could.

I shake my head to think what you'd be like now. Given how much you loved to pull Lindsay's hair or knock her block towers over, or covertly pull Joshua's velcro shoe straps, or sneak down the hallway when Mom or I weren't looking...I imagine you'd spend a fair bit of school time in the principal's office. "Now, Jordan, why did you make the toilet seats explode?" I think that if you saw a blow torch, some baking soda, and a bungee cord, you'd find some path to constructive mischief. I'd like to think you're doing that now in Heaven.

But one memory comes to the fore above all others. It was soon after you learned to walk in October, just a month before God took you home. It was an evening in which I lay sprawled on my back on the floor. There was much activity going on, but for whatever reason you made a beeline to me. Gently but firmly, you head butted me. You loved head butts. Then you "tackled" me with all the reserves of what strength you had and I tumbled on my back, with your head dropping onto my chest with a muffled "whump" against my sternum. I tickled you in your ribs, with you making your squeaky little laughs. 

And then I patted you on the back, saying, "Jordan, I need to get up." I would lift myself up off the ground and put a hand on the floor to push myself to my feet.

Your reaction? You'd collapse onto my chest and "pin" me back on the floor.

We'd do this three or four times. Each time, you wouldn't let me go, pinning me to the floor. And finally, I'd look at you and say, "Jordan, Daddy's not going to leave you."

And how big was your smile? Full moon on a summer night doesn't even begin to describe it. Followed by the biggest bear hug you could muster.

Looking back on those sacred moments now brings me pain, but it's what one could call a good pain. You showed both the tenacity of holding on to God and the unrestrained joy we should feel when we know God loves us totally.

Your grandpa (my dad) said something soon after you went to be with Jesus. He said, "Thanksgiving will always be different for you now. Yet in deep grief we can still find massive grace."

You, my son, brought so much grace into my life. You opened my eyes, gave light to my heart, and you reflected your name so well.

Jordan Christopher. Literally, one who comes down and brings Jesus.

Thank you, my son, for making an old man feel young again, for showing the unfettered wind in the sails of your soul, for proving that the weakest among us are the strongest of spirit...

...and for the greatest gift of all: For teaching me more about the tenacious and tender love of God in nineteen months than I had learned in all of my life before. 

Thank you, my son whom I love, for being true to your name, for coming down for even a short life as you had, and bringing Jesus to me.

I love you,

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Westminster: A Family of Grace in Deepest Grief

Six years ago this week, my father was piecing together the Sunday service at the church he pastored at the time in Mississippi. With careful planning he began by placing--at the beginning of the service--a prayer for meditation. It was a supplication by William Jay in the nineteenth century, and it went as follows:

     "If we are indulged with prosperity let not our prosperity destroy us nor injure us. If we are exercised with adversity, suffer us not to sink in the hour of trouble, or sin against God. May we know how to be abased without despondence, and to abound without pride. If our relative comforts are continued to us, may we love them without idolatry, and hold them at Thy disposal; and if they are recalled from us, may we be enabled to say, The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

Dad has said since that given the events of that next Sunday, it was indeed a providential passage. I have occasionally re-read that prayer since, but an hour ago, one thing leapt out at me: Ten times in that prayer, you have some form of the first person plural pronoun, either "we", "our", or "us". That became a reality for us when Dad's church was meditating on that prayer the next Sunday, November 23, 2008, about six hundred miles away from us.

That morning. 

Our sweet son, Jordan.  Nineteen months old. Afflicted with myotubular myopathy like his older brother Joshua, yet so brave and joyful. Little Jordan had suddenly and peacefully passed away in his crib. And our world shattered.

Over the course of the next week, all the way to and past the funeral, a bevy of family and friends came into town to be with us, to grieve with and for us. Mom and Dad arrived the day after Jordan died, friends from our church in Florida came in the day before the funeral. We felt incredibly remembered and profoundly loved.

The more the years pass, I recall more and more later on during the morning and that evening after Jordan went to be with the Lord. It was originally a blur, but the major factor that got us through that day was the steady flow of visitors from Westminster Christian Academy, where I was in my first year on staff.

If there's a school community that tops Westminster in flooding such weary, grieving souls with comfort, grace, and peace, I haven't run across such an institution.

I remember headmaster Jim Marsh coming to our door, entering in and grasping Christy and I in a massive double-hug, absorbing the shock of death and sadness with kindness. There was Lucy Erdman and Kathy Karigan, who brought art supplies over for our kids so they could draw and color and healthily distract themselves from what had hit them that day. Sherrie Blough went out and got a Build-a-Bear gift card for Lindsay. Craig Dunham--then my Bible department colleague and now a headmaster in Oklahoma City--came by to sit, chat, and listen. The word got around to the entire school and those who weren't able to come by called on the phone or helped out in other ways: Jim Stange's entire Art class made a massive sympathy card the next day at Westminster.

We didn't have Jordan with us anymore, but one thing we recognized we had that day was a community...a school family that barely knew us at the time, but still loved us. And even as we were (and are still at times) asking God "Why?" regarding his mysterious providence, we could see the "Who" of God's hands and heart that were displayed in the people of Westminster who reached out to us, who listened, who wept, and who anchored us in community.

It is my theological conviction that God's grace is certain and comes through in concrete fashion, even in times when his mercy seems more savage than kind. And as the years go by, and as I continue to miss my boy, I become more and more grateful for being a part of Westminster, a place that God has seen fit to pour out his kindness to us in hardships like these. In days when more and more people can lack a sense of relational depth, Westminster has become more and more an anchored community for me and my family. This weekend I feel that all the more because it's when that flavor of grace began six years ago, and for which I remain exceedingly thankful.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Breaking the Silence on Ferguson

I lied.

I said I wouldn't discuss the tremors in Ferguson, Missouri, the after-effects of the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the grand jury matter regarding officer Darren Wilson.

