31 January 2009

Talking to a Cop About Healing

Sometimes ministers wish for a do-over. We find ourselves in some of the most awkward conversations at some of the strangest times of the day. I recall as a graduate student in Nashville on my way to preach for a church early one Sunday morning. I was driving my little Saturn Ion from Nashville into the country down I-40 towards Memphis. Now, if you don’t know this stretch of highway, it’s some of the most breathtaking stretch of landscape in all of Tennessee. It is truly holy ground. Normally, I would time it right so that I could find myself in the midst of rolling hills just as the sun was coming up on the first day of the week.

As I made my way down I-40, a large S.U.V. (bad traffic stories usually involve a S.U.V.) swerved off the road, and before I could think one simple thought, I saw a re-tread tire coming, like a boomerang) right for my head. I ducked, swerved off of the highway and ended up 30 feet below in a huge ravine that divided the highway. As I pulled glass out of my face and walked up towards the top of the hill I spotted the projectile that had knocked me off course. It was an almost full tire tread with the metal wires still inside the tire. This thing could have killed me on the spot.

A few moments later, a police officer showed up on the scene. He was a tall, young, heavyset fellow. I’m not saying he ate a lot of donuts, but he sure was eating something. He got me cleaned up pulling more of the glass from my face, ears, scalp, and head. As we sat in the back of his police car (I wasn’t under arrest, I was writing a report so that had something to go on when they finally caught the Semi-truck illegally using re-tread tires on a warming Tennessee summer morning)—he asked nonchalantly, “So where you headed this early in the morning?”

“Headed to church,” I said.
“That’s nice. Real nice.” This was Tennessee after all, not Detroit. Going to church is what socially sophisticated people do. “You know a lady was killed last week in the same kind of accident. You’re lucky.” I didn’t respond.
“What kind of Church?” he asked.
“Oh, a real loving, caring church?” A pause ensued.
“Say, sir?”
“Are you . . . no . . . any chance . . . are you a preacher?” Here I am still pulling glass out of my face, heart racing, calculating the cost of the damage to the car, wondering who’s going to preach for me, and I could feel an ad hoc counseling session about to take place. I can see these things coming a mile away.
“Well, yes sir, I am. I am a minister. I was on my . . . “He interrupted me before I could finish.
“Man have I had a difficult last five years.” I sank lower in my chair, realizing I wasn’t going anywhere, hoping no one who knew me would drive by in gawking fashion. “My life’s a mess. I’ve really messed things up. I’ve conned friends, cheated family, made my wife so upset, we’re getting divorced next month. Says she’s keeping the kids. My life’s breaking into a million little pieces.”

We chatted for a bit. I assured him that life has a way of giving us second, third, and fourth chances. I gave him my card. We would talk at least one more time that week on the telephone.
Here’s what I wish I would’ve said. If I had a “do-over” (a mulligan for golfers), this is what I’d say.

"Officer, I need a word with you.” I would lock eyes with eyes and I’d say, “I’m going to tell you something that’s truer than you and I sitting in this car this morning. Something more real than the cut marks on my face. If you think that God roots for the perfect, got-it-all-together, pious, BIG ONES of this world, well, you are wrong. You have to get real before God. No more posturing. No more spin-zone. No more hiding. No more deceit. You have to deal with the mirror you try to avoid. Deal with who you really are, not who you want others to think you are. You gotta come to grips with truth, not who you portray yourself to be on the stage of life. Before you can pray 'I am not who I should be, or who, by the grace of God I will one day become . . .but thank God I’m not the person I used to be.' Before you can pray that prayer, you have to get painfully transparent. And when you find yourself in that moment, when you feel you are at your lowest, your littlest . . . that’s when you have the space and grace to meet God for the very first time.”

If I had a do-over that’s what I would say.

28 January 2009

What's In a Name? Lucas . . .

Kara and I wrestled for a few months over what to name our first child (coming to a nursery near you in May, 2009). We had some basic criteria for selecting the name. Because we are having a boy, we wanted to be creative but not too creative. I'm now convinced that selecting a girl's name is far easier than choosing a name for your son. We've had a name for a girl picked out since we were engaged.

We wanted the name to be strong without sounding overbearing. We wanted the name to be clear without being trite. Paramount for me: I didn't want a name that could a) easily be turned into another name, b) rhymed with something inappropriate (I'm far too creative in this area and have years of sharing a room with a twin who, together, had the ability to rhyme just about anything), or c) conjure up images of past bullies and bad memories.

You might be wise to surmise that we were a bit analytical in this process. Hey, this is our first child. Wait 'til we start talking vaccinations.

We checked out several "name" books from our local library. We each made a list based on these books. When we compared the list, we did not have ONE single name in common. That didn't surprise us at all, however. We're learning to embrace how different God has made us.

All that to say . . . we feel really good about the name we've selected: Lucas Joshua Graves. Lucas (which has roots in Latin, Greek, English and Gaelic meaning "light") brings a strong clear name with some Biblical allusion (The Gospel of Luke, my personal favorite). Joshua because, well, what father doesn't love to have part of him on display in his son?

Having said all that, I'm convinced that the person really makes the name. But starting off on a good foot in this world is a good thing I suppose. After all, Lucas Joshua sure gives you a better chance than Herod Adolf.

