Review of Decision Points by George W Bush

A while back I was sent Decision Points by former President George W. Bush through WaterBrook Multnoma’s Blogging for Books program.  As always I am not required to give a positive review but an honest one. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

I know that as ordinary American citizens, we only get bits and pieces of the real stories happening in our world. I realize that our government cannot tell us “everything” as revealing too much information would allow too much vulnerability. I know that our various media outlets filters out details and includes others to sensationalize, sustain attention, occasionally inform and to sell commercial space.

I get all that which was why I was eager to read Decision Points because I thought we’d get more of the story. Now mind you, I’m not expecting a tell-all, nor am I expecting that anything “classified” would be revealed, I did think that I was going to get a little more than a summary of White House Secretary updates and deeper clarifications defending policies and decisions. I was looking for a little more of W’s soul in this book.

What I was looking for was what went into the decisions. What I got were some great stories, accessibility to President Bush’s personality, and helpful recaps of what was going on like in the Gulf War, but I was not satisfied in the sense where I said, “Ohh, that’s what was going on.” If anything, I was surprised by what we already knew …. hmmm …. maybe the media outlets are not that far off, I mean Decision Points affirms quite a bit.

Perhaps my expectations were unfair but here’s why I chose to agree to review it. I really did believe W was going to methodically narrate his thought process of the last 8 years. I expecting him to be a bit more divided, humbled, sobered. After reading it and after thinking about it, I know how naive that was but it’s what I thought going into it. I suppose this is this is the only type of book that can be published within a few years of leaving the White House.

It’s always fascinating reading the insider moments, like his conversations with world leaders like Putin. Of course, my eyes perked up anytime I saw a reference to Iraq and Afghanistan or 9-11. Halfway through the book I realized what I was getting was a walking tour in the exhibit of W’s Presidency. Nothing wrong with that, but I was expecting to enjoy something a little more personal.

I for one believe that history books will be kind to George W. By then, many of us will have forgotten the awful speech deliveries and the overall awkwardness. We’ll probably not remember Decision Points either though. Not saying that to be mean, just an honest thought. Instead, we will think of 9-11, fighting terrorism and the complications associated with that and who knows, in 20 years, maybe he’ll write the memoir 20 that I was looking for.

My Review of Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead & Jon Tyson

Note: I have not been asked to review this book by a publisher or by the authors. Like all reviews, these are my sincere opinions.

Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead & Jon Tyson has been sitting on my To-Read shelf for too long and I was glad to read it. Darren is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek and Jon is a church planter in New York. Now Trinity Grace now has six campuses in the City and I’ve always appreciated my interactions with those in their ministry. Having spent the last 5 years in north Jersey, I’ve bumped into Jon a couple of times at various gatherings. I find him to be a good soul in a city that we all know can be grueling.

I appreciated the message and content of the book, really liked the concept, although I was a little thrown off by the subtitle “Discover the Kind of Faith You’ve Only Heard About.” Many have not heard anything good about faith or the Church, and for some, their view of God is rooted in an absent, angry being that roams around the galaxy. From what I know of Jon (and the little that I know of Darren), they know this to be very true. Still, the point is taken, there are a significant number of people who have heard glimpses of the redeeming message of Christianity. So much of what many grace-preaching, sharp and caring pastors are saying is being overpowered by the scandal-rich, crazy, hate-filled verbiage out there. The true gospel is almost coming out like a rumor.

Rumors of God covers a lot of ground. We learn a good bit about these two men who knew each other as teenagers in Australia. We read of their Christian conversions, we see their passion, hustle and glimpses into their personal lives (like Jon’s 2 year old daughter wiping the contents of her diaper on her bedroom walls).

I resonated with much of how they spoke of themes like love, the need for community, social justice and appreciated how they spoke of the Christian Triune God. The book is a great introduction to the Christian faith but it’s also a welcomed re-introduction. I could see this being helpful to the countless who leave the church in college and are now seeking to find something deeper than the materialism and humanism that they traded for. In fairness to them, many churches are not doing an adequate job in preparing their young hearts to leave their homes and churches. I don’t just mean the institutional church, I also mean it in terms of church as a community of families, friends, etc. Each of the mentioned needs to dramatically improve, not just with effort but in perspective as well. Though it would be nice to go further with this line of thought, this is intended to be a book review and I only mention it to say that Rumors of God is especially helpful to this audience.