I said if you want to hear my opinions on it, then you'd have to speak with me face-to-face.

Well, that can get cumbersome. Plus, this is too important of an issue, so not speaking about it can be problematic.

I say "can be" because there's been a lot said about Ferguson on social media, on cable news, on the Internet, and so on and very little of the discussion has been constructive.

There are some exceptions to that rule. Some bloggers and speakers have spoken in order to shed more light than heat on this. Eichel Davis (no relation), a Westminster grad whose company I enjoy greatly, gave an honest African-American perspective about a month after Michael Brown's death. Also, Mike Higgins, a seminary classmate of mine and now Dean of Students at Covenant Seminary, was interviewed by Christianity Today and gave kind but firm responses regarding the issues behind Ferguson

So in a sense, what could I add to the discussion that hasn't been said. Precious little. But I feel somewhat burdened to speak out on a few details.

First, the reaction to Michael Brown's death underscores the truth that St. Louis is one of the most divided, segregated cities in America. This is why I dismiss assertions of St. Louis natives who criticize the Deep South for vicious racism. Not that racism doesn't exist in the South; it does. I lived in the South for most of my life and I can tell you that racial bigotry can rear its ugly head from time to time. But there have also been tremendous advances and healing over time in the former Confederacy, although there's a ways to go. But St. Louis has cornered the market on subtle yet very real segregation and racism that does need to be called out. White flight and suburban stretch have buttressed that, as well, as the city of St. Louis has undergone a slow death while Southern cities like Atlanta and Chattanooga have experienced urban renaissances. 

Secondly, the reaction to Michael Brown's death shows that--as Soren Kierkegaard once said--people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. Both sides on this issue bear guilt. It doesn't take much for people like Sean Hannity to go into full-ninja reaction mode on Fox News and start assuming the worst about Michael Brown and immediately defend the police officer Darren Wilson who shot Brown. Nor does it take any thought or responsibility for groups like the New Black Panthers to swoop into town and stir up discord. Guess what? Maybe the best thing to do is to speak about what we know rather than what we assume to be true. Social media and the informational superhighway may move at warp speed, but no one is forcing you to keep pace.

Thirdly, spinning off from point 2 above, the reaction to Michael Brown's death shows us that we very often do NOT use our heads when reacting. The number of times Americans have been slow to speak have been minimal. The grand jury investigation has been poring over evidence that the general public has not been privy to, yet many Americans from Main Street to Wall Street, from Fox News to MSNBC, have been sounding off. Have the humility to admit there is more to this than you can see at first. And when the evidence doesn't fit one's pre-disposed view of things, what then? It remains to be seen.

Fourthly, what matters is going on from this. We cannot resurrect Michael Brown, and that is a tragedy, because he should still be pursuing his future. Officer Darren Wilson's career is forever changed. But this is an issue that goes beyond the families and the police department, beyond funerals or discussions about police profiling, and beyond the largely unhelpful pontifications of people like Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly. 

I'll tell you why the fourth matter is so key for me personally. I teach at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, where our minority enrollment is about a sixth of the student body, quite excellent for a private school in west St. Louis County (a territory I call the "Ritz Blitz"). When the grand jury decision is announced, there will be a number of students in my classes and throughout our school who will experience a range of emotions: the raw, the confused, the honest, the unhelpful, the genuine, and the skeptical. What we have to do, as our headmaster Dr. Tom Stoner reminded us, is to provide safe places in which students can work through the gamut of this experience. The key thing is to help promote peace and positive relations among our students and staff, and that begin by listening to each other, not barking off our opinions.

The days ahead are nebulous ones for Ferguson and for the greater St. Louis area. But the motto of Geneva, Switzerland during John Calvin's time there was "After darkness, light." Our responses will be the beacon for change.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Autumn Memories, Kevin McDougal, and Rockne's Ghost

One would think even I could get sick of football. I announce the games for Westminster Christian Academy's football team, which plays against St. Charles West in the state 4A quarterfinals this Saturday. We keep winning, so we keep playing. More football. My mom's alma mater, Scott Community High School, is trucking along in the Kansas 3A playoffs and should reach the state finals. My favorite Canadian team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is poised to make the Grey Cup championship game, and my NFL faves, the Kansas City Chiefs, are flexing their muscles for a postseason run. 

No chance. Eventually I'll start paying attention to other things: hockey, the amount of food in my dog's bowl, stoplights.  But this is football season. No changing that.

And it's today that gives me some warm, happy memories from twenty-one years ago. Although my Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the second-ranked team in the country and playing at home, they were a decided underdog against top-ranked Florida State in what became the "Game of the Century" (highlight video of the game at the top of this post). This was a big deal. Seminole quarterback Charlie Ward would eventually win the Heisman Trophy that year. The Irish seemed outgunned. My seminary roommate (and present colleague) L.B. Graham and I bet dinner on the outcome. 

It was rare in that the game lived up to and surpassed its hype. Ward completed 29 of 50 passes but threw a critical interception. Lee Becton ran for 122 yards for Notre Dame, Adrian Jarell got a TD on a reverse, and the Irish led for the supermajority of the game.

They did it, too, with possibly the most underrated quarterback in Irish history. He is now in real estate in south Florida, but then Kevin McDougal was the man of the hour. Notre Dame has had a number of quarterbacks over the years: Terry Hanratty, Tom Clements, and Joe Montana from the 60s and 70s championship teams. Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn were highly heralded, as well. Tony Rice was an amazing option quarterback who got us the 1988 national title, Jarious Jackson was a dual threat, and Everett Golson has developed into quite the offensive show this year. But far and away, my favorite Notre Dame QB of all time has been McDougal. Cut from the same run-pass mold of fellow African-American ND quarterbacks like Rice, Jackson, and Golson, McDougal's greatest quality might have been his perseverance and competitiveness. He didn't throw that much (his senior year stats were 98 of 159 passes, 1541 yards, and seven TDs aside five interceptions), but what mattered was his generalship. He simply willed his team through every challenge. That day against Florida State, McDougal completed 9 of 18 passes and made no mistakes, running the offense to absolute perfection.

