30 October 2008

Speaking in Tongues: French, Greek, and Hebrew

The first language (other than English) I took the time to learn was French. I wish I could say I did this was for existential reasons (e.g. I wanted to understand the great philosophers of the 1960's who were completely re-thinking "how we know what we know") but that would be a lie.

I took French because I had to. My dad said, "If you are going to go to college, you'd better get used to doing things you don't want to do."

Eventually (by year three) . . . I loved it. I was amazed the first time I read, by myself, The Little Prince. To read it in the original language was incredible because there are words and sentences in French that simple do not translate into English very well (and vice versa).

Then, I took Greek during my undergrad years. I was captain of the basketball team at Rochester College, opinions editor (big surprise) of the school paper, and . . . oh yeah . . . part-time campus minister. Let's just say I was a bit too busy to appreciate the aorist infinitive of agape. Greg Stevenson still likes to remind me of this "baptism" by fire. I remind him that I was a history major and therefore simply taking Greek to expand my horizons . . . see . . . I was learning to play the existential card.

When I went to grad school to study theology, I knew I had to buckle down and become much more disciplined. So, flash-cards became my best friend. Ask Kara, she still has nightmares of my saying, "will you quiz me during the commercial break?" Greek became so much a part of me I had dreams about Greek tests, quizzes, words, and sentences.

Then came Hebrew. If Greek is mathematical, Hebrew is more art. I thought I would do really well in Hebrew since I'm more of a literature/art person. I was wrong. Part of it was due to my situation in life (which is always the case) . . . that is . . . Kara and I were juggling crazy schedules of making the transition to Abilene and then back to Nashville. I did okay in Hebrew. But not nearly as good as I did Greek.

The last two weeks I've been forced (or "welcomed" might be a more pastoral word) to dive back into the world of language: both Hebrew and English translation. I've been reminded how much of translation is interpretation. For instance, sometimes the translators use the word displease when they should use wicked, evil, detestable (see Gen. 38 and Onan).

But there is a great value in paying attention to the differences and possibilities of language. For one, learning a language only happens if you are disciplined to work at it every day. Kind of like learning to follow the teachings of Jesus. We are not instinctively good at following Jesus . . . we must learn to become a disciple (mathetes means student). Every day we wake up and choose to believe that God invaded the world . . . especially on days when our physical surroundings suggest otherwise.

Learning languages is also important because we miss the mystical relationship between words and meaning. To be human is to experience life with God. To experience life with God means we need words to make sense of our experiences. We also don't know what are experiences often mean without assigned words.

For instance, did you know that the same word in Hebrew for womb (as in the piece of the human body that belongs to a female) is the same word for compassion? That takes on special meaning for a husband and wife who are going to have their first child in the coming months.

NBA, Pistons

There are many reasons not to like the NBA (players are pampered, over-paid; the season is long; the game is chaotic; no one tries until the fourth quarter; the games are fixed as Rasheed Wallace would remind us). However, there are some strong reasons to love the NBA (best athletes in the world; the game is an art or dance; at least you know who the enemy is for it is clearly defined by the color of the jersey; you can root for a team throughout your entire lifetime).

I've written of my passion for the Pistons in the past. I'm not convinced the Pistons are any better this year than in years past.

So, on the second day of the NBA season, I'll make some simple picks.

Pistons VS Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals
Celtics over Pistons in 6

Lakers VS Houston Rockets in Western Conference Finals
Rockets over Lakers in 7

Rockets VS Celtics in NBA Finals (that will remind people of Larry Legend versus the Original Twin Towers of Olajuwon and Sampson)

Celtics repeat as NBA champs (in 6)

26 October 2008


"The life for which God has been preparing you for is, by the grace of God, slowly being taken from you." --Walter Brueggemann quoted in Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor


I love thinking about Sunday Worship as the dress rehearsal for the rest of the week. Sunday morning worship is the time when all of God's actors come together to receive their script for the week. This morning, at Rochester Church, we came together to pray, to listen, to confess, to sing, to worship, to be still, to laugh, to hug, to catch up, to encourage, to remember, to hope, lament, to pause . . . but most of all to hear from the still small voice of God. The real test of today's worship will be the manner in which 900 followers live out their mission Monday morning.