Chapter Seven “The Radical Individual” was my probably favorite chapter as I find this to be an extremely important message for our culture. Especially for our twenty and thirty somethings who have been groomed by American individualism and promised the world. Which brings up another distinction, “the world” that many of us as X’ers and Millennials are promised isn’t the same one that the Boomers and Builders were talking about. But that also doesn’t really fit in with this book review.

Chapter Four, “Getting the Gospel In Order” threw me a little bit (but I still liked it). It had an excellent central point, it’s orthodox and so forth, I’m not throwing any heresy flags out there. I just thought it was a little too old-school in comparison with the rest of the book. It even had the classic “The officer pulls you over, pays our fine” (gives you his car) illustration. Glad to see the illustration of the railroad engineer who takes his son to work and got his little foot stuck … didn’t make the cut. I loathe that story on so many levels. But I’m just being critical because this a blog post. I do want to reiterate that the central point of this chapter is solid; I do like the “Jesus trades identities with us and gives the believer His inheritance” and it is certainly true that the church needs to be known as a place for grace. But I am hardly original in pointing out the church may need some better metaphors in discussing substituionary atonement.

After that, I did find the dichotomy of old-school evangelical versus new school. Which in some ways, works for certain parts of my ministry. While I certainly do not want to dismiss the richness of the last 50 years of evangelicalism, I’m not sure these are the parts worth preserving. And when I say, I’m not sure, I’m not trying to be polite here, I am honestly unsure. This has been on my radar the last 10 years of ministry and while I loved the content of Rumors of God, I’m not exactly the target demographic for it. I found myself thinking about their approach in reaching out to fellow X’ers/Millennials. To be fair, some of this was odd to me because of what I think I know of Jon. (He uses a lot of NT Wright material in his messages and frankly, he uses it really well.) It does make me wonder about the behind the scenes of Christian publishing though.

That’s about as critical as I can be – it’s a great read, especially for a significant number of people who are looking for a better articulation of the Christian faith and hoping for a better church. This may be a book we read together in a future Reading Circle, we’ll see …

If you’re interested, I suggest you follow Darren and Jon on Twitter, check out their book promo video and you can order the book at Amazon.



Reflecting on Andy Crouch’s Discussion on Power (And How it Relates In the Church Sector) at Q

As I mentioned at the end of my last post and in one last week, I want to blog a little on the Q Conference in Washington DC that I was able to attend. I do find myself thinking about a number of the presentations and a few that I force myself to think again about. I’m not sure I’ll admit to which is which, nor am I sure how many of these I am going to actually blog about but I am intentionally trying to take the time to do so for a number of reasons and they include:
1. I found many of them to be really important for me.
2. Grateful for the sacrifices and blessings to be able to get there.
3. I really believe in the work.
4. By taking time and reflecting on the content and what it means to me in context and application, it allows me to move beyond “conference junkie” and consumer of content (at least I hope to move from this).

Although it makes more sense to begin at the beginning, let’s start at the second presentation with Andy Crouch. His discussion on power continues to evolve so well. Having been privileged (can I use that word in this context?) to hear Andy speak on this a few times, it’s really great and helpful material. And it continues to get even better – looking forward to the book. I am also grateful that Biblical Seminary kept trying to find ways to bring him in to speak to us because I am truly hungry for this conversation.

I would love to give you all the sound-bytes but I wouldn’t be able to do them justice but here are a few:

Andy’s big question was, “Who is flourishing through your power? That is the test of power.”

“God has entrusted power to His Image bearers.
Vulnerable image-makers (even realize their own nakedness)
To deal with our vulnerability, we misuse our creativity.
Deepest use of power is not force but creation.
Deepest corruption of power is misplaced creativity – this is idolatry.”
Idols promise everything, demand nothing … but they extract everything
Idols work cheap and fast and they work … at first. (don’t keep working)”*

For one, I’m a sucker for the whole Imago Dei-idol conversation. So what he says at the end, I find myself yelling Amen at.

Andy is one of those speakers that make it sound so clear, yet when you find yourself explaining it to someone later, you say things like, “Well you know, he was talking about power … and stuff. Oh and I really liked what he said about idols – it was good.”

But here’s where I am two weeks later since listening to the presentation.
I have been contextualizing this in my sector (The Church) and asking the obvious questions like, “Who in the Church has the power?”
To some, it may seem obvious to say that the Sr. Pastor has the power but that’s not completely true, at least not in the evangelical tradition (can’t and won’t speak of any others). I’ve seen churches where the Sr. Pastor seems to run the show and others where they clearly didn’t.