27 January 2009

Confessions of a (Former) Dr. Pepper Addict

Let me take a break from philosophical/religious/political meanderings to talk about a really important subject: carbonated beverages. Now, depending upon where you come from in the United States . . . you might say "coke" (to which you say "I'd like a coke," when the waiter asks you "What kind of coke?" you say, "Dr. Pepper.") . . . others say "soda" (emphasis on the "o" as in Oklahaoma) . . . other say "pop" as if "pop" is spelled paap.

For a long time, I refused to drink any form of soda/pop/coke. I was a purist--only water and juice for me. Then, grad school came, and I had to learn what it meant to work, study, and live for someone other than myself. Thus, I needed some good 'ol fashion caffeine.

This occurred in Abiliene, Texas. The year was 2003. I became hooked on Dr. Pepper . . . the official drink of the state of Texas. From 2003 until the summer of 2008, I was a huge consumer of Dr. Pepper (also known as the pop real men drink).

Something changed though. When Kara and I spent part of our summer traveling (London, Uganda, Paris) I stopped craving DP. Instead, Sprite sounded oh so good.

Just like that, I don't drink Dr. Pepper. Don't miss it at all. Is that weird or what? Have any of you heard of this kind of radical pop conversion? If so, please share your testimony.

22 January 2009

ZOE Fresno

This weekend is ZOE Fresno. This year's ZOE conferences/events are in Fresno, Lubbock Malibu, and Nashville. If you have not been to a ZOE conference, you'll be blessed with the deep passion for worship and missional living that runs through the entire gathering. Check this site out to learn more.

I fly there tomorrow night (before catching the red-eye Sunday to preach at Rochester) to teach a three part dialog on the role of scripture in the life of a contemporary Christian. I've changed the title of the class so many times, I can't remember what we decided on (thanks for being patient with me Eric). I think the class is Burning Word (learning to allow the Bible to read us). My goal is to teach each person a simple "path" to reading the stories of Scripture with vivid imagination. Some of what I'm doing is from my book, Jesus Feast (out this summer). Some I'm implementing Walter Brueggemann's stuff from A Pathway of Interpretation.

I always enjoy my time with the College Church of Christ. They are one of the most hospitable, diverse church's I've associated with.

It will be great to catch up with friends, mentors and fellow pilgrims on the Jesus Journey.

Explaining Yourself

Tonight, I ate dinner with my friend George. George is a minister from South Africa. A great thinker, George is able to make things simple without simplifying. It dawned on me as we sat down to eat dinner and watch North Carolina vs Clemson, that I don't know how in the world I would explain basketball (or baseball or football for that matter) to George. At least, explain it in a meaningful way.

George had seen basketball before so he was "roughly familiar."

Imagine trying to explain three seconds, double bonus, what constitutes a foul and what is simply good defense, or zone vs. man-to-man defense. Or, try explaining the infield fly rule to someone who'd never seen baseball (what's an out? What the difference between a pop-up and a grounder?) Or, try explaining the "first down system" to someone who's never witnessed (American) football.

I remember trying to figure our cricket when I was training for a triathlon at a nearby park. I was dumbfounded.

Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone who knows very little about Christianity, I feel like I do when I am explaining a foreign sport. I realize that all of my analogies, metaphors, and connecting points are biased based upon my years among "church culture." I'm grateful the story of Jesus comes to us in, well, story form . . . the story carries the weight. Thank goodness, God didn't give us a bullet point list of doctrines. Rather, a story in which we all can find our plot in a plotless world.

21 January 2009

Blazing a Third Way

The debate is all over the air-waves, literature, university campuses and coffee shops in America: Is Christianity (and religion in general) good for society?

Some thinkers say religion is dangerous. This group would include Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) and others who point out the tragedies and violence done in the name of religion. They point to The Crusades, Constantine’s Army, Catholic/Protestant Wars, Holocaust (Germany was overwhelmingly Lutheran at the time), along with bloodshed caused by Islam and modern day Israel. They point out that more people died in the twentieth century, the height of Christendom’s influence in the world, than in all the previous nineteen centuries combined. And, I haven’t even pointed out the Christian/Muslim tension in the world today. They look to Nietzsche and his premise that religion is the opiate of the masses, a crutch that helps less intelligent folks make sense of their lives (especially mortality).

Other thinkers say religion is not dangerous. This group would include many political conservative and (some) liberal thinkers, fundamentalists, evangelicals, and (some) mainline leaders along with other loyalists to a particular re-telling of America’s inception. This group would point to the influence of Judeo-Christian values in the U.S. Constitution, the building of hospitals in India, the modern day school system, work with the poor, literacy, Civil Rights Movement (led by a black Baptist minister), Red Cross, A.I.D.S. relief in Africa, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Desmond Tutu was unapologetically Christian in his leadership of this incredible work . . . what N.T. Wright has called the “most significant accomplishment of Christianity in the twentieth century”).

Those who argue that religion/Christianity is poisonous to civilization tend to ignore the accomplishments and sheer will of Christian passion over the last several centuries. While they are correct in pointing out slavery (America’s original sin), they gloss over the fact that a Christian (William Wilberforce) helped to end the peculiar institution.

