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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

For having lived in Maryland for a good chunk of time, it's somewhat odd I never warmed up to being a Baltimore Orioles baseball fan. But I did grow to admire the O's shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken hit for decent power, was renowned for his leadership and guts, and was a peerless fielder who positioned himself well to anticipate each batter. Yet for all his accolades in those areas, Ripken is know most of all as "The Iron Man". Ripken played in 2632 consecutive games in his career, shattering the previous record held by Lou Gehrig. That's the equivalent of over sixteen baseball seasons of showing up for work every day and doing his job.

In 1980, Eugene Peterson wrote his timeless classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, which outlined the good life for modern pilgrims of everyday existence. In an age of instant fixes and gratification, Peterson used a cluster of Psalms from the Bible (more specifically called the Psalms of Ascent) to point people to growth "in worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community, and blessing." The secret to success, says Peterson, is not a quick solution but rather a willingness to "show up" regularly to do God's will.

So what do Ripken and Peterson have to do with one another? Simply because they remind me of two other people: George Stulac and Deborah Clarke.

It was soon after we moved to St. Louis in 2008 that we attended Memorial Presbyterian Church for a season of two-plus years. A magnificent structure of Gothic Revival architecture on Skinker Boulevard just south of the Delmar Loop, Memorial's physical beauty is matched and surpassed by the sincerity of its parishioners and the simple, pastoral warmth of George Stulac, who has served as the church's senior pastor since 1981. The first thing that strikes you about George is his quiet and inviting nature. A self-confessed introvert, he nonetheless is passionate about the relationships he enjoys with people. Soon after I began at Westminster Christian Academy, he asked to have lunch with me, which turned into a wonderful hour of encouragement and blessing. George's preaching was straightforward, clear, and drawn from both study and experience. George was a steady hand on the leader's wheel: Memorial has had a few minor quakes over the years that come from growing together as a spiritual family, but George has never complained about any potential threats. Instead, he knows that suffering is something to be moved through and learned from, that endurance (as William Barclay once said) is the ability to bear a hard thing and turn it into glory. When our little Jordan died in November 2008, there was no one else we would want to officiate his funeral than George. From Psalm 86, George reminded us that God is merciful, gracious, and good; he confessed the mystery that had caused us to know more suffering than he could imagine. His words meant more than we can properly express.

Now George has announced his time as pastor of Memorial is coming to an end. August 17th will be the occasion of his final sermon, and you can bet the Davis family will be there at Memorial Presbyterian for the 10:45 service that morning, six years to the day after we first met him, thirty-three years after he began there as senior pastor. Faithful, dependable, and consistent…those are words that come to mind regarding George Stulac.

Also, this week marks the end of another era. I have commended my high school English teacher, Deb (Harbaugh) Clarke in another post from last year. At the close of this school year, Deb will retire from teaching in the Carroll County Public School system. When she does, it will bring to an end an amazing streak of forty-one years in the same school district. Think about that: forty-one years…one hundred, sixty-four marking periods…hundreds of books discussed…scores of test review games (by the way, how did they always end in a tie?)…and thousands of papers graded. But beyond that, Deb taught a vast army of serious students how to write, how to communicate…in short, how to love language and to make music with words, whether it be a compare-contrast essay, a persuasive essay, or an expository paper on Great Expectations. Her approach was not a system of lathery compliments tossed indiscriminately into a student pool. Her comments--both for praise and correction--were carefully chosen and intended to make her students great communicators. No matter what background, no matter how much or little apparent potential, Deb believed that every one of her students could--nay, should--be phenomenal writers. Humans should be masters of the glory of words, she believed, and every student has the opportunity to shape the mosaic of exposition, the tesserae of story, the pieces of clarity into a tapestry that reflects the human spirit and experience, simply because we should want other to know what is and what the joy of living can be.

Now that era is coming to an end. Deb is retiring, and the world of teaching is suffering one of the greatest losses imaginable. But I will always remember that she showed up every day to teach me, to insure that each paper I did was better than the one before, and that I would be an excellent communicator. And thus, whenever I look at a copy of Litany of Secrets or any of the subsequent manuscripts of my yet-unpublished sequels, I see Deb Clarke. I am a writer because of her.