Well, if not the Pastor (and the staff) then the elder board! Yes and no. Then, perhaps it’s the members, the community (power to the people!) and the answer again is yes and no.

What I’m learning in the Evangelical Church is that the “power” is scattered, limited, temporary and contingent on so many factors.

That church where the senior pastor micromanages every decision will never grow past 400 because he can only manage/control 400 people. It’s scattered and limited for a number of reasons. Among them is the pastor will only have their limited attention, generally Sunday mornings, funerals, weddings, etc. Half of them will change churches within a few years, a new crowd will take their place; this makes it temporary and it’s contingent on an endless number of factors like the preaching, the music, family ministries, the elder board, the budget, the parking, who and what was said in the last congregational meeting, factors contributing to the building and losing of momentum and various other wildcards. Or at least that’s what it feels and looks like from the inside and from the outside. It turns out the micromanaging senior pastor is not really that powerful.

The small congregational church with the revolving door right next to the pulpit seems to have given the power to the people but it hasn’t. Some of the congregants may have been there for fifty years, but the power is limited and certainly scattered. It seems to me that some of the “flatter” churches have similar struggles and being new in a large church environment, indeed there are hinderances at work here. To test it, we could ask “Who is really in charge?” to different groups and representatives. Pastors all tell you that the leadership has been granted authority but the attendees affirm this. But they’ll also say if/when people stop coming/serving/giving/connecting, their power is revealed and “The elder board has no legs!”

In all of these instances, idols are created. Idols are created out of man-made dreams, attendance, the budget, the ministry model, the customer satisfaction huh, I mean … well, whatever you want to call it.

I love the idea in theory that the power needs to be shared and given. I really do. Though I am a pastor, though I see myself as a leader, my prayers won’t be genuine if I know that people are responding to my control rather than their response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We won’t share the power unless we trust each other.

I also love the idea that power needs to be unifying. It’s an amazing and scary thought of what could be if we truly trusted each other.

Further, I am thinking about what it means for the exercising of power to be a true act of worship. In some sense, this is what Andy is already saying about using power to create and in the Church sector, I see that happening in moments like, during our praise of God (whether it be Sunday morning, small groups or personally and privately throughout our week) and especially outside the institution of the Evangelical Church.

But lastly, I am returning to Andy’s original question in the church context “Who is flourishing through your power? That is the test of power.”

I’ve been thinking about this for almost two weeks and here’s where I am today. There are a number of people who are actually “flourishing” because of the influence and ministry of the church. The frustration is that it’s not nearly enough in terms of the number of people that are hurting around us and the depth of the “flourishing.” It was great to think of people, to know names and stories but again, it’s sobering to see how many more are in need of redemption from the hurt, pain and evil.

Plenty to think about, plenty to act upon and so may we be faithful with the creativity and the power/influence/calling we’ve been given in the Church sector as congregants, pastors, elders, as followers of God’s Kingdom.

Andy said so much more, maybe I’ll post again on it but if you are interested, check out his incredible book Culture Making and this presentation at Q Austin called “Power, Privilege and Risk.”

Life Update – Nathan turns 4, We Closed on a House & Coming Soon on the Blog

It’s been a while since I blogged.

A couple months ago, someone said to me that they missed the Monday Morning Briefs I used to do. It was an idea that I took from Marko from whyismarko (and a handful of other bloggers) but I stopped doing them for a couple of reasons. Among them was that my life isn’t that interesting from week to week (like most people ;) Second was I got tired of talking about what books/music/movies/media I was consuming. Some of it came naturally because I was in seminary and was required to read so many different types of things. Add to that, I had a two hour commute (each way!) so I was going through a lot music/podcasts. I liked a lot of that but life is a little different these days and hardly sustainable the previous way. I look back at it now as quite sampling of a diverse range of things.

Still, my friend told me he missed the life update part and I felt honored by that. Blogs my nature are supposed to include your life and your voice and perhaps I have been hesitant in doing that as much lately.

So here’s a life update and likely a few random thoughts I’m processing and hope to blog about … one day.

This past weekend we celebrated our first child’s FOURTH birthday. I confess, I was a little moved when I buckled Nathan and his little brother, Dylan in the van so we could go to his birthday party at “Imajination” in Lawrence. It was such a great party with a lot of fun people as it was shared with our dear friend Chloe who turned two. Chloe’s parents and Susan and I are very close friends and sharing our kids’ birthday parties was a cool experience – we’re really grateful for that.

