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

Monday, February 10, 2014


In the past couple weeks, I have seen people suffer loss four times.

About a week and a half ago, my college roommate from my freshman year of college lost his mother. She was a woman of grace and strength, a daughter of missionaries, and one who had all the time in the world for each person she met. I recall only a couple of times I encountered Lois, but I knew her to be very kind-hearted and giving; she made you feel like the most important person in the world. Lois fell gravely ill near their home in North Carolina and ended up in a coma from which she couldn't awake. A full life of about seventy years, a woman well loved and lovely, she lived well and died well. But still my heart goes out to my friend. No matter what, death leaves an ache, a void, and in a way, things are never the same.

Then a couple of days ago, I heard from a former student and friend who lives in Indiana. After years of trying to get pregnant, she and her husband rejoiced around the new year that they were now expecting. But that only began a roller coaster of pain. On January 23rd, the doctor could not detect a heartbeat, and Rebecca and Tom were crushed. The next week, though, the doctor wanted to check once more and a heartbeat of their little one was detected! Hope prevailed, but only for a little while. The week after that, it was confirmed the baby didn't have a heartbeat any more, and Rebecca had miscarried.

Even institutions aren't immune: My former employer in Florida, Wellington Christian School, was facing dire financial straits and declining enrollment since 2008, and they had announced this year that it would be the end of days for the high school (although they were hopeful of continuing pre-K through 8th grade). Yet this past week, WCS looked at all the options and decided nothing was feasible, and the entire school would be closing at the end of the 2013-14 year. A community of students and families and teachers, vaporized by lack of resources. No one likes to see that happen, either.

And then about a week ago, Adrian Bowman sat at a table at DeSmet Jesuit High School here in St. Louis, beaming with pride and signing a letter of intent to play football locally for Lindenwood University. Sunday morning, Adrian was found dead in his home. Although DeSmet has not released information about the cause of death, several of my students who had met Adrian and who have friends at DeSmet have said (without anything further being said) Adrian died "tragically."

Four grievous moments of loss. The aching void of sadness and grief erupts as those who have lost ones they love know that life will never be completely the same. We all grieve in different ways; my deepest hope (as one who knows this well) is that we can grieve redemptively.

It is then that the words of my former student, my grieving friend Rebecca, ring most true, where she reminds us of the biblical truth that "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." No timeline is promised, but that's not the main point. And yes, of course, Rebecca wishes that Jesus had caused her baby to live. But, says Rebecca, "he said those words to me. I'm not going to say that is enough, because in this broken world, nothing will be enough until the day all is made right. But for now, there is comfort and peace. There is a God who kneels down to hold my hand. And that in itself is a miracle."

Loss will come. There will be reprieves from it, there will be trickles of it, and there will be floods of it. The question is can we face loss redemptively and encourage others--in our own way--to do the same?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What a School Should Be

I have worked at four different schools, presenting teaching Ethics at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis. All of them have exhibited excellence, and I have had great relationships with students and faculty at each one. Every once in awhile you have those moments where you discover the strength of a school when it displays its true fiber (for example, I've previously blogged about how the Covenant School responded well to the 9/11 attacks).

This past Friday, at the conclusion of our Spirit Week at Westminster Christian Academy, our Wildcats boys varsity basketball team was in a ferocious battle with the John Burroughs School Bombers. A couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, Ronald Smith of Burroughs went up for the basket but ended up taking a terrible fall. After making impact with the floor, Ronald began convulsing. A pulse of terror gripped the entire gym. 

And that's when something truly amazing happened.

Hilary--that's Westminster's athletic trainer--immediately began attending to Ronald, and several doctors in our crowd did what they could to lend a hand. All that could be done to get Ronald prepared for transport to the hospital happened.

What was even more incredible was happening all around them.

Students, parents, and fans of all ages fell silent, holding hands and  linking arms while players from both Burroughs and Westminster bowed their heads and gripped one another. Our head coach, Doug Coleman, took the microphone and led the entire assembly in prayer. Cheerleaders wept while the whole community quieted themselves and showed the respect and honor the moment deserved.

In other words, Westminster didn't merely show sportsmanship. In the words of the MSHSAA officials who refereed the game that night, "Westminster transcended sportsmanship tonight and demonstrated the Christian love that is their mission."

The rest of the game was cancelled. The paramedics got Ronald Smith to the hospital, and Coach Coleman and many of our players joined the Burroughs team and coaches in going there to show support and offer prayer for Ronald. The convulsions were controlled and stopped, and before long Ronald was fully responsive and able to move all his extremities. 

