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

Monday, June 29, 2015

There's Nothing Wrong With Vanilla

I can't recall exactly what year it was--although my memory is prodding me toward the 1984 ACC men's basketball tournament--but Duke's hoopsters were hanging tough with number-one ranked North Carolina. Duke was coming off two or three substandard years at the start of Mike Krzyzewski's regime there, and Coach K got his first major signature win with a 77-75 win over Michael Jordan and company. The game isn't the thing here. The memory that comes to mind is an off-hand comment by an announcer who mentioned that Krzyzewski "loves vanilla ice cream."

I thought it was odd, an odd comment to make in the heat of a major upset. And it was odd because I thought, in my 13-year old mind, "Why would someone prefer vanilla over a host of other flavors? What about chocolate? Rum raisin? Daiquiri ice? Rocky road? Butter pecan?"

Over the years, I've come to realize there's nothing wrong with vanilla. In fact, there everything right with vanilla. And I'm not talking about ice cream anymore.

I'm talking about pastors in Christian ministry.

Father's Day brought the sad news that a flagship megachurch in my denomination, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, is facing the loss of their senior pastor, for reasons of moral failure; that means, in brief, engaging in an adulterous affair. Once again, a shepherd in God's kingdom has tumbled from vocational grace.

Some of these pastors are high-profile individuals, having forged para-church movements that advance specific aspects of ministry. These movements can be helpful and shed much light in helping (1) existing Christians understand the Gospel more deeply and clearly and (2) attracting unbelievers to teaching that satisfies a spiritual thirst.

However, once the pastor/leader falls from grace, the constructed ministry can tumble, too. This can be for the simple reason that--for better or worse--in some way these movements are tied to the personality and behavior of their leaders.

In truth, there is nothing wrong with entrepreneurial endeavors that highlight biblical truth. But I'm not convinced these are at the heart of what it means to be a spiritual shepherd. It's clear from Scripture--especially the qualifications for spiritual leadership found in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1--that God is interested in the moral foundation and the character, the integrity, of the pastor of a church or leader of any faith community. What's interesting is the lack of words like "cultural guru", or "strategic thinker", or "visionary leader."

It's not that those things, those flavors in the Baskin Robbins of personal qualities, are bad things. They are good things. But they are not the primary foundation of what God requires. And sometimes Christianity is looking all around for those flavors when we should be expecting the vanilla that God wants from leaders.

If you are a church-going Christian, do you have a pastor who works diligently at studying Scripture, so that they can patiently and clearly apply it to your life? Does your pastor pray? Does he administer the Sacraments (or ordinances, for my Baptist friends) faithfully? If you can answer yes to all three, you've got a fine pastor.

I'm the fifth generation in the Davis family to be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. I've never known generations one and two (my great-great-grandpa and my great-grandfather), but I have heard enough about my Grandpa Davis and experienced enough about my father's ministry (if you want a taste of it, too, you can find sermons here) to say this: They might have never led a multi-staff, multi-campus, megachurch, or made significant cultural inroads, or spearheaded other ministries or headlined major conferences (although Dad has done a few). However, they were/are faithful to their ordination vows, have preached Scripture, and loved their people well.

That's vanilla. And it's good. Better good vanilla than other spoiled flavors.

And lest we get too proud versus those who fall from grace, recall the words of John Bradford, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Cover

We're beginning the process of getting my next Cameron Ballack novel--titled The Broken Cross--into readers' hands. We have editing and other matters to go, but we are getting in the final stretch.

In the meantime, here is the cover design to keep you happy for now. It was drawn up by my former student and soon-to-be freshman at Northeastern University, Ciarra Peters. Ciarra is not only a brilliant artist; she is a phenomenal student overall who excels in science and robotics.

The image is one of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin within the Cathedral Basilica, the seat of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. In The Broken Cross, the Cathedral is an imposing setting that throws a considerable shadow across the storyline. Aesthetically, the Cathedral is one of the most beautiful houses of worship imaginable, and Ciarra captures this exquisite delight with clarity, color, and grace.

Friday, June 26, 2015

So Where Do You Get Your Characters?

The lead-up to my sequel's release continues and we shift to a common question I've received from a number of readers and students:

"How do you figure out your characters?"

That's a fair question. Given that, as P.D. James said, all fiction is somewhat autobiographical, one would expect there's some ordinary life crossover into fictional characters. Well, let's dive in:

Detective Cameron Ballack: As far as the name goes, this is a combination from two sources. Cameron is our son Joshua's middle name. Ballack is the surname of one of our favorite German soccer players, Michael Ballack, whose powerful leg brought Die Mannschaft many a goal. In temperament  Ballack turns out to be a combination of our son Joshua (for the brooding nature) and me (for the bizarre tendency to remember the smallest details).

