28 July 2009


Here's a list of books I've read over the last six weeks or so. Some I've mentioned before on this blog, some are new. I wish I could write a blog about each book.


Blood Done Sign My Name. Timothy Tyson’s story of growing up during the height of tension in the Civil Rights Movement. His father, a Methodist minister, stood for equality and dialog when it wasn’t popular or kosher.

The Elements of Style. A classic on the basics of writing well. It’s stood the test of time.

Writing to Change the World. A little bit of everything, this books dares you to imagine writing as a form of changing hearts and minds.

How Not to Speak of God. Written by a new favorite author (Rollins)—I love the way in which he holds the world in one hand, and the story of God in the other. If you are not into philosophy, don’t touch this book.

On Writing Well. Another classic, this is the gold standard for the basics of writing.

Bird by Bird. This book is written by Anne Lamott, need I say more?

This I Believe. A collection of short essays, This I Believe captures core principles people live their lives by in five hundred words or less. Excellent stuff.

An Altar in the World. Part-mystic, part post-modern description of spiritual disciplines—BBT has written another provocative book.

Justification. N.T. Wright’s latest work in which he responds to John Piper’s critique of his overall theology. Why Piper wants to spend his last best days of ministry going after Wright, I can’t understand. Piper represents a group of neo-Calvinists (which includes Marc Driscoll) who want to take on the emerging church and other post-modern expressions of Christianity (as if you can do church outside of culture). Scot McKnight sums up Wright’s work in a powerful way: “Tom Wright has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots—the neo-Reformed—by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text.”

The Unlikely Disciple. The best surprise read of the summer, this memoir chronicles an Ivy League students’ journey to Falwell’s Liberty University. Fantastic read. A must for any young adult serious about their faith. Or any person seeking to minister to the young adult demographic. There's enough in this book to offend you, no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum of church doctrine.

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Interesting book (in a line of other books put out by Zondervan) providing rich historical background per the Jewishness of Jesus. There are others, better written, but this is excellent popular level reading.

24 July 2009

Powerful Preachers

Over the next four weeks I'm working on the final stages of a short film for the Lipscomb Preaching Conference. I'll write more about this project later. For now, I'm curious to know from people of different "perspectives"--who has been the single most influential preacher in your life? It could be a local minister from the church you grew up in . . . or a preacher you listen to or read from long distance.

Help me out. Who rocks your spiritual world?

P.S. You can vote for Jesus but that's not what I'm after here.

21 July 2009

Coach Meyer, Cass Park

If you have not seen this clip, you need to watch it. Coach Don Meyer (formerly from Lipscomb) was honored at the prestigious ESPY AWARDS Sunday night. This is vintage Coach Meyer.


The Detroit News did a little story on the work we've been doing in Cass Park for the last four years.

19 July 2009



I'm teaching today on Luke 10:25ff--one of the most popular stories in all of Scripture: The Good Samaritan.

Some who study this story say that the priest and the Levite are in a bind. They are men of God, but the law of God binds them from helping lest they become “unclean” by touching a dead body. Corpses, in this interpretive framework, are as welcomed as a preacher going to Vegas on Christmas—they just don’t go together. Out of this understanding, some believe that Jesus is challenging their love of keeping the law versus love of people.

Others who study this story say that the Samaritan in this story represents the minority person/group in a given culture. The Priest becomes the “conservative Christian” and the Samaritan becomes the “gay man some love to hate.” Or the Levite represents the “rich” and the Samaritan is the “homeless woman in Cass Park.” Or, the Religious represent “angry citizens” and the Samaritan is the “illegal citizen among us.” While all of those are challenging social constructs to consider, I don’t think they finally get at what is going on in the story.

Something deeper is going on in this story. One Jewish thinker has opened up this parable in drastic ways for me. She writes, “To understand this parable in theological terms, we need to see the image of God in everyone, not just members of our own group. To hear this parable in contemporary terms, we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, ‘Is there anyone from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, She offered help or He showed compassion?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan,” Amy Jill-Levine in The Misunderstood Jew (149).

17 July 2009

Kara Kaleen

Today is my wedding anniversary. Kara and I have been married for five years now. I can close my eyes (which I'm happy to do right now since I'm stuck in the Atlanta airport on my way home from Columbia Seminary) and see her beautiful face walking towards me. The Highland Cathedral is playing in the background . . .

The planets were aligned just right that perfect Saturday in July five years ago. My closest friends and family were there to witness the promise Kara and I made to live with each other in times of blessing and times of want; times of excitement and times of boredom; when the doctors report comes back good and when it comes back with a devastating bite.

Just because two people have a wedding license does not mean they are married. Just because you wear a ring on your finger does not mean you are husband or wife.

It's a daily choice. Love is much deeper than a feeling or a motive. It's a daily decision to believe that God is working in the midst of your shortcomings, her shortcomings, and both of your differences.

I've been choosing Kara every day for the last five years . . . and I will for the next fifty to come.

