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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

God in the Balance

     Earlier this semester, as I was teaching my Ethics students about the nature of God, his covenantal actions, and introducing the concept of Christian ethics, I wanted us all to pick our brains about the relationship or lack thereof between God's existence and morality. Keep in mind, I'm using morality as "the categorizing of actions, thoughts, and words into right/wrong and good/bad and noble/evil delineations."

    I forced the following writing prompt on them, knowing full well that they, like me, could take it in many directions: "Answer one of the following questions: (A) You need God for morality because.... or (B) You don't need God for morality because..."

And here's my free-write response:

Absolutely you can say "You don't need God for morality", for the simple reason that there are plenty of moral people who are completely secular, atheistic, or agnostic. You do not need to believe in the existence of God in order to categorize between right and wrong. We can't help but put actions and ideas into either barrel (or a neutral one, as well); it's part of human nature, or what C.S. Lewis noted as the Law of Human Nature. But this question itself is loaded as a cheap hotel is with roaches and crickets, and it is more complex than seven-layer dip or my wife's delicious lasagna. There is something innate within us that places items, events, speech, actions, and thoughts in good or evil slots, wise or foolish patterns, and so on, whether or not one believes in the existence of a Creator or Divine Providence. We all have morality. But that automatically leads to a follow-up question. If God's existence and morality are separate issues (a baseline theorem of secularism), then how do we say we know what is right and wrong? That is, after all, the whole question of ethics as a pursuit distinct from "morality". 
     One might say, "Well, we don't do anything that would harm someone else!" No question that is, by and large, a noble idea. Yet one could say, "But why is that important? Do you mean comfort, health, and safety as good and physical harm and mental torture as bad? If so, why do we elevate one category over the other? Could one person's pleasure be another's pain?" The moment we turn these ideas into universals, we have to explain why they are universals.
     Again, one might counter that with, "We avoid doing harm to others because pain feels bad." And still that begs the immediate question, "To whom?", before turning to the larger question of "Why do we trust these feelings?" It begs an answer.
     Suppose someone says, "We can see from experience that things work better for society if we do X instead of Y." Yes, experience can be a guide, but we also have to recall that slavery, sacrificing virgins to appease the gods, and Communism have all been viewed as positive notions for the greater good before, all part of the warp and woof of societal 'experience' before.
     The point is this: I think when you pursue this line of thinking with more questions, we discover that whatever the standard is for right and wrong, it exists independently of us. When a person blurts out, "That's not fair!", then fair to whom? And why? How do you know that? You're appealing to a standard outside of yourself by which all actions are judged, a law of human nature.
    Something can't come from nothing here. Principles don't belch forth from the dark void. The law of human nature has to have a standard that's independent of us.
     And what if...what if...that law of human nature was beyond a law, but rather a Lawgiver who created humans in his nature?
     Can you believe in morality without God? Yes!
     But can you justify and explain morality while explaining him away?
     Just asking...let the conversation continue.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Eighteen Years

Eighteen years ago today, I was driving through the streets of Lafayette, Louisiana. My exams were dropped off safely at a colleague's house for transport to school so my students could take them on time. I was otherwise occupied. My very pregnant wife needed to get to the hospital.

Today was the day.

As we drove to Lafayette General Medical Center, I couldn't shake the weight of responsibility that hit me with all the subtlety of Donald Trump on cocaine. I was going to be a father by the end of the day.

"God, please help me. I am going to have a son and I feel so unready."

The following fifteen hours were a complete blur, although I have a vague memory of watching a Dutch soccer game on ESPN2 while my wife drifted off into a semi-drugged sleep before my parents arrived from Mississippi. More blurred moments, and then at 10:18 pm CST on December 15, 1997, Joshua Cameron Davis, all six pounds, eleven ounces of him, was born via C-section.

That's when life hit us between the eyes and never let up. Joshua was crying to get air in his lungs. He cried. Soundlessly. No noise. All he could manage was a barely audible squeak. His arms flopped from his sides like hung bratwurst in a German butcher shop. Something was unexpected.

I didn't say wrong. I said unexpected.

And that's how--by the grace of God--Christy and I went forward. We had a physically disabled son whose DNA went through a genetic wringer and caused him to have a rare neuromuscular disorder. Many things have gone on in that journey and much has changed. That little peanut of a kid now shaves, he desires to be a soccer player or sports announcer, and he loves to read James Bond novels and watch Doctor Who and Sherlock

Joshua is also a young man who had to come to grips early on about his disability. He figured out early on he could never run. He has seen what was an ability to walk gingerly disappear into a wheelchair-bound view of life.

And never, not once, do I recall him complaining. And this is a kid who nearly died after spinal surgery in Miami. He wondered why it all was happening, but he managed to take it in stride in his own way.

What am I most proud of regarding Joshua? He accepts what life has thrown at him, he doesn't complain, and he lives in hope. Perhaps we'll get to the point of a cure for X-linked myotubular myopathy, and he wants to so badly. But for now, a boy who--odds were--could have died before his first birthday is now eligible to vote. 

Joshua doesn't quit. He is our son. God is with him.

On this day, what could be better than that?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Inspired

There are many things we find joyous about the Advent season: family reunions, good food, the end of a school semester (speaking selfishly). But the joy of an anointed Savior entering a broken world alienated from God for the sake of His grace is above and beyond all those trimmings.

That news can bring about inspiration from the oddest angles. This past year, as I was thinking about Advent in advance some months ago, I began thinking along the lines of Christmas carols; specifically, I thought it might be nice to have a new carol in the mix.

Which of course led me to think, Maybe you should do that yourself.