Detective Tori Vaughan: Tori is carved out of Joshua's former home health nurse, Theresa Robinson. Like Tori in Litany of Secrets, Theresa got her nursing degree before going into the police force as a detective. Tori's personality is slightly different from Theresa's, but not by much, and there is still a lot of crossover--a determination that people not judge her for her working-class background, a supreme desire to overcome any barriers, and a devout Catholic faith.

Martin, Marie, and Jill Ballack: Without doubt, they would mirror myself, my wife Christy, and our daughter Lindsay. And the grave of Johann Christopher Ballack at the end represents that of our departed Jordan.

Other characters in minor roles:

Nicholas Panangiotis: The last name comes from a board member at the first school at which I served, but in terms of physical looks and action, Nicholas is meant to look like World Wrestling Entertainment star Dolph Ziggler. No kidding.

Marcus Curry: The lone black student at St. Basil's Seminary is much like former student Zach Hampton, an intelligent young man who knows how to stand alone and live life in an attraction manner. And be snarky at the right time.

Pastor Stuart: He is drawn from Rev. George Stulac, former pastor at Memorial Presbyterian Church, who graciously and wonderfully officiated the funeral of our Jordan. George retired last year and is the ultimate example of humility and grace over a long season of ministry (thirty-three years at Memorial!).

Father Timothy Birchall: Tall, imposing, wild curly hair. And the name similarity. Yes, Father Timothy strikes me as someone like former WWE star Paul Burchill, shown here (although skip to the 1:37 mark to see him sooner)

Of course, the real question is, "Have any of your murder victims been like people in your past?"

And to that I say, no.

At least, not yet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Divine and Human Creativity

The video above is well worth your time. P.D. James speaks at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 2013. The priest on stage with her, the Canon Rev. Michael Hampel (Precantor of St. Paul's), dialogues with her on how--as we are made in God's image--the creative energy and characteristics of God are found in the literary giftedness of humankind. Even if you don't agree with her on every particular detail, you'll find it a great talk. Carve out an hour of your day for this.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Writing, Faith, and the Attrition of the Latter

My friend Rich Smith dropped the first official question regarding my offer to do a loosely running interview in preparation for my upcoming book release this summer. In a previous post, I offered to take any question on writing, books, faith, life, etc. Granted that's a broad category, but Rich has always been up to ask good questions. His was on the issue of faith--a rather pointed concern in my writing, given that my protagonist Detective Cameron Ballack, is a skeptic himself.

Rich brought up the recent Pew Foundation research on religious affiliation and strength in the American landscape. I won't share all the details here because everyone is able to access the report elsewhere. But Rich did ask how I interpreted the multi-point decline of Americans identifying as Christian (linked to a rise of the "unaffiliated" who would claim no religious faith at all). He was especially interested how I viewed that in relation to what Jesus says in John 15:18-25.

Okay, I'm not sure I can give a full response in a short blog post, but in looking at the John passage, one can go either of two directions. Either the Pew research is tracking a natural flow of the secularization of American life in which some people are peeling out of Christianity, or this is evidence that there is a growing hatred of Christianity.

I think it could be both, but let me explain the second part. Perhaps what we're seeing here is a frustration on the part of some who have found their particular Christian tribe weighed in the balances and found wanting, that they haven't found the intellectual, moral, or community cohesion what it should be, so they look for it elsewhere. Personally, as a teacher in a Christian school, I'm running across more and more kids who are in these evangelical churches but are de facto deists, agnostics, or atheists and are keeping relatively quiet while on their Christian educational journey. And I find them to be very hungry, very precocious, and very engaging. It's just that people have to understand that the skepticism is not merely out there in Hollywood or Wall Street or the wider culture. It's in the pews of churches and Christian school chapels around the nation.

Rich also asked a second question: "How do you interpret the more granular data which shows evangelical churches growing in strength while mainline congregations dwindle?"

Good question, and maybe the Episcopal Church will still be functioning by the time I finish my answer (I say tongue-in-cheek). At first glance, the Pew study shows a slight decline in evangelical congregations, but there's some things it didn't include which Ed Stetzer--the irrepressible Yoda of missiology--tackled on this past week. Here he points out that while we're seeing a great deal of mainline decline and even decline amongst evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention (in which Stetzer is a ordained pastor), these are balanced by the rise of the evangelical "nones". In the past couple of years, the number of nondenominational evangelicals have increased from around 12% to 25%, a staggering upshot. For those who survey using labels, some of these non-denoms can fly under the radar, and so although there's a significant amount of secularism at play in America and which won't be going away anytime soon, neither will the presence of those who claim evangelical faith.

In truth, that makes for a very interesting America. As America should be.