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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Open Letter to Mark Driscoll

To Mark Driscoll, preaching pastor of Mars Hill Church,

An online letter is not the place to uproot all the controversial matters that have exploded on the Internet recently. Plagiarism assertions, using church funds to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list, and strong allegations of abusive and narcissistic behavior from many respected allies are much to deal with in a lifetime. You've had to deal with them in less than a year. No need to re-live them in detail here.

Also, I've never attended your church. So I'm not speaking as an inner critic. But then again, you don't need to be elected to public office to share political critique.

I was a pastor for fifteen months and we managed to have a fantastic Scottish revival, which means I grew the church from 75 down to just under 40. So I'm not speaking out of any measure of worldly success.

But I'm a fifth-generation Presbyterian clergyman. And I know a good bit of what makes for a great pastor because my father and grandfather were both great pastors, because they were humble, godly men. Their words were their own, not others. They were content to let God lead their churches and not overwhelm their parishioners with the force of personality because they knew in the long run (and even the short run) that not letting God do things would harm the Gospel.

So while I was disheartened with the using of church funds to secure a bestseller spot, with the plagiarism, and the autocraticism, bombasticness, and blaming a wife for a husband's shameful sin, I was hopeful this wasn't it.

And while it was fourteen years ago, I wasn't expecting to see you go vulgar-heterosexual-Little-Boy in the blogosphere. 

A pastor. Doing this. Six years into his pastorate. Holy smokes.

Look, Mark. You'll probably never read this. In case it runs across your laptop monitor or your Smartphone screen by sheer accident, I just think it's fair to say the following:

(1) I want you to minister well. Being a pastor of any church, any size, is tough. It's excruciating. And that's on a good day. My heart goes out to pastors everywhere because I know how the terrain is. When St. John Chrysostom said, "My work is like that of a man trying to clean a patch of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing," he was lowballing things. So I understand that your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual innards get seriously frayed.

(2) I have more in common with you than I don't have in common. I'm an intense believer in the complete trustworthiness of the Bible. I want men to be leaders. I want people to be excited about Scripture applied to their lives in all its fullness, in hard-won community, and the spread of both of the above to others. I'm not inclined as you are to the silent, subjugated female gender. I like the fact my wife has discovered a biblical balance of being "submissively feisty". And I think you can call homosexuality a sin without screaming at the sinners. 

(3) Sometimes, before you say something or do something, it's helpful to ask (as David Gill suggests in Doing Right) questions like:
      (a) Would Jesus do this or question it?
      (b) Does it violate clear biblical teaching or Christian tradition?
      (c) Would you like it done to you?
      (d) Could someone be harmed?
      (e) Would you never want to do this in public?
      (f) Is it illegal?

(4) Above all, this is a letter with an intense suggestion, as close to a command as I could make it: Resign for two whole years. In fact, things are so deep for you that I would say offer your demission from your ordination and become a layperson once again. The litany of controversy is too strong to be effective. Here's what I'd suggest. During these two years, attend church elsewhere. Don't preach. Don't teach. Don't write. Don't speak at conferences. Chill. Hang out with your kids. Go for long walks with your wife, Grace. Travel on your own expense and go meet with older, seasoned pastors, both well-known and more obscure. Ask them about how to be rooted in humility, in what the Cross has to do with that rootedness. At the end of two years, ask yourself, "Am I ready to see everyone I encounter as Jesus sees them? And am willing to have God be in control of my tongue, first and foremost?" If the answer is anything less than 100%, you need to steer clear of the pastoral ministry.

God will always provide for you, my man. It doesn't have to be at Mars Hill.

Believe me, I'll pray for you.


The Holy Land Thing

Good heavens, I hate political posts. I'd rather discuss religion because it seems that the conversations I have with others on religion tend to stay civil, even with (especially with?) atheists. But politics seems to bring the axe shot down on a divided community in a very divided nation. 

But I think I should say a few things about the present Israel-Hamas struggle. I'll try to keep it as brief as an independent, neo-Libertarian, strict constitutionalist, common sense-ish believer in strong national security can make it.

Got all that? Good.

(1) Yes, I believe in the Palestinian people having a homeland. You have to see Palestinians through the reality that they are a mix of folks. It's not a monolithic Islamic bloc. That's why we have a group of people called Palestinian Christians (hello). Now, of course, it's nice to have a qualification and definition on what is a Palestinian (as that seems to get tossed in the garbage of uncivil debate). But the Palestinian peoples were around for awhile, getting displaced and bumped around and rejected by many nations...nations that don't--by the way--have the name Israel.

(2) There's a difference between the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership. A good corollary would be American labor union membership and union leadership. The former you may not agree with entirely but you sympathize with their basic needs. The latter you see as the snakes they are.

(3) The media war shrouds rather than clarifies this conflict. Israel is running a ground invasion, yes, but does anyone in their right mind believe that they are there to annex the Gaza Strip? It is true that tactical missile strikes have taken the lives of innocent victims as collateral damage, but to date, Hamas' legions have been the ones intentionally targeting the innocent in Israel...not that they've been able to get much in past the Iron Dome defense system.

(4) Israel does need to to several things, some of which on the surface appear paradoxical: (a) weigh how difficult the coming days will be, (b) stand firm in the face of relentless pressure of world media opinion, (c) balance the glove of restraint with the hammer of justice, and (d) continue to show the willingness to work with a democratically elected and principled pluralistic Palestinian state. 

(5) To evangelical Christians who are unabashedly pro-Israel: Good for you. Just remember that Israel is a vastly secular nation, and for every person there there is a different and variant worldview. And what sort of reaction would you have if dumped in the middle of an LGBT crowd in a bar in Tel Aviv? Hopefully, the grace and mercy of Jesus.