The game still came down to the final play, when Ward tried to thread a pass into the end zone to either Kez McCorvey or Tamarick Vanover, somehow ignoring a wide open Matt Frier at the goal line. Shawn Wooden knocked the pass down, setting off the celebration of the century (and a free dinner at Olive Garden for me). Over the din, NBC's Charlie Jones could be heard yelling, "The ghost of Knute Rockne is living...and he is smiling!"

A team quarterbacked by Kevin McDougal toppled a juggernaut quarterbacked by the Heisman Trophy winner that year.

The joy was short-lived, as my Irish got clipped in a last-second upset the next week against Boston College. The ending of that year was controversial, with Florida State--whom we beat--leapfrogging us in the polls for the national title after the bowl games. Yes, the Seminoles were deserving, but half of that championship trophy belongs to us.

So whenever November 13th comes around, forgive me if my eyes get a little misty. My thoughts have likely turned to an autumn memory from the poignantly beautiful landscape of Notre Dame, with an everyday hero like Kevin McDougal willing a legendary ghost to life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day

It's Veterans Day today. November 11, 2014. I keep thinking that our Canadian and British friends have it right, though, in calling this Remembrance Day. That is truly at the heart of the matter.

If there's one thing about our veterans, it's that they should never be forgotten. Any branch of service, any amount of time.

We must remember veterans like double amputee Noah Galloway, whose story of grit and valor and ongoing perseverance touches many.

We must remember members of the "greatest generation" like my Granddad Herron and others who served in World War II.

We must remember and thank others like my friend Kal Dawson, who drove one of the first Marine tanks into Kuwait City as American-led troops liberated that place from the grip of Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. It means thanking friends like Andy Gienapp who served in the war on terrorism in Iraq, and remembering my former student Brad Arms who lost his life there.

And we must always recall that conflict, in some way shapes us. Ninety-six years ago, World War I (a.k.a., the Great War) ended with an armistice in a railway car in Compiegne, France. That war more than anything else forced the crumbling of the well-meaning but reality-impaired movement of progressivism and its cardinal doctrine of the inevitability of humankind's progress. The horrors of Ypres, Verdun, and Passchendaele choke-slammed a collective worldview all across the planet when we saw what people were capable of doing. Conflict will always be part of what Private Joker called "the duality of man" in Full Metal Jacket, of humanity's fallen condition. That shaping work is met with the courageous action of the finest people on the globe, men and women who give their blood, sweat, and tears to hold up on their shoulders the freedoms we so often take for granted.

If you know a veteran, thank them today. And always remember.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Rapid Reax: Election 2014

It's rare I do a political post, but last night's sea change was worthy of one this morning. So here are some quick takes of mine on last night's contests:

(1) Republicans win the Senate: And this is with voting counts still finishing up in Virginia and Alaska, and with a run-off in Louisiana still to come that threatens to send incumbent Mary Landrieu into the private sector. Republicans had been pointing to this election as a referendum on Democrat policies and they capitalized on a furious electorate.

(2) The way the Republicans won: As much as I can appreciate the raw grassroots power of the Tea Party from 2010 (not saying I agree with them on all ideology, just saying I respect it as a political force), what intrigued me was the Republicans showed a more varied playbook this time around. They showed they could run more than one style of offense. The strategy of the Republican national leadership hand-picking solid contenders from safe districts and having them run against vulnerable Democrat candidates was a masterstroke. While the Democrats went for a "Hail Mary" attempt of dumping $60M in ads, the GOP went for a solid ground game of three yards and a cloud of dust. This time, steady won the race, by and large.

(3) Surprises, part 1: I was surprised that a couple of vulnerable GOP senators held onto their seats, and by wide margins. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky ended up cruising to a 15-point win over Alison Grimes. Pat Roberts got ground help and a come-to-Jesus talk from iconic Bob Dole (iconic in Kansas, anyway) to swallow up and reverse the margin that left-leaning independent Greg Orman held just a week before the election.

(4) Surprises, part 2: Holy cow, those gubernatorial races! A close one in Florida between incumbent Rick Scott (R) and former governor Charlie Crist (D) had decent turnout due to a marijuana initiative being on the ballot, too. Scott prevailed by a narrow margin, meaning that Crist has now lost races as a Republican, independent, and a Democrat. Sam Brownback, the GOP incumbent governor of Kansas who has struggled this year, was down five points last week to Paul Davis (D) but stormed back to win by four. And what's with the fury in places like Illinois, Massachusetts, and my former home state of Maryland? Those normally safe blue states flipped to red for Republican governors. Now it remains to be seen if those GOP guys can lead beyond the campaign season.

(5) Fear has its limits: Sorry, but tagging the South with the "racist" label--whether you do it before the election or the morning afterwards--is so intellectually flaccid and passé. And while we're on the subject (and breaking for a moment my pledge to refrain from any Ferguson, MO-related commentary), trying to ignite voters in Georgia by saying if a certain candidate gets elected then Michael Brown-like tragedies could be close at hand is petty and cruel. It does no justice to Michael Brown's family; it does no favors to the judicial process here in St. Louis; and it backfires.

(6) Fear has its limits, part 2: And by the way, this whole "war on women" narrative has lost steam and sounds like pathetic whining. This is because (a) much of America has figured out that one's position on abortion does NOT equal denial of contraception to women, (b) it's turning Democrats into single-issue pulpit-thumpers when I wish they'd engage the issues more frequently so people can make informed choices, and (c) Todd Akin is nowhere around this election cycle, so you can't drag the "legitimate rape" comment out of mothballs.