It was around that time I was also thinking through some meditations from former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (long story as to why). He had many spiritual musings, but the one that especially resonated with me is the following:

"How appropriate that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks to the future, the manger is already situated at Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem."

The more I considered that quote, the more I wondered about how to express that cosmic dimension of Christ's birth, how it was the launching moment toward his ministry, death, resurrection, and the restoration of all things. The more I considered that, the more a tune came to mind...that of the Welsh song "The Ash Grove" (sung here by Laura Wright), because...well, I'm Welsh!

Four hours later (with some last-minute touches months later before the final copyright), I had--much to my surprise--done it.

A new carol, with the manger of Bethlehem as the genesis of the turning point of history. A new carol, capturing the birth of, death of, resurrection of, and restoration wrought by the Christ Child of that manger. A new carol where the Cross, empty tomb, and the riven skies of the Apocalypse find their beginning in the manger.

By no means do I claim this will be a classic, but it's an offering of humility tracing the story of Jesus. May that be enough to warm our hearts with Advent hope.

In it's final form..."The Christ Child"
Written by Luke H. Davis (2015)
Tune: The Ash Grove (Welsh melody)

The Christ Child has come, the Lord dwelling among us,
The Savior descending from Heaven’s bright throne.
From ages long promised, now here in time’s fullness,
Our King born to claim us redeemed as His own!
The Christ Child has come! The babe born of a virgin,
He reigns and ordains since the ages began.
The manger ensconces this grand Incarnation,
Jesus, Friend of Sinners, the true Son of Man.

The Christ Child has come and, obediently living,
He teaches and heals and to sinners draws nigh.
In willingness pure and our judgment embracing,
The Lamb to the slaughter, he goes forth to die.
The Christ Child has come, the one slain for rebellion,
The fair Rose of Sharon now crushed to the stem.
The manger commences our wond’rous redemption:
The Servant of Suff’ring born in Bethlehem.

The Christ Child has come! The Great Debt has been canceled,
The satisfied Father thus shatters the grave—
Now raised from the death throes unable to hold him,
The Lion, triumphant and mighty to save.
The Christ Child has come—Glorious hope he has given,
And we by His blood shall stand, never condemned!
The manger leads on toward his great resurrection:
The Lord’s conqu’ring vict’ry dawns in Bethlehem.

The Christ Child has come, His shalom never ceasing,
His children the servants renewing God’s world—
Though kingdoms oppose Him—His peace still increasing,
His cov’nant of grace through the ages unfurled.
The Christ Child has come, all things new He shall fashion;
All honor and blessing forever to Him!
The manger, the beacon to all restoration:

Our journey to glory forged in Bethlehem.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Writing Prompt 1: Choices or Circumstances?

This year in my Ethics class, I've begun a system of--every other week--having my students write in response to a prompt. They have composition books for the occasion, and so I'll put the prompt on the board, give them fifteen minutes of nonstop, quiet writing time, and then collect the books. I read each one for a completion grade, finding some fascinating details in the way they think.

Because I don't require my students do something I wouldn't do myself, I write along with them and share my thoughts afterward. Thus, I thought, why not do the same here on my blog. So the first question of the year from back in August went as follows:

Which do you believe has had more impact on your life, the situations you find yourself in, or the choices you make? Why do you say that?

My response? Here goes...

Of course, I would like to say choices. That might betray an insane sense of control-freak nature, but there it is. What impacts me? I can say I chose to date and love and marry my wife. I chose the college and grad school I attended. I chose jobs that were offered to me. It seems like a slam dunk. Then again, don't choices arise from the situations we find ourselves in? Do my attitudes about finances, faith, friendship, family, education, sexuality and a host of other items on that pile and beyond--don't they trace back to the fact that I was born in a small northeast Kansas town, that I have moved around the country with some regularity in a white, generally middle-class family headed by a Presbyterian pastor, and that I'm the oldest of three boys? What if I was raised in inner-city Detroit wanting a good life, wanting wealth and upward mobility, but discovering that a poorer family and different schools might have difficulty giving that push? What then? What if I was raised in Communist East Germany from birth through my first nineteen years (when the Berlin Wall would've fallen)? I'd likely have markedly different ideas about faith (maybe atheist), finances (the economy would be regulated and there'd be fewer opportunities for wealth creation) and so on. Maybe a better question is "What is the relation between our choices and the situations we find ourselves in?" I know that Dumbledore told Harry Potter that we are defined by our choices--that makes for a great movie quote. And it's not that those choices are insignificant; it'd be terrible if they weren't. But the flowers of our decisions--my decisions--bloom in a meadow that we don't plant but where we live nonetheless. Maybe the best we can hope for is to enjoy our choices and be bold enough to change the situations we're in that we can make impact in ways we never imagined. You go to school, you learn botany, you plant a tree in your two-acre yard based on that knowledge, and it's an apple tree. And one night during a blustery storm, a pregnant stray dog takes shelter under that tree and apples fallen from that tree sustain her until you discover her the next day. And she gives birth to a litter of puppies which your family can't imagine being without. Something like that. And...ahhhh, fifteen minutes are up!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No Little People

I used to coach football...assistant coach at a school in Louisiana. I mentored the offensive linemen. If there's ever a group in a garden-variety football game that gets overlooked, it tends to be offensive linemen. They don't get on the stat sheet. They block for the running backs, protect the quarterback when passing, and...that's about it.

That doesn't mean they're unimportant. They'd better not be, because in my playing days in high school, I was an offensive lineman. [By the way, our football team plays University City in the state quarterfinals this Saturday, and our offensive line is about to show U-City what a significant five-some they really are!]

