31 August 2007

Chocolat Spirituality

The 2000 film, Chocolat (pronounced Shaw-ko-la, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) is an interesting parable of contrasting views toward spirituality.

One of the main characters in the film, the mayor, desires to run a city based on his own understanding of morality and religious responsibility. He seeks perfection with vigor and zest.

The antithesis character of the mayor is Vianne (played by Binoche), a woman of some “mystery” who moves to the small town run by the mayor, with the intention of opening a chocolate shop. That she moves to this small town during Lent is no accident.

Vianne does not seek perfection from people, but goodness.

Thus, a conversion battle takes place between religion (the search for perfection) and spirituality (the search for transformation and goodness). Each convert people according the tenets of their convictions and the viewer witnesses the results of religion gone bad alongside spirituality’s ability to bring new life and new possibilities.

The film is not a “Christian” film per se, but it does have some fascinating parallels with the Christian story.

Today, in my Introduction to the Christian Faith class, we discussed this film (which our class watched Tuesday night) in great detail.

It’s amazing how much students come alive when talking about stories. They were engaged in ethical discourse without realizing it was “ethical discourse.” That’s what stories do to us. They draw us in because they engage our whole person—our hopes, dreams, fears, and memory—leaving us different. People who rarely talk in this kind of setting weighed on film’s commentary about faith, sex, marriage, parenting, discipline, beauty, and romance.

Bono is often quoted for saying, “Religion is what happens when God leaves.” I pray that the students under my care this semester become the kind of people who bear all kinds of healthy fruit into this starving world. I hope they are spiritually attuned to the presence of God in their lives and the lives of others.

30 August 2007

Cass Park Transformation?

The Detroit News ran an interesting article recently regarding the past, present, and future of Cass Park (Cass Corridor) where some of us from the Rochester Church work on a regular basis, serving the poor.

This was an interesting section from the piece.

In the 1970s, the Cass Corridor was filled with Appalachian families and still had an area called Chinatown, said Patrick Dorn, executive director of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, which rehabilitates and builds affordable housing nearby.

Those with enough money left and the neighborhood started to decay once property owners started selling to negligent owners, Dorn said. The slide worsened in the 1980s when the city made the area home to social service providers such as homeless shelters.

"That was the finishing touch," Dorn said.

"Whenever you have isolationism where there's nobody there, except people you wouldn't want to meet in the dark, you're not going to be the first one to put money in."

The neighborhood is exceedingly poor, especially compared to the rest of the city. Median household income is $8,317, far below the city's median household income of $29,526, according to the U.S. Census.

Jesus wants to send his people to the places no one else wants to go. That's why we work in Cass Park. That's why we pray for Cass Park. That's why we help those who live in Cass Park. That's why even began to think about Cass Park in the first place.

26 August 2007

Manresa Rest

I spent all day Saturday afternoon at the Menresa Jesuit Retreat Center with some fellow RC faculty and staff and about 35 students.

We listened to encouraging words about spiritual formation and the centered life. I shared some thoughts about the spiritual disciplines in my own life (sabbath, tithing, exercise, working with the poor, and reading). Among other things, we attended a healing service, Taize worship time, and we also practiced the discipline of silence for two different segments of significant length.

The time of silence was exactly what I needed.

Prior to Saturday, the voices in my head were so loud…I didn’t even realize they were talking. Voices regarding work, school, teaching, grad school, family, ego, etc.

Silence creates the space God needs to mute the voices. In silence, God speaks loudest.


Sunday, I returned to teach at Rochester Church with Patrick and participated in the baptism of a good friend, Shaun Hover. Six months ago, Shaun was not interested in the spiritual life. Now, he's one of the best young leaders I've ever been around. It is a testimony to God, that people are still moved and changed by the story of Jesus.

I like this photo because it captures the mystery of what God does to us in the experience of baptism...the mystery being that God can only raise us up if we first allow him to bury us.

20 August 2007

Lauren Winner

Lauren Winner,one of my favorite writers, is coming to speak at the Rochester Church.

I first met Lauren in 2006 at the main ZOE Worship and Leadership Conference in Nashville. I've enjoyed trading stories, and ideas with her over the last several months. She's one of the author's I want non-believers and skeptics to read when investigating the spiritual life and thought of modern day Christians.

Here's an excerpt from Girl Meets God.

