31 July 2008

Abuse of Power

This police officer might be looking for a new job soon.


The relationship of God (and God's subsequent activity) and evil is a subject that I cannot escape in my thought world. Evil, for me, is not merely a subject or intellectual problem.

Evil is evident in the young Jewish girl who's just had both eyes ripped out by a young German solider in a Warsaw prison camp. Evil is seen by the countless African women who've had their breasts cut off in the name of religion. Evil is felt by the thousands of innocent children who've died or live in starvation due to wars being waged by the countries of the world. Evil is experienced up close when Jesus, the embodiment of God and man within creation, is crucified by the religious and political leaders of the day. Evil showed up when 800 thousand Rwandans (the case study for successful Christian evangelism movements) died in one of the bloodiest genocides of modern world history.

Evil cannot be a mere subject, it must be discussed and addressed from within the realm of human relationships.

Recently, a trusted friend handed me Greg Boyd's God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. It is a "meat and potatoes" book--if you are going to read it, pack a lunch. I finished late last night and was challenged in my personal outlook toward the world. This book got me thinking about some things I've written about in other places.

Regarding death, violence, sickness, decay, chaos, and discord (what Christians are taught to call "sin")--God's response to the obvious reality that humans participate in the brokenness can be understood in (at least) these four ways.

1. There is no God. Humans have created God in order that we might feel better per our existential and spiritual angst regarding identity, community, and belonging.

2. God created the world but is no longer involved. The world is in chaos but cannot or chooses not to do anything about the plight of creation or humanity. The end result is no different than #1 save the fire insurance of heaven.

3. God and creation are one and the same. God's way are a mystery and the in the fullness of time God will make sense of the suffering a) he's caused or b) he's permitted to happen. This sentiment is felt when people can say, after the death of a child, "God needed another angel" or . . . "God's ways are not our ways."

4. God created the world, though He is in some ways separate from the world (not separate regarding geography but in being and essence). Part of his creation (Satan, Devil, demons, powers, forces, dominions, etc.) stands at odds with him and we experience this battle in both the spiritual and physical realm--an important reminder to conservative Christianity which tends to only seem interested in the "spiritual" elements of life (ignoring the material teachings and actions of Jesus) and to liberal Christianity which seems hyper-fixated on the physical realm (ignoring the inner formation of the disciple, and the larger cosmic forces at work in the world).

God decides, by the power of Jesus' resurrection, to create a community of people who engage the "powers of darkness" as agents who foreshadow the coming day when sin, death, cancer, disease, poverty, and abuse are no longer. A community who pray for God's intervention. A community which believes that God is still about the business of victory, triumph, hope, and mercy.

29 July 2008

Review of The Shack

A few people emailed me today, suggesting this review of The Shack. I wrote one blog about this work. BTW--people whom I deeply respect (accomplished scholars and theologians included) disagree on the "quality" and "value" of The Shack. If you've read the book, you probably know why.

Here's a piece of that review . . .

Yet in order to give a work a fair hearing, we have an obligation to engage it on its own terms. A "good faith" reading of The Shack involves, among other things, attending to Young's reasons for writing, his intended audience, and its particular literary form.

Young says he wrote the book at his wife's prodding, to explain his 11-year journey of healing with God to their six children. The "shack" in Young's story represents deep personal wounds, both suffered and inflicted. The book is spiritual autobiography (in one web interview, Young says Mack is "basically me") cast in an alternative world, an imaginative attempt to condense 11 years into a weekend of conversations. These are words offered by a 53-year-old father to his children, a fictionalized tale of his relationship with God mended in deep darkness.

Therefore, it's tricky to speak definitively of The Shack's theology. Young could have written a theological treatise, a spiritual memoir, or even a long poem. Instead, he wrote what he calls a "parable" (not an allegory). That should give readers pause about confidently reading off a systematic theology from the book.

Mentoring . . .

Mentoring. . . is a buzz word these days. It's in the same category as "spiritual formation" "postmodern" "missional" "radical" and "emerging"--everyone loves to use these terms but not everyone knows what they are saying when they employ such words. Or . . . not everyone means the same thing.

