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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

When the Intolerant Short-Circuit Things (In Defense of Eichel)

All right. You want to throw down and go at it? 

A story, first of all.

Today, I was pulling out of the parking lot in St. Peters, MO, after getting dinner at Little Caesar's. I was going the correct way down the lane when another guy zoomed in, headed toward me in his car going the WRONG direction. I honked my horn, yelled, "Hey, you're going the wrong stinking way!" and put my hands up, palms facing skyward.

The guy--talking on his cell phone, mind you--screamed at me. His windows were closed but I didn't need good ears. Two words.

"F--- YOU!"

Nice. Wrong guy going the wrong way. And he feels the scales of justice would be balanced if he shot that wad in my direction. Never stopped to consider his actions.

Today, my friend Eichel Davis (no relation), a freshman at the University of Missouri wrote a post on his blog about the troubles in Ferguson in retrospective, looking back at the death of Michael Brown. Since I was his blog to get even more readership (and so you can see his authorial labors), go read it here. You might agree with his statements; you might not. That is not the issue. What got me angry were the comments. Eichel was criticized for grammar and that his "claims are just plain wrong". Other comments were less than gracious.

Whether you agree with Eichel is immaterial. Whether or not I do is immaterial. Whether someone makes mistakes or errors in writing is a side issue. (YOU try writing a blog, or more dauntingly, a book or two or three, and keep your mechanics and syntax as clean as Mother Teresa's soul) What matters is how you respect the process of civil dialogue and thoughtful conversation. Eichel, to his credit, was very gracious in his replies.

If we cannot model honest debate, we will lose hope for our nation. So someone might post something you disagree with...Are you that insecure that you have to engage in ancillary comments or sarcastic blather that have nothing to do with the issue at hand? Can we not see that speaking dismissively might rake in the ratings for CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News but it won't forge the bonds between people of good will in debates that should be--at their hearts--impassioned yet intellectual exercises.

It would be good to recall an iconic scene from Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline, when military college classmates Dante Pignetti and Mark Santoro get into a fistfight. Pignetti takes issue with roommate Will McLean for Will not liking American involvement in the Vietnam War. Santoro intervenes with a vicious punch to Pig's temple and then says, "This is college, you dumb bastard. This is a place where you're supposed to argue and learn and get pissed off. You don't go around choking your buddies because they don't happen to believe what you believe."

I might not use Santoro's exact language, but the point is the same. You don't verbally clobber someone on a blog or conversation because you feel that tearing them down is the way to success. Juan Williams bemoans this tendency in his book Muzzled. Is the world going to end because you don't like what someone says or believes? Don't they deserve a listening ear instead of a stinging volley?

Keep being gracious, Eichel. Pure class, buddy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

For the Love of a City

Three hours of sleep last night.

I guess looking back, it's a miracle I got that much. Such is the problem when you go to bed with a broken heart. A city...was in flames.

I am well aware I've lived for a long stretch in St. Louis, which is making a case for being "home", but many who know me recognize I went to high school less than a half-hour northwest of Baltimore, and upon my graduation, my father took a position as senior pastor of a church tucked in an urban residential neighborhood of northeast Baltimore. We lived there for six more years and I was home from college in summer and other breaks. I never thought I would warm to Baltimore, but the city grew to capture me in her embrace.

Baltimore is a tough city. It's a scrap-iron town, hewn out of pavement by the bay. The afflictions of its core are legion: racial contention and the need for reconciliation, IV drug users contracting HIV/AIDS, a steadily increasing homeless population topping 4000, and a level of violent crime four times higher than the national average. Yet it is a town that--like a troublesome relative or friend who can struggle with luck--you just can't help but love with a depth that defies logic. Whether it's an affluent neighborhood like Roland Park and Guilford or working-class areas like Hampden, the residents of "Charm City" resolutely march on.

The marching just got a good deal more difficult last night. The purge by gang members and other thugs to issues beyond the funeral of Freddie Gray, the attacks on police officers, the slow response of public officials, and other actions have plunged the streets of downtown Baltimore into terror. Last night, flipping from Fox News to CNN and back, my heart was ripped in two as I saw places familiar to me trampled on by violence borne out of pain but which can never heal the pain.

No offense to others who may see differently, but it made the events here in St. Louis in the city of Ferguson look paltry by comparison (I said, by comparison). This was Ferguson on several cycles of anabolic steroids. Police attacked, buildings torched [A senior center at a Baptist church was incinerated], and businesses looted.

Thankfully, ministers took to the streets to pray and help other see reason. It could have gotten a lot worse than it did.

How I wish we had waited to see how the prosecution of the police officers in the case of Freddie Gray's death might have played out. If only restraint triumphed over violence. If.

Truth be told, I don't see how people can believe this wasn't police brutality in this instance. I know we don't know the whole story, but those injuries don't get self-inflicted in the back of a police van, especially when the guy could barely walk.