But that goes beyond the point.

This past Saturday, there was an absolute thriller of a football game in Oxford, Mississippi, as Arkansas toppled Ole Miss, 53-52, in overtime on national TV. It wasn't just the score, or the fact the two teams racked up nearly 1200 yards of offense together. It was the miraculous way Arkansas won.

Ole Miss had scored first in the overtime period, and now Arkansas struggled to move the ball, going in reverse to where they had a fourth-down-and-25 yards to go for the first down. Quarterback Brandon Allen dropped back for the Razorbacks' final desperation play and heaved the ball cross-field to wide receiver Hunter Henry, who gathered in the ball at the Rebels' 25-yard line, well short of the first down. Henry was creamed by the Rebels' defensive back and was going down for the game's clinching tackle and an Ole Miss victory when he heaved the ball backwards in desperation, hoping against hope this was not it when...

Now here I should interrupt things and let you know that something happened on September 20, 1994, which was a major event in the process of Ole Miss losing this game.

Dan Skipper was born.

Despite the fact I've titled this post "No Little People", that is meant to communicate there are no insignificant people.

Dan Skipper is not little. He is 6'10" tall and weighs 331 pounds. But he is an offensive lineman, and that means the eyes of a football crowd are not always on him.

But on September 20, 1994, Dan Skipper was born, setting in motion a chain of events which led to him playing football, which led to getting a scholarship to play football for Arkansas, which led to a starting position at right tackle...

...which led to Dan Skipper playing right tackle in overtime at the time Hunter Henry sent his Bon-Jovi-style-living-on-a-prayer lateral skyward back toward the 41-yard line, where two Ole Miss players could have plucked it out of the air...

Except that Dan Skipper reached out with his paw and barely slapped the ball aside, causing it to bounce sideways off the turf and into the waiting arms of Alex Collins, who found daylight and scampered to the 11-yard line and a first down and new life for Arkansas.

Don't believe me? Watch the replay:

A few plays later, the Razorbacks scored a touchdown. They went for the winning two-point conversion which failed, but a Rebel face-mask penalty gave them new life yet again, and then the winning convert was scored by Brandon Allen.

53-52 was the score. Allen scored the winner. Collins got the yards on the fourth down scamper.

But Dan Skipper--who didn't show up on the stat sheet--made the most important contribution of all. If Skipper doesn't bat that ball to the side, it's all for naught. And yet the announcers never mentioned his name.

Dan Skipper made the difference. 

In life, as in football, there are no little people. There are no insignificant souls. Everything we do, say, and try has value, even if no one announces it.

Even you. Especially you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Royal Flush

What a great October.

I am a Cubs fan first and foremost, and it was a sweet year that came out of nowhere. Ninety-seven wins, a whitewashing of the Pirates in the wild-card game, and then curb-stomping the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series put the Cubs' future trajectory further ahead than I ever imagined. Even a sweep by the Mets in the NLCS couldn't dissolve the joy on the North Side. The heights are so dizzying now, I'm afraid of ESPN jinxing the whole operation with their way-too-early predictions for next year.

But when the dust settled, I had to be proud of the Kansas City Royals. What a team. What a year. And what a city.

I know I run the risk of incurring the wrath of Cardinals fans here in St. Louis, some who still have raw memories of the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. (News flash: GET OVER IT, PEOPLE!) But the Royals entirely deserved the postseason laurels this year.

Interestingly enough, I've been to about seven Royals games in my lifetime. Every time, Kansas City has won. Without exception. Not that they needed me through this postseason.

Our family has had particular interest in the Royals since 2010. We discovered we could go across the state, get a hotel in KC and get four tickets to a Monday night game for a total cost less than going to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals. So in late June of that year, we took in a 3-1 win over the White Sox on a beautiful night in gorgeous Kaufmann Stadium. The crowd of 13,000 that night loved their team; it was just a shame that they were mired in last place in the American League Central Division at the time. But I was watching the Royals and saw they had a great cache of talent in the minor leagues that was tearing things up. And I thought, If they keep these guys together, there's no telling what can happen.

2014 came and the Royals found themselves in the World Series, where they lost narrowly to the seasoned Giants. That experience paid dividends for this year. In their eleven postseason wins, the Royals came from two runs down seven times. SEVEN TIMES! Plus, that includes ninth-inning rallies in Games One and Five against the Mets. This was the stuff of legend.

It was topped off yesterday by a victory parade and rally that seemed to attract at least a half million folks for the love-in. No fights, no pushiness, no riots. Just a classy service of reciprocal thanks from town to team and vice versa.

It was a celebration that I look forward to happening for the Cubs in a year or so. But this year, Kansas City supremely deserved it. What a team. What a year. What a city. A Blue October it was.

Why Read?

I know that I tend to have all the annoyance of a prophet calling in the wilderness, but I'm going John the Baptist one more time.

Various educational reformers and program-tinkerers come out with the latest fashions and plugs to try this or that idea. This is not to criticize said talking heads; some good ideas some from those voices. Nor is this the forum to criticize initiatives like No Child Left Behind or Common Core standards. Other people with more skin in the game than I do can skirmish on that terrain. Nor is this a technology rant. Others can scream out the pros and cons of iPads and other digital devices.

I feel the need to point out that all initiatives in educational reform will fail unless people take it upon themselves to be diligent readers. This is not spellbinding cutting edge stuff. This is common sense thinking.

Reading is the foundation of the house of the educated person. You may never be a voracious reader, but you can be a consistent reader, and you can learn to love reading.