13 July 2009


Tiger Stadium sits at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in downtown Detroit.

It’s old.

Old as World War II, worn-down tennis shoes and my grandfather’s nylon mesh General Motors hat. In America, we know what to do with old things. At least we think we know what to do with things that pass their prime. We destroy them. We abandon them until they look shabby enough to justify our destruction.

“Build a mall,” we scream. “Some condos would look nice.” “We could put a highway right there,” says another. “What this city needs is a new skyscraper.”

The wrecking ball rips through the right field wall where all of baseball’s greats once stood. The ground near home-plate—where Cobb, Horton, Greenberg, Cash, Kaline, Gibson, Trammel, and Fielder planted themselves before launching little white balls to the moon— is desecrated because of a city council plan to make condos.

Something’s missing in Detroit. Life is concentrated around work and home. Mundane universes often revolve around job titles, salaries and what’s happening with a son’s third grade science project. This is not bad. Having a job that is meaningful is life-giving and increasingly rare in today’s economic climate. Focusing on one’s family is also good because it’s a core responsibility.

But we don’t have a lot of other places. Church used to be an other place. Starbucks poses as one though I doubt its longevity. Tiger Stadium is a sacred space to so many not merely because of the games won (and lost), the athletes, the drama, and the great hot dogs. Tiger Stadium is a space where, for a few moments on a warm summer afternoon, men not known for their ability to share hopes and dreams were able to hope and dream together. Something to cheer about. Something to grieve. Something to look forward to next year.

The wrecking ball tears the walls, fences, cement, structures of Tiger Stadium. They not only tear what is visible. They also tear the things that are invisible. And, of course, it’s the invisible that is often more real than the visible. It’s the invisible that lasts beyond any of us.

I don’t know the answer. I only know that when our other spaces go down, we are never the same. The park, the library . . . or even Tiger Stadium. When we destroy—whatever it is we destroy—we are never the same. Today, that’s what I believe.

09 July 2009

Humble Pie

Tiger Stadium. As I write this, Tiger Stadium is slowly evaporating.

I remember sitting in the right-field bleacher seats with my grandfather and twin brother when I was twelve or so. The Yankees were in town to play the beloved home team, the Tigers. Throughout the course of the game, my brother and I derided the Yankee right-fielder wearing the number twenty-one which had been stitched into the back of his jersey.

“You’re not good enough to have your name on the back of your jersey,” we repeated over and over again. Passionate we were, knowledgeable we were not. It would be at least three more years before I learned of the Yankees tradition to omit last names on the back of jerseys as a nod to the significance of the name of the front of the jersey over and above the name of the back of the jersey. This is a lesson almost completely missing from the modern professional landscape in which baseball players have their names on their jerseys, gloves, and even (depending upon your status) engraved into the wristbands resting on one’s forearms.

On the way home, my grandfather delivered some important news. “Boys, do you know who plays right field for the Yankees?”

“No. All we know is that he does not have his name on his jersey so he must not be that good.”

“His name is Paul O’Neil. He’s one of the best hitters in the game today.” A silence fell over the car. A silence not too different from the silence of a principal entering a classroom in which the substitute teacher has had it, relinquishing all authority to The Principal.

“Oh,” was all I remember offering in response to my grandfather. I made a mental note to myself that I would, at least when it came to sports, do my homework before I would make grandiose claims. By the way, I recently went back and looked up O’Neil’s stats from this year—he won the A.L. batting title.

Humble pie. A big ol’ slice of it.

08 July 2009

The Writing Life

I have the luxury of taking a few elective courses in my doctoral program at Columbia Seminary. I've had this class circled on my calendar since the day I got my acceptance letter into the program: Pastoral Writing with Barbara Brown Taylor. I am a student of good writing because a) I love to write b) better writing makes for better speaking and better speaking makes for better preaching and c) writing is a discipline that helps me slow down when I slip into the messianic tendency that plagues many ministers/religious leaders.

BBT (my shorthand for her) is arguably one of the more influential voices in Christian spirituality. Her books, which include, The Preaching Life, Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, find their way into virtually every nook and cranny of American culture. She is read by Buddhists, atheists, Christians, liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between.

Yet, she writes from an unapologetically Christian perspective. She might apologize for the church (and some of its hypocrisy) but she never apologizes for the conviction that Jesus is God's embodied word in human flesh. The way she goes about doing this is pure genius.

I first read Barbara Brown Taylor when I was nineteen. For many reasons, which I won't go into, she has helped me to see, God, neighbors, and myself in a way I would have never would have come to if not for her careful eye, precise pen, and ability to tell the truth, even when it hurt.

BBT's writing is water to the soldier who's been wandering lost for days without drink; the arms of a mother to a crying infant in the middle of the night; the power that comes out of the mouth of a teenage Michael Jackson (Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson both agreed that Michael had sung one of Smokey's songs better than Smokey . . . and Michael wasn't even a teenager at this point).