Those who argue that religion/Christianity is necessary and good for civilization tend to ignore the aforementioned skeletons in the proverbial religious closet. They are limited in their understanding of the way in which religion has promoted evil, division and hate in some parts of the world. They are easily duped by nostalgia and wishful thinking.

I hope to be a part of a church that is a blazing a third way. A way that owns up to the sins of our past and present (my generation loves to point out the racism of our parents and grandparents while ignoring the plank of materialism, apathy, and indifference in our own collective eye) while also having the courage to point out what is good, just, and right about Christianity and other religions.

Christians, it seems to me, suffer from a lack of imagination. We lack the imagination to see a way in which we can make a sustained difference on issues of abortion (I’m pro-life and I’m committed to providing care for young mothers and children born into poverty), war (particularly the re-integration of soldiers into “civilian life”), poverty, addiction (drug, alcohol, eating disorders, gambling, sexual, among others) divorce, abuse, and depression. We feel powerless, as if we cannot make a real dent in the destruction and decay of life as we know and accept it.

God’s Spirit is able to blaze a path in the midst of overwhelming odds. I want to be a part of a church that rises above these old dichotomies, into a new set of questions, dreams, and possibilities.

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

How to be Anti-Intellectual

There are two ways to be anti-intellectual. One is dangerous. The other is healthy.

First, the dangerous way. In this stream of anti-intellectualism, I hear people say, "Well, I hate to read. I just catch the headlines." This group (full of conservatives and liberals depending upon where you live) polarizes the conversation (or lack thereof) with words like "naive, crazy, ignorant, and stupid." I can't tell you how many times I heard people, on the right and left, use such words towards someone whose political viewpoint was different them. All those comments really do is betray the lack of wisdom of the one speaking.

This kind of anti-intellectualism (the bad kind) does not seek to understand the other side of an issue (be it political, spiritual, etc.) . . . rather, this side has it all figured out. The answers are clear-cut, even if they've never considered that there questions might be really bad questions. In this frame of mind, you listen to your favorite polarizing radio voice, read only a few periodicals printed by your stated constituency, and if, by chance, you read a book, it will not be from someone who might totally give you a different slant into the world but someone you know you can trust because, after all, they think like you do. Faces get red. Speeches get slurred. Ideas are out the window. Now, you find yourself defending things that you don't know about as much as you claim.

I reject that kind of anti-intellectualism. It stands against Jesus' disposition of entering into people's lives, asking questions, having dialog, seeing the image of God in every person one encounters. This kind of anti-intellectualism is the easy way out.

There's another kind of anti-intellectualism. This kind seeks to gain knowledge vigorously through books, news, media, conversations, experience, and dialog. These persons might be conservatives or liberals (or neither) but they surround themselves with diverse viewpoints. They are committed to learning and to the process of changing their mind, because, if you've gone twenty years (or two) without changing your mind on something you probably aren't learning. The more one learns, the more one realizes that knowledge is fleeting and that we are all ignorant save a few subjects.

This anti-intellectualism loves to say, "I might be wrong but here's what I think." It always seeks perspective, nuance, and viewpoint. One can have strong conviction and still exist in this camp. It's not easy. Our church, social, and political climates want so desperately for you to come to the dark side. The side that says everything is "black and white" . . . "clear as the nose on my face." The side that says, "If you are a Christian you will clearly vote for _______." Or, "If you are a real citizen you'd believe _________."

I choose to be anti-intellectual. Not in the sense that I have it figured out and know I am hoping others will come to see my point of view. Rather, I want to be the kind of anti-intellectual who reads everything from Plato to Hitchens but also realizes that the greatest wisdom in life often comes from the janitor at the seminary or the teacher's aide at the elementary school (or the carpenter from Nazareth).

A note to Christians. When you become the first kind of anti-intellectual (the bad kind) you confirm what most of America already thinks about Christianity. That we are naive, narrow-minded, incapable of wrestling with life's big questions. This does not mean we bow to the gods of pluralism and tolerance. Rather, it means we seek "truth knowing that we alone do not possess the ability to know truth absolutely." For the sake of the world (and your marriage), pursue wisdom vigorously, but don't ever think you've arrived. The tide of history will go out, and you'll be left on the shore holding life's great equalizer: hind-sight.

20 January 2009

Hope: Christianity and America

Today marks a historic day in the life of the United States. Regardless of one's political leanings (right, left, or indifferent), today is a day when we celebrate what is good and right about America. I hope that those Christians who prayed lock, stock and barrel for George W. Bush because "Paul tells us to pray for our leaders as they are elected by God to serve in government" will continue to pray for Barack Obama even when his politics might be difficult for them to swallow. I also pray that, although Obama's election signifies an important step towards the ideal that all men and women are created equally, that others do not fall prey to a pseudo--messianic love affair with Barack. He is not the messiah.


Hope has become a big word in today's rhetoric. Obama used it. So did other politicians during the election. Here's a brief reflection on the substance of hope (God's future) from a decidedly Christian view point. At least one decidedly Christian viewpoint.

The end of time, as I understand it, is the full completion of becoming the humans God crated us to be. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I am, in this precise moment, only a sliver of my true self. All of my past selves, present selves, and future selves are part of a much larger whole. In the fullness of time I shall “known and be known.” I shall at last be the full Josh as you will be who God, long ago, set in motion you to be.