Our little Nathan is such a special kid. I know every parent says this but it’s true – that first kid is a turning point – everything changes. You know that going into it but Nathan was a little different for us because we adopted him with only 3 weeks notice. We got to be there for his birth, got to name him and bring him home. He may be adopted but I tell you, if you want to experience the genetics versus environment debate, adopt a baby. I swear he gets his sarcasm from me and his sweetness from Susan.

Speaking of adoption, we are so grateful to have been adopted into Bassim and Miret’s family. We were a bit overwhelmed (and embarrassed) by how many presents we left with. Grateful to be brought in to the fold up here.

Speaking of home, our other big news is that we closed on a house last week and we are really excited about. It has plenty of space which is great because of our young and growing family but Susan and I keep talking about how we need to limit our consumption and shed some stuff.

Coming soon on the blog –
Been thinking a lot about the Q Conference I got to go to. Some really great content to process through.
Really enjoyed Rumors Of God by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson – review coming.
Excited about teaching at the Senior High group this upcoming Sunday. I love my new position but miss the students (well many of them anyway ;)
Working on a post about dealing with controversy.

None of these posts are related to the other … or are they?

Thanks for reading, your comments are always welcome and feel free to let me know (publicly or privately) if these life updates are worth doing.

Some More Thoughts on Blue Like Jazz

Yep, still thinking about Blue Like Jazz. Difficult for me not to in some ways. I loved the book, supported the Kickstarter campaign, participated in several book studies with it and currently leading a Reading Circle on a Million Miles in a Thousand Years. If you are around Lexington, MA, we’ll be discussing Part 5 and the movie this Sunday night after GC@Night in the cafe – All are welcome.

It occurred to me halfway through my second viewing of BLJ, that I was enjoying the movie more this time around. Perhaps my expectations were tempered, maybe I was responding to all the negative reviews of the movie/project, or maybe I was a in a better frame of mind – I don’t know.

The negativity does crack me up. Though it’s not as bad as the Tebow deal, it’s become humorous how people are so quick to hate on this movie and on Don Miller and crew. A while back I saw someone commenting on Don’s body language during an interview. Come on dude, Don and his friends are out out promoting this movie city to city for the past 3 months, cut him/them some slack. The guy sold his house to help finance the project!

In some ways, Blue Like Jazz can’t be the movie to do what many of us want it to be. Primarily because it had become too big in the Christian subculture and Don is too popular of a writer to not have expectations for.   the “first-responders of this movie” are going to be those fans  (It will be interesting to see  more from those who haven’t heard of the book).  Many of us want this to be a conversation piece about God, spirituality, Christianity in general, many others want this to be a traditional tool of evangelism, others seem to want it to be an obscure piece of art floating like an astronaut in space.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of things I didn’t like but I am glad it was made, glad it’s out there and I think Don, Steve and Ben did an amazing job, especially with what they had to work with.

My concerns are as follows: I was never really sold on the “inciting incidents” (thanks Don and Friends for giving us the language to critique your work) that led to Don’s collapse of faith and then the “bottoming out” scene that soon led to his repentance.  If the movie was a true comedy, maybe the “youth pastor sleeping with mom thing” and later “waking up in a porta potty and realizing that your life stinks and the priest rescuing you” works but I thought they could have come up with something better.

In any case, I truly liked the characters of BLJ. I’ll admit my first impression of Marshall Allman playing a young Don Miller threw me off. He looked like a cross between a goofy-looking Sufjan Stevens and a hooded Portlandian version of Eminem from 8 Mile (the movie poster has him in this pose staring down Penny and I’m worried that he’s hiding a black eye about to try to battle her on the bridge). But I have to say Marshall did a fantastic job.

I liked pretty much all the characters and truly hated the cheating youth pastor (played so well by Jason Marsden. While I know this is part is not autobiographical of Don and his mother, I am seriously suspicious of Jason, know what I mean “bro?”). Penny is charming and sweet, thought the Pope character had the best lines and Yuri (the Russian) was great in his small role.

But then there was Lauryn. I liked her immediately because she’s Alex from LOST. She had such a great character until the end – why was there no resolve to her? She’s a key figure in the first half of the movie, Don’s first real friend if you will, then not only does Quinn break her heart but she seems to get dumped by the script as well. She bears her broken-hearted soul to Don and then gets regulated to picking up drunk kids at the Ren Fayre and laundry duty. I know it’s a little complicated that her character is a lesbian but I was expecting a bit more resolve to her.