(7) This is one night; the hard part follows: Leadership, forming coalitions, and spearheading movements takes time. The Republican majority, President Obama's response, and where we go from here will take time to build. And people who love the GOP (I say this as an outsider, an independent voter with neo-libertarian leanings), should recognize that a number of these Senators-elect are more RINO (Republican in name only) than conservative (cough, Tillis in North Carolina, cough).

(8) The Democrats have some soul-searching to do: This is a party that has held together a fragile winning coalition of minorities and gentry liberals with some Wall Street glue and George Soros cash. But now the Democrats may be running into some strong headwinds and recognizing what Walter Mondale found out in the 1984 election: Promising the world to everyone in your big tent means making contradictory pledges, which leads to (unintentionally) setting allies within your party against each other and (more intentionally) alienating the middle class. As Republicans look for someone to pick up the Reagan mantle, Dems need to find someone in the Bill Clinton (whom I rather like personally) mold or the party is in danger of splintering beyond recognition.

(9) 2016? Two years is a long way away. But this I believe: Whoever comes out of either party as the nominee has to have centrist credentials with strong, respected connections to the party primary base. The Republicans could find Marco Rubio as a diamond in the rough, or try to convince Mitch Daniels of Indiana to run based on his fiscal wonderworking at the state level. But the field will feature moderates like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, although Herman Cain could be an interesting force in the mix. The Democrats? They really--in my honest opinion--need someone like Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Jim Webb of Virginia to navigate these waters. But that's just me.

(10) The nice thing...about an election? Win or lose, life goes on in America. I'm a published author, I have a great job, and I have a wife who loves me with whom I have three remarkably wonderful children (one of whom is with the Lord now). You can't ask for better than that, no matter who is in Washington.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

When There's a Time...

Teaching is a rewarding vocation that nonetheless has the feel of being in a submarine most of the time. You rarely emerge into the glorious light to see the full fruits of your labors. So much of the reward that I've experienced comes from conversations with former students who look back on the days of "seed-planting" in their lives and find there were things of immense goodness and value that took root.

That is something--by the way--that goes beyond any professional development (which is still important), that goes well beyond any prior training or a multitude of advanced degrees. There are a number of moments in my career at four different schools where I have drank deeply of success; so what are those chronological nuggets?

(1) When there's a time in which a student faces a major test in my class, is worrying constantly about their performance, and then listens to encouragement that who they are is more important than the specific grade they make, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(2) When there's a time in which a student understands that we learn best when we speak with one another, not at one another, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(3) When there's a time in which a student learns and believes that there is a meaningful Center of the universe, and he or she is NOT it, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(4) When there's a time in which a student realizes that--to quote Philip Yancey--"if you live through a moment, you can live through a day, and how you live a day is eventually how you live your life", then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(5) When there's a time when one of my students works on a group drabble assignment and creates a beautiful 100-word short story on the eighth commandment and joyfully cries out, "I've always struggled with writing all my life, but this I can do!", then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(6) When there's a time in which I convince a kid--even for a little while--that the motion picture of the beautiful art gallery of human existence and natural beauty that surrounds them is infinitely greater than any selfie on Twitter or photo on Instagram, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(7) When there's a time in which a student--consciously or unwittingly--participates in even a little bit of bringing in God's dream for this world, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(8) When there's a time in which my students know deep in the core of their beings that my classroom is always a safe place to ask questions, admit doubts, and to make mistakes, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(9) When there's a time in which my students understand they are very small specks in the vast tapestry of the universe yet they are extremely valued by God, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(10) When there's a time--and this is my overriding goal every day--in which a student leaves my class with courage for the rest of the day and some hope for tomorrow, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Saturday's Children

This week's post comes as the football season is heating up. Of course, the college season is in full midseason gear. The NFL has passed the one-third-of-the-way mark, and the Canadian Football League is making its mad dash toward the Grey Cup playoffs. But for a post entitled "Saturday's Children", you might think I'm speaking of college football. And that'd be a good guess, especially if you're thinking of Giles Tippette's book of the same name that chronicles Rice University's gut-wrenching 1971 season (think the writing ability of John Feinstein on steroids with additional grit). But no, I'm speaking of the high school game, which in Missouri has entered the win-or-go-home phase.

This season at Westminster Christian Academy has been close to magical. In Class 4, our Wildcats are ranked (before press time tomorrow) seventh in the state of Missouri and are the first seed in our district. The first playoff game is this coming Saturday at our home stadium against the St. Clair High School Bulldogs, and Wildcat Nation is ready to take the proverbial bull by the horns and ride the path of hard work and determination and turn it into the Road to Glory. Make no mistake. It will take some bounces going our way, but in coaching, team discipline and attitude, we have a championship-caliber team.

If you're in the area, this first-round game is a great opportunity to come out and see what we're buzzing about here at Westminster. And if you need some additional impetus to show up at this clash, look no further than this blog post.

That's right: I'm giving you my...


(10) The 2:30 kickoff means we're going head-to-head for Nielsen ratings with Mississippi State vs. Kentucky (CBS), Michigan vs. Michigan State (ABC), and even Vanderbilt vs. Missouri (SECN). But look at it this this age of delayed gratification, you can set your DVRs for those college games and always catch them later while you work around the Ole Miss-LSU game that night. This is Westminster football. That means it takes priority.

(9) Weather: It's too early to be fully precise, but preliminary forecasts are calling for a Saturday afternoon of full sunshine with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees. Come on, people--that is one beautiful day for high school playoff football.

(8) If you are somewhat unfamiliar with Westminster or haven't been around here for awhile, the game will also give you an up-close glimpse of our state-of-the-art campus, with quality academic, athletics, and fine arts facilities. 800 Maryville Center Drive is an absolute jewel.