(6) To Hamas: What in heaven's name are you thinking? You hoard resources from the Palestinian people, cause them to live on beans in shanty towns, and use concrete and supplies to dig subterranean tunnels to Israel for the purposes of transporting personnel and weapons for a Rosh Hashannah slaughter? Supplies that could have gone to houses and shopping areas for your own people? Finances that could have gone to medical care for your own people? Does no one see the hypocrisy here?

(7) It's a mess, and it'll stay a mess until people learn the mess solves nothing. But I'd wager my assets that if Israel dropped their weapons in an unconditional cease-fire, it would solve nothing, and Israel would soon cease to exists. If Hamas stopped shooting, there'd be peace for longer than people might guess.

(8) Yes, I have the deepest respect and compassion for those who dream of a Palestinian nation of their own. And yes, I am without respect or compassion for those who seek to achieve that dream via terror.

I'm done.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Mystery is Worth the Time!

I've hacked through some pretty good study time in preparation for tomorrow's sermon on I Kings 17:17-24. It's the passage where Elijah raises the son of the Zarephath widow to life. I find it interesting that this woman is--for all practical intents and purposes--a relatively new convert to faith in God. One wonders then, why God had to bring such horrific suffering on her by taking her son so early during her spiritual journey. She's certainly grasping at straws in the wake of her boy's death.

I'm sure those of you familiar with the story (or who linked to it above and read it) know of course that Elijah's intervening prayer restored the lad to life. But that's a really shattering time to live through! Why does God do that? Why does he protect people and then perplex them? Why does he preserve life (he had provided food for the widow and son in the previous passage) and then extinguish it...and then give it back? Why the pendulum effect? Doesn't God's mysterious behavior baffle you?

Listen, I say this from within the circle of Christian faith. I think God is off the hook sometimes and yet I still move forward for whatever reason. Why? What keeps me following a Mystery?

(1) Maybe there's something about my personality that I like to dive into something that's not too clear and find clarity. I tend to binge on Sudoku puzzles and find a perverse delight in filling in these 9x9 puzzles where numbers can appear only once in a block or linear sequence. In a way, that kind of mystique doesn't bother me, but it's for a couple of reasons. One, I know there's a solution that makes sense every time. Two, Sudoku puzzles are different from God. You can't restrain God within the lines of a puzzle, or any contraption. He just sort of spills over any reservoir we set to contain him. 

As my father said once, "I know two things: The Lord is good, and the Lord is strange. And it's the latter that scares me."

And he's speaking as a believer, too.

(2) On the other hand, I've been less and less inclined to see faith as a precision effort, or as a question-and-answer sequence that makes complete sense, like a car manual that will show you how to fix life if you but follow the diagrams. I don't think this is how God constructed faith as the path to him. In the book of Job, when the eponymous character questions why God allowed him to go through the suffering he did, God doesn't explain it in terms of a game-board-like path. He blows up and says, "I run the universe. Would you like to explain to me how things should go?" Whatever rational explanation is not going to be good for Job. He doesn't need God's answer; he needs God himself.

Leonard Sweet puts it well in his book Jesus Drives Me Crazy! where he says "Life is the living of the Mystery. As one Greek Orthodox theologian puts it, 'We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us more progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.' What are doctrines but vestibules to the mysteries. To follow Jesus is not a paint-by-numbers path. To follow Jesus is to live the adventure and to experience the mystery of faith."

(3) There's also the sense in which mystery is better because that's how the deepest, most constructive, most loving relationships are built. This is especially true in our cyber-age where we can crumble to the misguided sensation that because we connect with people on Facebook or Twitter, then we know them. Nowhere close. You know what those people deign you to know about how their present themselves; it takes more face-to-face work to make the friendship work. When Christy and I first met, I was--admittedly--a little frustrated because the initial process of getting to know her wasn't as crystal clear and smooth. Then again, I came to discover that I wasn't giving away as much of who I was, either, especially when Christy initiated a heart-to-heart asking if I was comfortable around her. But through those initial weeks we came to recognize that getting to know and enjoy each other took work. And it takes work because people want to be known, but the way it works is that people want to become known. They want others to take the time, to climb the hills of inquiry, the mountains of personhood, and the cliffs of one's past stains and future dreams. 

And that's what made dating my future wife so wonderful. I had to take the time and make the effort to know and love her. And it was easy, but only because we both wanted--and still want--to pursue the mystery that is each other.

The Man Makes a Point

Humorist Dave Barry is the god of reason. He's not the God, of course. But he's a decent minor deity when it comes to cutting through the garbage of what surrounds us.

Especially in the world of literature.

If you call Fifty Shades of Grey literature.

The first volume of the Fifty Shades trilogy, which highlights a recent female college graduate caught up in the world of sado-masochistic sexual relationships, became a best-seller for reasons that befuddle me. The first warning for anyone with discerning tastes happens to be that author E.L. James released all three volumes of the trilogy practically on top of each other (go ahead and laugh, that pun was unintentional). When all three books are put out within a year of each other, the whole storyline is satanically crappy.

What self-respecting British author denigrates the name of mystery writer P.D. James by calling herself E.L. James and putting this stuff out?

What British author sets a story in the Pacific Northwest but has the main character, who is American, refer to a backpack in the British way, as a "rucksack"?

Dave Barry--in his phenomenal article at Time Magazine--actually read the book...something I am unwilling to do as I am content to pick up detail secondhand for critique. Anyway, Dave has some other questions.

What author has a girl, in the twenty-first century, complete four years of college with no romantic relationships of any kind up to this point? Why does that girl complete college but not have a computer, not know how to operate one, not have an email account, and be pretty much out to lunch on how the Internet functions? Why are Ana's (the main character) exclamations so juvenile? ("Double crap!") Double crap? What is that?