I am a product of great mentors.

Beginning with my mom and dad (the best mentors I've ever had) . . .

Continuing to my high school basketball coach (who saw more in me than I saw in myself) . . .

Garth Pleasant (one of the best men I've ever known) . . .

David Fleer (who opened me up to Bible as no one has ever done since) . . .

John York (whom I consider one of my closest friends and teacher extraordinaire, he taught me to view graduate school as a gift) . . .

Rubel Shelly (the hardest worker I've ever been around, he challenged me to think about ministry in categories I did not previously have) . . .

Others have greatly influenced me: Doc Shelton (MLK basketball coach in Nashville), Randy Harris, Lee Camp, David Greer, John Mark Hicks, Phillip Camp, George Goldman, Mike Cope (who I listened to on tape from the time I was 18), Patrick Mead, Dr. Loren Siffring, Beth VanRheenen, Diane LaRosa (high school French teacher), Mrs. Hopkins (fifth grade teacher, Air Force pilot), and Mark Brackney.

I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me.

And now . . . as I am approaching 30 (March 2009), I'm beginning to realize that this is the season of my life in which I now have the opportunity to do the same. Courtney Jenko, Katy Allison, Riley Chowning, Courtney Strahan, Dave Rotberg, Wayne Beason, Stephanie Maurice, Dave Watts, Shaun Hover, Liz Trainor (and others)--I pray that God would use me to raise up another generation of leaders for the cause of Christ.

28 July 2008

A Friday to Remember

This past Friday night I presented a short film I’ve been working on for several months with good friend and video guru Sean Stockman. The film is being created for an important conference taking place at Lipscomb University in October. I’ll also be using the film during some teaching times at Rochester Church.

The conference I presented at on Friday was simply stunning. Black and White ministers from Churches of Christ gathered together to discuss Remembering 1968—a pivotal year in recent American history. The dialog was rich and powerful as I sat with ministers who marched with Dr. King and (white) ministers who were shunned because of their insistence that racism and segregation was an abomination to the way of Jesus. It was, for sure, a thin place—one of those rare moments when the story of Jesus collides with the ways of evil and darkness. Churches of Christ, though filled our own skeletons, boast a rich heritage of social involvement in issues of injustice and discrimination. These stories, however, rarely get told. We were teachers, historians, ministers, doctors, lawyers, social advocates—all came together in order to move our churches forward.

After my presentation, I went with Jimmy Hurd (a minister from the Detroit area) to the famous Bluebird CafĂ© in Green Hills. Four singer/songwriters captured our hearts for two plus hours. One of the performers is the author of the southern classic “The Gambler.”

My favorite song, offered by a well-known Nashville artist, was the last song. The chorus line went, “I was a burden . . . .’til the Lord . . . put his hand on me.”

That's my story.

23 July 2008

Mere Discipleship

About five years ago, Mere Discipleship hit churches, bookstores, classrooms, and personal libraries all around the country. More than anything, this work (an appropriation of sorts of John Howard Yoder for evangelicals) prompted spirited discussion regarding religion, politics, the life of Jesus, and the role of church in society.

The second edition of MD is out. For this edition, I've written a detailed study guide alongside Lee Camp for the sole purpose of equipping church leaders, teachers, and ministers to bring this important discussion to the place for which the book was written in the first place: the local church!

If you were challenged by the first edition, consider purchasing the second. If you have not read this book, here's your chance.

Click here for a preview.

"What a book. This is one of those books that you wear out carrying around, marking up, and loaning out. Camp's words are timeless, and timely. And the crazy thing is this: the church is actually ready to hear them. In post-Religious Right America, there is an entire generation that is not willing to settle for the dream of America over the dream of God. There is a hunger for a Christianity that is not just something we believe but something we live and embody, a church filled not just with believers and worshippers but with disciples. Lee Camp points us towards a Christianity that is worth believing in."--Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution, coauthor of Jesus for President

19 July 2008


Almost one year ago, our church lost one of our young adults to a life-long addiction. Nic Paradise passed from this life to the next, leaving behind a son, fiance, parents, and two sisters. It was a time of confusion, and darkness.