(7) The football game is literally the only athletic event on Westminster's campus this Saturday. So you'll have nothing else to draw you aside. However, you can make it to plenty of away games and still get to the varsity contest in time (e.g., the 7th and 8th grade football games at MICDS at 9 am and 10:30 am). In fact, are there any requests for a massive tailgating party in the parking lot prior to game time? Anyone got a massive BBQ smoker?

(6) Westminster junior student John Pottebaum, fearless leader of the WCA student Blue Crew, has gone on record saying that if St. Clair is tied or leading the game midway through the first quarter, he will drink a bottle of barbecue sauce and chase it with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Although that's not an optimal situation for our football team, it's certainly an interesting possibility.

(Actually, Pottebaum never promised that. Scratch #6. I was just kidding.)

(5) This playoff run is the final push for quarterback Brendan Bognar, linebacker Caleb Miller, and many of our other senior players who have exhibited leadership and winning attitude all season long. Showing up for the game will honor their season-long efforts.

(4) This weekend coincides with my beautiful wife's birthday. Our whole family will be at the game, so you can come by and wish her a happy anniversary of her 21st birthday.

(3) We honestly have the best game crew in the business. There is nothing like having the opportunity to announce the game, and I enjoy it greatly. Dave Dorton (scoreboard) and LB Graham (play clock) keep things running smoothly, and Luke Breems is a crack statistician. Plus, the Howard Warren-Scott Holley-Warren Smith first-down chain gang has been ranked by the Missouri State High School Activities Association as the #1 chain gang in the entire state!

(Okay, there are no chain-gang rankings, but they'd be number 1 if there were.)

(2) The other aspects of the game are just as memorable. Dr. Jim Sefrit gives phenomenal and heartfelt pre-game prayers, the student choir can sing the national anthem with the soul of Diana Ross and the volume of Laura Wright. And the volunteers at the concession stand go above and beyond the call of duty.

(1) I cannot stress how essential it is you attend the game if able. High school playoff football is here and it's win or go home. If you don't want to watch football, many Americans will want to know why. And if many Americans are asking that question, there are likely other questions they are asking. Questions like "Isn't it probable that person doesn't put the nozzle back on the gas pump properly at QuikTrip? Isn't it also somewhat likely they don't organize their coupons for grocery shopping? And isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that no football love probably means that person doesn't like scrambled eggs, bacon, sawmill gravy, biscuits, and grits?" And that's where you'd be sledding into some dangerous territory, people. Because if you don't like biscuits, the terrorists win.

Don't let the terrorists win. Come to Saturday's game and cheer on Saturday's children.

Go Wildcats! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

How to Pray

If your spiritual journey is even somewhat remotely important to you, perhaps you're like me and you really struggle with how to pray. I don't know where this struggle arises from. It could be from a lack of humility. In all likelihood, I'm sure my pathetic inability to isolate everything that distracts from in front of me. And there are probably a host of other reasons, which says everything about the abundance of my spiritual disorders.

There are many remedies promised through book and other resources, spiritual disciplines and otherwise. Of course, you could begin with Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now, as long as you get several copies of it and put them on a roaring fire to set the mood for your prayer time (some of those volumes will feed a fire for several hours). But a simple, yet revolutionary, idea is to go to the prayerbook of God's people down through the ages.

The Psalms.

Although our biblical literacy seems to be diminishing, several of the Psalms of the Bible hold a prominent place. Yet these words must go beyond sentimental memory and move to seminal focus. Prayer--and it's result of encountering God--shines the brightest in the raw and honest words of the Psalms.

I could say more, except for the fact that my dad said it better in the lead-up to a Bible conference in Sydney, Australia. Check out this video interview about preaching and praying the Psalms. If you're not a pastor, don't let the "preaching" part intimidate you. There's plenty of meat here for everyone to chew on.

Happy viewing!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Crazy Kids!

I'm back in the announcer's booth this Saturday for Westminster Christian Academy's homecoming game of sorts. It's part of an insanely chock-full Carnival weekend of fun, games, alumni gatherings, and so forth.

To spice things up, I asked my students--at the beginning of a recent quiz on moral philosophy--a silly question.

"Rabbi is announcing the football game at Carnival. If you could have him work in one word or phrase during the game what would it be?"

Yes, you guessed I am "Rabbi" (holdover from having a father who specialized in Old Testament studies and all things Hebrew). The whole question had a massive whiff of the scene in the movie Leap of Faith when the whole entourage of Steve Martin's traveling evangelist show puts money in the pot with a word or phrase he must work into his sermon. If he uses them all, he wins the money.

Now, not everyone answered, but many had fun with it, and so for a bit of mindless entertainment on your Thursday, here are some responses:



"That's how we do it"

"Whatever happens, God loves you"

"I'm very hungry and I would love some 'wh'-eat thins" (Family Guy fans will recognize the reference)



"If you know what I mean"


"Chelsea is my favorite student because she reads my books" (Quick, three guesses as to the first name of the student who wrote that)


"Chickens are fuzzy"

Well, I doubt I'll be working those in (gotta stay professional, you know), but it's nice to know the creative juices among my students can still flow like the Jordan River at springtime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 3

Coming down the home stretch...As I multitask while watching a Season 2 episode of The Walking Dead (prepping for this Sunday's season premiere), I am thinking about the final leg of the three-legged stool as we at Westminster Christian Academy seek to "raise the academic profile".

Obviously, when one person or a group want to make impact in an area, the tempting thing can be to make "immediate impact." Success is--in our American timetable tendency--something that must be rapid and measurable. This is understandable. We like to have documented results that we can put in our public relations literature. There are a host of reasons why we often make massive sea changes, curricular tidal waves, and such and such. And that's why it's helpful to know that...