There are many reasons why you should yearn to be a reader, but in case you were wondering if I had a list of benefits at the ready, here are twenty of them in no particular order:

1. It slows down your day and relaxes you. 
2. It helps you realize there are other worlds and perspectives than your own.
3. It expands your vocabulary and you can have more descriptive conversations.
4. Reading before going to sleep relaxes you and helps you sleep better. Sleeping better leads to higher quality waking hours.
5. It develops your imagination and provokes you to think about alternative paths and endings to your own stories of life.
6. Reading different varieties of books can offer solutions to everyday challenges.
7. It's productive. Read for thirty minutes a day five days a week and you've read 7800 minutes for a year. That translates to 130 hours of time. Imagine how many books you'd get read in 130 hours!
8. You understand other people's emotions as you encounter characters of other stories, and as a result you become more empathetic in a world that is increasingly less so.
9. Reading improves attention span, concentration, memory, and personal discipline.
10. You are able to assess situations and challenges in a hierarchical manner when you read more. This means you have an increasing ability to figure out what problems are important and what issues are less important, and you can prioritize things more naturally that way.
11. Especially with reading fiction, you realize the world consists of exceptions to the rule, and you can be inspired to solve problems rather than accept limitations.
12. It can challenge your own beliefs, help winnow away error, and strengthen the truth you hold.
13. It improves critical thinking, logic, and deduction skills.
14. It improves your ability to see patterns  and to anticipate possibilities.
15. It keeps your mind fresh and rejuvenated.
16. It strengthens your brain.
17. You become a more fluent communicator because you get a better handle not only on what to say but how it sounds.
18. Reading non-fiction can help you grasp practical aspects of life...what to look for in insurance policies, how to build a spice rack, and so forth.
19. It's inexpensive. Did you know you can borrow books for free from the public library?
20. And--from a personal vantage point--reading makes you a better writer and opens up a world where you can love to write. And that means you can create things that others can love to read. And that is a wonderful thought!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Faith and Fiction (The Promised Download)

As promised, here is the download of the discussion of "The Christian Imagination" from last night at Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

Chris Smith, L.B. Graham, and I talk all things faith and fiction in forty-three minutes. Well, maybe not all things, but we cover a generous swath!

Enjoy the conversation here!

The Christian Imagination

I know it sounds strange to say we had a great literary bull session last night at church, but it's true. Not to mention back in the day of Christendom of yesteryear, many book discussions and author talks would take place in the chancels of churches and cathedrals, as the church used to be the center not only of spiritual life, but of cultural vitality as well.

Last night at Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, I had the privilege of being part of a two-man panel with my dear friend and fellow author L.B. Graham. In the discussion, led by Chris Smith, we explored the relationship between the Christian faith and literature, with our primary focus on fiction. 

Chris started the proceedings with an acknowledgement that some Christians have not delved into literature as they should, preferring to focus on persuading others of the truth of the Gospel. Leland Ryken, professor of literature at Wheaton College, notes with sadness several dismissive attitudes among some Christians about fiction does not communicate facts or useful information, it teaches error, it entertains only, is too emotional, is a waste of time, unrelated to life, and is immoral. Ryken dismantles these assertions in the course of his Windows to the World of course, but the sting can be felt in some quarters.

Chris countered that with C.S. Lewis' affirming acknowledgement of the good that fiction does in the Oxford don's An Experiment in Criticism. Our lives, Lewis says, demand windows to other worlds, and desire to live through the eyes of others, to build and feel empathy for others (which is a by-product of reading well).

The rest of the evening was Chris asking L.B. and I questions such as...
--> What has been your history as a reader? What have been some of your favorite novels and authors in your childhood and as an adult?
--> The Bible lays out a storyline of "creation, ruin, redemption, and restoration". How does the Bible as literature, combined with the Bible's storyline, help us read fiction?
--> How did you first develop an interest in writing?
--> What do you find challenging and pleasurable about writing?
--> What is your process? And give us a taste of your literary world: What characters and setting do you create?

This was followed by several questions posed from the congregation and we were done within an hour.

I won't go into detail on our responses here. For one, I've covered some of my own journey on this blog. Also, Covenant should be uploading the Mp3 of the panel discussion soon. When that happens, I'll post the link for your access and (hopefully!) enjoyment.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hand Over Key

There's a reason why C.S. Lewis--for one--wrote his books by hand, relying on others to type them up for him.

Writing things out by hand, while a slower pace, forces you to think more critically about meaning, about the structure of thought, and about what is important in what you hear.

New research is coming in and--while I've been beating the drum that old-school methods are more in line with how our brains function--it's nice to see evidence-based confirmation of that.

The report is here. While I am no technology-bashing Luddite, we really need to see the sense of this report.

Digest it and give feedback...I'd love to know your thoughts.

Monday, October 5, 2015

It's Worth Investing in Chesterton

One time after he read an article entitled, "What's Wrong With the World?", the Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton decided a response was in order. Because he was G.K. Chesterton, he also decided a pithy response was in order. And so he penned the following:

"Dear Sir, 
     Regarding your article 'What's Wrong With the World?': I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton"

One of the great writers of all time, the lay Catholic theologian and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton was known for bulldogging his way through paradox, utilizing the delicious turn of phrase, and engaging in serious but accessible theology. If you haven't worked much into the Chesterton universe, it's worth a journey. His classics Orthodoxy (which depicted his own spiritual journey) and The Everlasting Man (his rebuttal of H.G. Wells The Outline of History which serves as Chesterton's depiction of the spiritual journey of humanity) are much revered by even the sharpest critics.