Today, hope is beginning to emerge from this experience.

Nic's fiance, Liz Trainor, is making great strides at a rehab facility in Arizona as a result of the generosity and love of one family from the Rochester Church. She continues, alongside her grandmother, to wrestle with all of life's questions surrounding identity, esteem, suffering, and relationships.

Today, Carmen Paradise, one of Nic's sisters, will marry fellow musician extraordinaire, Peter Leclair. Both have become good friends over the last year. They've played twice in our Emerging Artist series, and I've gone to local venues to listen to them jam. We will laugh, cry, sing, and listen at the wedding which will take place in just two short hours. And we will begin to believe that as tough and cruel as life can be, hope always has a chance.

If you are in the midst of an addiction, there is hope for you. If you have a spouse, child, or loved one battling the suffocating force of addiction, please do not give up. I've seen far too many resurrection stories in the midst of death to succumb to the notion that "what will be will be."

God still raises people from the dead. This is the hope Christianity has to offer to this world.

17 July 2008

Savior on Capital Hill

If you are disillusioned with both the Republican and Democratic party . . . this video is for you.

16 July 2008

Why the Elephant is the King of the Jungle

As Kara, Sara, and I were leaving the safari last week in Northern Uganda, we had a thirty second encounter that will be lodged into our memories forever.

As were driving out of the park, we noticed an S.U.V. ahead of us, pulled off to the side of the road. We assumed they were taking photos of say, boring animals, like hippos, zebras, and warthogs (read: sarcasm). As we approached, the Ugandan guide informed our guide that in fact, they had just seen a male and female lion.

At this point, we weren't too excited for we'd already seen 13 lions the previous 36 hours. Oh, how wrong we were.

It turns out, three elephants were chasing two lions across the field near where we were stationed. Sara commented, "I've never seen elephants chasing lions." For someone who'd been on 15 safari's (Sara used to live in Uganda), I was quite impressed with our luck. That feeling would be short-lived.

After losing visible sight of the two chasing parties, the male lion (who must have weighed close to 400 lbs.) came sprinting out of the brush, headed directly for our S.U.V. With his head down, he was running directly for us in fear of the elephants. After about 5 seconds, he lifted his head to see our vehicle. Immediately he tried to stop in mid-stride, forcing him to lose his balance which caused him to slide down the four foot trench that separated him from us.

The lion literally missed hitting our vehicle by six to twelve inches. Had I not slammed the large viewing window, I could've reached out and touched the lion with my bare hand. I probably would've been henceforth forever known as "one-armed-Josh" had I done so. I will never forget the split-second moment in which my eyes met the eyes of the lion. Never had I seen the king of the jungle (not in film, photographs, or video) filled with so much panic. The elephant, as it turns out, is the real king of the jungle.

After the male lion gained his footing, he sprinted to the other side of the road. The female lion came running behind him a short time after. Luckily for us, and the really intriguing element of this little tale, the elephants changed their course before getting to the road where we parked. We saw them casually jog off into the morning mist.

My heart was in my stomach. My stomach was in my foot.

So, what lessons do I take from this? First, I'm a lot lower on the food chain than I often remember. Second, the difference between beauty and danger is a thin veil (or a piece of metal). Third, we as humans feel most alive when we are in situations and places of uncertainty.

I'm glad to be back in suburbia where, as I write this, the most dangerous animal in my yard is a little black squirrel who keeps getting into Kara's flowers. Soon, he will learn his place on the food chain.

15 July 2008

Brian McLaren

About a month ago, I interviewed Brian McLaren regarding church, theology, his new book, politics, etc. To read part of that interview click here. To listen to the full interview, click here.

McLaren is considered one of the leading thinkers on the current and future state of Christianity in the West. He'll also be speaking at Lipscomb's Preaching Conference, for which I'm doing another short film for in the fall. If you can make it, this event will be one of rich dialog and reflection.