After a long week of reading, writing, studying in my doctoral class at Columbia Seminary I really needed to worship with my local community of faith. I preached in all three today on the meaning of "witness" in Acts 1 and tried to connect that with the film Mr. Holland's Opus. All three services were powerful in their own ways. I was especially touched in Mosaic (our third service) when, as I preached, I looked into the eyes of many of our family members and witnessed a great deal of energy, conviction and hope.

I saw Henry Oyer . . . a Kenyan who one day hopes to return to Nairobi to work with "street kids."

I saw Tom Ngobi, Sara Ageno and Priscilla Batzamuliza . . . three Ugandan students who've blessed my life beyond words.

I saw Lori and L.J. Manry . . . home on furlow from the mission field.

I saw Bert and Ann Bryan . . . two of the best leaders our church has.

I saw John and Sara Barton . . . two of the best partners in ministry anyone could ask for.

I saw Andrew and Eli . . . two young men who've overcome addiction, now claiming God's grace for their life.

I saw Kara . . . my baby-mama (I've been waiting to say that on this blog for a long time) and closest friend on the planet.

I witnessed a room full of people with real doubts, struggles, and concerns coming together to claim the promise that God is with us when we are with each other. Just as he was all over the world today . . . Jesus was among us, inhabiting our words, prayers, speech, and silence. And, sorry Lebron James, we all are witnesses to his justice and mercy.

23 October 2008

God is Our Parent

I have some maxims I live by . . . little nuggets of truth that have served me well over the years. I don't talk much about them, but there are always there, in my head, rearing their neon sign when something in my life, or the lives of those around me, goes wrong.

One of those maxims goes like this: If you continue to treat a child as if they are the center of the universe, eventually they begin to believe it.

Today, in my class with Brueggemann he took that maxim from an 80 m.p.h. fastball to a 98 m.p.h (high and tight).

In certain sections of Torah, where God is depicted as a parent, we "Hall-Mark-ize" the stories. The discussion took several interesting turns and then came to a climax when Bruggemann told us about the work of D.W. Winnicott, an English Psychiatrist.

Winnicott's conclusion/contribution could be summarized this way: The health of almost any child is dependent upon a mother (parent) being "good enough"--that is, in the early days of the child, the mother must give herself over completely over to the health of the child. He defines "good enough" as being present, attentive, caring, present, and responsive. If the mother is unfit, psychopathic, negligent, absent, unsympathetic, the child (as an infant) will know within the first two weeks following the birth.

If the mother does not respond to the child's acting out. The child learns to act out, or perform in order that the mother will respond. Within the first month, the baby has developed two "selves" . . . the real self and the artificial self.

At about two years of age, the child must withdraw this constant attention lest the child become a narcissistic child who comes to seminary and can't handle an A-. We see this in some suburban parents who coddle and hover over their children who make them feel (which they believe) they are the center of the universe."

Is Yahweh a "good-enough" mother? This is question running underneath the story of the Old Testament. At times he comes near and pays intense attention to the children. But God also understands that as the child grows, he/she must learn to learn to walk without the constant attention of the parent.

For the contemporary church, many pastors and ministers have to learn how to deal with people who have been abandoned by their mothers and fathers and need "constant parental attention."
Ministers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to feel a need/missing space that they could never possibly fill.

By the way, a "not good enough" mother/father might be a stay-at-home mother/father, a working successful woman/man, a woman/man who lives in both worlds. The point is not to argue about social class warfare that exists in American and British culture . . . but to point out the central element of a parent's relationship to their child and the way in which our cultures are reaping the benefits and tragedies of abandoned children.

22 October 2008

One of My Favorite U2 Songs: In a Little While

Love and Power

Do you think this statement is true?

