28 April 2008

The Pastor's View

The view of the local-church pastor can be quite depressing. Families torn apart. Indifference. Jealousy. Petty backbiting. Closed-mindedness. Racism. Apathy. Idolatry. Materialism. Insecurity. Loss of job. Generational sin. Lack of integrity.

Not always depressing . . . but the view is enough to make you . . . well . . . depressed.

And then . . .

Every once in a while the view of the pastor is spectacular. Yesterday, the view was heavenly.

A family still grieving the death of their 24 year-old daughter, a young man just named to a top position with a NBA team, an older woman facing chemotherapy head on, a young adult battling a heroine addiction, a handful of adults fighting the cycle of homelessness—all came together to worship in community.

We sang. We ate. We drank. We listened. We prayed. We gave. We spoke. We cried. We asked, “Why?” And for a few moments, the world, as it is (not as we wish it would be) was not a bad place to live. The world, we concluded, might even be a place in which God is at work.

24 April 2008


I love this piece from L.A. Times writer, Joel Stein.

I have a bad habit of annoying Christians. Partly it's because I don't believe in Jesus, and partly it's because Jesus keeps letting me write columns about how I don't believe in Jesus.Last March, after some campaigning, I got Starbucks to put a quote from me on the their paper cups. It said:

"Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can't wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They're basically getting by because they only have to be better than hell." It is, indeed, kind of disgusting that Starbucks sells coffee cups that big.

I wasn't surprised that I got a lot of angry e-mails and letters. But I was surprised that a stranger cared enough to send me the book "Heaven" by Randy C. Alcorn. In the next few months, four other people sent me the same book -- one of them inscribed to me and autographed. It made me seriously consider writing a column about how I don't believe in bottles of Chateau D'Yquem.

The first thing I learned from reading "Heaven" that made me feel stupid was that my joke was not only overwritten but really old. Gary Larson did it in a "Far Side" cartoon with a guy on a cloud saying, "Wish I'd brought a magazine." Mark Twain did it in "Huckleberry Finn." Isaac Asimov -- who was not even funny -- said, "For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse."The book is 533 pages long, so I decided to just call Alcorn at his ministry in Oregon. He's one of the foremost non-dead experts on heaven, having also written "50 Days of Heaven," "In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven" and "Heaven for Kids." Alcorn said that a few outraged people had shown him my Venti cup. It made him laugh. "Not because I thought it was silly, but because I believed it, in essence," he said. "Hey, I agree. The Christian church has communicated an extremely boring view of heaven. I think it's wrongheaded and flat unbiblical.

"The clouds-and-harp version came about for two reasons, Alcorn told me. One is Satan. The other is the early church fathers who tried to blend the Bible with Greek philosophy and wound up with a Platonic version of the afterlife stripped of the physical. In the heaven in Alcorn's book, he imagines we'll be riding on the backs of brontosauruses and throwing baseballs with Andy Pettitte. This does not sound like it will be heaven for brontosauruses or Andy Pettitte.

But that's actually the heaven on Earth that only gets going after the return of Christ. Until then, our souls are hanging out in intermediate heaven -- a place a lot less physical and awesome -- and much of our time is spent watching events on Earth. Which sounds pretty boring. "If you didn't have the promise of resurrection and new Earth, and all you had was this unnatural state, I would say that, yeah, by our present standards, that doesn't sound exciting to us," Alcorn said. And remember, some Christians have been in intermediate heaven for about 2,000 years. The brontosauruses maybe a few thousand years longer, depending on your views on science.

When Alcorn pointed out that I could have conversations with Socrates and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in intermediate heaven, I was pretty sure that I'd get, at best, a book signing from those guys. Most of my time would be spent talking to the kind of people who send me unsolicited books.