Even Litany of Secrets went beyond that.

Naturally, she lands a job in the business world with such limited hiring potential. Of course. 

I have to be careful when criticizing other authors. I know the hard work that goes into putting a believable story together that still takes people away in an attractional manner. I just don't see that with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Every author is a work in progress, but one thing you don't do is give everything away in description or dialogue about your characters or the storyline. Make the audience work. Respect the reader enough to make sure you are giving clues for them to ascertain what's going on. Show, don't tell.

From what Dave Barry shares in his article, James fails miserably on this count.

So why am I so visceral about Fifty Shades when I can't play fair and read it in order to know what I'm talking about?

Because you don't need to go into politics to have the right to critique Congress or the President. You don't need to procreate in order to speak intelligently about what good parenting might be. And you sure don't need to do heroin to know it's bad for you.

There's a lot of great literature out there. There's even some good, worthwhile writing out there that--while not enduring classics--happens to be thoughtful, well-written fiction and nonfiction. Why people turn to garbage is saying too much about our society. 

I was at our local library while Lindsay was volunteering there last Monday. And there was a 60-plus year-old woman reading Fifty Shades of Grey. A woman in her silver years was ingesting an item with as much redeeming value as something between Hitler's dirty underwear and whale dung that sits at the bottom of the ocean.

I'm done with my rant. You need to laugh with truth now. Read Dave Barry's article. Do it now.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Breaking the Teeth of the Wicked

Some people keep a positive view of life by reminding themselves they can accomplish things if they believe in themselves.

Some people come to a more refreshed view of life by overcoming severe obstacles.

And then there are those who live in hell for sometimes, who are not asking for a ginger-peachy life, but rather for closure and for justice to be visited upon perpetrators of great evil.

They want God--or some balancer of the universe's scales--to pull a major Psalm 3:7 on those who have savaged their souls. "Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked!"

It wasn't a cosmic recalibration of the world's justice, but there was a little good that happened last week. I'm not destroying someone else's reputation, because the details are overly public.

It didn't benefit me, but a little background from my life would be helpful.

I've shared before a few of my trials from being a pastor in North  Carolina, at a small church in the central portion of the state. I entered my charge idealistic that the Gospel of Christ does its own reproducing. I exited rather sobered under the reality that opposition to the liberating and wonderful Gospel often comes from professing Christians.

It was tough. It was a church that needed its colon to work properly and allow some dissatisfied people to leave, and so the "Scottish revival" ungrew the church from 75 to about 45, but they were 45 souls really behind where the church was going. I had received 500 flyers to give out in different neighborhoods about our upcoming late autumn and early winter sermon series dovetailing with the message of the soon-to-be-released The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film. 

In October 2005, I was called suddenly out to Statesville, NC, where I walked into a conference room containing three men. One of them had anointed the triad as a "special commission" from the regional group of churches in our Presbyterian denomination to deal with the troubles at my church, which I wasn't aware of. They told me that because of the declining attendance and $$$ at the church, they wanted my resignation.

I looked around the room and saw I was the only other person there. I guessed they were talking to me. When I turned back toward this man, he slid a sheet of paper across the table to me, offering a two-month severance. I told them all that was unconscionable and stormed out without a job, vowing to fight for a longer severance and continued medical benefits for our family, especially Joshua.

It wasn't something that destroyed me, obviously. God was faithful. But it was a battle against this man, who, by the way, had violated denominational rules to form this stealth firing committee against me. The battle for continued severance and benefits went for another three months, when a huge meeting of pastors, elders, and committee directors met in Charlotte. The spirit in the air was to continue my severance through August 2006, but this man was resistant. He said to continue my severance would bankrupt their committee. Deadlock.

Until my friend Ben spoke up and asked about a recent sale of another church property. How much money, he asked, was in fact in the coffers of the church planting committee?

Answer: Almost $600,000. My nemesis had been caught with his pants down, lying on the floor of a major denominational meeting. With a blank look on his face, he offered no apology.

That's right. No apology. I never spoke to him ever again. Sometimes, there are folks you can only get along with them if you enforce a personal restraining order.

But something was giving me the impression this guy was toxic. My wife--much to her credit--had that impression a long time before.

Fast forward through the next seven years. We move to Florida, then here to Missouri. In February 2013, curious about what this guy was up to, I delved into the Internet and googled his name.

There, staring back at me from the laptop, was his picture in the Iredell (NC) County sheriff's department. Over 200 counts of indecent liberties with children from the days when he was a fourth-grade teacher from 1970 to 1987. As I observed from afar, the days ticked by until a court date was set and former students steeled themselves to come forward and testify against him.

You can probably find details about the day-by-day progress of the trial, but last week we got the final verdict that brought a measure of justice for boys-now-men whose innocence was taken, whose genitals were grabbed by a teacher who would read the Bible at the same time, a man who professed to be a Christian, who was a church elder and directed the church choir. A man who kept the dark underbelly of his life closed off from everyone else.

Life imprisonment for one count of first-degree sexual offense. Three years each for 172 counts of inappropriate touching/sexual abuse. He's going away for the rest of his life.

Some people have asked me if I'm happy about it. More than anything else, I am glad the former students have finally found a measure of justice, although nothing can ever truly take away their horror for good.

Not every day will be a good one. Positive thinking and joy are good things, but for some, happiness will only come when God breaks the teeth of the wicked.

Some people might think that if that's something God does, he can't be God at all.

I say that if God doesn't kick an evil person's teeth down his throat so that they come out the other end, then he's not truly God at all. Justice is measured, sometimes delayed, and some people will only have it on the other side of the grave, but it is certain. 