Because I’m a Christian (investing my beliefs and convictions in the teachings of Torah, the Prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Jesus Movement) I am enrolled in a story moving towards:

1. Physical resurrection of all people.
2. Judgment of good and evil.
3. A complete healing of land and creation.
4. The full presence of God.
5. A mysterious new chapter called forever.

Thus, my understanding of the church’s role in the in-between time (today and God's final hour) is not so much about a narrow moralism (of the liberal bent which tends to focus solely on certain social issues or the fundamentalist bent focused on private piety). The church’s primary character is one of hope. Not hope in a New President (be it Reagan or Obama), a New Philosophy, a New Movement . . . but hope that a new day is dawning.

When tyrant will walk with victim
When Lions will lie down with lambs
When tanks will be turned into tractors
When enemies will become friends
When the crooked will be made straight

This all leads us to two important questions. First, what’s worth hoping for (what is the substance of genuine Christian hope)? Second, Are our hopes big enough? Or, put another way, do we Christians settle for crumbs when a feast has been prepared?

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

19 January 2009


One of the truly great elements of living in the U.S. is that we have the custom of celebrating a diverse range of heroes. Many of these heroes are not people who simply went along with the way things were, business as usual. Rather, many of the great American leaders were people who challenged the status quo. Who dared America to be who she claimed to be. Who prompted America to a larger vision. Who woke up America's imagination from the inevitable slumbers of greed, military thirst, and materialism (which is what we are in the midst of right now . . . does it strike you as odd that we are being told that the way to come out of the crisis of greed is to start spending more . . . the very thing that got us in this mess in the first place?) Clara Barton. Dorothy Day. Abraham Lincoln. Ralph Abernathy. Harriet Beecher Stowe. America's full of people worth celebrating. People who dared America to be more. More just. More hopeful. More inclusive. More opportunistic.

Today, we pause and celebrate Dr. King.

I constantly consume these words he spoke over four decades ago.

Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.

I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity's affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.

. . . Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

(From "Eulogy of the Martyred Children"--1963)

17 January 2009


I'm sitting in a booth with Kara at Azteca's Mexican Restaurant. It's snowing. Hard. It's been snowing all day. Non-stop since ten o'clock this morning. It hasn't stopped. I think it's about minus four degrees outside.

Inside, we're eating good food. Sweet-tea to wash it down.

Kara and I are talking about life, dreams, plans, hopes, lessons learned in our marriage thus far. I notice that the cooks in the kitchen are staring at Kara. This happens all the time. Seriously. Not trying to be funny but it's true. Since I've known Kara, she, without any effort on her part (aside from being alive and breathing) attracts Hispanic men.

When we lived in Nashville, Hispanic men would virtually pull of the highway as we drove around Nashville. I-65 has not been the same since we left. The restaurant that paid the bills (Kara was a waitress while I finishing my M.Div.) was full of eager Hispanic workers. In fact, they became some of her closest friends. Kara would leave the apartment for the 4pm to 12am shift with a quick and sharp, "I'm going to see Jesus."

I laughed every time. I still do.

Anyways, Kara and I start talking about the great friends God has placed in our lives. We've just come from the hospital where two of our close friends--Aaron and Julie Mize--have just welcomed their first child, Calli, into this world. She's beautiful. 7 pounds. 3 ounces of perfection.

The discussion turns to the big sister Kara never had, Mary Morris. Mary was Kara's mentor, sister, friend, confidant, and overall champion. Mary taught at Lipscomb. Mary grew up in the same town as Kara, Morgantown, W.V. Kara still says the reason she likes Whitney Houston and Maroon Five is simply because, "That's who Mary listened to." She also likes the occasional Michael Jackson song for the same reason.

Mary died over four years ago. She battled cancer valiantly. Her body failed her. I've never seen Kara so burdened with a blanket of sadness as the night we got the phone call from Kara's dad (Mary's parents and Kara's parents have been friends for several years), "Kara, Mary is no longer with us."

Kara sank to the floor. Crocodile tears flowed down. We laughed. We cried. We remembered how Mary loved when I would tell inappropriate jokes right from the stories of scripture. Or, the time when Mary looked at me and said, "Josh, tell me about heaven again." I was a third year seminarian and grateful to share what I knew. Especially when what I knew might actually make a difference in the real world, and not a crusty, stale library.

Over sweet tea, taco salad, and good Mexican food we remembered our friend. She is still with us. We breath her laughter, singing voice, wisdom, courage, and character each and every time we tell the stories that made Mary the extraordinary human she was.

It's cold as can be outside. But inside, it's warm enough.

And it is enough. Our questions are never answered. Our frustrations never silenced. But it is enough to remember . . . grateful that we have any memories at all.

15 January 2009

Blogging: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Part of the course I’m currently taking at Columbia Seminary has to do with the role of the church in the public sphere (community). We’ve been wrestling with Augustine (and losing, walking with a limp) for the last few days. Particularly, his notion that the love of Christ compels us to always have an open posture to the world, because, in Christ, God made himself vulnerable to us (Paul would say, “Even while we were God’s enemies, he died for us”).