There are questions that need answers, and there's a city that needs healing. And this is affecting all of Baltimore. That's one difference between Baltimore and St. Louis, in my opinion. St. Louis, stratified into various suburbs and inner-ring neighborhoods, can navel-gaze more on one's primary smaller civic association. People here identify more with their enclaves ("I'm from Kirkwood", "I've lived in Webster Groves for forty years", "Bevo Mill's my home") than saying "I'm from St. Louis."

There are neighborhoods in Baltimore, but what tends to define people from Charm City is that they are first and foremost Baltimoreans. They are not primarily from Hamilton, Overlea, Penn-North, or other enclaves. More than anything else, they hail from Baltimore, an identity as clear and bright as the Domino sugar factory sign that illuminates the territory around it downtown. And when part of Baltimore suffers, the whole city weeps.

I pray that reconciliation occurs, and that the weeping will end. Because I love my city.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Raising Our Game

In laying out an ambitious agenda--one that would make an already beautiful and effective state-of-the-art campus even more so--our athletic department at Westminster Christian Academy has rolled a winning pair of dice.

Launching it on an official Facebook page this morning, Westminster is promoting its hoped-for athletic upgrades for a tennis pavilion, an improved football stadium public address system, and lights for the football field.

Why the hubbub, you ask?

Westminster has answered a number of the questions about stadium lights, especially as having them installed would free up scheduling issues, help us avoid excessive Missouri daytime heat that can extend into the Indian summer days, freeing up weekend family time for our spectators, staff, and coaches, and also making our athletes more visible for collegiate recruiting. Plus, if you ask me, high school football makes sense under the lights. We're not on the set of Dead Poets Society or School Ties, where alums gather for Saturday afternoon games. H.G. Bissinger's iconic book about the Permian Panthers was called Friday Night Lights, not Saturday Showcase, for a reason. My wife, raised in the Deep South, knows the trinity of her culture is that of grits, barbecue, and Friday night high school football. She's been waiting for this moment as I have. Saturday football is meant to be college football, where people can cheer on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Bulldogs and teams of schools that are a step down in class from those two.

This is not for glitz and show, by the way. These upgrades are formative for our school community. Attendance would skyrocket and students would mingle. Relationships would form and deepen, and many memories would be made that begin with "Remember that night when we beat Borgia and..."

I say this as a teacher at Westminster, as a former coach, and as one who loves the deepening of school community. I say this as the team PA announcer, for I can already see the benefits therein.

     Autumn nights were meant for this...
     Imagine if you would a blazing orb making its rhythmic descent past the horizon's western edge, throwing a mesmeric glow on the jagged fingers of clouds. The alluring scent of burgers, hot dogs, and bratwursts have brought the legions of fans to Westminster Stadium, milling together in glorious fellowship as the temperature goes crisp in the rippling breezes. With a full-throated roar, the vociferous congregation lifts its voices as one as the Wildcats storm the field. The glorious salvo shakes the ground as thunder. Young and old, parents and students, alumni and teachers...all are the choir of the faithful under this divine blanket of stars. Yes, the divine blanket of stars, we say, as the luminous flash gives birth to life in our den on Friday nights.
     Yes, muses the conductor of the gridiron's orchestral beauty, taking the microphone to begin this evening's athletic liturgy. Tonight, we've become a family, I say to myself. For autumn nights were meant for this.
     Let there be light...

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Empty Graves

With today being Easter, a few words from St. Paul...
I Corinthians 15
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God thathe raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. Whenall things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, thatGod may be all in all.
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. Forsome have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

The Resurrection Body

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor;it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written,“The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shallalso bear the image of the man of heaven.

Mystery and Victory

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep,but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

And, if I might be so bold as to pick up where St. Paul left off, yes, death is hard, but what if we had to face it without Jesus's death? And thankfully, we don't.

An empty grave in Jerusalem 2000 years ago means one day there will be an empty grave in St. Louis that used to hold my son. And one day I'll embrace him anew and hear him call me Daddy loud and clear.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


And so finally I jump in...and very likely I may infuriate everyone to a degree.

Thanks to Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana state legislature, we have this Religious Freedom Restoration Act before us on the conversational grist mill. If you haven't heard of it, or you've been hiding under a rock for the past couple weeks, here's the quick overview of the kerfluffle. I recognize we are in the midst of getting clarification on what the text of the law really means, from both Indiana politicians (possibly helpful) and from talking heads in the media (mostly unhelpful).

Some initial thoughts, if you will:

1. Defenders of the RFRA rightly point out that many other states (upwards of twenty-something) have similar laws on the books. They are also correct in saying that the RFRA is profoundly similar to the law signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993. I re-watched the video of Clinton explaining the rationale for that and I was impressed again with his articulateness and reasoning.

2. Those against the law are rightfully edgy that individuals and businesses (remember the Indiana law extends religious liberty to businesses acting on their religious ideals) might use this law as a wedge to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, especially on same-sex marriage issues.