A God who can't smash evil between the eyes isn't worthy of our following him. Thank goodness we got a sliver of evidence that true justice reigned last week.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Parental Praise and Self-Understanding

A morning run, some grocery shopping, and an afternoon lawn mowing excursion have me flopped here on the couch while the rest of the family watches World War Z as the zombies overrun Jerusalem. I've been thinking a lot today, especially given that in less than a month, school starts back up again.

It means going back to an environment that I enjoy greatly. It also means going back to an arena where an increasing number of students seek affirmation. Not always a jacked-up amount of it, mind you. But one thing I've been noticing is that it tends to center around grades and recognition. In short, a lot of people in emerging generations want to be praised. 

Let the record show that I have nothing against praising people for results earned, for good character, for learning deep lessons.

Sometimes I wonder if I recognize people enough, especially my wife and kids. But there are also others who--quite honestly--can irk me by yapping about their kids on social media or at the water cooler regarding the most minor of things. Let's face it, child asking a deep, probing ethical question that belies their years is worth reporting. The fact that they lived through Field Day is not.

I have to say that I've grown into a person who admits it's nice to get recognized for the good stuff, but shelling for promotion is not my style. I'm not the type to go in and ask for a raise. Instead, I prefer to be told that I'm getting a raise and told why, and if it doesn't happen, I'll manage. Now when I was much younger, I'll admit I lapped up positive feedback like Gideon's decreasing army did with water in Judges 7. But one factor in changing my worldview on its necessity was the modus operandi of my parents.

Mom and Dad modeled the practice of measured, accurate assessment. If they felt we did something well, they could mention it, but were fairly consistent in telling why and enumerating what it was for. If I needed my butt chewed out, same thing. What I experienced was an environment where my parents weren't exactly promiscuous with their compliments, but I still knew they appreciated and loved me for who I was. One thing I believe they were doing was making sure I didn't develop the inflated view of being the center of the universe, where accomplishments meant something of significance. And I knew they weren't going to badger my teachers with questions about why my grades weren't better. That wasn't their job. (And may the number of parents like them ever increase!)

When I was younger, at times I was vexed by my parents' restrained commendations and precision plaudits. Now, looking back on things, I am glad they did things the way they did because they knew exactly what the better path was. In a world of vapid accolades and the increasingly tedious tributes--not to mention getting ribbons for being a 'participant'--knowing why you honor someone is more important than the act of honoring them itself. Especially if the object of your acclaim is your own flesh and blood.

Monday, July 14, 2014

World Cup Final Thoughts

The twenty-four year wait is over.

My son Joshua approached me last night when I was watching Inglourious Basterds and said, "Dad, I'm going to sleep well tonight."

I'm sure he did.

Joshua has shown rapt attention through the last three World Cups. He was less than a year old when France won on home soil in 1998, with a Zidane-led 3-0 win over defending champ Brazil. And he doesn't recall the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, as he was shy of five years old then. But by 2006, he had watched Luther and inhaled a good bit of German history and probably would've changed citizenship if he could. Plus, the World Cup was coming to Germany. 

The Mannschaft, as they are known, were only 22nd in the world going into the 2006 Cup, but Michael Ballack, Miroslav Klose, and company scrapped past expectations, and only a heartbreaking extra time semifinal loss to Italy kept them from glory. We--yes, the entire Davis family is behind Die Mannschaft--ended up second in the 2008 Euro Cup to Spain. We actually had landed in Berlin for Joshua's Make-A-Wish trip a few hours before the semifinal against Turkey, won on a Philipp Lahm worm burner with twenty seconds left. Berlin exploded around 10 pm and kept going until 4 am. No sleep.

It was then that we learned a Euro Cup semifinal engenders more passion across the pond than the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup finals, or NBA finals cause here in the States.

2010 saw a younger German team at the World Cup in South Africa, and Spain broke our hearts again. I honestly didn't know how much of this we--but especially Joshua--could take, and 2014 became a big bulls eye on our calendars.

What you saw was a destruction of Portugal, a gutty draw against Ghana, and a dominating win (though close in the scoring column) against the United States. Follow that up in the knockout phase with the scintillating extra time win over Algeria, the 1-0 win over France that was a carbon copy of the US win, all bringing us to the semifinal against host Brazil, which hadn't lost a competitive match on home soil since I was four years old. Wow.

Our house was in shock as the Germans scored four times in 400 seconds. Against Brazil. SO much for home field advantage. 

All of which led to a gut-wrenching Sunday. I sat in church, listening to the sermon but twinning that with anxiety and hope that coach Joachim Low would in fact start Lahm at defensive back. Before the game began, Joshua went into his bedroom to pray. That's how seriously he took it.

In the end, although draining us of every ounce of nerves, Die Mannschaft came through. Andre Schurrle--who had the winning assist--and Mario Gotze, who scored the chest-nudge, volley kick for the winning goal, were the only two German players on the field at that time who were born after the reunification of the Fatherland. It was as if the ugliness of the past gave way to the hope of the future. 

Now things move on toward 2018 in Russia, where the German team will be the hunted instead of the hunters. And I guarantee you Joshua will be praying, losing sleep, and above all hoping for another German conquest.

Those are my final thoughts.

Sadly, It's Back to the Corruption

Wright Thompson has an engrossing article on ESPNFC about how the celebration of the World Cup--while enjoyable--served to cover up the garbage that Rio de Janeiro has become. 

Here's the link to Thompson's article. Caution: Some graphic language.

Sadly, I don't see these problems or draconian governmental measures getting cleaned up anytime soon, let alone before Rio hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics.

It's worth chewing on, and it's a chance to be profoundly grateful if you live in an area with decent sewage and clean water.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life, and Everything (Part 6)

And here is the concluding stretch. These came up in my emails amid a tough stretch in October 2007 when Joshua had to return to the hospital for various and serious hiccups in his recovery from surgery. 