Alcorn reaffirmed my confidence in my cup quote. So I called Shelly Migliaccio, who'd sent me the autographed book. She used to go to Starbucks twice a week, but my quote made her so mad that she has boycotted it ever since. Yet she sent me a nice note and an autographed book. Still, all things considered, I'd rather be Starbucks."I was thinking it was sad that you looked at heaven that way. I wanted you to know about the heaven I know about and I look forward to go to," she told me over the phone. "Life here on Earth can be so trying sometimes, and I just anticipate it."

In Migliaccio's heaven, the colors are more brilliant, we all have jobs we love, we are free of the lies and horrible stuff she sees on the news. And, at least for the little while we were on the phone, I believed in Migliaccio's heaven too.

23 April 2008


Tonight is one of my favorite nights of the year in the life of our church. Tonight is Emerging Artists Night. We'll have great music, a slam poet, a short film by moi, and a special rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Chris Lindsey and Patrick Mead.

I'm excited to see how local churches continue to engage the arts in the future. It just might be one of the more important evangelism projects of the 21st century.

What makes tonight extra special? We have 32 homeless men, women, and children (our friends) living in our church building as part of a transitional program known as South Oakland Shelter. Tonight will be one of those nights where I can see, hear and feel the Way of Jesus as the best way to be human.

18 April 2008

Why I Practice Sabbath

We dance in rhythm with God when we keep the Sabbath. The reason we are called to take a day of rest is simple. Humans tend to forget that we did not make the world and thus, the world does not depend upon us.Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about a friend growing up in Atlanta and what her good friend David taught her about fidelity to God. “When I was a junior in high school, my boyfriend Herb played on the varsity basketball team. He was not the star player however. The star player was a boy named David, who scored so many points during his four-year career that the coach retired his jersey when he graduated. This would have been remarkable under any circumstances, but it was doubly so since David did not play on Friday nights. On Friday nights, David observed the Sabbath with the rest of his family, who generously withdrew when David’s gentile friends arrived, sweaty and defeated, after Friday night home games.”

Following each Friday night game, David’s friends came to his house to describe the game in great detail. “Blow by blow” the Gentiles were allowed to speak and create worlds in David’s living room.I still remember the night someone asked David if it did not kill him to have to sit home on Friday nights while his team was getting slaughtered in the high school gymnasium.

“No one makes me do this,” he said. “I’m a Jew, and Jews observe the Sabbath.” Six days a week, he said, he loved nothing more than playing basketball and he gladly gave all he had to the game. On the seventh day, he loved being a Jew more than he loved playing basketball, and he just as gladly gave all he had to the Sabbath. Sure, he felt a tug, but that was the whole point. Sabbath was his chance to remember what was really real. Once three stars were visible in the Friday night sky, his identity as a Jew was more real to him than his identity as the star of our basketball team.

Christians need to create intentional regular spaces of time in which we do not work, email, fax, clean, do laundry. A time when we allow our hearts settle and the voices hush. Sabbath is a time when we remember that God made the world and rested; that He calls us to rest with him, to hear his voice, and to be clearly aware of his presence.

And it is a time to remember, according to the Hebrew Testament relationship between Sabbath and Jubilee, that there will be a day when all peoples of the world will rest—not just the ones who can financially afford to take a day off. In a very real sense, Sabbath-keeping reminds us that we are pilgrims in a foreign land, awaiting the world to become what she was meant to be. We remember vividly that, although God made the world, the world is not the way God made it. When we keep Sabbath we proclaim to the rest of the world, that God is about the business of making things new. If busyness is a sin, Sabbath is the one means by which we can become more like the person God created us to be.

See: Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church (Boston: Cowley Press, 2005), 136-137 and Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 90-99.

17 April 2008

Hair VS Weight

Some of your comments reminded me of a debate I used to have with one of my college basketball teammates.

At the age of 30 (which I'm closing in on), would you rather weigh near what you weighed at 22 and be in the process of losing your hair . . . OR . . . would you rather gain 25 lbs and maintain a head full of flowing locks?


I will have two or three highly abstract and theological posts after these last two.

15 April 2008

On Losing My Hair

It happens to a large part of the male population. It is something that some men scoff at, “it’s no big deal.” Others fret, worry, and obsess with their larger forehead.