So far, in this class, we've discussed: the stages of creativity, embodied language, poetry, disciplines, and creative writing exercises to stimulate the imagination. And this is only day three.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite BBT lines: "Humans do no lose control, we lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place." I know I'm not in control of my life. I fool myself from time to time. We're just witnesses. Partners? Yes, but we are not the ones making the first move. After all, it's not our story. It is our story to live in. But it does not belong to us.

06 July 2009

The Feast

Things change. Things never stay the same. That's the one thing that you can count on. It's the one thing that stays the same. Make sense?

I got a call from my book publisher recently, "Josh, after talking with the marketing team and evaluating the book market . . . "

Of course I'm thinking, "They're about to pull the plug on my book. At least I'll get the contract money they've promised."

He continued, " . . . We've decided we're going to change the cover, title, and subtitle." After a carefully reasoned explanation was offered, my hear rate went down to somewhat normal levels. I actually agreed with the editor, told him, "thanks" and became excited.

So, the title is no longer Jesus Feast. The subtitle is no longer Spirituality for the Hungry. The cover is different. I still have not seen the new cover, but I'm patient.

I'm passionate about the content more than I am the look or vibe. If they think changing the book's title to The Feast: How to Serve Jesus in a Famished World will help the overall message, I'm all for it. Working with Leafwood Publishers has been outstanding thus far. I trust them a great deal.

We're a few weeks away from the book being printed. Release date is September 1st. Buy the book. That you read it is secondary (he wrote with a wry smile).

05 July 2009


I sat in a Jerry Rushford class (at Otter Creek Church) recently in which he talked about the need to maintain some of the great hymns of Christian faith in the repertoire of in-and-out Sunday worship gatherings. By "great hymns" he is not referring to hymns locked into the 1950's rhythm and verbiage (though not all of those are necessarily bad). He's referring to the hymns of John Wesley et al. Hymns that give the contemporary church deep roots. Hymns that remind us of the many men and women who've set out to follow the teachings of Jesus for almost two thousand years now.

During his class Rushford traced the history (Paul Harvey style) of well-known hymns. We followed his teaching by singing stanza's from each hymn.

I've noticed a shift in many of our students at Rochester College over the past few years. The ones who seem to be engaged on deep levels with the teachings of Jesus and his mission for them in the world--they are not satisfied with simply grabbing an emotional experience on Sunday morning. They view worship as part of their lives of confession. When they sing, for instance

O to grace how great a debtor.
Daily I'm consigned to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wonder, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above!

. . . these students are connected to all the lips who confess God's presence in the precise incarnation of these words. If the church forgets where she comes from she will be a widow in the present and an orphan in the future.

Rushford ended his class with this remarkable line, "When the church flaunts here contemporaneity and disavows her roots with the past, she often limps when she was called to run."

01 July 2009

Highlights of the Weekend

Kara, Lucas and I have been in Nashville recently, getting ready for our big move to Nashville to work with the Otter Creek Church. Here are some of the highlights from our recent trip.

1. Time with Otter Creek Church. Between meals with staff and elders, worship on Sunday, we felt a great sense of peace about the family we are joining and the mission of being the church together. I still have important work to do in Rochester over the next six weeks, but I'm eagerly anticipating joining the OC Leadership Team. I will be writing much more about this new adventure in the coming weeks and months.

2. Lowry Family. The Lowry Family hosted us while we were in town. They truly embody the gift of hospitality. My favorite moments were the passionate times of story in the family room while we devoured ice cream. The Lowry's vision for Lipscomb is palatable and exciting. I can't wait to see what the next several years look like at DLU.

3. Christian Scholars Conference. In addition to spending time with Otter Creek and house-hunting (more in a moment), I attended and participated in the Christian Scholars Conference. I'm biased, because Barbara Brown Taylor teaches where I'm doing my doctoral work, but her presentation on "The Power of Story in an Age of Twitter" was incredible. I have a writing class with her next week at Columbia Seminary. Needless to say, sending the pre-course writing assignments was the toughest e-mail I've sent in a long, long time.

I presented on a panel tackling the topic "Theological Education as Spiritual Formation." The discussion was lively and challenging. I'm still processing the implications of what it looks like for professors, in the words of Earl Lavender, to shift towards thinking of themselves as "missional coaches."

4. Tokens. Thursday night allowed us the space to finally be a part of Lee Camp's creative genius known as Tokens. Part Prairie Home Companion . . . part social commentary . . . set to incredible blue grass music . . . I describe Tokens as unassumingly subversive. Lee's interview with noted historian Hubert Locke was one of the highlights for me (Locke is from Detroit).

5. House Hunting. Let's just say we saw 31 houses. The house we got was the 31st house we walked through. Sara Barton was our arbitrator through this process. It was exhausting but worth it.

Soon, I'll write a blog about Jerry Rushford's class at Otter Creek Church on the role of hymns in our modern church experience. Powerful material.