There is a lot wrong in this world, to be sure. Jealousy and greed, unwarranted military aggression and AIDS, human trafficking and sexual abuse are splashed across a lot of newspapers. But just in awhile, you get to see what a community should be, what a school should be. I've never been more proud of Wildcat Nation as I am writing these words.

That is what a school should be.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Here's To You, Mr. Robinson

We have reached Black History Month here in February, and just a couple weeks ago our nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day. While there is much to be done regarding matters of prejudice and racism in this nation, I would venture that we've come a long way from where we were. Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and others deserve much credit for their roles in the civil rights movement.

Now regarding that movement, I recognize it may seem daunting to ask, "Who had the most impact?" Because I am a Caucasian male, one could even say I could only make such an assessment allowing that I'm coming at it from outside my experience. That's fair. But I think it's difficult for anyone to make the call on the "greatest impact" question in any movement. In the Protestant Reformation, certainly John Calvin did yeoman's work giving maturity to Protestant theology and churchmanship, but he was not an initiator, not a starter of trends. If Calvin did not have a gutsy firebrand like Martin Luther (for whom Dr. King was named, incidentally) begin the reforming conversation in Wittenberg in 1517, the movement wouldn't have been what it was.

That's why I think major movements--of which the American civil rights story is one--have individuals playing essential roles of general, powder keg spark, and pioneer. There's no doubt that Dr. King was the general, and that Rosa Parks--in her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus--was the powder keg spark that launched the protests (although others had resisted bus segregation before). But before Dr. King, and before Rosa Parks, there was the pioneer.

Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson. In my honest opinion, he was civil rights.

Yesterday, January 31st, would have been Jackie Robinson's 95th birthday. This extraordinary man, who was taken from us too soon in 1972, entered into a cauldron of seething and blistering civic racism and--as Gap Band would say--"dropped a bomb" on our culture, one that was sorely needed. Robinson's entry into the major leagues ended the segregation that had relegated black baseball players to the Negro Leagues for six centuries, and he endured unspeakable vitriol and epithets to do so.

The back story to his joining the Brooklyn Dodgers is nothing less than extraordinary. A good deal of the cinematic tale can be viewed in the film 42, in which Chadwick Boseman played Jackie, Nicole Behaire plays his wife Rachel, and Harrison Ford gives an amazing performance as Dodgers' owner Branch Rickey, invoking Robinson's signing as a moral issue ("He's a Methodist, I'm a Methodist, and God's a Methodist…We can't go wrong!). What the film captures so well from real life is the exchange that Rickey and Robinson had leading up to the signing. Robinson asked, "Are you looking for a ball player to fight back?" To which Rickey said, "I'm looking for a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back." And that, folks, was quintessential Robinson, who endured carping and abuse from fans, opposing managers, hotel clerks, and all sides, but shrugged them off even though he'd have been justified with taking a bat and going medieval on the whole lot. His accomplishments are legion: 1947 National League Rookie of the Year, 1949 batting champion and Most Valuable Player, two-time stolen bases champion, six-time All-Star, and member of the 1955 World champion Dodgers in their stirring seven-game triumph over the Yankees.

It's true that when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 that Robinson humbly urged people to focus on his on-field endeavors and not his cultural impact, but his work in that arena cannot be understated. For the first time, America writ large experienced the reality of a black man (and, with Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and others…black men) competing and excelling on the same level playing field (pun intended) as anyone else. I would contend, then, that the work of Parks, King, and all who followed had teeth firmly anchored into the reality of change because Robinson had charged through the Red Sea of previous hardship. Much like Martin Luther of the Reformation, if Jackie Robinson had not done what he did, American civil rights would not have had the story and legacy it enjoys today. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stated that "Robinson's efforts were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America…His accomplishments allowed black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone's abilities." In truth, shouldn't that be one of the goals of such a movement?

None of this is meant to take away what people like Dr. King accomplished, for King was able to take the threads of a movement and through his leadership he wove a tapestry of hope stamped with the dream which he orated so well. But in my honest opinion, Jackie Robinson opened the floodgates and caused the healing waters of truth and justice to start flowing over a morally parched American landscape. Robinson is the pioneer to which we all owe a debt of gratitude. His teammate Don Newcombe--the first black pitcher to win twenty games in a season--had this to say, "What Jackie did in baseball did more to tear down racism than anything else. No one will need to do anything of the sort, for it won't be necessary again." Even Dr. King once remarked to Newcombe, "Don, you and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job through what you went through on the baseball field."

So happy belated birthday, and here's to you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing the goodness and the guts of being the trailblazer you were, for bearing the truth of the words of sportswriter Burt Kahn: "Robinson bore the burden of a pioneer, and the weight made him strong."