I hope you've found some encouragement from these. I've found them solid food to return to on life's plate.

"Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory." (William Barclay)

"Those who are really serious about their religion and want to become the kind of person that God wants them to be are the ones most in danger." (John Claypool) 

"Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary to what they do not see. Faith is above them, not contrary to them." (Blaise Pascal)

"The true Christian religion is incarnational and thus does not begin at there top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom. You must run directly to the manger and the mother's womb, embrace the Infant and Virgin's Child in your arms and look at him--born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things."

"One can almost be numb with still another episode of trouble. It does help, however, that the hand that holds us has a nail hole in it." (Ralph Davis, to son Luke, about grandson Joshua Davis)

"How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks toward the future, the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem." (former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjold)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life, and Everything (Part 5)

Because so much of what we went through with Jordan and Joshua's medical issues were wrapped up in prayer and pursuing God, it seems appropriate to share some of the quotes that came to mind during that season:

"God is present with us. But God is more than present with us; he knows us. He doesn't follow alongside of us, he follows inside of us...We can be lost, dizzied by our own spiritual vertigo, but God is present with us, luring us back to himself. We may turn our backs on God, but he is always facing us." (Mike Yaconelli)

"Give me a Jesus who meets me in the rushing, crashing waters of my questions. Let me stand precariously close to the dark and menacing skies of doubt, so I can hear the fierce and gentle loving voice of my Jesus who drowns out my fears and stands just beyond my questions with open arms." (Mike Yaconelli)

"We know prayer matters because after leaving earth, Jesus made it one of his primary tasks: 'Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.' ...In fact, the New Testament's only glimpse of what Jesus is doing right now depicts him at the right hand of God interceding for us. In three years of active ministry, Jesus changed the moral landscape of the planet. For the last two thousand years since, he has been using another tactic: prayer." (Philip Yancey)

"The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills." (Soren Kierkegaard)

"He that prays and does not faint will come to recognize that to talk to God is more than to have all prayers granted--that it is the purpose of all prayer." (George MacDonald)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life and Everything (Part 4)

Another five quotes, including an excerpt from one of my favorite poems. It doesn't hurt the poet was Welsh!

"Spiritual growth thrives in the midst of our problems, not in their absence. Spiritual growth occurs in the trenches of life, not in the classroom. We don't grow while studying the definition of consistency; we grow when we try to be consistent in an inconsistent world." (Mike Yaconelli)

"The greatest enemy of Christianity may be people who say they believe in Jesus but who are no longer astonished and amazed. Jesus Christ came to rescue us from listlessness as well as lostness. He came to rescue us from flat souls as well as corrupted souls." (Mike Yaconelli)

"It should not surprise us that a sovereign God uses bad things as the raw material for fashioning good. The symbol of our faith is a Roman execution device." (Philip Yancey)

"Risk, as we have seen, is indispensable to any human life, nowhere more clearly than in the life of the spirit. The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever. It is to recover a relationship with God." (Dan Taylor)

"My orders are to fight, then if I bleed or fail
     Or strongly win, what matters it? God only doth prevail.
The servant craveth naught, except to stand with might.
     I was not told to win or lose. My orders are to fight."
(Ethylyn Wetherald)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life, and Everything (Part 3)

Continuing the collection from my emails during Jordan and Joshua's medical trials:

"True faith does not so much attempt to manipulate God to do our will as it does to position us to do his will." (Philip Yancey)

"The Bible never belittles human disappointment (remember the proportion in the book of Job--one chapter of restoration follows forty-one chapters of anguish), but it does add one key word: temporary. What we feel now, we will not always feel. Our disappointment is itself a sign, an aching, a hunger for something better. And faith is, in the end, a kind of homesickness--for a home we have never visited but have never once stopped longing for." (Philip Yancey)

"That light at the end of the tunnel? That really is light!" (Tony Giles)

"Pretending is the grease of modern non-relationships. Pretending perpetuates the illusion of relationships by connecting us on the basis of who we aren't. People who pretend have pretend relationships. But being real is a synonym for messy spirituality, because when we are real, our messiness is there for everyone to see...[T]he truth is, we are a mess. None of us is who we appear to be. We all have secrets. We all have issues. We all struggle from time to time. No one is perfect. No one. The essence of messy spirituality is the refusal to pretend, to lie, or to allow someone to believe something we are not...When you and I stop pretending, we expose the pretending of everyone else. The bubble of the perfect Christian life is burst, and we all must face the reality of our brokenness." (Mike Yaconelli)

"Life is the living of the Mystery. As one Greek Orthodox theologian puts it, 'We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us more progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.' What are doctrines but vestibules to the mysteries? To follow Jesus is not a paint-by-numbers path. To follow Jesus is to live the adventure and experience the mystery of faith." (Leonard Sweet)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life, and Everything (Part 2)

Same song, second verse.

Culling the emails from when Jordan was in the NICU and Joshua in post-surgical recovery in 2007, I plucked these gems from the ends of my cyber-updates. Hope they prove to be an encouragement to you all.