I’m sure Don, Steve and Ben left a lot on the cutting room floor but if there any plans for a director’s cut, I’d like to see a scene that gives her some dignity and closure (if one exists).

What I was really let down by and I think this will always bug me is that legitimate money was not put into this. Itt should have received the Eat Pray Love treatment (wait they spent $6o million on that??  Ok, how about a tenth of it?). Had it been financed and distributed consistent with standards of modern movie making, I think it could have been a significant cultural moment. I know that sounds naive but if you just go and see what’s out on Fandango, I think I have a killer point.

I hear stories but I don’t really know how these things get funded. I don’t really picture local churches taking their missions budgets and giving them to Kickstarter but I do think the Church as a whole missed an opportunity. If history is any gauge, the next Kirk Cameron film or Fireproof 2 (More Inferno, More Evidence) will get a $10 million backing.  Not sure what a real solution looks like, but we need one, we actually need a quite a few, multifaceted ones.

Limited runs in theaters are tricky, you can read Don’s figures and thoughts here. I anticipate that the DVD Sales will be pretty solid. It will be used in countless sermon illustrations, youth group lessons, college Bible studies and various other places. We’ll see this DVD in every CBD catalog for years to come and will likely end up in Best Buy $4.99 bin, which isn’t bad, it just how consumer culture robs the remaining essence of something.  I’m confident that they’ll make their money back and then some but wish it had a better theater run.

Again, ultimately, I do think Don, Steve and Ben did an amazing job with what they had. And I wish them the best as BLJ rides out and hope this experience ushers in many good things.

For more check out:
Don’s BLJ brief “What Critics Are Saying…” List (one-liners from from NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc.)

Go see it, here’s the theater list –
Here’s a link to my first post, “Why I Hope Blue Like Jazz the Movie Does (Really) Well”

Reflecting on the Q Conference, Washington DC Post 1 – Back Home & Grateful

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Q Conference. It’s a gathering of Christian leaders from different sectors of culture focusing on four themes Culture, Future, Faith and Gospel. The 7 that Q identified are: Media, Business, Arts & Entertainment, Education, Government, Social Sector and the Church. You can read more about Q here.

Given their interest in culture, each year the gathering moves to a different city which has included Atlanta, New York, Austin, Chicago, Portland and this year Washington DC. It’s always in a downtown venue, intentionally not in a church but generally a third place chosen for historical/cultural significance, aesthetics, and functionality. This year’s site was the beautiful Andrew Melon Auditorium on Constitution Ave. (which is just across from the National Museum of American History).

It’s a pretty intense schedule with two days of over 40 presenters each given either 18 minutes, 9 minutes or 3 minutes to share their central message. As an audience member, it’s great, you know when the person is going to finish.  As a presenter, it must be difficult but we do get quite a number of excellent presentations. There are also talkbacks with the presentations and table discussions with fellow attendees. But even still, it’s a lot to take in. On Day 3, each attendee participated in a briefing. Mine was on human trafficking at the Old Exec. Bldg of the White House. Obviously it was cool to be there but the data is heart-breaking. You quickly forget the aesthetics when you hear the plight of those being trafficked. However, it is great to see our government involved in this global crisis.

I’ve been looking over my notes and as of now, I really can’t sit here and list my favorite presentations and offer an adequate summary of what was said for each. Frankly, I’m not sure I can even tell you my favorite moments yet but as I’ve been unpacking from the trip and talking about it, I’m sure I’ll have a bit to say soon.

What I was thinking about on my drive and have been thinking since returning is how important these conferences and conversations are. I know there is a lot of joking and negativity surrounding conferencing and I’m sure some of it is warranted bit there’s a good bit that is extremely helpful. This being my fourth Q, I have found that many of these presentations fuel my ideation, inform my weak spots, and some of them frankly, are similar to “breaking news” for me.

Q is probably so personally helpful because it makes so many conversations accessible to me. I simply don’t know of any other gathering for ministry types that bring in such an array of theologians, practitioners, scientists, corporate employees, artists, government workers and various thinkers and personalities from the different sectors of society. Now I want to be careful that I do not overstate its effectiveness, after all, the longest presentation is only 18 minutes and some similar presentations have been made in years past. Which is a good thing, because it reintroduces the conversation to newer attendees and reinforces the conversation to returners. I cannot help but feel that some of what was said are things that I have either have wanted to hear more of or words I needed to finally hear.

I’ll be thinking about that, especially as I meditate on how the Church can serve the common good of the culture.