(3) Patience matters: I know it sounds like I'm pulling the parking brake on this one, but turning up the academic excellence is not always something equivalent to flash-boiling water on the stove.

First of all, schools need to ask themselves what is working well. Don't do things differently for the sake of doing it, any more than holding to tradition for the sake of tradition. Nothing ever happened in a vacuum, and a school is rooted in some sort of context they work with. Where many schools and school systems run aground is running after some sort of academic spearheading without tethering themselves to practices that have served them well.

Secondly, the moving parts of implementing a new academic vision will be constantly moving. The teaching profession is facing a hard reality: turnover rates among high school faculty in private school tend to hit 1 in every 5, whether they be "movers" (to another school) or "leavers" (as in jetting the profession). This means that whatever new vision a school has, chances are there will be some who start, some who leave, and some who come and go. That's a reality, and sometimes it may be difficult to make a lot of visible headway between the real and the ideal. 

Third, success takes time. A long time. Raising the academic profile is not a sprint, but a marathon; it's not a snapshot, but a motion picture. You are not microwaving a new vision; you build, one layer after another. There will be some things a school does well initially that it can keep working on; other things will be pitched aside. But nothing happens overnight. The Cubs' upward climb toward winning the 2017 World Series, for example, will be the culmination of years of hard work (I am not kidding, by the way, about 2017).

So yes, truth matters. Subject mastery matters. But seeing these things through is the character quality of patience. A school will need it in spades, and only then will a community of true learning see success.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 2

Last week, I began a new series on one of the strategic initiatives we are undertaking at my employer, Westminster Christian Academy, namely that of "raising the academic profile." I started things by mentioning that "truth matters", that a school--in seeking to be truly great in the intellectual arena--must believe that knowledge has a fixed reference point, a standard that can be believed and trusted.

And that brings us to item number 2, which simply stated is...

(2) Subject mastery matters

     The faculty of a school that is seeking to be better than they once were--especially in academics--must have a deserved reputation for being deeply trained and masterful scholars in the subject matter which they teach. Teachers are not viewed as a stop-gap, they are not utility infielders for a team trying to get by, and they are not on staff to grab a mere paycheck. True quality education means you have drunk deeply at the well in the area you teach. You have been called to this for a purpose.

     This does not necessarily mean that a teacher automatically has to have an undergraduate major in the exact discipline of their classes. I, for example, teach Biblical ethics at Westminster but I was a history major at Covenant College. Still, I went on to a Master of Divinity degree at Covenant Theological Seminary, which I think qualifies me in certain matters theological. My history professor in college, the legendary Dr. Louis Voskuil, was actually an English major during his days as a student at Calvin College, but his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Loyola University-Chicago underscored his expert status.

     This is one reason why I think we're well-equipped at Westminster to rise to this occasion. Full-time teachers here are well-versed in their subject matter and know their stuff inside and out in a way that brings depth to what we do. In the Bible department where I teach, our full-time faculty all have master's degrees at the seminary level. All of them! That's some serious academic professionalism. Full-time fine arts, math, name it. They've studied what they're expected to impart in the classroom.

     One of the key truisms of life is that what is in the result must be in the cause. We cannot expect increasing excellence in the classroom without teachers who enter it with high ability, knowledge, and hunger to improve their craft. I'm thankful to be at a place where we have this droves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 1

Over the course of the past year, my employer--Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis--has steered things in a direction that (in my opinion) honors our past while seeking greater things in the future. Last year, our headmaster, Dr. Tom Stoner (now in his second year in Wildcat-land) laid out several key initiatives for the years ahead. It's obvious to anyone in the educational field that not every initiative resonates equally to each teacher, but one that I found quite strategically delicious was about "raising the academic profile".

That should be obvious, you say, for a school to believe that strongly about academics. Else, why engage in the process? Why not try to go several rungs up the ladder, especially in a place like Westminster where we are competing with other solid public schools as well as elite private schools like Mary Institute/Country Day School and John Burroughs School? 

My case is somewhat different. I assume that if we are going to be excellent--defined by Westminster as "being better than we once were"--that is a passion we must have. But you cannot raise the academic profile of a school unless you have certain ingredients in the visionary stew. So what is coming over the next few weeks is my evolving take on the pillars that Westminster holds to--and that are good for any school--that gives substance and foundation to its pursuit of "raising the academic profile."

(Note: This is my take, and while I am strongly assuming these are in place at Westminster, please don't blithely reason that I am speaking as an official representative of Westminster's administrative leadership. I am neither official, representative, or administrative. Sometimes I can lead.)

That being said, today's necessary ingredient of our pursuit is...

(1) Truth matters
      I know that's a very nebulous item to start with, and I promise I'll get more concrete later on, so that we're not always dog-paddling in the depths of the epistemological ocean. But it is absolutely critical we get this nailed down. 

No school--whether a pre-school, a college prep academy, public comprehensive institution, or a college or university--will ever become truly great and remain great academically if it believes everything to be known is up for grabs.

To be great--and increasingly better--academically, you must believe that all knowledge has a standard, a firm reference point that makes complete sense out of everything. Obviously, Westminster being a Christian school, we believe that truth exists because God is truth, is himself the standard of truth and goodness, and Jesus Christ is the perfect embodiment of that. Of course, other schools and people might disagree on those particulars. But the point is that what matters is that (1) things can be known to be true, (2) we can have reasonable certainty about what is true and beneficial and wise, and (3) once embracing it, we can put truth into practice for the good of people and the world around us.