Perhaps you don't have time to read anything by Chesterton. You could also partake of his Father Brown mysteries, given that they are running on many PBS stations around the country. Mark Williams--who played Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter film series--plays the lovable crime-solving Catholic cleric set in the fictional village of Kembleford. Producers Rachel Flowerday and Tashin Guner have done a fantastic job of creating fresh mysteries in the Chesterton tradition. Check your PBS stations for listings as Series 3 is approaching its completion, although the good news is they are filming for the next season!

Whether in books or on public television, Chesterton is worth a try. Invest in the Prince of Paradox if you haven't yet, or even if it's been a while.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Good Things Will Happen

I get very proud of friends and colleagues who persevere.

I am especially proud of those who have incredibly hard starts in a new environment and then, rather than complain, reloads for the next phase so those they lead are prepared.

From 1997-2000, I was a teacher and assistant football coach at Westminster Christian Academy in Opelousas, Louisiana. One of my coaching staff mates was a great guy named Vinnie Bullara; he taught physical science and biology, I taught Apologetics and Worldviews. We had a number of challenges, but we were part of a unit that took a team from 1-9 to 5-5 (1997), 6-5 with a playoff appearance (1998), and 9-2 with another playoff berth (1999). The success plan was nothing fancy: Just weightlifting, conditioning, and having the players buy into the system while helping them become more intelligent players. It was great to be part of that effort, as well as learning that sticking to a consistent plan will reap dividends.

Fast forward to last year, after some moves elsewhere and then back to Opelousas, my friend Vinnie (I know...sounds like a Joe Pesci movie) is named the head football coach at Westminster. Picking up the pieces of a once proud program, Vinnie went 1-10 in his first year with struggling units on both sides of the ball. It would have been easy to despair. Vinnie never blamed anyone; he was looking toward the future; he'd been through this before. Get stronger; get tougher; get more disciplined; believe in yourselves. That's what I know he's preached.

This year, the Westminster Crusaders--after last night's 40-20 win over Ascension Catholic--have started 3-1, tripling last season's win total. They are more disciplined and much tougher (allowed 76 points through first four games as opposed to 136 last year). It's a great success story in process.

I recall former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz saying in his book The Fighting Spirit, that "if you believe and if you have a plan and if you believe in the plan, good things will happen."

That's not just good for football; it's good for life itself in all our human endeavors. It counts greatly to exhibit--as Eugene Peterson once termed it--"a long obedience in the same direction."

Well done, Vinnie. May that long obedience continue, my friend.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

About That Schedule...

I've held my tongue long enough, simply because I consider myself a nice guy.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly doesn't need me playing the role of the apologist.

And what I'm going to say is quite critical, but it is pointed criticism of an individual.

Allow me to bookmark this by saying that what follows is no invective against my former students who attend the University of Missouri. "Mizzou" no doubt offers a fine education; their journalism school is blue-chip top-rate; and their athletic move to the Southeastern Conference--while making them quite a geographical outpost of the SEC--has paid dividends in many areas.

So you got all that? I like people at Mizzou and even though my college basketball loyalties rest with my home state Kansas Jayhawks, I have nothing against Mizzou unless prodded into a corner until I snarl.

Gary Pinkel made me snarl.

Coach Pinkel, have you never considered the wisdom of keeping your mouth clamped shut?

It goes beyond wanting to bar people from the stadium for practice back in 2012 because you didn't want your team enduring distractions? (Distractions? You're in the SEC. You'll have to go into Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and deal with 100,000 screaming, bloodthirsty LSU fans one day. Buck up!) 

The Constitution gives you the right to your opinion. It offers no protection from the public when that opinion is stupid.

Yes, blitheringly idiotic.

No independents should make the College Football Playoff to compete for a championship, you say? There are no non-conference independent teams in the NFL, you say? Right. No critical thinking textbook could defend that train wreck of illogic. 

The Twitter firestorm was not only swift and fierce, but entirely justified. And Coach Kelly was even more incisive in his reply, showing that Notre Dame doesn't need a label to be excellent. And if Pinkel wants to grouse about Notre Dame, maybe he should stop playing (and scraping past in ugly fashion) the woeful triad of Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State (won by only seven), and Connecticut (a 9-6 win preserved with an INT on a fake field goal attempt).

"We don't play the sisters of the cupcake poor." Beautiful.

Look here, Pinkel. I'm not denying the necessity of a "breather" game once in awhile. Alabama plays Middle Tennessee. Georgia will play Southern-Baton Rouge. And even my Fighting Irish will play Massachusetts, although to be honest the Mid-American Conference is a step up from the SWAC and the Sun Belt (given how Northern Illinois put the fear of God into top-ranked Ohio State this weekend). But Notre Dame has crushed Texas, a program that Charlie Strong will have playing at a high level by season's end and be in the championship picture in four to five years. We faced adversity and beat Virginia on the road when we lost our quarterback for the year. We came home and stuffed #14 and defending Orange Bowl winners Georgia Tech. We'll also be playing Clemson at Clemson; USC at home; at Pitt; at Stanford; Boston College (which went toe-to-toe with Florida State) at Fenway Park.

Yes, you have the SEC, but primarily the SEC East. And given how you've performed in the first three games, with an offense colder than a 1972 Dodge Dart on a winter morning in Alberta...I'd say the chances are a team like the Georgia Bulldogs might just pick your players clean and feed the leftovers to UGa.

Other teams might do that to Notre Dame, but it'll be after the Irish have at least tested themselves against a higher caliber of adversaries.