Lastly, I’ve also been thinking about how fortunate and grateful I am for those that have made it possible for me to attend Q. Over the years I have been the recipient of scholarships either from Q or kind and generous people around me. Also grateful for my friend Ryan for letting me crash in his DC apartment – enjoyed our late night conversations. I’ve been fortunate that the Churches I’ve served in have been supportive (thanks GC). And certainly, I’m grateful for my wife’s support – three little kids for three days, I owe you another one honey. I’m not kidding, when I think of the sacrifices that allow me to attend these events, I think I better not only pay attention to the material but use this material. And so may the Lord bless these words and efforts and all who/what is involved.

“What Does the Easter Bunny Have to Do With Jesus?”

Last week I got to speak at the ESOL Easter Banquet that meets in one of the buildings at our Lexington campus. Those taking the class have their own unique story of how they got there. Some came to the States for a job transfer, some for love, some for the classic “hoping for better opportunities here.” As a son of immigrant parents, I get that.

When I was first asked to do this, it was an easy decision for me. English was the second language for my parents so I’ll think I’ll always have a soft spot for broken-English. I was told that some coming were not believers of Christianity and the purpose of the banquet was to celebrate semester milestones and observe American holidays. The banquets are optional and the speaker’s message is to communicate the meaning of the holiday without proselytizing. As one who loathes the “bait and switch” mentality, I settled on entitling the message “What Does the Easter Bunny Have to Do With Jesus?”

My goal was to offer why Christians celebrate this holiday.  I did my best to avoid preaching at it but I make no promises in this reflection.

There’s so much I love about the Easter story. Among my favorite aspects is how this story serves all of our other stories. If the story of the Resurrection of Jesus is true, it changes all the other stories, including the tragic ones.

Jesus’ promise for redemption, forgiveness and the invitation to the life he offers only works if the resurrection account is true. If it’s true, then indeed everything changes.

Including the symbols – symbols like the cross. As many have pointed out, the cross being the central symbol of the Christian faith is an odd one to some extent because at the time of Jesus, the cross was a violent instrument of capital punishment. It was the Roman version of the electric chair or the lethal injection but much more inhumane. Its purpose was to create the most torturous death possible. Its symbol was to instill fear and serve as a grave warning for all who dared to rebel against the state.

The resurrection changed that. Instead of being a symbol to be dreaded, it because a symbol of hope, of love, of victory!

So how did the Easter bunny get dragged into all of this? First, a confession, I like the Easter Bunny. Just like I’m a fan of Santa.

I get that some of us are tired of church bulletin covers of Easter Lillie’s (and Christmas poinsettias), tired of angels, baffled women and disciples standing outside of glowing empty tombs, tired of cartoon characters and colored eggs. Not me though. I’ve seemed to have rebounded quite strongly from begin jaded by all the Christian cliches.

This is perhaps because we have children now. And while my near four year old may actually come close to understanding the idea of Jesus enduring a horrible death by affixation by crucifixion, the poor kid has trouble sleeping as it s.

I’ve been telling our children that Easter is about the life that Jesus offers us. I tell them that Jesus died but became alive again and it’s never happened before (or since). And that’s what makes Easter special. I ask our near 4 and 2 year old, “What’s Easter about?” The short answer is “Life.”

For centuries, parents were telling their children of the greatest story ever and using their cultural symbols to illustrate. They used rabbits and eggs because they were signs of life. They created “entry points” for their children so they could being grasping the Easter narrative at a young age. And it’s important that we do this without traumatizing our young children with screenings of  “The Passion of Christ” or worse, poorly acted Easter dramas ;)

This year, I’ve enjoyed sharing with my children the Easter story. I love that Easter story redeems all things, I love that it redefines the symbols and I love that our children are slowly grasping it … with the help of eggs, baskets, chocolate and the bunny.

Holy Week Reflections Post 2 – Every Way I Observe Good Friday Comes Up Short

Good Friday has always been an odd day for me. Growing up, we were taught the solemnness of this day. For me, it was hard for me to understand or be solemn.

By the time I started wanting to solemnly observe, I was in college but we didn’t have Good Friday off. Which seemed strange for a private Christian school … in the South bbut I’m glad to have gone to an accredited school. In any case, observing it was hard and frankly, lonely in a certain sense.

Then there was Good Friday at my first church where we had a modern-day funeral service for Jesus. Afterwards the funeral hearse left, our youth group kids and I would dye Easter eggs for the festivities the following day and then we’d go out and play Laser Tag. I miss the people, miss our students, but this observance was lost on me by the second year we did it. I did however enjoy the Easter Bunny and Egg Hunt we had the following day – we got that right.