"The person who loves the most has the least power. To gain power in a relationship, you have to withhold love. Whoever loves the least is in control."

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Update: By the way, the quote is from the famous American sociologist, Willard Waller who studied marriages during the 1930's. It's called the "principle of least interest" and it was based upon years of studying the marriages that were healthy and marriage of destruction, abuse, friction, etc.

21 October 2008

Pharaoh's Nightmare

One of the major goals of the course I'm taking this week is to help minister, teachers, and preachers read the Torah with fresh eyes. Brueggemann (Brew-ga-mawn) said to us yesterday, "To read the Bible well . . . this is ultimately what I have to teach you."

So each day, different people walk the class through Brueggemann's approach to reading the Bible. It's intimidating to employ a method while the inventor (so-to-speak) of the method is in the room. What would it be like to dabble in relativity with Einstein or philosophy with Aristotle? To a lesser degree, that's what it is to do "the method" with Brueggemann in the house while the kids color, trying to stay between the lines.

Today, one group led the class through a section of the Joseph Story in Genesis--one of the more breathtaking and incredible sections of Torah. In fact, Joseph might be the only "truly impeccable character" in Torah.

After haggling through Hebrew, theology, syntax, word meanings, etc. . . . Brueggemann asked the class this question (because the questions we ask are vital): "Why is it that Pharaoh has a nightmare?"

"He's paranoid," someone muttered.
"He's a control freak."
"He does not want to lose his power."

Brueggemann laughed his sincere laugh and rolled his head around twice. "I'll tell you why. Pharaoh had a nightmare because the people who have the most . . . have the most anxiety about NOT having enough. So, be wary of the people who are most anxious in your congregations. They have a lot to lose."

20 October 2008

CTS Part Two

I will try and translate what I'm studying this week at CTS. This morning's session was excellent. I wrote so fast I thought my index finger was going to fall off (I like to write as opposed to type when taking notes . . . I type so fast that my brain gets out of sync. However when I write, it slows me down a bit).

Here were some highlights from today's lectures and discussions. I'll save the nerd stuff for other conversations.

"Every family/church has their own genre (story). And when your genre (story) comes colliding with someone else's--be it marriage, church leadership, preaching--you'd better be aware of the stories around you."

"The Bible, just like the humans who wrote them under God's influence, is complex. Therefore, just as we move beyond judging people for their complexity, we must move beyond judging the Bible and move into a living, breathing relationship. We must allow the Bible to critique us. To ask questions we would not dare ask if left to our own devices."

On the Bible: "There are no answers in the back of this book, only long standing schools of interpretation."

"Every spiritualization is rationalization," (regarding the Christianity that allowed Nazi Germany to exterminate Jesus's people, the Jews).

"There is a profound difference between history and memory. Memory is the way in which we remember history. So, in reality, perhaps history and memory aren't all that different."

"When we read the Bible we're always asking ourselves . . . 'What is God saying and doing?'"

"Von Rad (noted OT scholar) was the only professor in the theology department at this university not to join the Nazi Party. Because of that, students refused to take his courses. The Confessing Church (led by Bonhoeffer et al) therefore sent students to take Von Rad's lectures lest the the university terminate Von Rad. So the moral of the story . . . just because you have a small church doesn't mean you are not doing God's work. Don't base everything upon popularity."

"We are all selective fundamentalists. That is, we all choose which parts of the Bible we read and which parts we do not. Therefore, a healthy reader will confess to this problem, help others to see their own participation in selective reading of the Bible and courageously move forward to let all of Scripture serve as our guiding force."

"The texts calls us to more freedom than we are ready to have."

We spent the last hour of class going through Dr. Brueggemann's approach to interpreting the Bible. He's just written a new book about it so it was fascinating to learn up close from one of this generations great thinkers/writers.