I got my haircut this morning at Fantastic Sam’s. I always go to Fantastic Sam’s. Mainly because the ladies who work there are from Eastern Europe and, in my next life, I plan on being a spy planted in Kazakhstan.

Today, while getting my hairs cut sitting in the “big chair,” I realized, “Wow, I’m really losing my hair.” No before you guys with full mops start to feel good about yourself, losing one’s hair does not mean your manliness is dissipating. I’m in better shape now than I was at 25. So, back off.

I think that losing one’s hair is important for a few reasons. First, it humbles me a great deal. I am no longer, despite the mental games I play, the 21 year old who could eat four full meals plus two bowls of ice cream, all while staying right at 195 lbs. I actually need seven or eight ours of sleep, not the four or five that got me through college.

Second, it reminds me that there’s a brighter day on its way. A day when God is going to renew our bodies, and our earth. I don’t subscribe to the pop-theology that believes God is going to burn up the earth and give us harps and a cloud for eternity. Frankly, that sounds closer to hell than heaven. I think God is going to redeem his own world. And, in that world, I hope I have Fabio-like hair. Or, I’d settle for hair like Magglio Ordonez.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I don’t worry too much. I remind myself that from dust I came and to dust I shall return.

13 April 2008

The Preacher King

This fall, my alma mater, is hosting one of the more exciting conferences in the U.S. I'm working on a film right now for this conference. Make plans to attend. David Fleer is using his gift, once again, to bring men and women of all different stripes to study and challenge each other. This event is for ministers, pastors, and scholars alike.

I wrote this review in preparation for the conference. It's a bit long. If you are a reader (and nerd), enjoy.

Review of Richard Lischer’s The Preacher King
ISBN 978-0-511132-3

Richard Lischer, scholar and professor at Duke Divinity, supplies both the student of history and local pastor a wonderful gift with his work, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America. Combining history, theology, New Testament scholarship, politics, and narrative criticism as very few can—Lischer paints a detailed yet complete picture of the life and legacy of one of America’s great religious leaders.

I suggest Richard Lischer’s Preacher King in preparation for the 2008 Lipscomb Preaching Conference for two reasons. First, Lischer has the rare ability to capture the tension and ethos of 1960’s America. The Civil Right Era has become a source of nostalgia for some. Lischer refuses to buy into this hype-machine by closely immersing himself back into the world of those who marched in Selma, Montgomery, and Memphis. “Despite the enforced intimacy of the races, a rigid caste system, buttressed by dozens of local statutes, forbade blacks and whites to acknowledge the life they in fact held in common. A local statute went so far as to bar whites and blacks from playing cards, dice, checkers, or dominoes together. Restrooms and drinking fountains were clearly marked. By law, a white person and a Negro could not share a taxi. The segregation of restaurants and public transportation was carried out with a routine cruelty that left the black citizens of Montgomery, like those of most southern cities, humiliated and burning with resentment.” You will find an absence of over-sentimentalized anecdotes and conversations: Lischer understands all too well how the stakes were during this tumultuous period in American history.

Second, Lischer paints a nuanced portrait of Dr. King as the Civil Right’s Moses-figure. Lischer pays close attention to Dr. King’s ethos, rhetorical skill, knowledge of the teachings of Jesus, historical context, intellectual heroes, as well as his intense personal connection to the African-American church. Unlike some depictions, Lischer avoids the pitfalls of depicting King a secular humanitarian or as a mere social insurrectionist with an axe to grind. Rather, Lischer clearly demonstrates the manner in which Dr. King sees his own life as a holy improvisation, living out the dangerous love of Jesus in marches, prisons, restaurant sit-ins, and church bombings. With racism (Pharaoh) pressing in, Jim Crow government laws forming insurmountable walls on all sides (Red Sea), King (Moses) led his people to the other side. Dr. King prepared the people for what God was going to do next (Canaan) though he himself, like Moses, would not experience the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Lischer presents Dr. King for what he was: a young black Baptist preacher-prophet who named, exposed, and in his death, unmasked the systemic powers of darkness. This book will prepare you to re-imagine the God who liberates (all) his people from oppression and domination.