14 July 2008

Chez Moi

Kara and I just returned home tonight. After a month of being gone (grad school and our time in Uganda) I am at peace knowing I'm home.

The last several days were exciting and stressful. We survived one amazing "lion encounter" during safari (more on that to come), a four hour airport shut down in Paris, and yours truly (moi) dancing with Ugandan tribal dancers (photos forthcoming).

My email inbox says 251 (that's just from last Wednesday). My voicemail if full. My stomach is empty.

I think maybe (as Ugandans love to say) . . . I think maybe I'll just go to bed.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,. . . they have to take you in. I should have called it . . . Something you somehow haven't to deserve,"
-Robert Frost.

09 July 2008

Christ Plays in Africa and Beyond . . .

WARNING: This blog is a bit esoteric. Coloring books are not available. :)

Understanding the various depictions (translation: christologies) of Jesus in history and culture is one of the most important tasks of the Christian seeker. For instance, I wrote a blog sometime back about different "christologies" in the twentieth century.

In preparation for coming to Uganda and teaching at BBS, I got my hands on Kwame Bediako's Jesus and the Gospel in Africa (thanks to Spencer Bogle for that). I don't have the book with me as I write. However, one thing stands out to me as I write from Jinja/The Source/Manry Estate. Among other images, Bediako describes two images of Christ "playing" (think performing, enacted) in Africa.

*Jesus is the Great Ancestor. He is the One who goes before and and is now among the great "cloud of witnesses" (to borrow from language within Hebrews).

*Jesus is the Physician. He is the One who brings healing to the sick, poor, and suffering . . . especially those with H.I.V. or A.I.D.S. Think the gospel of Luke.

Thinking at the same time about the different ways in which Jesus is "packaged" in America--Buddy Jesus, Best Friend Jesus, Bless Me Jesus, CEO Jesus, Psychologist Jesus--I can't help but wonder which Jesus might get the gospel a truer hearing. The following are six images I'd like to pursue to see if the four gospels match up in any way.

1. Suffering Servant
2. Exposer of Powers
3. Protector of Powerless
4. Parent to the Neglected
5. True Representative of Spirituality
6. Healer of Tribalism

08 July 2008

Jinja Wrestling and Church Softball

Today, during one of the course sesssions at the Busoga Bible School, I taught the students about social issues in the first century world of Greco-Roman and Jewish thought. To say my translator (Monda) is good is an understatement.

One of the areas that was most interesting to the students, was the discussion of "honor and shame" in Jesus' ministry--specifically the Gospel of Luke.

The short version goes like this. In Israel, men attempted to gain great honor through education, wealth, friends, skill, accomplishment, family, marriage, etc. The more items on the list, the more honor one would receieve. Thus, Jesus exposes the dangers of culture's built upon honor and shame, by turning everything upside down. He is not formally educated, lives a simple life from the backwoods of Nazareth, associates with the "nobodies" and does very little to promote his family or make important social relationships. Just look at the people Jesus ate with. You get the idea.

I asked what men (not women necessarily for Uganda's culture still sees women as second class, as do some pockets of American culture) do to gain honor. One man, Martin, proceeded to tell me about the wrestling competitions that used to consume life in Jinja. Men from various churches would compete against other men. They would have a tournament of sorts . . . the winner was esteemed as a person of great promise. One more important detail is in order. I asked Martin and another man to demonstrate in the front of the classroom. Their wrestling is much more reliant upon skill and speed as opposed to violence and power.

Martin then, after eloquently explaining this to me, turned the question to me and asked, "Joshua . . . .In America, do your churches ever wrestle against one another?" I thought of some funny answers regarding church polity, doctrinal disputes, etc. but decided not to run down that road. Instead, I simply smiled and said," Martin . . . we have something similiar . . . are you familiar with church softball?"

Never did I think I'd have to explain church softball to a room of Ugandan ministers.

The world can end tonight and I'll be just fine.