You're a great tactician, Coach Pinkel. You do get mileage out of your players, and your team gives my former students who now attend Mizzou some happy moments. And when they're happy, I'm happy. I love them, and if they have a great collegiate experience at Mizzou, who could complain?

But there's a reason why the Twitter zeitgeist exploded once you opened your mouth. 

Keep it shut. College football has many problems. It doesn't need additional foolishness.

You can put that wisdom on the shelf next to the national championship trophies that y'all have earned.

Oh wait. You don't have any? That's right...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Here Come The Reviews!

Well, it is the first one, but it comes from local St. Louis native, voracious reader, and most excellent writer (and Louisiana State University graduate!) Glynn Young. Glynn is the author of two novels that are also under the Dunrobin banner, and if you haven't read Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, you need to remedy that deficit right now.

Glynn has posted a review of my latest novel in the Cameron Ballack Mystery Series, The Broken Cross, and you can find that review at his Faith, Fiction, Friends blog right here.

Happy reading, and spread the word. (And if you still haven't read Glynn's books, either, order them now! That's what the above links are for!)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is the Way to Go!

Every May, I recall my first semester of seminary studies. I entered Covenant Theological Seminary in January of 1993, a mid-school year move I heartily recommend to all future seminarians (you don't have to start out with killer Greek during the summer and you can mash out some counseling, church history, and theology courses that have no pre-requisites and you can ease into graduate school life with less stress). In May of that year, I had a pre-exam-and-exam fortnight that consisted of taking two exams and typing four pages of at least fifteen pages apiece.

I slogged through it pretty well, shocking myself with relatively sterling grades, and then took off for Nashville to visit my friends Phil and Jennifer Covington. Phil and I hit his health club for a trifecta of racquetball games to build up our appetite for dinner. In the middle of the second game, I bounced the ball before I served it and went to clench it in my grasp...when it trickled out of my hand. I bent my fingers and (1) saw I couldn't use their full range of motion and (2) felt incredible pain in the underside of my left wrist.

Short story was: I went back to St. Louis two days later, checked in with my physician, and Dr. Reynolds promptly told me I had carpal tunnel syndrome. Hello, wrist splint.

But at least I got it doing something meaningful.

Where is this going, you ask?

One of the loudest conversations occurring in schools today is the extent and use of technology. There is a sense where just an overhead projector or document camera might be enough to put me at ease, but the days of "Bring Your Own Digital Device" or 1:1 iPad initiatives are upon us, and we have to figure out how those creations and 21st-century education might interface.

No one denies that, I think. However, I don't think the problem comes with the use of technology, but the danger is failing to ask the necessary questions when deciding on how to integrate technology.

And those questions are...
1- Will this device make students better readers?
2- Will this device make students better writers?
3- Will this device make students better critical thinkers (i.e., logic)

Convinced of this matters, I required all my students this year to get a different element of technology: a composition book (fifty cents at Wal-Mart...can't beat it). Once a week on average, we take fifteen minutes of time to quiet ourselves and free-write in response to a writing prompt. No phones, no laptops. Just students, pencils, pens, and paper.

Questions like "Which do you believe has had more impact on your life: the situations you find yourself in, or the choices you make? Why do you say that?" Or this past week's was: "Complete one of the following statements: (a) You need God for morality, because...  or (b) You don't need God for morality, because...

By the end, students grasp their hands because, yes, it's more than they are used to writing at one time and some of them feel carpal tunnel syndrome coming on. Yes, I write along with one class per week, answering the same question. You know what? I get the same pain in my hand, and I love it. And I think my students are slowly realizing this: When you write by hand, you tap deeply into your humanity, and you grow the garden that has taken root in your soul, and you tend to remember what you experience.

No phones, no laptops, no iPads. But I think my students are starting to enjoy writing response time just the same. They write, they read what they write, and they learn to think. I can't ask for any greater joy than that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Starting Line, Not the Finish Line

We're good to go, and The Broken Cross is up and running at Amazon! The second volume in the Cameron Ballack Mystery series has gone public.

There's a tendency to see this as a finish line for all the hard work, but now the hard work truly begins. This is a starting line, not a finish line, and what will make this book a true success is people buying it, reading it, and then sharing the news about it with others who then repeat the process.

It takes an author to write a book, but that writer is connected to a living network that can make the possibilities go viral. Let's get behind this and make it spread!

And by the way, let people know if they haven't read the first novel, Litany of Secrets, they can download it for free from September 1-5!

Happy reading! #JusticeIsComing #BallackIsBack

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ballack Is Back!

It's true! In one week, The Broken Cross will be available on Amazon Kindle, with the paperback to come out a few weeks later. So that's September 1st for the ebook release, which will make a sweet belated birthday gift for me!

Here's the synopsis from the back cover:
A place of solitude, prayer and reflection becomes a place of death as the Catholic Church's lead attorney is brutally murdered in St. Louis' Cathedral Basilica just days after winning a prominent case. 

Within hours, Cameron Ballack is appointed the Special Investigative Division team’s lead detective. The wheelchair-bound Ballack, and his new team, must battle secrecy, depravity and deception as they begin to uncover an unholy reign of illicit behavior that has triggered one killing after another.

Connecting horrors of the past with the case at hand, Ballack gambles everything in a union of logic and intuition to ensnare the murderer. But as the killer’s intentions reach a critical mass, will Ballack and his team be able to stop this evil crusade before more lie dead before the altar of past sins?

More news as we approach the release date! And thanks for all your encouragement as we bring this story to you.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Back to School: Painting Things Green

This actually has nothing to do with painting. The title was just a conspiracy to get you reading this. When teachers head back to school, much of the focus lands on lesson plans, counting desks to make sure you have enough, and navigating through the maze of orientation meetings with other staff. But the best question we teachers can ask at this time--especially those who teach within the Christian academy--is "Why are we here?"

