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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

At the Ocean of Healing, Waiting On a Ship

Instead of reading what I have to say today, I'd like you to experience the wonder of a major breakthrough. For nearly our entire married life, Christy and I have dealt with the reality of the neuromuscular disorder known as X-linked myotubular myopathy. Our sixteen-year old Joshua has known its affliction his whole life, now bound to a wheelchair to get around and prone to respiratory illnesses. Twelve-year old Lindsay may one day have to be tested to determine if she is a carrier of the myotublarin-deficient gene of MTM as Christy is. And our sweet 19-month old son Jordan bore the disease during his short life, which ended suddenly and peacefully in his crib over five years ago.

Yet despite that grim reality, one in which it is rare for an MTM boy to live into double digits, our afflicted boys and their parents are getting closer and closer to the unthinkable. Collaborative researchers--with a passion for achieving the unprecedented--are making progress on gene replacement therapy that can bring about a breakthrough for treatment and possibly a cure! Having succeeded with mice, they have found overwhelmingly positive results in GRT-treated dogs…progress that both staggers the mind and gladdens the heart. 

We still have to cross the sea that stands between us and a cure, but we have traveled so far already. And now we are at the harbor, facing the ocean of healing, waiting on a ship.

Watch the video here. And once you've done that, hope and pray with us.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Abortion, Pro-Life, and Sensibility

I walked out of my house this morning and thought I was getting hit with eighty knives that had been dunked in water and thrown in a deep freezer for a week. It was that cold here in the St. Louis area (negative 17 wind chill, to be exact), and as I sipped my free Starbucks coffee on the way in to school, I mused on the irony that on such a cold day I should write on a heated topic.

I recognize that wading into the issue of abortion can erupt heat more than shed light. To do so is not my aim. I fully get that as a 43-year old male who cannot have an abortion or face such a decision, it seems to some the heights of stupidity that I would say something (although it you look at the best polls, more females tend to be pro-life than males…interesting). 

I simply want to rezone the debate with some salient points that will give us stuff on which we chew. Rather than yelling at the other side, I want people of genuine sanity to listen to each other. 

So here goes…

1. To my pro-life friends: Pro-choice does not equal pro-death. You need to carefully follow up and ask questions about one's views on abortion before leveling anyone with that charge. There is a massive difference between what I call pro-choice and pro-abortion. The pro-abortionist believes in abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy (and this would include those who favor partial-birth abortion) with no restrictions whatsoever and see no immorality whatsoever in aborting an unborn child. The pro-choice person (at least 99% of those I know) does not like abortion, finds it distasteful and wrong, would never have one of their own, and believe it should not be used as a method of birth control. Yes, someone who is pro-choice upholds the centrality of individual choice; a pro-choice advocate would not interfere with another woman's decision to have an abortion; pro-choice folks--out of respect for individual liberty--want abortion, when it occurs, to be safe, legal, and rare. Pro-lifers may disagree with that mantra, but let's not forget there's a significant amount of common ground between P-C and P-L, more than one might admit.

2. To my pro-choice friends: Please do not paint us pro-lifers with a broad brush, either. The pro-life community does not equal mere anti-abortion, single-issue attitudes. True pro-life people advocate for the unborn children in the womb, but they also want the rights of the elderly and the disabled protected, for all of life has value. They want people to have access to health care and the chance to live as well as possible. Some (for example, Democrats for Life of America) also call for the prohibition of capital punishment (though not all do). Pro-life folks are not abortionist-shooting, clinic-bombing anarchists; people who do those evils I classify as anti-abortionists. There's a huge divide between the two.

3. Abortion is not necessarily a religious issue: There are a number of religious people and secular people who are pro-choice. There are, of course, many people of faith who are pro-life but there are a rising number of atheists and secularists who are pro-life as well (See, for example, the atheist Doris Gordon of Libertarians for Life and the many involved with the unique community known as Secular Pro-Life). Before you say it's just a matter of faith, realize there are secular arguments on both sides of this issue. Seriously.