If a school believes that anyone can believe whatever they want (which people can), and that all these mental droppings that glisten like bacon fat in our world have equal validity (which they can't), then the school's mission will stall worse than a 1989 Chrysler LeBaron on a sub-zero morning in Idaho. I don't have time to go into all the details here, but Greg Koukl does a great job of laying out what happens if you believe everything is subjectively up for grabs. You might as well play a football game without boundaries, end zones, yard lines, a rule book, or penalties for accountability, while still demanding to keep score. Hardly makes sense.

The bottom line is that if your finish line is a vapor, you'll never succeed. Believing truth is totally subjective vs. truth matters as an objective reality is like the difference between throwing and arrow and shooting one from a well-strung recurve bow. The first way is horribly ineffective; the second can have both true accuracy and power.

To be certain, Westminster won't get it right in every microscopic detail every time. But we move forward in raising the academic profile because, as a teaching and administrative community, we believe that truth exists and truth matters, and truth can be discovered, embraced, and be transformational because that is part of a Greater Design. And if we believe that day in and day out, then we can be confident we have begun our pursuit of a more excellent standard in the right way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Open Letter to Westminster Christian Academy Students

Dear WCA-St. Louis students,

Well, at least I think I'm speaking to all of you. Some seniors might continue to slog along on the ACT. But we have you juniors eventually getting hit with the PSAT, sophomores encountering the ASPIRE test (a.k.a., the pre-ACT now) this Friday, freshman take the ERB Wednesday and Thursday this week, and middle school students doing the ERB dip next week.

Standardized testing. Like death and taxes, it's a part of life. If things haven't changed since my student days, you students look forward to taking these tests about as much as the Luxembourgish army would relish attacking ISIS with nothing but Twinkies. I remember almost every test--whether it be the Stanford Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills (which I rather liked because Iowa is near Kansas), or others--had the unmistakable effect of making me prefer getting a back massage with pliers dunked in SuperGlue. Maybe it was the fact that I was never a good standardized test-taker. Maybe I found a lot of other things a lot more interesting.

But in looking back on it, I think I knew instinctively that--as important as these tests are for National Merit qualifying, colleges to get a look at rising possibilities, and so forth--none of it would ever give the world a glimpse at the real me. And so as you Wildcats take these tests over the next few weeks, take them seriously. Don't just breeze through them. But that seriousness needs to be kept in proper perspective. A standardized test has limits, and even though it can give a snapshot of your learning or aptitude, it does NOT define you.

Don't believe me? Here's a list of things a standardized test cannot measure (with thanks to Craig Dunham for dealing with much of this before):

(1) Your creativity, your love of the art gallery that God has made this world to be, and your ability to add to that--to quote Gerald Manley Hopkins--"universe...charged with the grandeur of God."
(2) Your integrity and willingness to tell the truth, to be honest and clear and responsible no matter what the consequences.
(3) Your desire and ability to rise above the greatest pain and most abject trials, to suffer redemptively and endure well, and to encourage those who bear life's pain.
(4) Your aptitude of taking needed risks, to be an entrepreneur, to be an original and innovative thinker and doer.
(5) Your ability to receive constructive criticism and learn from it, or your ability to humbly receive praise and grow rooted in God's grace and delight.
(6) Your ability to empathize with others and forgive them if they wrong you, or your ability to ask forgiveness and reconcile with those you wrong.
(7) Your ability and desire to ask deeper questions, demonstrating the type of critical thinking that leads to more questions.
(8) Your willingness to work and partner with others to learn from them and with them.
(9) Your love of reading...because no matter what a test does in testing reading ability, it cannot measure the passion and delectable desire to curl up with a great book and lose yourself in another world.
(10) Your smile, the twinkle in your eye, and any other noticeable feature that gives joy to the heartbeats of others just to be in your presence.
(11) And a standardized test will never...NEVER pursue you, live the life you are incapable of living, die the death you deserved, and rip up its own grave so that every day it can live to delight in you and empower you to follow it. 

You are worth infinitely more than any score on a standardized test. So go out and do your best, Westminster students. Just keep this whole thing in proper perspective.

Rabbi Davis

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Behind the Microphone

I've sort of volunteered for a new endeavor this year. No, it's not something I can see becoming a new career (that would be a major jolt!). I am spending time as a PA announcer for Westminster's home football games this fall. I made my debut three weeks back when our Wildcats felled the Festus Tigers, 27-0, and I had such a blast that I signed on to do more.

It's an interesting blend of preparation, doing announcing in this manner. You don't have the pressure of always talking, like a TV or radio play-by-play announcer, or even the level of a color commentator. No one sees me (that's a relief) but they can hear me, so to be heard and not seen is the perfect outlet for my introverted self.

It takes a good bit of work ahead of time. I completed a four-page large-print script for the key moments of the game that I know will occur: pre-game comments, sportsmanship announcement, coin flip, halftime concessions plug, thank-yous for all involved at the end of the third quarter, etc. But there are things you can't prepare for and have to do by the seat of your pants. And that is the bread and butter of each play: telling the crowd the result, who had the ball for what amount of yardage, and the new down and yardage. And not just giving the information, but in a way that keeps fans engaged in the game.

This Saturday is only my second time in the press box, but even early on in this opportunity, I've come up with a few ideas about "PA announcing essentials". To wit:

(1) The focus is on the game, not on your talent: The announcer is a conduit for the fans to enjoy the game. The enduring memory of the day should be the teams' performance, not on whatever wisecracks you come up with. If your words are invasive more than helpful, you're doing it all wrong.

(2) Make the game come alive: Our former headmaster, Jim Marsh, approached me the other day and thanked me for doing the announcing. His words to me were, "You made that game come alive!" I just saw it as doing my job, but it was good to hear that some considered the game as a vivid portrayal and not a mere listing of deeds. I do recall a moment in the third period when we were on our own one-yard line; you could have put a half-smoked cigarette lengthwise between the ball and our goal line. And the first thing that came to mind were the words, "And the Wildcats begin their drive in the formidable shadow of the north end zone." That was--in my mind--a simple comment that threw an appropriate splash of color on the canvas of the game.