A long obedience in the same direction. Faithfulness and doggedness are qualities often overlooked today. But they are the characteristics that often make the biggest difference. And by showing up with Ripken-like determination, George Stulac and Deb Clarke have made maximum impact, watering the soil of hearts they have touched over the long haul. And those efforts are deserving of deepest thanks.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Literacy Trending Down

Last week, a teacher in a Christian high school gave his students a test. Specifically, this exam--which affected no one's class grade and which asked for no one to affix their name to the answer sheet--was a 90-question multiple choice (with some questions asking to arrange a series of things, people, or events in order) Biblical literacy test. The purpose for this teacher was to discern the relative level of biblical knowledge amongst his students and to use the results of the test to underscore the importance of knowing the Bible to think biblically.

Yes, in case you haven't guessed by now, that teacher was me.

Let me say right now I love my students, and this test was no reflection on their intellectual abilities. I enjoy teaching them and they are well on their way to academic success.

And no, this wasn't a seminary-level exam with turgid theological answers expected in response to deep questions. It was merely to check students' knowledge of the big picture of the Biblical story and mastery of details that should be part of the contours of basic Christian understanding of Scripture.

To the details:

Overall, the average of test scores was 48%. That was actually around where I thought it'd be.

Some other discoveries--not that these shocked me, but I found them helpful as part of seeing the student underbelly on this:

(A) At the near-end of my course on Biblical Ethics, only 40 of 82 (48.8%) of all students got the first five of the Ten Commandments arranged correctly.

(B) Slightly better were the results on arranging the second half of the Decalogue in order, in which 44 of 82 were able to do so (53.7%).

(C) Only 22 of 82 students (26.8%) could arrange five events--selecting disciples, transfiguration, death, resurrection, and ascension--in Jesus' life in chronological order.

(D) When asked to put five major Biblical figures in order of which they lived in Biblical times--Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist--only 30 of 82 (36.6%) pulled off the correct order.

(E) When asked to identify which book "The righteous shall live by faith" is from, it yielded 25 of 82 correct responses (30.5%) knowing it was Romans.

(F) Psalm 23 is not as automatic as it used to be. One question asked students to identify where the words "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" comes from. Results were a marginal majority of 45 of 82 (54.9%).

(G) Another chronological order question of events. Only 26 of 82 (31.7%) could successfully put the tower of Babel, the Israelite entrance into Canaan, the completion of Solomon's Temple, Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ, and Paul's first missionary journey in order.

(H) Finally, the last question: "Your honest assessment: Is the Bible your primary source for knowledge about God and faith?" A yes or no question. 19 of 82 (23.2%) said "no". That is truly interesting. (And, to be honest, just slightly lower than the percentage I expected)

Now you can make of that what you wish. I was merely doing it to exegete the culture in which I serve. I don't believe this says anything negative about Westminster Christian Academy (my present employer). I believe it says more about a Christian subculture that--at both the church and family levels--has emphasized "life management skills" dressed in religious language over the understanding of the Bible as an amazing narrative of how God is great, we wrecked things and now we suck, and how in Jesus, God is now stitching things together, and all this centralized in this book of colorful yet flawed characters who pull off this business of what's called "God's kingdom." People tend to dive-bomb into the Bible and use it like a car manual when life shuts down to figure out how to get going.

Perhaps you think "That's not so bad." In one sense, yes. If a major league baseball player, for example, batted .480, he'd be an All-Star on track to the Hall of Fame. And knowledge is NOT the equivalent of godliness. Nor does knowledge automatically produce genuine faith.

However, when "churched" individuals (which comprised all the test-takers) struggle with questions on basic Biblical knowledge, we should at least take notice.

Bottom line: This isn't baseball. If you're going to be a math teacher, and you get less than half of all problems right on an Algebra I proficiency exam, what then?

Even more personal, for those who claim to be followers of Jesus: If I claim to love my wife more than anything, and if you ask me twenty questions about the basics of her life (where she was born, where she went to school, where we met, etc.) and I got only 9 or 10 questions correct

…would you question whether I even knew her, let alone loved her?

Knowledge does not equal faith or love. No doubt about that.

But love and faith have a solid basis in knowledge.

Something to think about. And I'll leave it hanging there.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Simplicity of Innovation

This past week, I decided I had to throw a monkey wrench into things in my Ethics class. We had crunched through the Ten Commandments over the course of the year and I wanted to do something that would swerve the pace. Something innovative, something that would swell the creative element among my students.