3. In my honest opinion, I think the liberty the law will grant is not as expansive as its proponents imagine, and the discrimination the law's detractors claim it will unleash will be closer to a trickle.

4. Religious liberty (along with freedom of speech, press, assembly, etc.) is a desirable cornerstone of a functioning and flourishing constitutional republic like the United States. I'm also humble enough to say I can't speak authoritatively what that might specifically look like, especially given the variety of meats in our nation's theological stew.

Now, some brass tacks...

One danger here is for people to freak out over what a legislature can do or to be too triumphant and claim victory. My expanded concern is that this legislative stance is going to reinforce the idea of "the legislature has ruled, therefore it is settled in some way...why discuss?" I don't like the relationship of how followers of Jesus who disagree with homosexual behavior and the LGBTQ community interact (which of course is part of what is involved here) to be decided in the State Capitol in Indianapolis. That's a matter for people of each tribe to converse and work through in a constructive manner, and I'm afraid what the Indiana legislature might have done is short-circuit what should be a grassroots-level discussion.

Another danger is to assume too little. What if--as one political cartoon has suggested--an African-American baker with strong Christian beliefs refuses to bake a cake for a Ku Klux Klan rally? What then? (And don't say if wouldn't happen...America is full of the craziest stuff out there!) Do we champion the black man's refusal based on the biblical virtues of all races being made in God's image and against the hatred of the KKK? Of course! But if a person would refuse activity based on disagreement with another's lifestyle (say, homosexuality), would people lampoon that? Probably. The question is what's the basis for praising one and decrying the other.

Understand I'm not saying that's a thing. I'm just underscoring the problematic nature of enforcing this thing consistently. But there are other issues...

Constitutionally, we do have the freedom of religion in this country (and the freedom to NOT be religious, by the way). But religious liberty is never something God guarantees to his people in Scripture. In fact, the ancient church was vibrant and growing in the face of much persecution. You can make the argument that when the emperor Constantine put Christianity on the "official religion" pedestal, the Church's vitality weakened and the Gospel was hurt more than helped. Should Christians in China rise up and demand their "liberty" from the state? Why do we get hung up on that in America? We need to distinguish between a constitutional right and a divine mandate.

I've seen reports of establishments in Indiana now calling themselves "Christian businesses", a label that makes my skin crawl. Please, Christians who run businesses...stop calling your establishments Christian businesses! Your work needs to be defined by something beyond a label. I've dealt with enough "Christian" places over the years to where I can say, with some authority, that the ichthus (i.e., the Jesus fish) can be a warning sign. The words of C.S. Lewis are very instructive here. He spoke primarily of writers, but it has application for all productive endeavors: "The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature." (Something I try to keep always in mind)

I honestly don't know where this ends. A "Christian" business? Does a Christian civil engineer build bridges that can only be used by heterosexuals? Does a gay couple driving to their wedding ceremony at the justice of the peace have to find an alternative route around that bridge? The pizzeria I referenced in the previous link: Would they serve (and by the way, who has pizza at a wedding?) a couple if they knew the man was cheating on his bride-to-be, or if one of them was embezzling money, or if the couple was racist? Something to think about.

You're free to disagree with me, but here's what I'd do if I was a baker and gay partners Dino and Nico came into my shop and asked if I could bake a cake for their upcoming wedding. I'd look at that as a God-appointed opportunity for a conversation with them. How did they meet? What do they do? Do they like living in (name of town)? Share stuff about me and my family. That sort of thing.

Then of course the issue of their wedding would come up. Now, you should know, I hold to the view that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, "till death do us part". I'm not a believer in same-sex marriage, both on biblical grounds and because I believe one can make a secular case for my view, too (That would have to be a separate blog post). But let's say we get to the point where they know where I'm coming from, but they've dug in because they have heard great things about my cakes (I've obviously paid off the critics at Bon Apettit!). 

I would then say, "Look guys. You know my beliefs, but you're still wanting this despite my disagreement with your lifestyle. How about this? First, why don't you make sure that my cake would be the one you'd want?"

"Sure," they might say. "But how?"

"A full eighth-sheet cake, your choice of flavor and frosting, on the house. You take it home, you enjoy it, you digest it, and then come to me later and let me know if my productivity and my work ethic meets or exceeds what you want."

"Seriously?" they might say.

"Yes," I reply. "Then you let me know where you want to go from there. I do want you to understand where I'm coming from in the way I look at life, at relationships, and so on. But I'd like you to believe that however this ends up, my interactions with you are based on honesty and decency, in a friendliness and an earthiness that goes beyond labels and distinctions."

"Why would you be that kind to us?" Nico and Dino might exclaim.

And I would tell them that a man I never met once gave up everything for me when I hated him, so that he could rescue me and I could enjoy how he equipped me with the gift of baking. It's just taking what I was given and giving it to others.

You know what? I think I just might bake that cake. If God's Kingdom advances, it'll be because of random moments like that and not a freshly signed law on a desk inside Interstate 465.