(3) Be objective: Your job is not to be a fan, but to shepherd people through their enjoyment of the game. I'm not in the press box to openly root for Westminster, although I do want them to win. The PA announcer--as part of shifting into the background--cannot take sides. Sportsmanship extends to the press box, as well.

(4) Assume the intelligence of the fans: Of course, you'll have some people come to a game as a social event and have little knowledge of the X's and O's of the game, but I think fans will appreciate it if you don't talk down to them. You are not there to explain the game but to enhance the fans' enjoyment of the event.

(5) Have fun: You are in all likelihood no Dick Vitale, or Keith Jackson, or Brent Musburger, or Joe or Jack Buck (for you Cardinal fans!). But if you demonstrate you enjoy what you do, it'll come out through the mike. And the fans will smell that hunt as well and enjoy the game along with you.

So if you're in the area, the next game is 2 pm CT at Westminster, as our undefeated Wildcats take on rival MICDS. Come watch as we try to push our record to 4-0!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 3

I just realized how long ago it had been since I blogged on this three-part Noah series, and so with much apology I'm back at the keyboard. The tidal wave of teaching activity since Labor Day has certainly carried me far away from all this, and it's good to be back.

I've already spilled ink on how I viewed Noah as through the eyes of a biblical traditionalist and a cinematic realist. Very briefly, there is also the third lens through which I saw the movie, that of...

(3) A practical idealist: Someone recently asked me my views on the Left Behind series of books, as they had seen the movie starring Kirk Cameron. As I generally avoid movies with Mr. Cameron--no offense--I couldn't speak to the movie itself, nor had I read the book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In fact, the little I know of what the books say tends to clash with my own view of "the end times" because I see the creation being renewed, not destroyed and rebuilt (among other trifles), but that takes us beyond this point. I did mention that I tend not to stand in the way of media that truly generates an interest in people checking out the Biblical story for themselves. The film or novel or whatever might be inaccurate on some (or many) levels, and I've already detailed some of my concerns about how the Biblical story was presented in the Noah film. But does that have to be the last word.

Even in the previews for the film itself, director Darren Aronofsky was careful to mention something along the lines that "the Biblical narrative of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis." I thought that was a remarkable display of transparency, as was his admission that historical, literary, and artistic license had been taken in the film's presentation of the epic. And perhaps that's what gives me a sliver of optimism. Perhaps people will check the original source, whatever their view of the Bible is, whether they believe it's trustworthy or not, if they believe it is God's Word or not. If this generates an interest in reading Scripture, then that in itself could be a victory.

It can't get any worse, in my opinion. Americans are deplorable in their biblical literacy [more on that in a future post dealing some more recent findings] and anything that raises the tide in that area gets a thumbs-up from me.

So Noah wasn't exactly lined up with the Biblical story. Your challenge--if you count yourself as a Christian--is to know the Biblical drama well enough so you can speak intelligently and winsomely about how to bridge the gaps in those differences. Not to mention, the true hope for me is that people not only enjoy the Great Story, but that they also place their trust and confidence in the Storyteller, thus finding themselves caught up and thrilled to be in the Greater Drama itself.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 2

The biblical epic Noah has enjoyed a considerable amount of financial success and a moderate quantity of critical acclaim. In my previous post, I discussed my experience watching Noah through the eyes of a biblical traditionalist who takes the Scripture as God's trustworthy revelation. Yes, I was somewhat troubled by a number of things portrayed in Noah, but it wasn't a total washout (yes, I'm aware of the irony of that pun).

Now we turn to watching the movie through the lens of...

(2) A cinematic realist: One thing I'm compelled to say is that if you are profoundly disappointed by what you see in a movie on a Scriptural narrative, and the movie doesn't get it exactly right...well, what did you expect to happen? 

There are two reasons for this (among others). For one, no one should expect Hollywood to be a bastion of sympathy for strict biblicism. If you are rigid on these expectations, I have to question you reasons why. It's just not practical.

The other reasons is that Scripture is very, very selective in what it tells. The amount of detail in textbooks on American history is stunning, and that covers barely more than four hundred centuries (if you go back to the founding of Jamestown). The Bible's coverage stretches thousands or (in my opinion if you go back to creation) millions of years, and yet the story--though vibrant and colorful--is remarkably brief in comparison. My point is that even in a Biblical narrative like that of Noah, it lasts only from Genesis 6 through 9. And if you are making a two-and-a-half hour film, you simply don't have enough on-screen action material in what the Scripture presents in order to fill the time allotment on the screen. As a director, you are practically forced to make judgments, not only on what you will subtract onto the cutting room floor, but what you will add.

So they added Tubal-Cain. Aronofsky, in a decision that is his right as a director, took artistic liberty in his portrayal of "the Watchers" as the Nephilim of Genesis 6 (for one of many discussion on the Nephilim's identity, see this site). Some people might say, "It's wrong to show Methusaleh alive at the flood", although if you do the math and take the genealogy accounts in Genesis 5 literally (though that can be a big "if", as father can mean ancestor, as well), then Methusaleh would have died in the year of the flood.

There are many other instances of added detail. Sure, the Bible doesn't say the Watchers looked like rock giants who walked around like they had major hemorrhoids. But the Bible is silent on a lot, and Hollywood abhors a detail vacuum (unless you're Ingmar Bergman, who seems content to let silence carry you for awhile), so what the heck do we expect?

In short, let those of us who are biblical traditionalists have the humility to distinguish between contradicting Scripture and adding details to a story. Obviously, the latter can damage things as well and be unhelpful, but we have to take such merits on a case-by-case basis. And all this leads us in a proper direction...making sure that we know the Biblical story.

That's where part 3 comes in.