06 July 2008

Jinja pt. 4

Kara and I were able to stay the night last night with Richard and Ida. Richard is the minister for the Jinja Church of Christ, Ida is the "living saint" who ministers and serves in the city and in the villages. When you are around her, you know you are in the presence of holiness.

Aside from the radio blasting all night (Ugandans love to sleep with the radio on, turned up all the way), we slept great. Ida treated us to a feast fit for kings and queens.

This morning, Kara and I joined some of the interns and Sara Barton to worship in Kyabirwa (Cha-beer-a). I preached for about twenty minutes, with a translator. My jokes weren't nearly as funny via translation as they were in my head as I crafted them.

Towards the end of the service, it was mentioned that someone from the church had donated two eggs for the church. Since the "eggs would not fit in the bank" it was proposed that the eggs be auctioned and the proceeds go towards the contribution. Add this to the "things I'd never see in Detroit list."

Two of our students fought tooth and nail over the purchase of the eggs. I believe the eggs went for a handsome sum of twenty thousand shillings.

We are really enjoying our time here . . . not that we ever keep track of it.

05 July 2008

The Market

Today Mark took me to the market in Jinja (est. pop. 200k).

The sites and sounds were overwhelming. Fish, grains, berries, pineapples, diesel, waste, mixed with sweat, heat, shade, voices, english, Lusoga, buzungu (White persons). You have to always watch where you are walking as a motorcycle might be hiding righ around the way. Trucks come zooming through with a dozen men in the back of the bed.

First glance, it's weird, hectic, chaotic, and downright intimidating.

People on top of people on top of more people.

But then I took the second glance that mystics talk so much about. And then I see him. Over in the corner, I see an older man, hunched over, with creases or crows-feet, around his eyes. He's weaving something together. I imagine myself walking over to him.

"Hello sir."
"How are you?"
"What are you making."
"I'm making tents. My name is Paul. Not here for long. Just here to encourage some friends. Trying to make a little money while I'm here. What can I make for you?"

"Oh," I think to myself. So much more going on than I normally allow myself to see.

"You've already made enough," I stammer walking away trying to dodge the S.U.V. driven by a married couple from Switzerland, on their way to raft the Nile.

04 July 2008

Jinja Part Two

Kara and I were able to spend today in a village outside of Jinja with Sara Barton. It was interesting to be there as Sara reconnected with old and dear friends. She taught in their new church building. She was truly in her element, speaking lusoga fluently. John and Sara (along with several other couples) came to Jinja (Southern Uganda) in the early 90's to plant churches all over the region. It's incredible to see the fruit of their work some twenty years later: internet cafe, library, Busoga Bible School (training center for ministers and lay leaders), craft store, etc. But the real measure of their work is in the eyes of the people who have been welcomed into a new kind of family; a community built around the stories of Jesus. We've met person after person who talk about "John and Sara Barton, Greg and Jill Taylor, Brent and Heather Abney, Mark and Marnie Moore, Darrin and Becca Smith" as if they were talking about "Paul, Peter, Lydia, Phoebe, James, and John."


During lunch, I had a conversation with Alice, a local Ugandan who works with H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. patients. She told me that "Because of the generosity of the United States and other countries, Uganda is one of the few countries in Africa where H.I.V. has been in decline." That was particularly helpful for me to hear as it seems U.S. relations have suffered greatly internationally over the last six years.

02 July 2008

Jinja Part One

Kara, Sara, and I made it to Jinja despite moderate drama (missing luggage, late planes, planes running low on fuel). We're staying with Mark and Lori . . . just enjoyed a great dinner, now engaged in spirited political discussion. 

Kara's blog will have photos over the next week or so. Mine will have, big surprise, more words.

Mark's been special to me over the last six years. He and I finished the M.Div. together at Lipscomb in 2005--we've spent many hours talking baseball, postmodernism, history, pipe-smoking, theology, mission, film, and all things Church of Christ. Mark's been a big brother of sorts, offering me priceless wisdom for the task of ministry. 

God's world is so much bigger than our lives betray.