4. Laws do not do the trick! I will say this…whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision forty-one years ago was--in the words of Charles Krauthammer (who happens to be a pro-choice man himself)--"politically poisonous". To take the settlement of this matter away from individual states in our republic through representative democracy is a sham. Even liberal SCOTUS justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says the same. However, pro-lifers should recognize that even if Roe v. Wade (actually, the more liberalizing decision was Doe v. Bolton later the same day) is overturned, abortion does not go away. Abortion is eliminated step by step through the patient convincing and persuading of individual hearts.

5. We live in a murderous culture, but….we need to think twice before calling abortion "murder". Look up the definition for murder. Done? Good. Okay, I agree that twenty-first century North America is shot full of a frivolous view of life, that we do a crappy job of promoting healthy living, and that we consume so much visual violence that we don't think much of life-and-death issues. And yes, I think that abortionists like Kermit Gosnell know better and recognize fully what they are doing in the interest of making a buck. But would you look in the eyes of a fifteen-year old high school girl, one whose boyfriend has gotten her pregnant and then dumped her, one who is wondering what her life is going to be like from now on, one who is frightened beyond belief about telling her parents and this pregnancy becoming public--and then she makes a decision to abort in the midst of this conundrum. Yes, it's a choice I believe constitutes the taking of an innocent human life. But I would never tell that girl--in that situation--that what she did was murder. That was not her motive. Pro-lifers, you need to tread very carefully here.

6. The culture of self-interest and irresponsibility doesn't help, either: I'm simply going to lean over and take one for the team and say that if you are wanting to engage in risky behavior, you shouldn't engage in weaseling out of the consequences. If you smoke five packs a day, don't expect to evade lung cancer. If you default on ten different credit cards, then don't expect an agency to wipe your credit slate clean. If you get pregnant or get someone pregnant, then bow up and square your shoulders in facing up to that. Your life has changed for awhile, but it is not ruined. And there are thousands of folks willing to adopt the child you can give up to them upon delivery. Just saying…take it for what it's worth.

7. Pro-life minimalism is distasteful, as well: Listen, my pro-life compatriots…Marches and organized rallies do their part. The patient, piecemeal advances in state legislatures recently that have helped the pro-life movement have their place. Certainly, pastors should speak on moral issues (without endorsing or crapping on individual candidates). But if all you are going to do is squawk about it, you've failed. It is not enough to say what you are against. Demonstrate what you are for. Condemning abortion does no good if you will not help or minister to women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Will you take in a high school junior thrown out of her house by angry parents over her pregnancy, and will you show her God's love? Will you help take such ladies to their OB/GYN appointments? Will you help them in locating employment during this time, if needed? Will you do whatever it takes to put flesh and muscle on the bones of a culture of life? If all you ant to do is talk, then don't be surprised if I'm not impressed. My wife and I have been there for women going through those moments. Trust me, it makes all the difference in the world.

8. Finally, remember the central question: No matter where you land on this issue's spectrum, one of the most helpful books you can read is Peter Kreeft's The Unaborted Socrates, which demonstrates what may be the best non-theological approach to a pro-life view. And the reason Kreeft does it so well is because he comes back to the main thing: When does life begin? At birth? When the unborn child is viable? When organs are present? At conception? 

All the arguments and rhetoric in the world on abortion are just that…arguments and rhetoric…unless we face up to that one clear query: When does life begin? I do believe there are good scientific and logical ways to show that it begins at conception, but that's not my main point here. 

Always come back to the main question. And debate and discuss that main thing respectfully. The issue of human life in our human civilization must still be conducted humanely and in a civilized manner.

May that spirit be with us all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The How of Reconciliation & Everyone's Story

A winter blast of ice laden with snow caused a ninety-minute delay for school today in our fair St. Louis, and with tomorrow being a review day for Friday's test, I had some wiggle room for today's class. I don't often make a habit of spotlighting holiday commemoration in class; I prefer instead that we remember the reality of whatever celebration throughout the year, whether it be Christmas (for Jesus' life), Easter (for Jesus' risen power), or other matters. It also is the reason why I don't always speak out a lot about events like Martin Luther King Day. It's not that I don't like the commemoration; I believe as a major historical figure, King has earned his place in history. It's not that I fear we are marginalizing other civil rights leaders by celebrating King's work (although I tend to champion Jackie Robinson as the truest pioneer of American civil rights…more on that in a near-future blog). It's just that I want to see more collaboration and connection across social and ethnic lines in looking forward, and where we don't think that merely "looking back" will do the trick.