It wouldn’t be til I got to the Montvale Church that I observed Good Friday the way I thought appropriate. That evening service would be reflective, somber, but not overly depressing. Sunday was coming but linger here a little while longer.

Then there was today, took the boys on some errands, made the baby cry as I held her for 20 minutes (she’s sick and I’m not mommy), replied to some important emails, did some reading, worked ahead because I’m going to be away next week (going to Q Ideas in DC) and until this last hour, found some time to be still and pray. I’ll admit, it’s been an up and down week for me. Many wonderful things have happened, enjoyed some fruitful conversations, but as in any week there were some tougher moments and I fear between the grieving process and this head-cold and sinus headache is getting the best of me. And I’ve been thinking about tonight’s services. Because of being sick, I asked to be taken off the communion serving time and have no formal role aside from being a pastoral presence.

I’ve been walking around thinking about the day’s sadness and goodness. Earlier today I downloaded Tony Jones’ new ebook, A Better Atonement. It’s only $2.99 so it’s sorta of a no-brainer if you’re interested in the atonement. I can only go so far with the newer atonement theories but years ago, I enjoyed Scot McKnight’s overview in  A Community Called Atonement. Good book, relatively easy, very orthodox and worth your time on the subject. From what I have seen in the first bit, I’m glad Tony has written a different type of book than his friend Scot.  Tony is approaching it beginning with the idea of  Original Sin, a reoccurring topic on his blog and an important conversation on a number of levels.  I’m looking forward to diving in deeper here.

Like for countless others, the atonement has always been tough for me. Not just the subsitutionary part but all the blood, guilt and horror it took for us evangelicals to express it. But that was only part of it. If I am being honest, even had I been brought in a Christus-Victor setting, understood solemness early, got Holy Week off at college and had the “perfect” Good Friday service, I’d still find this day difficult.

I hate that this day was necessary. The themes of which are suffering, evil, sin, sacrifice and death. Jesus takes up on Himself the sins of the world, becomes the perfect sacrifice for us all, experiences the pain of the cross and the separation from God himself. Many have said prior that to celebrate Easter, we must observe Good Friday. This is true but I love how Peter Rollins takes it further in Insurrection says: “If participation in the Crucifixion involves being overtaken by the darkness, where all guiding flames are extinguished, then participation in the Resurrection is the moment when we find the ability to affirm light and life in the very midst of the darkness and beneath the cold shadow of death” (My review here).

Now I don’t know if “overtaken” is the right word for me today but I wish it were in some sense. Today I’m wondering maybe the struggle of observing Good Friday is part of the journey of it. The modern day Jesus funeral, the Easter egg dyeing and laster tagging, the crying babies, the emails and the never-ending to-do list. The blood, guilt, shame, sin, the graphic imagery, the old cliches, the newer ones, whatever – the whole day is terrible.

Maybe hating on all attempts to describe the day is actually a good thing because it at least begins to honor just how dreadful and evil it is. I’m going to reflect on this a little more before Sunday allows us to turn the corner.

Grace and peace friends.

Wishing Andrew Sullivan a Beautiful Easter – 3 Things I Liked About His Newsweek Feature

A few times a year, Time Magazine or Newsweek will feature Jesus on their cover  and we’ll debate a sucky article full of  twisted examples and typical rhetoric.

So when I heard of this week’s new issue of Newsweek, I figured it would be more of the same. I clicked the Twitter link, saw it was Andrew Sullivan and was even more disappointed because I generally like him.  I read his blog every so often and frankly, I respect his mind and his soul.

Scanned the article once, except for the title, I liked the piece and knew I must have missed something. Why would Newsweek put this out? Read it again and appreciated it even more on a number of levels. Here are three things I liked.

1. I think he got the crisis right. If you are undecided in reading the article or your time is limited, here’s how Sullivan describes what he calls, “The Crisis of Our Time”:

“All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?

That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.”

I couldn’t agree more, people area always asking the big questions and looking for purpose and meaning. Obviously as a Christ-follower, I feel that Christianity has the best answers to these questions and searches. But as a Christ-follower, I fear that we as a Church are squandering its power and opportunity for lesser things. I’ll fight for Christ and the Church but I completely understand why some are pursuing the former without the latter. I’m left thinking Andrew gets these broad strokes right.