Past, Present and Future

During the viewing of the short film I've now mentioned a few times . . . David Fleer suggested to me that a Q and A be added at the end of the film. I'd spent five minutes or so introducing the film discussing the concept Dallas Willard calls "vampire Christianity"--the reduction of the meaning of the life Jesus (which Willard famously writes, "The tendency to only want Jesus for his blood" ignoring the tenor of the life and teachings that got him crucified in the first place).

After the short film--an eighteen minute re-hearing of the King Story in Jim Crow South (think: MLK as America's Moses set to Springsteen) . . . I fielded several questions and comments. Brian McLaren, of all people, told an incredible story about two different generations and their wrestling with the legacy of apartheid in South Africa.

At the very end of the discussion, with a room full of scholars, preachers, theologians (including Brueggemann, McLaren, Cleo LaRue, etc.) . . . one good man stood up and asked a very honest question. "Don't we run the risk of making racism worse when we continue to tell the stories of Jim Crow South and Martin Luther King?"

It was, as I said, a good question.

Immediately my mind went to two places at once. First, I thought of Elie Wiesel, who had just lectured at Rochester College/Church on the power of language for reconciliation (and the role of memory) . . . and I thought the reason Darfur can happen today is because we've forgotten the Holocaust of the twentieth century.

My mind simultaneously went to a different place. I thought of my beloved friend, James ("Doc") Shelton--one of the most respected high school basketball coaches in Nashville. Doc and I became friends when I was a grad student at Lipscomb. He has deep roots with two of my mentors (Rubel Shelly and John York).

So this is the gist of what I said . . . "If Doc Shelton (an African-American leader in Nashville) were to answer your question, he might remind all of us that Christian institutions (such as David Lipscomb) were the last to integrate in major urban areas all over the U.S."

"Moreover, I've yet to meet a minority in this country who wants to completely forget the past. So, and I mean this with all the generosity I can muster . . . we cannot forget. And sometimes our questions betray our own bias, forcing us to ask better questions."

There are many facets to the gospel. Some of those facets include: personal forgiveness, faith, hope, and love. Some also include race, gender, and economics, and spiritual formation.

Different seasons call for different emphases. In all of those . . . be it addiction, divorce, sexual abuse, abandonment, pride . . . the way to the future runs through the past. We must always remember, lest we cease to be human. For it is in remembering that we remain human. Remembering the stories of God preserved through the church (called the Bible). Remembering the grace poured out in our lives.

19 October 2008

Film, CTS

The short film I made for the Lipscomb Preaching Conference went well. I will write more about it later. It's incredible what can happen when you mix images, words, music, and powerful rhetoric together. It's like cooking a gourmet meal. Add the right ingredients with a delicate touch and . . . voila!


I was able to spend precious time with the York Family today. They have been a blessing, source of wisdom, and spiritual friends since 2002. I count my life richer for having shared so many memories and conversations.


In the morning, I begin a course with Walter Brueggemann on Pentateuch (think: first five books of the Bible).

Here are the main reasons I wanted to do my doctoral work at Columbia Seminary.

1. Charles Campbell: One of the more influential thinkers in recent times (for his field) . . . he's now at Duke.

2. Barbara Brown Taylor: my favorite writer and preacher on the planet. Period. I'm supposed to take a writing course with her in the summer of 2009

3. Walter Brueggemann (word is this might be his last course): Seriously. The Bill Russell of Old Testament theology.

4. Diversity of students: we will have pastors and ministers from all over the world, from virtually every branch of the Christian faith.

5. Challenge: Besides Princeton (which just did away with their D.Min.) CTS is one of the more integrative programs I'm aware of. They are passionate about practical theology and deep reflection.

The Beauty of Family

Mom: "You know the Bible says, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.'"

My brother: "I guess that means I'll have to turn the other cheek."

(From Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

16 October 2008

Baby Graves, Film, Music, Flannery O'Connor

The excitement we've felt from our family and friends has been encouraging. Thanks to everyone who wrote an e-mail, commented on the blog, posted a note to Facebook, left me voice-mail/text. We are truly blessed to have so many people who are sharing life with us.