But I felt compelled to do something in class today regarding King, and so I played an audio of his "I Heave a Dream" speech for each of my Ethics classes. It was in listening again to this seminal oration that I was driven to share two things with my students.

First, how we fulfill our goals matters as much or more than what those goals are. There are many memorable statements from King's speech--his quotations from the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah, his "let freedom ring" litany, etc.--but there's a gold nugget stored away in the middle of it all. King says, "But there is something I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of  meeting physical force with soul force."

In other words, seek the goal of true justice, but do so from true hearts, noble actions, and honorable motives. The history of humankind is littered with those who might have had decent desires but tried to achieve them wickedly (I'm sure many of us have read of Pope Urban II pressing the Crusades, or Vladimir Lenin transforming Russia into the Soviet Union, among others). King was both noble and wise to demand that his compatriots aim to achieve their dreams via methods that were both good and true.

The other matter is what I shared with my students at the very end of class. Yes, King's speech happened just over fifty years ago. I get it that not every one of us has been on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. But the fight against injustice binds us all and is part of everyone's story, whether one has been abused or discriminated against unjustly. It even goes beyond that if some of us trace our family histories back far enough. We can find ancestors who were flogged, persecuted, or assailed for religious reasons. Some can claim a family tree where some branches were shorn during events like the Holocaust. Or--much to our chagrin--we can also discover that instead of being the victims of injustice, some of our ancestors were perpetrators of evil. We have enslaved and been slaves if each of us traces far enough back.

The struggle for the better angels and against the demons of our natures is what King dealt with--and ultimately what he laid down his life for. But it was not only his story. It is yours and mine. And the work of reconciliation is everyone's story.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Scattered Soundbites

I've been in blogosphere hibernation since my last post on New Years' Day. Not that there hasn't been anything going on. In fact, St. Louis got hit with the most brutal winter storms in recent memory, and we spent some time dealing with that. School began afresh for second semester. I've been plotting through the concept of writing an Ethics textbook for Christian schools…one that resets the whole template. That and my next Cameron Ballack mystery still move along on the drawing board.

In reality, there are so many things that settling on one to develop in a blog post would be like nailing pudding to a wall. Thus, some scattered soundbites to get back in the blogging swing:

1. This is wisdom: If you are going to get fourteen inches of snow one day, and then the mercury drops to a wind chill of nearly forty degrees below zero the next morning…and if you need to shovel the driveway so your son's nurse can get in, do it in 5-7 minute piecemeal attempts. Guess who stayed out too long? Guess who nearly passed out when he came in? Guess whose temperature dropped below 96 degrees? Guess whose wife had to force feed him warm water and coffee to bring him back to normal? (Hint: If you answered those questions with "You did, Davis", congrats on your powers of perception)

2. When Christians were concerned about following the way of Christ, they didn't jack around complaining about the quality of their church's youth group programs or the length of the pastor's sermons, nor did they debate traditional music vs. contemporary praise songs or wring their hands over what political leverage they could use on abortion or gay marriage (mainly because they had no leverage of the sort when the Church was most gospel-vibrant). When I'm at church, if Scripture is explained clearly and God is honored, that's good enough. Everything spawns from that rather than influences it.

3. If you don't believe Samuel L. Jackson has ever been in the right place at the right time, remember: If he doesn't come out of his shop, Bruce Willis gets carved up in Die Hard With a Vengeance.

4. Freedom takes consistent work. If you want to remain free politically, read a lot and be an informed citizen and voter. If you want to be free intellectually, read a variety of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to be free financially, read your checking account register and keep it balanced every day. 

5. If the New Orleans Saints want to win the Super Bowl, they need to do three things: (A) toughen up the running game; (B) force more turnovers on defense; and (C) avoid the Seattle Seahawks.

6. Here's what I know about criminal justice: If you eliminate the death penalty and put violent criminals and murderers in solitary confinement with nothing but Kenny G and Justin Bieber pumped through the sound system 24/7, I guarantee crime drops 90% nationwide.