The conversation today took a turn to media, film, blogging and Facebook. Because I’m the youngest student in the class, I felt I needed to weigh in on the redemptive/destructive qualities of emerging mediums.

With particular attention to blogging, I think some of us need to do some deeper reflection (NOTE: I wrote a similar blog a while back).

Blogging is a good thing.

1. We develop an “online” or “virtual” community with people from all over the world.

2. We share ideas, stories, and opinions that are deeply important to us (even when we disagree).

3. Blogging gives everyone, in one sense, a voice. This is important in a culture that usually only gives voice to the sexy, powerful, educated, creative, persistent ones. Some of the most important ideas in American history come from unexpected places (like Baptist preachers from Alabama, and stay-at-home-mom’s who write life-altering novels).

Blogging can be a bad thing.

1. We can eliminate those whom we don’t agree with. We might only read blogs from the N.Y. Times or Fox News because we know which one “tends” to take our position. Instead of being open to the world, new ideas and concepts we simply spend our time reinforcing what we already know to be true. The truly wise people in this world are the ones who realize they don’t know very much.

2. We can distort ourselves. As the saying goes, "Sue in L.A. is really Steve in Fort Worth." People will say things on a blog, they would not say in person. Some people feel as if they have to take on a sort of bravado that does not fit who they are in every day life. Some men feel as if they are the blogosphere’s John Wayne, here to fix the intellectual wagons left in the ditch of ignorance. Be who you is. When you is who you ain’t . . . you ain’t (my college basketball coach used to say this to us all the time). All I am saying, if you are going to blog, try to be the same person you are at school, at home, in the mundaneness of driving to pick-up your kids at soccer practice or running to post office to buy stamps. Don’t try and be a hero. Be the real you. If you are not sure who that is, maybe blogging takes on a more confessional tone (I know it’s been healing for me).

3. Blogging can contribute to the complexity of our busy lives. When I sit at the computer, I go through a checklist. Cell phone. Work voicemail. Yahoo email. Work email. Rochester college email. Facebook. Blog. I need to check all of these. It can be overwhelming. Blogging can be one more thing we add to our lives in order to avoid the people who need us most. Blogging has become a spiritual discipline for me, meaning, I discover God, by putting words to my feelings, emotions, and thoughts. However, if I feel as if blogging becomes one more competitive “feather-in-the-cap” that I use to distance myself from the relationships of my life, I’ll stop. No questions asked.

14 January 2009


I ate dinner last night with two friends: Craig and Mark. Craig works at Duke as the assistant Dean of the Chapel. Mark is a minister for a Baptist Church in VA. Of course, I'm a Church of Christ Minister.

After talking in great detail about college basketball (something we could've discussed all night), the subject turned to calling.

"Did you think you'd ever become a minister," I asked?

"No," responded Craig. "I was working as a broadcast play-by-play voice for North Carolina (he loves to tell the story of playing pick up ball against Marian Jones) before I went to study theology and ministry."

"Me neither," said Mark. "I was a Business major in undergrad, worked in Atlanta before I decided I wanted to study theology and ministry. My family was quite shocked."

I talked about my difficult path of deciding what I wanted to do. First, I wanted to major in English. Then history. Then English. Then theology and ministry. Finally, I ended up getting a degree in history, with minors in the other two before I went off myself to study theology and ministry. I thought I would coach college basketball for the rest of my life (even spent one year at ACU doing just that while working on a masters degree).

Things never turn out how we plan. And that, in my experience, is the great thing about being alive.

Towards the end of the conversation, something hit me. All three of us knew that we were doing exactly what God, for this season of our lives, was calling us to do. Not many people can say that. I consider it humbling that I feel as if I'm doing something that allows me to be the best human God created me to be (most days anyways). There are so many things that I'm not good at, that take the life right out of my spirit. But l love serving God's church. I would not rather be doing anything else.

"Don't ask what the world needs. Instead, ask what makes you come alive. What the world needs is people who've come alive."

"The glory of God is a person come fully alive."

13 January 2009


Three interesting movies out right now. I'll try not to spoil the plot.

1. Gran Torino. Essentially, it's the story of violence and hate lived out in communities and neighborhoods all over the planet. One man decides that there's a way to end the violence. Unfortunately, his method is viewed as archaic and naive by most modern, sophisticated folks. Warning: this movie has a lot of slang/cussing/offensive language. Just had to make that note. Eastwood is outstanding.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Overall, an intriguing story. The film could've been edited (but so could half my sermons). I like that the movie wants to ask big questions: what does it mean to truly live? What does it mean to die well? How do we love for a lifetime? It is paradoxical that we are wiser in the season of our lives in which we are less likely to act. Brad Pitt is a great actor.

3. Seven Pounds. Sometimes, the cost of atonement is a price we are not willing to pay. A well-crafted story of the power of guilt and love. Will Smith is fantastic.

Say What?

I'm studying with ministers from various different Christian backgrounds. Methodist. Pres. Community Church. AME. Baptist. Lutheran. Episcopal. Pentecostal. Church of Christ.

I'm now in my second year of studies at Columbia Seminary. My focus is the relationship of postmodern culture and Christianity. Inevitably, I'm always asked this question. "Which church do you belong to? Because I thought you said 'Church of Christ' . . . but there's no way you are Church of Christ!?"