Tomorrow, I present a film I've been working on for almost a year at the Lipscomb Preaching Conference. My good friend and tech whiz, Sean Stockman, helped me put this video together. I think it's one of the best projects we've worked on together.

When David Fleer asked me to do this I said "yes" without hesitation. I'm fascinated with the relationship and connection of images, music, and film. I'm convinced that part of the church's future (especially regarding preaching and teaching) is to a) understand the way in which the medium is the message and b) the way in which various mediums can be used to further the cause of deep spirituality, grace, love, hope and justice.

I did some of this at the Nashville ZOE Conference a few weeks back if you are interested. Knight Media Group handles all the CD distribution (615.459.8087).


The reading I take with me is a sacred selection. I thought about taking this classic. But, after reading a bit, I did not think it would get the job done as I move in and out of Nashville and Atlanta. So, I went with a writer Thomas Merton once referred to as a truly legendary writer "for all time and all generations," (my paraphrase). I'll be taking Flannery O'Connor with me.

08 October 2008

We Bring Good News

Kara and I have been on many adventures together over the last several years. We’ve lived in Michigan (twice, once while dating, once while married), Nashville (Seminary and College), and Abilene (ditto).

We’ve traveled to many different places in the United States, usually catching a Major League Baseball game (Wrigley has been, by far, our favorite so far).

We’ve been to Hawaii and hit as many beaches as we could find. We just recently spent time in Paris, London and Uganda asking the question that’s been the theme of my life, “What is God up to anyway?”

We’ve been in the slums of Cass Park, finding ourselves in all kinds of unimaginable conversations and homes. We’ve broken bread with some of our homeless friends who are now, by the grace of God, off the streets. We even buried a few of our friends whose relationships, short-lived as they were, blessed our lives in gospel ways.

We’ve traveled deeper in our friendships with our small group of which we say all the time, “We are learning to do life together.” As a church family, we've traveled the path marked "missional" learning from our mistakes.

But, we are now about to partake of a journey that will, in most ways, be all-together different than the other journeys mentioned.

Baby Graves will, by the goodness of God, join us on May 1st, 2009. Kara is eleven weeks pregnant for those curious . . . though you’d never know because she’s so skinny. If you happen to be at the Rochester Hills Public Library this week and find all the “baby name books” are checked out . . . now you know the whole story.

More (funny) stories to come . . . Is that a basketball in Baby Graves' hand?

Home: Return of the Prodigal Son

Last week, I mentioned the acclaimed novel, Home.

Click here to read an excellent review of what might be one of the better novels of the last decade.

An excerpt:

“Home” is a book full of doubleness and paradox, at once serene and volcanic, ruthless and forgiving. It is an anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin. It would be inaccurate to say that the novel represents yet another breathless exposé of religious hypocrisy, or a further excavation of the dark secrets that supposedly lurk beneath the placid surface of small-town life. When Robinson writes that “complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case,” she is not scoring an easy, sarcastic point. There is real kindness and generosity in the town, and its theological disposition is accordingly tolerant and charitable.

These ugly facts complicate the beauty of “Home,” but the way Robinson embeds them in the novel is part of what makes it so beautiful. It is a book unsparing in its acknowledgment of sin and unstinting in its belief in the possibility of grace. It is at once hard and forgiving, bitter and joyful, fanatical and serene. It is a wild, eccentric, radical work of literature that grows out of the broadest, most fertile, most familiar native literary tradition. What a strange old book it is.

07 October 2008


One of my students at RC (an excellent thinker and deeply spiritual leader) . . . Shalmar Hylton . . . read this to our class recently. I think it is absolutely brilliant.

"All nature speaks with an articulate voice: everything in it is song, music and sound. All beings whisper, sigh, hum, quaver, chirp, roar, howl, bellow, groan, shriek, weep or murmur. The song of the crickets, the cicadas and the frogs, and the whistling of which the stripped squires greet each other, and all the other voices of the fields are one great prayer. This is the reason for the silence observed by those contemplative monks who have dedicated their voices to the choral chant. They know that every voice is a prayer."