"Spiritual growth is not about inviting Jesus to speed through life with us. It is about noticing Jesus sitting at the rest stop." (Mike Yaconelli)

"The good news at the end of Job and the good news of Easter at the end of the Gospels are previews of the good news described at the end of Revelation. We dare not lose sight of the world God wants." (Philip Yancey)

"The Wager [between God and Satan regarding Job's faith response] offers a great message of hope to all of us--perhaps the most powerful and enduring message from Job. In the end, the Wager resolved decisively that the faith of a single human being counts very much indeed. Job affirms that our response to testing matters. The history of mankind--and, in fact, my own individual history of faith--is enclosed within the great drama of the history of the universe." (Philip Yancey)

"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens." (Jimi Hendrix)

"God is like someone who clears his throat when hiding and so gives himself away." (Meister Eckhardt)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Favorite Quotes on Faith, Life, and Everything (Part I)

In a ruminative mood, I've opened up a Word doc on my laptop, collection of various emails that I wrote and sent out to friends and family during the long days of 2007, both when our youngest son Jordan was born and spending some time in the NICU, as well as when Joshua endured his spinal fusion surgery and subsequent rehab. At the end of many of these mass emails, I often added a quote that I found helpful or instructive.

As I said, since I'm in a thoughtful stretch, I decided I'd share a few of them, at least a few right now.

"Only in a world where faith is difficult can faith exist." (Peter Kreeft)

"Couldn't it be likely that an infinite, all-powerful, all-loving, all-good God would be willing to tolerate short-term pain for his children so that it may bring about long-term good and growth that we cannot foresee?" (Peter Kreeft)

"Something, something must bring us out of the nursery and into the world of others, and that something is suffering." (Anthony Hopkins, playing C.S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands)

"Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies." (Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption)

"Is a faith that doesn't cost anything worth anything?" (Brian McLaren)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

In the Minors

Summertime this year brings several things to mind. Yes, it's the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I...but this history major will get to that in a few days. Instead there is something more that needs discussion. Baseball.

Specifically, minor league baseball.

In the distant future, I hope to write a baseball-themed book. I've thought about doing a revisionist historical sports fiction novel, sort of a "what if the 1981 players strike didn't result in a split season", as not many people realize the National League playoffs that year would be St. Louis-Cincinnati and not Los Angeles-Montreal. But I've also given consideration to doing a minor league-themed novel of sorts, although that's well down the line after the Cameron Ballack series is done, not to mention my World War I historical novel which will have some dominating research to clear out of the way.

I truly enjoy baseball. It's not as physically punishing as football or hockey, and it doesn't have the flow of soccer, but the strategic element is enjoyable. While I live in a major league baseball-crazy area (St. Louis), the ticket prices for the common man can be rather high. In fact, in 2010 our family drove across the state and went to a Kansas City Royals game in more cost-effective fashion than we would have to a Cardinals game here. And there's a perfect outlet for baseball fans who don't want to pay major league prices.

My experience going to minor league games isn't extensive, although when I was three years old and living in Richmond, Virginia, we lived in an apartment just three blocks from The Diamond, where the Richmond Braves played. But as I was a young tyke, I wouldn't have understood a game even if my folks had taken me. But a few years later, we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and I managed to squeeze in time in many places where I've lived since watching teams in the minors. To wit:

(1) 1978-84, Jackson Mets: The week after we moved to Mississippi, infielder Mookie Wilson (later known as the batter whose ground ball went through Bill Buckner's legs to win Game Six of the 1986 World Series for the New York Mets) married his wife Rosa at home plate at Smith-Wills Stadium. His teammates formed an archway of bats for the couple to walk under on their way back to the dugout. No lie. And marital bliss wasn't the limit of the Mets' success while we lived there as they competed in the Class AA Texas League. One night in the early 80s, the Mets turned a four-run comeback against the Arkansas Travelers to tie the game with two outs in the ninth and then won in in the tenth. I remember because I was in the sixth row praying to God to let the Mets win. League championships followed in 1981 and 1984, by which time we moved to Maryland. Smith-Wills Stadium was a functional edifice that could have used a good paint job, seating 5000 fans but usually bore about 4000 empty seats. But I did get to see Daryl Strawberry hit his 30th home run of the season in 1982, and they had an amazing grilled sausage sandwich that was 100% fat and one of the most deliciously deadly things I've ever consumed.

(2) 1991, Frederick Keys: Although living in the greater Baltimore area for the better part of 1984-1994 (though much of the time I was away at school) meant decent access to Oriole games downtown, the Class A Carolina League put an Orioles-affiliated team in the small town of Frederick about seventy-five minutes from where we lived. Harry Grove Stadium was one of the first parks built with the open concourse behind the last row of seating so that everyone walked down to their seats. No complaining about free parking and free programs, which more than made up for the view past the outfield looking at Interstate 70. It was the place where my brother Seth and I saw Erik Schullstrom pitch a 2-0 no-hitter against the Kinston Indians, and then the next month our family saw the Keys stomp the Peninsula Pilots, 12-6, in a game in which the Pilots made six errors against six consecutive batters in the fourth inning. Again, no lie. Another plus was that the players were quite accessible for post-game autographs and conversation. That sort of humility isn't as prevalent in the majors.

(3) 1991; Pawtucket Red Sox: On our family vacation up to Maine, we stopped in Rhode Island at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, just outside of Providence. The Toledo Mud Hens beat the Sox, 6-3, that night in a Triple-A International League game, but two things stood out. One, McCoy was a classic facility (they've done renovations since then), and two, lots of kids had rattails as part of their hairstyles. I mean, rattails in 1991! What the heck? The one major drawback is the distance from the field. The stands are ten feet up from the playing surface so it gives the sense of some distance from the action. But it doesn't stop the crowd from getting into the game.

(4) 1991; Chattanooga Lookouts: By far, the most classic, old-school stadium I've entered. Historical Engel Stadium. Why the absolute bluest of blue devils they ever moved to AT&T Park by the river is beyond me (maybe luxury boxes). For this game against the Charlotte Knights of the Southern League (AA), I was enchanted by the large covered grandstand that ran from first to third base. Seating was individual seats, with box seats as plastic fold-down chairs, reserved seats as bucket seats, and even general admission--though wooden--were fold-down chairs. Much better than any metal bleachers. A train would emerge from the scoreboard whenever a Lookouts player hit a home run. And you couldn't beat the hill at the center-field fence with the name "Lookouts" on it. An A+ facility all the way and a historic landmark.