12 April 2008

Life, Death, New Life

I spent part of the last two days at a local hospital.

Johnny and Erin Pleasant (two very close friends), welcomed their first child into the world: Logan Palmer Pleasant. He's a beautiful healthy boy. He weighed six pounds and measured in, if my memory is correct, at 19 inches. He's already a Duke fan, I'm told, just like his daddy.

Another young family from our church welcomed their fifth child into this world a few rooms down the hall from the Pleasant family.

Just two floors below them, a young twenty-four year old woman (whose parents are rock solid members of our church community) lost her life after she suffered a brain aneurysm while giving birth to her first child: a sweet young girl named Skylar Nicole. Skylar's dad, widower and first time dad at the tender age of twenty-four, is now left to pick up the pieces of death's cruel destruction.

This is one of the worst tragedies I've witnessed in eight years of ministry. Words only make things worse in this scenario. If you are interested in helping young Skylar and her father (Alan), you can give a tax-deductible gift to:

Skylar Nicole Trust
Charter One Bank
27375 23 Mile Road
Chesterfield, MI 48051

"Humans do not lose control. We lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place."

10 April 2008

Bishop (Brother) Wright

Some things just click with me.

Like watching Denzel Washington play the role of Malcolm X perfectly. Witnessing Larry Bird shoot a three-pointer or eating my grandmother’s cream corn. Listening to Bruce Springsteen sing We Shall Overcome on his new album. Certain things in life rise up and grab your heart.

That’s how I felt when I first met Kara: we just naturally fell into a holy rhythm.

That’s what the scholarship, work, and writing of N.T. Wright means to me. From his scholarly work (click here here and here) to his more popular work (here and here)—Wright has emerged as the single most important and influential scholar/preacher/story-teller/linguist/theologian of the twenty-first century. Moreover, I get him and I appreciate his voice.

I can’t say that about all scholars. I struggle through much of Kierkegaard, Kant, Wittgenstein, Tillich, Barth, Crossan et al. Their work is hard work. Rewarding, but hard work nonetheless.

However, with Wright, I get it. All of it. Down to the last footnote. He has a way of simplifying the most complex elements of religious scholarship (philosophy, history, theology, textual analysis) without making those things trite, trendy, or commercialized.

His newest book came in the mail this week and I can’t put it down. This work, by the way, is a summary of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Son of God.

We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like lighting a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is to show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn't look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won't do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to investigate whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won't rely on the candles anymore, not because we don't believe in evidence and argument but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they find a new and larger home, Surprised by Hope (pg. 74).

08 April 2008

Josh, Kite Runner, Leno

Josh Ross spent the weekend with us. He taught at our annual young adult formation retreat. He also preached (with me) three times on Sunday morning at Rochester Church (four if you add CC:M). He is truly a gifted teacher and preacher of the Jesus Story. He got to see two of the Tigers well-publicized losses while in the D. Maybe he's bad luck. No . . .maybe the Tigers are simply "fat cats" . . .


Kara and I watched The Kite Runner tonight. I read the book this summer during our Florida vacation. I sat on the beach, paralyzed by this story, perhaps one of the great redemption narratives of our generation. Movies are never as good as the book. Never.

Yet, I admit, this movie is almost as good as the book. I'm going to be teaching our mid-week service tomorrow night about spiritual friendship using this book as the beginning point.


Heard on Jay Leno tonight. "The Tigers are 0-6 (actually, now they are 0-7). That's incredible. They are scoring less than Mayor Kilpatrick." Nice, Jay. Kick us while we're down. We'll be back.

07 April 2008

Rock-Chalk Jayhawk

I've blogged about my battle with worshipping basketball. So, this is not a new subject.

I've been a Kansas Jayhawk fan almost as long as I've been a Piston fan. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas from 1981-87. When you live in Kansas, no disrespect, but you don't have a lot to root for. Yes, you have the Royals and the Chiefs.