Evangelical friends of mine are always trying to trim the corners and smooth the rough edges of what they call My Witness in order to shove it into a tidy, born-again conversion narrative. They want an exact date, even an hour, and I never know what to tell them. The datable conversion story has a venerable history. Paul, the most famous Jew to embrace Jesus, established the prototype of the dramatic, datable rebirth. He was walking on the road to Damascus, Luke tells us, off to persecute the zealous disciples of the newly dead carpenter when Jesus appeared to him, and Paul became his follower instead of his foe. Centuries later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was atttending a meeting in Aldersgate Street; listening to Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, his heart was "strangely warmed." At that instant, Wesley later wrote in his journal, he felt that he "did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Less notable personages have dramatic conversion stories, too. My high school physics teacher sat in her kitchen reading the Gospel of Mark one day when, in an instant, she knew that Jesus was God and had died for her sins. My friend Tim dedicated his life to Christ when he was four at a mission's conference at Bibletown, in Boca Raton, Florida. He had seen a puppet show about Jesus knocking on your heart. So he opened it and asked Him to come in.

My story doesn't fit very well with this conversion archetype. A literature scholar would say there are too many "ruptures" in the "narrative." But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new. I had no epiphanic on-the-road-to-Damascus experience. I can't tell my friends that I became a Christian January 8, 1993, or on my twentieth birthday. What I can tell them is that I grew up Jewish. I can tell them about the time I dreamed of Jesus rescuing me from a kidnapping; I can tell them I woke up certain, as certain as I have ever been about anything, that the dream was from God and the dream was about Jesus, about how He was real and true and sure. I can tell them about reading At Home in Mitford, a charming if somewhat saccharine novel about an Episcopal priest in North Carolina, a novel that left me wanting something Christians seemed to have. I can tell them about my baptism.

16 August 2007

A Good Ending...A New Beginning

This weekend, I am honored to perform the wedding of Kelly Sewell and Ray Stemitz. Kelly is my big sister which makes Ray my new brother-in-law.

My sister was married once before. She and her ex-husband have a beautiful daughter together—Alexa Mae Sewell. Lexi is a joy to all of us, a beautiful and spirit-filled young girl.

Though the last several years have been full of chaos and confusion for my sister, she’s now seeing the work of God in her life. Kelly went back to school after her divorce and is now an elementary school teacher in East Detroit—we’re proud of her courage and fight. She could’ve “packed it in” during her ugly and messy divorce, but she resisted that path.

It hasn’t been easy, but I suppose the easy way is the thing we should all be most suspicious of.

Major Ray Stemitz is an answer to prayer; proof that God wants to bring healing and new beginnings in stories of brokenness and deceit.

14 August 2007

It's the Perfect Time of Year...

This is one of my favorite times of the year. School is about to start. Syllabi’s are being written, schedules mapped out. Once dark and dusty dorm rooms are now filled with new TV’s and photos of family and friends who will be missed.

Since kindergarten, my life has been shaped and molded by the pace of the school calendar.

Throughout high school, undergrad, graduate, and now teaching—I feel renewed each August as I anticipate the students who will come to Rochester College for the first time, the students who will take my class for the first time, and for the returning students who are building upon their previous work. I also realize some students are coming back this semester looking for a completely new start.

I met this afternoon with my fellow professors in the religion department for a time of update, reflection, and prayer. I’m honored to serve along side these dedicated people who take seriously the task of equipping students to engage the world in powerful ways.

This semester, I’m teaching a new course with one of my good friends and mentors entitled Introduction to the Christian Faith. I’m teaching the class with the approach that I want our post-modern students to understand the faith in ways that make them come alive to the biblical themes of spirituality, justice, friendship and beauty. This is the class textbook. Check it out, it’s an important work.

Here are the first four lectures of the class.

Justice: U2, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu” (with clips from Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast)

Spirituality: Jesus, Buddha, and Dream Catchers” (with clips from the short film The Many Faces of Faith)

Relationships: We Were Made for Each Other” (with excerpts from Henry Nouwen)

Beauty: In the Eye of the Beholder?” (with clips from Planet Earth and Life is Beautiful)

12 August 2007

I cannot imagine my life outside of a local faith community.

My good friend Sara Barton was introduced as the new part-time minister for small groups. Dana Spivey (from Atlanta) will join our ministry staff this coming week.

Sarah and Priscilla were also introduced to my summer adult formation class. They are Ugandans who've come to Rochester College to study. We anticipate learning a great deal from them in the coming months.

Two young adults who've been working through a significant forgiveness issue asked me to pray for them during family communion. Imagine that--forgiveness breaking out during the Lord's Supper.

At our third service, a family admitted being at wit's end with their son's drug problem when some of our young adults stepped up and said, "We'll get involved." These young adults are willing to use their story to bless others and it encourages me about the future of our church.


The Tigers just might be getting back on track...Magglioooooooooo!

09 August 2007

Last night we remembered Nic Paradise, a young man from our church who died tragically early Monday morning from a long battle with a drug addiction.

The sixty minute worship and prayer gathering was a rare moment of hope and possibility in these rather dark three days. Several of Nic's friends were on hand to honor the bond and love shared by classmates and skate-partner friends spanning several years.