I always respond, "No. You heard me right. I'm in the Churches of Christ."

Later, I'll write about why my friends say this. After that, I'll talk about why I'm still a part of Churches of Christ (and why I think [some] Churches of Christ have a chance to navigate the waters of postmodern culture).

12 January 2009


Since I mentioned an article ran by The Weekly Standard, I've been thinking about the implications of hope and belief in God's ultimate victory for places like Detroit. By Detroit, I mean everyone connected to Detroit (all colors, creeds, etc.).

My friend John York recently talked about this in a sermon. He uses the imagery of wilderness and points out that wilderness often comes before revival. Very interesting.

Mitch Albom, for completely different reasons, is saying something similar in this piece that ran in the Detroit Free Press and Sports Illustrated.

Here's a piece of that work:

And yet Detroit was once a vibrant place, the fourth-largest city in the country, and it lives in the hope that those days, against all logic, it will somehow return. We are downtrodden, perhaps, but the most downtrodden optimists you will ever meet. We cling to our ways, no matter how provincial they seem on the coasts. We get excited about the auto show. We celebrate Sweetest Day. We eat Coney dogs all year, and we cruise classic cars down Woodward Avenue every August, and we bake paczki doughnuts the week before Lent. We don't talk about whether Detroit will be fixed but when Detroit will be fixed.

And we are modest. In truth, we battle an inferiority complex. We gave the world the automobile. Now the world wants to scold us for it. We gave the world Motown music. Motown moved its offices to L.A. When I arrived 24 years ago to be a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, I discovered several letters waiting for me at the office. Mind you, I had not written a word. My hiring had been announced, that's all. But there were already letters. Handwritten. And they all said, in effect, "Welcome to Detroit. We know you won't stay long, because nobody good stays for long, but we hope you like it while you're here."

Dancing with Both Legs (Part Two with Brueggemann)

In an attempt to elaborate on what I wrote in the previous blog, here's some more food for thought. I know some will get lost in the language, meaning, and logic . . . faith is not for the faint of heart. You have to work at it. I've always been suspicious of "the easy way" and equally suspicious of "easy answers" . . .

People often misunderstand Judaism as “salvation by works”. However, this fundamentally misinterprets the covenant relationship between Israel and YHWH. Because of their relationship, God expected them to behave in certain ways. Lev. 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) for instance is one of the most powerful texts in all of Torah even though it is embedded in an entire section of rules, commandments, and decrees. If one reads Leviticus 19:18 as the center/heart of this particular text, the advocacy becomes clear. While some make the conservative contestation that religion remain private (i.e. "Let's keep religion within the cult and private. Our duty is to simply keep the commandments of God.") others make the liberal contestation that "the rules are passé, leftover relics from the faith of our grandparents. The public element (public justice) is what is the heart of true Israelite religion.” Leviticus 19 offers a third way for it is concerned with obedience to the obligations set forth and the relationship of caring for the neighbor. That is, live in these particular ways (obeying relatively minute decrees) and once you find yourself in that cadence of spiritual habit, loving your neighbor will be the natural extension. If you will keep the strict dietary laws, etc. you will be able to have an open posture towards the "other" . . . it will be impossible to have any invisible persons in your midst because you will be so attune to God's presence.

Sabbath is a “discipline” which prepares people to do justice. You cannot truly love the poor and pray for liberation if you are not willing to practice Sabbath. Sabbath is practiced every seven days. The Year of Jubilee happens seven years times seven (Finally Comes the Poet, 49). Social justice, according to Brueggemann, is connected to personal piety devotion. The two cannot be separated. Evidently, the liberal and fundamentalist need one another! “Sabbath is the end of grasping and therefore the end of exploitation. Sabbath is a day of revolutionary equality in society. On that day all rest equally, regardless of wealth or power or need (Exod. 20: 8-11). Of course, the world is not now ordered according to the well-being and equality of Sabbath rest. But the keeping of Sabbath, in heaven and on earth, is a foretaste and anticipation of how the creation will be when God’s way is fully established,” (Brueggemann in Interpretation: Genesis, 35-6).

09 January 2009

Dancing with Both Legs

I use the phrases "personal piety" and "social justice" not because I personally use them often but because I hear them used often by theologians, ministers, students, and other people interested in religious/spiritual conversations.

I've noticed that people who are primarily passionate about personal piety (reading the bible, devotionals, keeping a journal and other daily rituals) do not always place nice with those who are strong advocates for the poor, homeless and invisible among us. And the same is true of the latter regarding the former. Anne Lamott once wrote, "You know you've created God in your own image when he hates all the same people as you."

I'm perplexed about this.

There are two examples within Torah/Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) that seriously challenge the separation of personal piety and social awareness.

First, the entire book of Leviticus. Many OT scholars now read Lev. 19 (specifically, love your neighbor as yourself) as the center or crux of the entire work. Anyone who's read Leviticus knows that the decrees are nuanced, detailed, and seemingly overbearing. OT scholars now suggest that Leviticus is an argument that to care for social issues, means one will take personal piety seriously. Therefore, the only way you can love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (and how many people do not truly love themselves) is if you keep the daily requirements. If that does not convince you, perhaps you should remember that Jesus himself said that loving God and loving neighbor was the heart of true religion.