(5) 2004-05; Kannapolis Intimidators: I love the fact this Class A South Atlantic League team honored Dale Earnhardt, Sr., with its nickname, but Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium (now CMC Northeast Stadium) was a considerable dud. No covered grandstand for protection from rain. Although I liked the non-symmetrical playing field, the center concourse serves no purpose and there is a portion of the third-base line seating that is concrete. Yes, just concrete, no seats, no bleachers. What? Not to mention that the population had voted against a tax levy to finance the stadium, but commissioners wanted it built anyway. So the fans have never been in love with the team like many other communities. I guess that explains one game I went to where there was a crowd of 150 in a stadium that could seat 4600. Ugh.

(6) 2006; Charleston RiverDogs: In the same league as Kannapolis, but Riley Park--which the Dogs shared with The Citadel--is miles ahead of CMC Northeast Stadium. While they could spread out where the concessions are (they're bunched on the third base line, but hey, we were seated right there) and parking was a mile away, the game atmosphere was phenomenal. And the concessions were great, especially the ice cream Cool Dog. And the fact we went on $1 beer and hot dog night helped stretch our dollar. Not to mention that Charleston is an amazing city to spend a few days.

(7) 2011; Gateway Grizzlies: I'd better wrap this up because it's turning into a book itself. The Frontier League is made up of about a dozen independent teams with no major league affiliations. That means the players are there for love of the game and desperately hoping for a break. GMC Stadium in Sauget, Illinois, has plenty of free parking and the upper concourse surrounds the seating area (about a dozen rows close to the field). There is a grassy berm past the right outfield fence, plenty of picnic areas, and concessions are varied and delicious. The oddity is the Lutherburger, a bacon cheeseburger slapped between a bun of a split Krispy Kreme donut. Yes, no lie. Mascot "Izzy" is active and entertaining and even gave Lindsay a hug. Luxury boxes are open-air and located behind and not over the concourse. Win or lose, the crowds are normally large and active. GMC Stadium won the best minor league ballpark award a few years back and it's easy to see why.

Well, that was a lot, but hopefully you'll smell the hunt and scope out a minor league team to check out nearby. You'll be glad you did.

Step Up to the Plate and (Sort of) Lead!

One of my favorite authors is Max Barry; he penned Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company. And while I don't agree with his politico-economic ideas across the board, I completely side with his disgust for corporate corruption, plus his writing is engaging and I never feel like I am wasting my time.

Out of Jennifer Government was born an enterprise called NationStates, a nation simulation game in which you can create a nation from scratch. You begin with selecting its name, a flag, a motto, and other such stuff, before moving on to a brief questionnaire about your basic beliefs which will impact your country (worldview does affect leadership, after all). Each day you get anywhere from 1-3 legislative issues on which you must make a decision from a range of choices (or dismiss the issue with a pocket veto), and once the government brings the legislation into effect overnight, you see the next day what effect it's had.

The point to all this is that our daughter Lindsay (13 years old going on 25) tends to be rather opinionated about what needs to be done to align the political leaderships stars in America. So I told her if she was really that keyed up, maybe she wanted a nation of her own and see what it was like to lead it herself. She promptly joined NationStates and formed the Confederacy of Podoem (yes, she chose that phrase), where her citizens enjoy very good civil rights, a thriving economy with a powerhouse private sector, and superb political freedoms. Not to mention a 2% flat tax rate. (Anyone want to move there?)

It has been a great experience for Lindsay--from our vantage point--in that it's teaching her that decisions have consequences (even if one believes those same consequences might not happen as exactly in the real world). For example, libertarian Lindsay was faced with legislation that would either (a) force posthumous organ donation or (b) leave it up to individuals. Lindsay chose (b) but then didn't like it when that affected the death rates and types among her citizens. Well, honey, decisions have consequences. She also approved legislation that allowed for government-issued loans for college education to student's from Podoem's poorest families. This brought about an uptick in the tax rate and government spending, of course. Lindsay saw she'd have to wait on repayment by citizens to re-fill the government coffers again.

It's not a perfect simulation, but it's free and Lindsay enjoys going on the site, writing entries in her fact book and building a history. More than anything, it's been fun to see her slow down and read through the verbiage and nuan

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bells Fall Silent

Many thanks to my Facebook friend--faithful biblical scholar and die-hard Catholic instructor William Stevenson--for alerting me to this.

The sweep of ISIS across much of Iraq, garnering enough territory that it feels enough confidence to proclaim a caliphate, has upset any peaceful balance if there was one. But much damage has been done and continues, as any sense of freedom of religion is getting wiped off the map.

Look, I know it's said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church", but these reports are chilling. The next time you feel inclined to say that you feel persecuted for your faith (if you feel that way), then check in at the door and have some perspective. There are people of faith half a world away for whom worship is a matter of life and death.

Read, digest, and meditate on what's going on when, for the first time in sixteen centuries, the church bells fall silent.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Four Months Away

A fluctuating economy. A dangerous foreign stage. Vociferous and often uncharitable dialogue.

It's the perfect storm. Well, maybe not perfect. But there is a lot of gas in the tank to make for a combustible campaign season as we move toward the 2014 midterm elections.

Yes, I don't like to pontificate on politics too often, my blog normally being a sacrosanct location to talk about the intersection of writing and life. But even this neo-libertarian independent voter is known for going against the grain once in awhile.

To spare you a yawner, I'll make it three brief thoughts.