2. He may have redeemed Jefferson for me or at least motivate me to take a deeper look. I like Jefferson. A particular set of former youth group kids would lead you to believe that I’m obsessed with him because I “forced” our group to visit his memorial in the heat of July. Whatever. I do appreciate Jefferson on a number of levels – founding father, architect of the Declaration, and key promoter of separation of church and state. If that last line surprises you, I believe in the importance of a secular society because I believe a strong Church is not threatened in such a context. One friend emailed me encouraging me to express that sentiment more. Perhaps I’ll also write a post on that some time.

But back to Jefferson, I’ve never been able to share any more of an affinity for him because of his denial of the supernatural aspect of Jesus. It’s not enough for me that he believes we need to serve the other if Christ has not been raised. As a humanist, it would be enough for me, but not as a Christian. From what Sullivan was saying, it’s clear I need to look further into what Jefferson was not only doing with the famous edited Bible but with his practice of Christianity.

3. Sullivan doesn’t write as an outsider, but as a Christian acknowledging its weak points and proclaiming its essential ones. I may push back on some parts (I think everything is political, but do agree that too many in the evangelical church are overly-concerned with power in our political system). Regardless of my push backs, I appreciate what he’s clear on.

“Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection—and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday—Jefferson’s point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus’ point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”

I read the article a couple times. I’m not sure the cover of “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus” is what the article is actually saying. Again, I ‘m biased because I do believe in the Church. You would expect a pastor to say that of course but I’d like to think that I’d believe in the Church even if I wasn’t. Jesus went through hell to establish it, we Christ-followers need to be the Church Christ has called us to be, I’m grateful to be serving in it and am praying I and many will be faithful to Jesus’ way.

In any case, for a Newsweek cover, this is perhaps the most Christian article on Jesus that I recall seeing.

Nice job Andrew Sullivan and may you have a beautiful Easter.

Holy Week Reflections Post 1 – Began the Week Feeling Like Good Friday, Anxious For …

I’m entering Hoy Week with a heavy heart. The heaviest of my burdens is the grieving the loss of our uncle Anwar Ghali. I’ll offer a more appropriate eulogy another time but I had two thoughts running through my head this Palm Sunday:
1. I don’t feel like cheering the triumphal entry of Jesus. I’m tired, I’m saddened, I’ve even fighting a cold.
2. I’m glad it’s Holy Week. It’s going to finish with the Resurrection story and I look forward to getting there.

Of course, the Church celebrates the Resurrection every Sunday we gather. In our New Testament readings, I’ve already read the Resurrection accounts except for John’s which I like to save for Holy Week. And while this will be our first Easter here at Grace, I’m anxious to celebrate the truth that we worship a risen Savior. Yeah, I actually believe this stuff.

A number of things ran through my mind as I was sitting in between my dad and brother at the St. Minas Coptic Orthodox Church in Holmdel, NJ. If you’ve never been in a Coptic Church, I have to tell you they’re very ornate and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Perhaps the first think you notice is that smell of incense, then you are met with the instruction that men and women sit on opposite sides. There is a lot of beautiful iconography and though these types of sanctuaries are hard for Western Protestants to appreciate, I think most would agree that the room is worshipful which is the final question when it comes to sacred spaces.

I was most grateful that the LCD screens including English translations of the readings of Scripture and creeds. Frankly, since my Arabic and my understanding of Coptic liturgy is quite limited, it’s a blessing to participate in the worship. I nodded my head along with the reciting of the familiar words of I Corinthians 15:53-54,57 – “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory … But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The story of Jesus entering into Jerusalem is a familiar one if you’ve been raised in Church. When you’re little they tell you it’s Palm Sunday and you get your very own branch/frond and instruct you to wave it in celebration of Jesus entering Jerusalem. Normally, I would post more of the story, point out the irony of the fickle crowd that cheered one day and later called for Jesus’ execution. Normally, I would recall the scenes of Passion Week and reflect on the betrayal, abandonment, injustice and innocence. Normally, I would point out Jesus’ entry on a small donkey. And normally I would try to contextualize al of this as by saying if this was a modern day entrance, it would be like rolling into town in a beat-up pickup truck. No offense to the pickup owners, but you’d expect Jesus to roll onto the red carpet in a limo instead of a ’83 Ford Ranger.

But for my Uncle’s family, my family, and those who are mourning Anwar, we began last week already in Good Friday. And we’re anxious for the peace, joy, and life-giving message of Easter soon and anxious to celebrate the Resurrection Story of Jesus. Maybe you can relate in some way, maybe your heart is heavy, may this be a meaningful Holy Week for you and yours.