And all they'd need was their brains and a laptop.

I arranged each of my classes into groups of 3-4, each of them at one of five table clusters. On the tables were cups that held different color-coded slips of paper: one cup for "names", one cup for "items", and one cup for "word". Each group had to draw a slip from each cup and use those words in their story, a story they'd come up with as a group. Here's the thing: Each story had to be drabble, a work of micro-fiction of exactly one hundred words. (Check out if you're interested) And the stories had to relate to the commandment posted on their table.

For example, students at a table for the ninth commandment, "You shall not lie", might draw the name Evan, the item burrito, and the word humiliated. And yes, those words had to get used in a story of 100 words…put together in 12-13 minutes before I announced each group rotate to the next table and start the process over again with another draw of words and a new commandment.

The life and energy that pulsed through the room was unreal. The most consistent question was "What if we tried…?" and the most consistent statement was "That's a great idea!" Smiles and laughs rang through the classroom, especially as they knew they'd be emailing the compilations to me later to be part of an all-class collection.

Even better were the moments when a student got that gleam in their eye…perhaps you've seen it before. The one when a student says, "Man, I struggle so much with writing papers for English class, but I can do this! This is so much fun!"

And I didn't have to put together a Prezi, a video, or make a game show out of it. All that was needed was to place the chance to create in the hands of students.

More often than we imagine, it's not the grade a student gets, but it's all about the exhilaration of learning bursting forth in a new way, when the joy on their face says it all.

It was a great day to be a teacher, even more so than usual.

Monday, May 5, 2014

You Don't Have To Be A Student's Teacher To Learn From Each Other

I was in the middle of my last hour planning period at school today when the door opened and good times walked in.

Specifically, good times entered the room in the person of Eichel Davis, member of the Westminster Christian Academy Class of 2014.

Eichel is graduating in fourteen days, wrapping up a distinguished high school career in which he has served as class president, been involved in the WCA Student Council (a.k.a. STUCO), and served as a student manager for our Wildcats' football and baseball teams.  He writes for the school paper, the Wildcat ROAR. Eichel also took the step of organizing a student advisory board this year, a group which would take student concerns and wishes to the administration for dialogue and perusal. In short, Eichel has been a busy soul.

Did I mention that Eichel is also a writer? (Little wonder you like him so much, you say!) He has his own self-publishing website, called Created and Written Publications--"Think as if there is no box", he says--which he used to promote and launch his own books such as The Varsity and his Seniors series.

I can't recall when Eichel started dropping by my classroom this year. We had each discovered at one point that the other was a major fan of AMC's The Walking Dead television show. At some point, we began following each other on Twitter, which made for some crazy Sunday evenings when TWD was on. I tend to speed-tweet during the show, and having Eichel (and later on, several others) along for the ride gave me some pleasant company for hashing over the enterprise.

Usually, Eichel would pop into my room on Monday mornings to talk about the most recent episodes and compare notes on what we thought might happen next. We never had a bad conversation. Whether we discussed zombies, writing, his senior integration project for Worldviews class, baseball (we managed to get along even though he loves the Cardinals and I adore the Cubs), basketball (again, the divide came as he loves Missouri and I go with Kansas), and anything else that comes up.

Through this entire year, I've come to look forward to these times with Eichel. We've managed to touch on a lot of the stuff of life, and whether it's about popular culture or what strategies work in writing fiction, I've always learned from Eichel. He's an amazing active listener who is going to parlay his skills well in the next arena of life as he heads off to the University of Missouri.

So today when he walked into my room for about forty minutes before he headed out for Westminster's baseball game (wearing full uniform, as well), I put aside what I was doing and we got to talking. Our chat ranged from baseball to plans for next year to the issue of racism to what St. Louis needs to do to revitalize and reinvent itself ("I mean, we've gotta be more than just the Arch!", said Eichel).

You don't get enriching moments like that every day.

The amazing thing about having this connection with Eichel is that I have never had him in class as a student. I never taught him, either in New Testament or Ethics. But I feel like I've learned from him, and hopefully I've been a positive element in his life. And that's the glorious thing about the world I inhabit: You don't have to be a student's teacher to have a great relationship with them. All that's necessary is to be there. And in that arena, you find you can learn from each other.

Thank you, Eichel. It's been an unforgettable ride. Well done, sir.