During the time of remembrance, we played a video of Nic's greatest skateboarding moments. Many of Nic's friends present were skateboarders themselves. I think they appreciated seeing Nic in his primary element; the place where his rather chaotic most made sense. As a former athlete, I have to admit that I was impressed with the danger and athleticism required for skateboarding

I'm not a prophet but I'm willing to guess most of the group present on behalf of Nic had not stepped foot in a church building in quite some time. Perhaps, some were for the very first time.

Liz Trainor, Nic's fiancée', stood up with Shawn Hover and offered some simple but powerful words about Nic's infectious ability to draw people to himself. Nic and Liz had a son together: Carter, a beautiful and healthy (he was nine pounds and nine ounces at birth) boy. Patrick (our senior minister) and the Bryans (the leaders of our pastoral care ministry) prayed over the various groups represented.

For the first time in three days, the numbness is starting to wear off. The pain is slowly rising to the surface.

Nic's immediate family (Mike, Jackie, Sid, Carmen, Aunt Pam and Liz) are mourning the loss of their son, brother and fiancée. But they also know the decade struggle for meaning, purpose and identity has come to an end.

I have been so impressed with the deep spirituality of the Paradise family. Their devotion to each other, their families, local community is something I certainly can emulate in my own life.

After the family and friends who were there to honor Nic left to return back to the viewing service downtown, I encouraged our church in this simple way. At least this is how I remembered what I said.

Saying that we want to connect all people to Jesus is a great thing to write on a piece of paper or post on our web site as our mission statement. I believe it is the ministry God is calling us to...all people. Broken, addicts, confused, cynical, jaded...all people.

But the reality is that is a very difficult project. It certainly isn't for the faint of heart. It isn't sexy. It certainly isn't the most comfortable way to do church.

For some time now, we've been challenging the church to be a people who are willing to follow Jesus to the dangerous places. The places everyone else runs from are the places we believe God is calling us to run toward. If others run from the projects, we run there. If some run from the homeless we run there. If others are running from single moms, we run there. If others are running from skateboarders with drug problems...we run there.

We run to these places because we believe that the one thing God gives us is the one thing we need: The assurance that if the world and this life kill us, God will raise us from the dead.

06 August 2007


I try to avoid writing too much about the different people who God continues to bring to the Rochester Church in our efforts to reach people of all different backgrounds and experiences. There’s something dangerous about telling the world, through a blog or what have you, all of the stories and people that emerge in one’s ministry. It can quickly take on the feel of “ministry prostitution.”

But, it’s late Monday night, and I cannot help but write about the events that have unfolded the last twelve hours.

This morning I got several phone calls and text messages from some friends of mine that I had to come to the apartment belonging to a few young adults who are apart of our church. I knew something was wrong but I never dreamed of what I was about to walk into.

I pulled up to the apartments around 10am. The police had just arrived along with a few family members. I walked into the apartment to the reality that a young man (19 years old) had overdosed on drugs (what kind is not that important in this story). His body lay lifeless on the bed in the main bedroom. It had begun to turn a color not normal to my experience with flesh and blood.

“He’s been dead for some time,” I heard someone whisper in a corner.

I will write more in the coming days. There’s family to tend to. Stories to be told. A funeral to be planned.

For now, I’m still in shock. I don’t really have any emotions. I feel numb. I feel empty with little stirring inside.

This young man worshipped with us yesterday. He broke bread with us yesterday. He listened to me preach yesterday. The entire gathering (during our third service) prayed over him yesterday. He repeated a confession from The Book of Common Prayer with his other brothers and sisters in Christ…yesterday.

And today…he’s dead. He’s not sleeping. He’s not in a coma. He’s not hibernating. Yesterday he was alive and today he is dead.

I do a lot of teaching about taking risks. This year I’ve spoken all over the country, by the grace of God. I have encouraged people to take risks for the kingdom of God, seeing people as humans created in God’s image regardless of their plight, skin color or addiction. I insist on this in front of our church in the classes I teach at Rochester College and in private small discussions. Occasionally, I even preach to it to myself.

And I still believe that is the mission we are called to with all my heart and soul.

But sometimes in life, you have to pause, and say “This business of following Jesus is so much harder than I expected it to be. It’s messy, confusing, and downright depressing.”

So today I pause to say exactly that.

Life is hard. Life is as hard as crucible steel. No bumper sticker, proof-text hall mark card, or “God needed another angel” conversation can do anything to change this grim reality.

Today I’m grateful to follow a God who entered into the suffering, pain, addiction, and shame of this world. I’m grateful to serve a God who promises me one thing only: “If this world kills us, I will raise you from the dead.”

05 August 2007

03 August 2007

Summer in Michigan

Cooking brats in your backyard: $6.
Reading a great novel: $15.
Eating a big bowl of ice cream: $3.
Bike ride with your wife: no cost.

Going to a Tiger's game with my wife on a Friday night: priceless.