To this end, the faculty at my present employer, Westminster Christian Academy, read two short books over the summer (at least, we all were supposed to have read them!), one of them pictured above: Jay Green's An Invitation to Academic Studies. Green is professor of history at my alma mater, Covenant College, although he arrived six years after my graduation. To answer the question "Why are we here?", Green looks at various strategies that well-meaning believers have tried in regards to academia (he focuses  mainly on college studies, but there are ramifications here for secondary education, too). Then Green proposes a powerful--and in my view, a biblical, alternative.

Green begins with the ancient church father Tertullian and his famous/infamous quote, "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?...After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research." I confess to twitches of pain and convulsions of embarrassment whenever I see that quote. Green lays out several strategies that Christian have historically taken with regards to academics and faith.

1. Avoid higher education altogether: This is the idea that pursuing serious study in a collegiate setting can ruin a young person's faith.
2. Defensive engagement: Entering university studies must be undertaken with sober judgment, so students must take care to preserve their Christian worldview while in college environments that can be hostile to their faith.
3. Dualism: Christian faith and academic study exist in separate spheres. Faith is of interest to the faithful, while the common kingdom of academic study has more of a pull for non-redeemed humankind.
4. Jerusalem transforming Athens: The cause of the faith is to renew and change educational pursuits of every kind, where students are "agents of renewal" in the world by virtue of their Christian education.

While respecting whatever merits reside within these strategies, Green opts for his alternative proposal: Academic disciplines are "gifts from God, can help us to cultivate a deeper love for God and our neighbors--an alternative that not only is interested in what we Christians are doing for our academic disciplines, but also asks what the academic disciplines might be doing for us as Christians."

Green's proposal has biblical merit, both didactically and through the example of historical narrative. In I Timothy 4:4, St. Paul--an academic cleric himself--says "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer." What are academic disciplines like history, mathematics, engineering, biology, German, literature, and the like but portals to the creation of God and what he has imbued in humankind? Yes, fallen humankind...I get that. But this world is still good and bears the brushstrokes of a Creator calling humanity back to himself. Why wouldn't we want to plunge into the details of this groaning planet and our robust yet vandalized existence? All this has something to teach us about fidelity to God in his world.

Not to mention, if there is anything the story of Daniel teaches us in Scripture (aside from the fact you can have a pretty exciting career as a federal government official), it's that the participation of godly people in academic studies matters. Daniel and his three co-exiled buddies were put in the honors program in Babylon, far from home, far from faithful nurture. But Daniel didn't take an avoidance approach, bunker down in defensive engagement, or radically say "This part is God's, this belongs to Babylon." No, he and his friends participated in the pagan training, learning the literature, language, history and (most likely) the religion of the Babylonians (Daniel 1:3-4). And God gave them both learning (worldview) and wisdom (skill) in these subject areas [Daniel 1:17], to where Daniel and company were head and shoulders above the rest (1:19-20). Why would God have done this unless what they learned was of no benefit to their faithful existence?

It's something to consider. Consider also--if you're a Christian school teacher-- having this discussion with others. Snag an administrator, a fellow teacher, a student, and a parent and ask them, "What seems to be our goal here at _____ Christian School? What are we doing here? What should we be doing here?"

It might be fascinating what kind of answers you get.

Selected quotes from An Invitation to Academic Studies

"The point here is not that worldview thinking within the disciplines is unimportant compared to disciplinary knowledge...But if such 'worldview' issues are the first or most important considerations raised, or if, in pursuing them, we believe we have exhausted our academic responsibility before God, then I believe we dishonor the disciplines and ironically strip them of the power and promise they hold for us and for God's kingdom."

"How would our pursuit of learning in college change if we were to envision the academic disciplines not so much as adversaries in need of fixing or censoring but as genuine gifts from our gracious God?"

"The academic disciplines are both extensions of creation and one of the most consequential ways in which we exercise dominion over that which God has made."

"A worldview mastery of a craft is no substitute for mastery of the craft itself."

"It is accordingly helpful to see each academic discipline as extending a kind of basic knowledge, a set of distinctive skills, and a variety of virtues, all of which require our careful attention and our labors."

"We need to move these fields of study conceptually back within the bounds of creational goodness where they belong and allow ourselves to be amazed and thrilled by the worlds of joyful discovery that they open to us when we enter them with this kind of expectation. This sense of wonder can't help but overflow into gratitude to God."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Remembering Uncle Bob

This past Saturday dawned much like any other day, but within a few hours, the sun's rays didn't seem as bright as usual.

In a hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina, my Uncle Bob, who had hung on for over ten weeks after suffering a traumatic brain injury, finally came to the end of his earthly journey.

Uncle Bob had been doing what he loved, bicycling around the area, when he had his accident and suffered his injury. And that probably gives us a window into Uncle Bob. It seemed that whatever he was up to, he was doing something he loved.

Whether it was taking a walk through the nearby arboretum, dabbling in photography, taking one of his dedicated long-distance runs, biking across states like North Carolina or Kansas, playing with his grandchildren, or finding ways to heal the struggles and fissures in marriages, I think it's fair to say Uncle Bob found joy in each journey.

Over the years of my own existence, there has been plenty of opportunity to know and enjoy Bob, whom I knew probably the most out of all my uncles. It went beyond visits during Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. Once during a sabbatical in Atlanta, Bob flew over to Mississippi to spend time with my folks and it coincided with my seminary fall break. And October mornings in Mississippi are some nice hours to spend some four-mile runs with Uncle Bob. 