(1) Counterpunching the overreach: Although America does not by nature have a monolithic movement that has Constitutional principles running through its veins, there are enough strong pockets of limited-and-restrained government advocates that we might have even more of a difference than the last midterms. The recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of Hobby Lobby, against labor union forced dues on home health workers in Illinois, and coming down on the side of Wheaton College against Obamacare...all of these come in the wake of increasing populist disgust with even larger cock-ups like the IRS and VA scandals. While President Obama could use the Hobby Lobby ruling to paint a picture that could rile up his liberal base (although that means force-feeding a 'war against women' narrative when Hobby Lobby offered and covered sixteen different contraceptives in its medical coverage), it is difficult to see how he can keep that motor running for the next 122 days and countless news cycles. And going back to the "I'll go at it alone" button on matters like immigration may only fuel the distaste with federal overreach. But stranger things have happened.

(2) Conservative Clash or Coalition? Another keystone to how things could fall out in November will be the ability of establishment, conservative, libertarian, and Tea Party camps in the Republican party to unify. Recent primary races such as the Mississippi Senate race (incumbent Thad Cochran over state senator Chris McDaniel) and the Dave Brat upset over incumbent Virginia rep and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have set the politically conscious world on its ear with either acrimony (Mississippi) or newcomer success (Virginia). What will prove to be the decisive factor will be if Republicans shoot each other or set their unified efforts at victory in the fall. A coherent, positive narrative set on leading America to overcoming its challenges (which are legion) can tip the balance. Or they can be the party of "no", which would be less productive and less helpful to the nation.

(3) Leveraging turnout: Perhaps the most under-the-radar, yet critical, matter will be how campaigns can produce voter turnout and tap into citizen passions. Polling groups such as Zogby and others are finding it harder and harder to make the right call on how elections will turn out; even Rasmussen is finding things more difficult with an increasingly volatile electorate that can swell in an instant (as they did for Dave Brat in Virginia). Groups like Voter Gravity are poised to play a key role in this regard; take a look at what they can offer large-scale and local campaigns in terms of walk lists, integrated phone banking and mobile canvassing. The essential component to all this is how to help campaigns not merely promise things to voters, but how to build relationships with voters. Take a look, for example, at what the coffee-loving, deliciously intelligent Aubrey Blankenship (from the national staff of American Majority) shows about the VG Facebook App, which can be leveraged on campaigns of any size (from Senate to school boards). In short and in my honest opinion (and back to my point), connecting long-term with voters in productive relationships--and keeping those connections meaningful--will be the crucial center of what goes down in November.

And whatever does go down in November, what matters is not a Democrat in the White House or Republicans in the House, but the reality that there is a Messiah-King on heaven's Throne.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fuming at the Fog

I just got my laptop back from my employer after a few days of updates, and--as I have no patience for posting to my blog on my mobile phone--I am finally back in the blogosphere. People are jawing about immigration reform, new employment data is coming out this week, but to be honest I'm refraining from a political post for a couple of days, and then it will be more of a crystal ball thing about the 2014 midterms.

I'm going to start up a new foray in my latest novel soon, so it's good to have the tailwinds behind me on that, but given (a) it being a relatively slow news week, (b) people in the US are starting to (unfairly) coming off their World Cup high with the Americans eliminated by Belgium, and (c) it's my blog and I should write about what I want to, it's time to throw some verbal ghost peppers into the beans of discourse.


Specifically, smoking cigarettes.

Those who have known me for awhile affirm that during my seminary days and into the early years of my marriage, I was well-known for lighting up a cigar or my pipe. I still hope my usage will not have brought on any oral cancer, even though we're talking about a seven-year occasional activity. I would also point out that the types of smoke are different when compared to cigarettes, that one cannot speak of widespread lung damage with cigar and pipe smoke, that pipes are classy (witness the prototypical C.S. Lewis book jacket picture of the Oxford Don), and I eventually quit completely so as to save money and be a more positive influence for my children.

Back to cigarette smokers. Some of you may be my friends, but I am saying this anyway.

It's disgusting. One, you know scientifically what it does to you, unless you've been living under a rock since the 1950s. In the mass of clinical data, why would you even think about doing this as a habit?

Stress relief? Good heavens! There are thousands of more productive, more healthy ways to burn off stress. Run, walk, read, paint, draw, journal, lay out by a pool or on the deck, meditate, do deep breathing, or get one of those back massage roller mats you can slap on your easy chair!

Smoking drives up medical costs and drives down work productivity. (To wit, and that's just Wisconsin!) In no way can you make the case that smoking improves personal health or makes the workplace a more productive environment. If I ran a business, I would never hire a smoker. It's nothing personal; it doesn't mean you're a wretch committing nonstop mortal sin. It just means you're not the person I want representing my business.

It's not a victim-free activity. It affects people around you. Secondhand smoke sucks. You bring that smell to the universe around you as the nicotine and crap attaches itself to your hair, clothes, and other corpuscles. 

Neal Boortz is one of the best at "stirring the pudding" about smoking. One time on his talk show in Atlanta, right around high school prom weekend, he queried live on the air: "Fathers, do you have a daughter who smokes? And is she going to the prom? Well, early tomorrow morning, when she takes off her prom dress after she gets home, it'll be the second time that night it's come off."

As punchy as Boortz can be, the Talkmaster is correct. When I was in high school in central Maryland, there was an unwritten code by which male students could identify the "easy" girls, the females given more to sexual promiscuity. 

How could they tell? By seeing which girls smoked.

Because if you're willing to engage consistently in one risky behavior, you're insanely more likely to engage in another one.

My point is, why would you even want to take that step?

Non-smokers are healthier, tend to live longer, and on balance engage in more productive personal and professional lives. 

And if you puff away, it's not too late to quit.