The one thing you can truly boast in . . . the Jayhawks.

1. James Naismith, the inventor of hoops, coached at Kansas. BTW--he's the only coach in KU history to have a losing record.

2. Dean Smith played at KU.

3. Wilt Chamberlain played at KU.

4. KU is in the top three for all-time NCAA wins.

5. Rock-Chalk Jayhawk. The greatest chant in all of sports.

We'll see how Kansas matches up with the speed and athleticism of Memphis. I think Kansas will pull it out in the final two minutes of the game: 74-69. Then again, I've picked them every year since 1989.

04 April 2008

MLK and the Good Samaritan

On this day, the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's tragic death in Memphis, we pause to remember a man who gave his life (as did Jesus of Nazareth) to show the world that love, not violence, is the most powerful force in the universe.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring, (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967).

The Future of the Church

Many bemoan the future of the church in America.

I'm not one of them. The church might get smaller . . . but I trust that, in the fullness of time, God will do what God wills. By "church" I'm not referring to a specific tribe (Church of Christ, Community, Catholic, Baptist, etc.) but, rather, to the church universal.

Last night, I spoke at Hope Community Church in Detroit to about 40 young adults regarding faith, Christian history (skeletons and bright spots alike) and evangelism. Their questions were outstanding, candid, honest, and authentic.

The top question of the day, to paraphrase one Christian thinker, is not whether Christianity is rationale, true, or logical. The top question . . . is rather . . .can Christianity prove itself to be redemptive, authentic, and "good news" for those who do not subscribe to the tenets of Christianity?

Driving home last night, I thought of this quote from one African scholar.

"It is not often recognized in Christian circles that theological affirmations about Christ are meaningful ultimately, not in terms of what Christians say, but in terms of what persons of other faiths understand those affirmations to imply for them. In other words, our Christian affirmations about the uniqueness of Christ achieve their real impact when they are subjected to the test to establish their credentials and validity not only in terms of the religious and spiritual universe in which Christians habitually operate, but also and indeed especially, in terms of the religious and spiritual worlds which persons of other faiths inhabit. For it is, after all, in those ‘other worlds’ that the true meaning of the unique Christ is meant to become apparent and validated.”

03 April 2008

A Jesus Story . . .

Two men decide to go to church one Sunday. One is a preacher, the other, a biker.

The preacher gets to church early. He turns his computer on in his cozy office. He checks over his notes one last time, combing every last detail and transition. Feeling a twinge of doubt creep into his gut he looks up at his wall to view his theology degrees hanging in great pride.

The preacher walks into the sanctuary prepared for worship. He holds his hands high in the air and declares, “God, thank-you for making me a leader of leaders. I teach, tithe, and volunteer with the homeless. It’s good to be me.”

The other man, the biker, comes into the worship service ten minutes late. Several pairs of eyes meet his. He doesn’t fit the church-going look. Unsure of where to sit, the biker walks close to the front—greasy jeans, tattoos, big black boots and all. As he walks toward the front the chain attached to his hip smacks against his leather coat.

During one of the worship songs (“Who would’ve thought that a lamb would rescue the souls of men?”), the biker drops his head, and presses his right hand against his chest. “God, I sure have made a mess of my life—please, please, forgive me.”

Two men went to church to pray. One was a minister with all the right credentials. The other was a man who loved Harley’s more than the air in his lungs. The man who’d lived a hard life went home justified. The minister just went home. Why? Jesus gives us the answer, “For whoever thinks highly of himself will be humbled. Whoever is humbled will be justified.”

Jesus told that story. It’s in Luke’s gospel. I like it, but some stories Jesus told really irritate me. Actually, some stories haunt me, and keep me up at night. Christianity becomes something different when Jesus begins to keep you up at night. It’s one thing when the Tigers or your shopping list keeps you awake. It’s another when it’s Jesus that won’t allow you a peaceful night’s rest.