Second example comes from the Sabbath. The Sabbath (shabbot) is God's commandment to humanity to rest just as he rested after creating the earth. In Torah, Sabbath is a part of a cycle of life leading up to Jubilee (something Jesus again picks up on in Luke 4 as he is preaching to his hometown congregation concerning the essence of his ministry). Jubilee was the time in which land, slaves, and debts were forgiven. It was God's radical act of justice in a world that was primarily concerned with profit, exploitation, and economic gain (like our world today). Therefore, if you wanted to end injustice, the way to do so, was to keep Sabbath. You rested on the seventh day. Sabbath created the space for humans to remember God's role as Creator. And to remember that there will be a day when all peoples of the world will rest, what some call "heaven."

You can't separate personal piety from social awareness. At least, not if you want to be a person who is formed by the Torah, and the teachings of Jesus.

The two largest groups of Christians in the United States (evangelical and mainline) seem to be interested in opposite sides of the same coin. Most evangelicals are interested in bible study, prayer, journals, book clubs, bible classes while many mainline churches are interested in slavery in Uganda, wars in the Sudan, poverty in India.

Of course, this has radically changed in the last twenty years. But it's still the overwhelming legacy of the twentieth century.

Mainline churches went wrong because they equated the Gospel primarily with social issues. Evangelicals went wrong because they privatized faith. Both are equally offensive. The product of personal piety and devotion is engagement with the world and neighbor. The sustaining force for those passionate about social issues is personal piety. If one is missing, it's like dancing with one leg. It can't be done.

08 January 2009


A recent documentary has caught the attention of some of America’s most influential thinkers. The documentary, provocatively titled Lord Save Us From Your Followers, is described this way.

“Though nine out of ten Americans claim a belief in God, public expression of faith is more contentious as ever. Even as discussion of religion floods the media like never before, the rhetoric is divisive and hyper as the 2008 elections loom on the horizon.Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is the energetic, accessible documentary that explores the collision of faith and culture in America. Fed up with the angry, strident language filling the airwaves that has come to represent the Christian faith, director (and follower) Dan Merchant set out to discover why the Gospel of Love is dividing America. Utilizing a broad array of expert interviews, man-on-the-street bits, hilarious animations and “I’ve never seen that before” stunts, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers brings everyone into the conversation that this country is aching to have.”

The film is an equal opportunity offender--it does not matter where you fall on the religious/political/social map . . . you will be challenged by this film. Hopefully, you'll walk away asking "What does it mean to be Christian in today's climate?"

07 January 2009

Paul and Imagination

We started a new series at Rochester Church tonight. We're working through Paul's first (really his third) letter to Corinth. I enjoyed talking most about Paul. The Jew/Hellenistic Philosopher/Roman Citizen/Follower of Jesus used all of his experience and education to expand his conviction that Jesus was the Jewish Hope for the world.

Our teaching site is now up-to-date.

Paul's ability to translate the life of Jesus in Israel to the life of the Church in Corinth is masterful. From kurios replacing messiah to honor and shame, party invitation lists, and political allegiance--Paul is the master of doing what modern thinkers call contextualization. Which, in simple terms, means "having the imagination to see how the story of Jesus is already at work in a given culture while at the same time imagining how the story of Jesus can bring goodness, justice, beauty, and community to various situations."


I don't normally read the Weekly Standard. In fact, I don't know if I've ever read it. However, one good friend sent me an article written recently describing the complex, paradoxical world that is (Metro) Detroit.

Precisely what caused all this mess is perhaps best left to historians. Locals' ideas for how it happened could keep one pinned to a barstool for weeks: auto companies failing or pushing out to the suburbs and beyond, white flight caused by the '67 riots and busing orders, the 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young who scared additional middle-class whites off with statements such as "The only way to handle discrimination is to reverse it," freeways destroying mass transit infrastructure, ineptitude, corruption, Japanese cars--take your pick.

What's clear, though, is that Detroit has failed, that it's broken and cracked. It is dying. But it's not yet dead. Although it has lost over half its population since 1950, 900,000 people still live there.

While, I have take issues with some under-girding assumptions of the writer (a lack of historical perspective regarding the legacy of slavery in our urban cities for example) I think this piece captures the need for hope, not cynicism to be the primary attitude of Christians--regardless of denominational leaning, color, and creed--toward the future of Detroit (or Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, San Fran, etc.). After all, The Book of Jonah is part of sacred text some people confess to be "God breathed."

06 January 2009

Acedia, Movies, and Keeping Sabbath

I just finished Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. Overall, the book pales in comparison with The Cloister Walk and A Vocabulary of Faith. Norris has established her as one of the top spiritual writers of our day. I think she took a step backwards with this book. However, many of her insights into acedia (apathy, indifference rooted deep in the soul), depression, anxiety, and the "dark night of the soul" are helpful. As always, she provides a historically rich perspective of spirituality.


Here's one movie critic's top ten all-time U.S. films. My list would've been totally different. It would have lots of Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Robert Duvall. Apparently, this person is infatuated with all films in the 1940's and 1950's.