But it was when we lived geographically closer to Bob and Aunt Judy that we were most appreciative. When I was a pastor in North Carolina, I found the going difficult and--honestly--depressing. It was hard recognizing the greatest resistance to the Gospel could come from people you were trying to lead, and I couldn't find a way out of that darkness. During those two difficult years, I think it's fair to say that thanks to Bob and Judy's kindness and consistent encouragement, we managed to make it through to the next vocational step. The encouragement didn't stop when we moved away. When I published my first novel in 2013, Bob sent an email about how much he enjoyed reading it (even saying it left other well-known authors in the dust, a comment that humbled me and I continue to prize).

It's also fair to say that throughout his life, Uncle Bob found a way to be a healer. He recognized soon after entering the pastorate that he'd be wise to train in marriage and family counseling, and that decision eventually led him to over three decades of service as the director of a counseling center in Greensboro (which he founded). I attended one of his training seminars for clergy when we were living in North Carolina, and I manage to bring in a number of those principles even in teaching when talking to kids about relationships and preparation for life. Uncle Bob believed so much in the importance of marriage that he wrote about it. In marked contrast to a society that preached personal fulfillment and reckless individualistic happiness, Uncle Bob calmly but definitively lifted the banner of promise keeping. It is not making ourselves overjoyed that makes us human, he indicated. Rather, faithfulness, monogamy, and the stubborn and steadfast love of another is what empowers us to flourish. The Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina has many marriages that have been prepared and repaired because Uncle Bob held consistently to this mantra.

It wasn't just couples that Uncle Bob sought to help, but also those fraught with scarcity. His work with Bread for the World underscored his concern for others to have the basic needs of food and sustenance. So much of that was behind the scenes, but it was passionate living out of his beliefs all the same.

A life of passion, a life of hope. I think it's altogether appropriate that one who lived his earthly days as a healer for others has now received his complete healing from the Great Physician, and one who has given wisdom to others has entered the presence of the Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9).

Uncle Bob, thank you for a life well lived. And it's been humbling I was able to intersect with it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Between The Pages with "Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins"

I'd say it's about time I did a book review. It has been a summer of heavy reading: I've bulldozed through the Shakespearean tragedies of King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. I greatly enjoyed Icelandic crime fiction novelist Arnauldur Indriadson's Hypothermia, and presently I am working my way through Dante's Divine Comedy. So the winner of today's book review blog post is...

If you guessed "none of the above", you'd be right.

James Runcie remains one of the great treasures of literary minds today. I stumbled across his Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death three years ago and was taken with how delightfully well-written this gentlemanly clergyman cozy mystery was framed. After cutting my teeth on detective fiction novel after novel, it was a refreshing change of pace to come across a book with a general story arc connected by six loosely threaded short stories with the same core main characters. I have since devoured his following three books in the Grantchester Mysteries, bringing us through this year's edition, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins. (In fact, if you have avoided Grantchester on PBS to enjoy the spirit of these stories on the small screen, I seriously question your choice of cultural entertainment)

This most recent work is a beauty of a page turner without feeling too quick of a pace. Runcie, the son of former (1980-1991) Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, knows the world of the Church of England clergyman. He portrays Chambers as a gentle, knowledgeable soul with a discernible love of his parishioners, a desire to see the best in others, and an ability to pull secrets out of others when the police can't.

When the series began, Sidney Chambers was 32 and unmarried. Now, having navigated through the undulations of his friendship with Amanda Kendall, marriage to German widow Hildegard Staunton, and tense moments with Inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney is moving through mid-life with wife and daughter and accepts a promotion as Archdeacon of Ely, taking him from the small town of Grantchester where he had served.

Runcie continues his classy and lyrical prose, drawing the reader into the world of Britain's metamorphosis from Elizabeth II's coronation onward. One thing I've greatly enjoyed is how Runcie paints the labors of sleuthing on the canvas of the times. Whereas today is an age when people are all too eager to share everything about themselves through social media--whether it be getting tickets to a ball game or about laughing Coke through their nose at lunch--in Chambers' day, folks were more reserved about divulging private details. Too much openness could be rude. It is an age when homosexuality was still prosecuted and racism was ugly in small towns. Runcie brings these realities to bear in his stories, brushing in (along the way) Sidney's experiences in historical events as the Berlin Wall goes up, C.S. Lewis is laid to rest, and England wins the 1966 World Cup.

In the meantime, Sidney finds time to help investigate the apparent murder of a Russian musician, the domestic abuse of a country hostess, poison pen letters to his friend Amanda, the "accidental" death of a Cambridge musician under the weight of a piano, a blown-up science wing of a school, and the theft of a painting during a Florentine vacation.

The fiction is always gripping, but there is much realism that draws the reader in. Sidney struggles with the obsession of sleuthing that he neglects much of his parish duties, not to mention his family, leading to a confrontation with Hildegard. His foibles and flaws, far from leading to disgust, are drawn for the sake of authenticity. This is a man who struggles with his priorities, who knows he is a priest swimming in a desperate current (sometimes of his own making), but one who desires to be a good man seeking to bring faith and hope to those under his care.

In short, the cozy mystery with the British gentleman detective is back in full force. One could call it "Father Brown meets the changing tides of British culture" but truly Runcie has done more than merely dovetail what has come before. He has created an emerging tradition of humane suspense within the fabric of period mystery and drama, and one that deserves the highest accolades.

And I guarantee it is an effort I will hail again at this time next year when the fifth volume in the Grantchester Mysteries arrives. Thank you, James, in advance.