- Ernesto Cardenal in To Live is to Love (page 28)

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight reflected on his recent time with us at ZOE. He has one of the best blogs I've seen. Check it out.

His lectures were full of theological depth, humor, pastoral sensibility, and missional conviction. He fit well with what ZOE is trying to do among Churches of Christ: bridging the Gospel and Culture in innovative and faithful ways.

The Boss

Bruce Springsteen, arguably one of the most influential musicians/artists of the last twenty-five years, gave a free acoustic concert at Eastern Michigan University yesterday in hopes to register college students for the upcoming election.

It was a remarkable event. We (Kara, Sara and Nate Barton) got 20 feet from the stage. He played for 30-40 minutes. We did not pay one dime.

He dedicated Devil and Dust to the troops still working and serving in the Middle East. That was a "thin space" moment. Especially when he uttered these words: "Now every woman and every man/They wanna take a righteous stand/Find the love that God wills/And the faith that He commands/I've got my finger on the trigger/And tonight faith just ain't enough/When I look inside my heart/There's just devils and dust"

03 October 2008

Hall of Fame Coach

Tonight, Rochester College Men's Basketball Coach Garth Pleasant will be inducted into the Michigan Basketball Hall of Fame. Coach is the winningest active coach in Michigan college basketball.

It was such an honor to play for him. I wish I could be there for it. I was there for his 500th win (one of the highlights of my playing days) . . . tonight will be special. 

Right now, I know what he's doing. He's trying to figure out how he can get out of giving an acceptance speech.

Coach: We're proud of you and we love you a great deal.

01 October 2008


When it comes to reading, I can be a bit of a snob. By "snob" . . . of course . . . I mean I'm selective. I read what I'm told to read by my teachers. I also have entrusted my reading to a select group of people who bat around .900.

One of my inner-circle reading friends suggested I check out this novel a few years ago. It blew me away . . . I think I read it in two days. Which, for me, is not normal.

Then I found out that the author of this novel was one of Barbara Brown Taylor's favorite writers. BBT is one of the best writers in all of Christianity. Period.

So, another novel by MR just came out. I picked it up on Saturday. It is doing surgery on me. Scot McKnight recently reminded me of one of my favorite sections in the novel.

“There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. Her [Glory’s] father had said this more than once, in sermons, with appropriate texts, but the real text was Jack, and those to whom he spoke were himself and the row of Boughtons in the front pew, which usually did not include Jack, and then, of course, the congregation. If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace.”

The book is called Home. Check it out. You won't regret it.

The Blame Game

We see it all the time.

Ministers blame elders. Elders blame ministers. Both blame church members. Church members blame ministers. Church members blame elders.

Spouses blame each other, sometimes, even the children. In-law's blame the son-in-law. Grandchildren blame the aunt or uncle.

The assembly line blames middle management. Middle management blames the executives. The executives blame the other way.

At university's . . . faculty blame administration. Administration blame staff. Staff blame faculty. Students blame administration. The vicious cycle continues.

Rarely when something goes wrong do various factions of any entity stand up and take responsibility for their own individual contributions to the mess. This has happened in Washington and Wall Street. It happened during Katrina, and the onset of the Gulf War.

Right here in Detroit and Metro Detroit, the demise of the auto industry and scandal surrounding former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Everyone wants to create a scapegoat.

G.K. Chesterton (well-known thinker/writer from the U.K.) famously once wrote in to a London Newspaper regarding the turmoil that consumed Europe in the early stages of the twentieth century.

You want to know what's wrong with the world?
I am.
G.K. Chesterton

Regarding leadership . . . I'm interested in surrounding myself with people who are willing to a) own up to their own shortcomings and weaknesses b) come together to draw upon the strengths of the group and c) courageously carve a path forward in hope.

The blame game is out-of-control. We are a society of "it's someone else's fault."

And I'm one of the reasons.