Rubel Shelly spoke in the opening chapel at Rochester College yesterday. He talked a great deal about
the recent financial scams in NYC with Bernard Madoff. Here's an excerpt:

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a long-time professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University, made this interesting comment about the whole sorry episode: “Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good. If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew.”

Rabbi Blech’s observation is consistent both with what the Old Testament prophets said for centuries before the birth of Jesus and with Jesus’ own comments about religion. He called some of his contemporaries hypocrites and told others to their faces that they were guilty of observing the minutiae of the Law of Moses about tithing their garden herbs and neglecting the “more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Why do those of us who publicly embrace religious devotion – Muslim or Jew, Catholic or Protestant, you or me – so frequently expose our piety to be a shallow veneer for a life that is so self-serving that it is willing to exploit others? It is certainly not distinctive to Judaism. I might echo the good rabbi this way: “Just because you have been baptized and go to church does not make you a good Christian. If you break the moral law, you are not honoring Jesus as Lord.”

Authentic religious devotion is not about private, otherworldly spiritual practices that have nothing to do with our political, ethical, and social lives. Quite the contrary, the God of Abraham who was incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth cannot be separated from the concrete realities of how we treat one another in our particular time, place, and culture. The partitioning of faith from reason, spiritual from practical, and private devotion from public behavior too often yields a sort of wicked selfishness that embarrasses even unbelievers.

05 January 2009


No other modern public speaker does what the preacher tries to do. The trial attorney has glossy photographs and bagged evidence to hand around; the teacher has blackboards and overhead projectors; the politician has brass bands and media consultants. All the preacher has is words, (Barbara Brown Taylor in The Preaching Life, 81).

JGO (Josh Graves Original)updated version of this quote.

No other modern public speaker does what the preacher, writer, teacher of Christianity tries to do. We cannot prove the very thing on which we've staked our lives--the ressurection of a teacher from Nazareth. We are preaching, writing, and teaching about something we cannot prove. Ever.

The trial attorney has CSI investigative techniques; the teacher has the internet, blogs, google, and Planet Earth; the politician has email, facebook, and Springsteen/George Jones. All the preacher, teacher, writer of Christian faith has is words. Of course those words are connected to the lives we lead. If we speak a word that betrays our life, we speak a word we do not own, to paraphrase Augustine. But, in the moment of truth, all we have are words.


A new semester begins today at Rochester College. It's a good day.

04 January 2009

This prayer, from Reinhold Niebuhr, is changing my life. Pray it every day. When you wake up. When you go to bed. When you are making dinner. On your lunch break. In the car. Pray it as often as you can. Pray it slowly. Pray it when you run. Pray it when you are at wit's end. This is what I'll be praying in 2009. Those AA folks know what they are doing and they have a thing or ten to teach Christians and spiritual seekers alike.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

02 January 2009

Is Christianity Good for You?

I attended L'Anse Creuse (pronounced lance cruise) North High School from 1993-1997. LCN is in Class A--the largest such specification in the Michigan High School system. A decent school for athletics, it was highly respected for academics (not that I contributed to that--I didn't become serious about school until my second and third year of college). While in school I enjoyed basketball and my social network. Those were essentially the two things I lived for. If you went back and asked many of the people I grew up, they might be surprised to know now that I'm a minister and professor of religion for a liberal arts college. There are not many all-state high school hoop players who enter into the ministry. Though I was baptized at a young age, my second conversion (during college) is what ushered me into a deep spirituality.

I can imagine one schoolmate asking me, "Josh, I respect your decision to be a Christian, serve a church, teach religion courses on spirituality, New Testament, as well as writing . . . but honestly, has Christianity been good for you? Don't you find it restricting, perhaps a bit smothering ?"

It's a great question for at least two reasons. First, it assumes that religion, regardless of the name it goes by, should be judged by the transformation (or lack of) it brings to its adherents. Second, so much of the public face given to Christianity, some deserved, some not, is a picture of judgment, anger, fear, arrogance, and narrow ideology.

I might respond like this.

"Has Christianity been good for me? It's a question I think about all the time. The answer is: absolutely. Not because it isn't full of mystery, complexity, and nuance but because Christianity is the means by which I've come into the teachings of Jesus."

"Though I have much to work on, I'm a far better neighbor to religious and non-religious persons alike than I was fifteen years ago. I used to make friends with people based upon what they had to offer me in return. Now I'm learning to see every person as a son or daughter--a person who bears the image of God. I pray daily that 'I would have no invisible people in my life.'"

"Tribalism dominates so much of American life. We associate with people who look, think, dress, talk, walk, live, and pray like we do. Christianity has brought me to Scotland, inner city Detroit/Philly, East Africa, Central America and beyond. I have rich friends because of Jesus. I have friends who are homeless. The Church, at least in Jesus' vision, is the one true inclusive community in the world. It's the one group that cuts through race, sports, politics, tradition, and geography."


Mark Twain used to say that some people are religious in the "worst kind of way" . . . I'm acutely aware of this phenomenon in the human experience. The closer I'm drawn into the teachings of Jesus, the more I am alive the hope that exists for me, my neighborhood, church, and world.

Christianity has been good for me because the heart of Christianity is Jesus. The most important person to ever walk among us.