7. Here's what I know about fashion: I like hunter green, navy blue, earth tones, and jeans.

8. If I have a choice between TGIFridays or Ruby Tuesday, I'm going with Fitz's.

9. The key to success in writing, marriage, parenthood, and life itself? Never quit.

10. Either the Christian Scriptures are totally off, or Jesus was a complete nutcase, or Jesus was a liar, or Jesus was who he claimed to be. Those are the only four options.

Deal with this blog post as you will. More coherent ideas to follow.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

With Gentleness and Respect

What an ending to 2013. And it had nothing to do with geopolitical rumblings, health care, or anything of that type.

It had to do with a Facebook thread that made me want to put my fist through a wall.

On Sunday, a friend and former student named Champ (not his real name) posted a link on Facebook that was loosely related to the whole Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty schmozz. The link in question was from a gay student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, raising the issue of feeling "trapped" and unable to be their authentic self, of being persecuted by family and others in Bible belt northern Louisiana. Champ placed the link on Facebook to pose the question if Phil (of Duck Dynasty fame) had his civil rights violated for being suspended from the show. As one can imagine, the people who chimed in got off topic in a matter of nanoseconds.

I won't go through every line of cybertext responses (the number has grown to over 380 of them!), but several things were clear. One, most of the people posting on the thread would likely not label themselves as evangelical Christians. Second, there was a wide range of sentiments on the issue of homosexuality, but the balance of comments were in the "live-and-let-live" range, with additional queries about "why do Christians need to be concerned about it". Thirdly, and sadly, there was one person posting--a former colleague of mine named Bruce (again, NOT his real name), a rabid ultra-rigid Christian ideologue who used the thread as his own personal firing range to display just how wrong he felt others were. 

Look, Bruce and I might hold the same view about if homosexuality is a legitimate lifestyle, but that's where the similarities end. Desperately trying to ensure there was more light than heat on this thread, I asked genuine questions of the others logging in. What can Christians do to engender more honest dialogue? Can't one disagree with a lifestyle but still like a person? What about all the junk and brokenness within a heterosexual Christian that gays have to put up with?

Anything for cleaner, more productive dialogue. Keep the tone even and placid. Invite options for thought. Pursue truth, not a knockout win in a debate.

Unfortunately, Bruce wanted none of it. He belittled other people's intelligence, tried to talk over people's heads, and overall treated others with very little of the spirit of Christ. 

Not that there wasn't rancorous speech from others either, but Bruce--as I told my wife the next day--was making me embarrassed to be a Christian. I wish that wasn't the case, but it happened. Finally, Champ--after much time and warning--blocked Bruce and the conversation continued with a more civil tone.

Not that it stopped Bruce from posting on his own Facebook page, gushing chest-thumping pride that Champ had blocked him, saying  "I guess my Christian witness was making waves."

Note to Bruce: Nothing you did helped there. All you did in attitude and speech was to drive people away from any attraction to the Christian faith. Yes, I Peter 3 says to "be able to give a reason for the hope that is within you", but the same sentence finishes with the words "but do this with gentleness and respect."

In fact, I felt I had more in common with Champ (who makes no profession of religious faith) and his fellow posting compatriots during the extension of the thread. What I discovered was that (not surprisingly) when you pose questions and invite people to put their beliefs in their own words with no threat of reprisal and no demand that they convert, they tend to reciprocate and listen to you.

What a concept, right? Actually, there's more.

I've been working on the sixth volume in my Cameron Ballack mystery series, but of course my finished production is well ahead of the publishing pace for now. Last night as I read Game of Thrones, I kept getting this nagging nudge about Champ's thread and that whole experience. I'm an Ethics teacher in Christian education. I write books. I also believe that instruction and understanding happen best when presented conversationally, creativity, and compassionately.

And thus, my New Years' resolution: There is virtually no textbook or book in general out there for students in high school, on the subject of Christian ethics that holds to those three C's of conversational, creative, and compassionate. That void is getting filled. By me. My mystery series can take a brief hiatus. This book needs to be written.

To Champ, for starting the thread, and to all of you who chimed in…thank you for the conversation…and for the inspiration to make a different type of impact.