Joshua Graves
Exploring the Collision of Culture & Faith
March 11, 2014
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March 7, 2014

I read this poem my freshman year of college. And it absolutely slayed me. Pierced to the heart. I read it over and over and over again. This is from Shelley’s Mutability. It embraces the true paradox of the human condition.

The flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow dies;

All that we wish to stay

Tempts and then flies.

What is this world’s delight?

Lightning that mocks the night,

Brief even as bright.

Virtue, how frail it is!

Friendship how rare!

Love, how it sells poor bliss

For proud despair!

But we, though soon they fall,

Survive their joy, and all

Which ours we call. 

Whilst skies are blue and bright,

Whilst flowers are gay,

Whilst eyes that change ere night

Make glad the day;

Whilst yet the calm hours creep,

Dream thou—and from thy sleep

Then wake to weep.

March 5, 2014

This is a podcast I recorded with Luke Norsworthy and Jeff Childers on the relationship of Ash Wednesday to sin, forgiveness, and death. Death is a real part of the world. Death is something none of us can avoid. First, a historical exploration from Dr. Childers followed by a conversation we had about the centrality of death (and avoidance of death) in North American culture. We have fun with this: from Justin Bieber to #YOLO to the story of Judaism and early Christianity. If you are interested in this, I’m doing a teaching series on this with Otter Creek Church. You can listen to that series by clicking HERE.

March 4, 2014

My grandfather and grandmother were in town this weekend. They were traveling from Northern Alabama to Northern Ohio with my aunt and they took time out of their trip to visit me, Kara, Lucas, and Finn. Four generations under one roof for one afternoon is magical.

I’ve enjoyed a great relationship with them for as long as I can remember. I have nothing but the fondest memories with them: they attended almost all of our church and sport commitments. I don’t think they missed a basketball game my junior and senior year of HS (that’s my memory at least). Both grandparents are hard-working people. They were the ultimate self-starters. My grandfather worked two jobs by the time he was 14. He ran the family farm and worked in a saw mill. In fact, both of my grandfathers lost their fathers in their youth. That’s something I had never connected until recently.

My grandfather -from the eyes of a child-is tough but gracious, passionate but soft. He always made me feel special. My grandmother and I have a special bond. She likes to say that she was my favorite by which she also means (I infer) that I was her favorite too. She spoiled me. She’s one of my favorite people on Planet Earth.

They both worked incredibly hard to emerge out of serious agrarian white poverty in the late 40’s and early 50’s. They moved from Alabama to Detroit (as did so many poor and white citizens) to build a better life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. They are truly beautiful and remarkable people. And now that my grandmother’s apparently on FB, there’s a decent chance she’s reading this (I love you grandma, you are an amazing woman!).

For some reason, I looked at both of their hands this past Sunday night while they were at my house. How different their lives are than my life or my sons’ lives. How different my grandfather’s life at 2 in 1931 than my Finn’s life as a 2 year old in 2014. Their hands tell the story. How different their hands than all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

For my grandfather, J.V. Graves, the hands tell the story.

1929. Hands feel air on Planet Earth for the first time.
Hands that farmed and steered a mule.
Hands that buried his father.
Hands that worked in saw mill.
Hands that put bumpers on cars on the assembly line in Detroit for General Motors.
Iron man. Hardly ever missed. In 30 yrs. Iron hands.
Hands that always had time to wrestle or play catch.
Play pool in the basement.
Wash a car.
Build a root beer float.
Dunk an Oreo in milk.
Hands that held
3 children.
7 grand children.
11 great grand children.

Then there’s grandma, Mable Graves. Her hands tell a story too.

Hands that worked to the bone on the farm.

Cooked. Sewed. Cleaned. Stitched. Mended. Held. Washed. Scrubbed. Pushed. Nurtured. Molded.

Tough hands. Tough as any man. But so much life, gentle care and warmth.

Hands that held, nourished, birthed, fed, loved, aided . . .
3 children.
7 grand children.
11 great grand children.

Which leads me to Jesus. I find it so important that, in his resurrection, Thomas wants to see his hands. Jesus has the most brilliant mind in human history . . . he has one of the largest and courageous hearts but Thomas wants to see his hands. Because he knows what happened to those hands a few days prior. Knows how those Nazarene hands were brutalized and abused. And, if that guy can walk away from the grave, with hands that work, then, there’s something else going on. Something divine. Jesus’ hands are what Thomas cares about. Hands that had healed the sick, comforted the wounded, touched the hemorrhaging, welcomed the dead back to life, bandaged the leper.

Which leads me to Bruce Springsteen.

The Bruce (is that a good nickname for him?) has a great song, a gospel song really, in which he invites us to “rise up” with the hands we’ve been given to work for peace, justice, reconciliation, beauty, and hope. You can watch the video below. The song title is “My City of Ruins” and it slays me each time I listen to it.

Now with these hands. With these hands. I pray, Lord, with these hands. C’mon rise up.

February 27, 2014

A story from Paul Tillich‘s “Born in the Grave,” The Shaking of the Foundations (165).

In the Nuremburg war-crime trials a witness appeared who had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish grave-yard, in Wilna, Poland. It was the only place he–and many others–could live, when in hiding after they had escaped the gas chamber. During this time he wrote poetry, and one of the poems was a description of a birth. In a grave nearby a young woman gave birth to a boy. They 80 year old gravedigger, wrapped in a linen shroud, assisted. When the newborn child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed: “Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?” But after three days the poet saw the child sucking his mother’s tears because she had no milk for him.

This is why we talk about justice, restoration, new heavens, new earths, resurrection.

Death doesn’t get the last word.

No way. No how.

Death doesn’t get the last line in this drama.

February 13, 2014

Hope Fools: The Death of Death


For the next several weeks, Otter Creek Church will explore the reality of death and the promise of Scripture’s story for those who trust in Jesus’ endurance of death and ultimate victory. This a Lent series: for 40 days we will lean into the life of Jesus asking God to expose our fears, anxieties, and avoidance of death.  “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment,” writes one death-philosopher.

Death is the central enemy of God in the Bible. All of the sinister forces and powers and evil and Satan and the Devil . . . all of these are death’s friends. They work for death. Death is the mob boss, these sinister forces are merely pawns. The New Testaments is about the death of death and the death of all his friends.

Two key passages in this exploration: Hebrews 2:14-15 which states, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” AND 1 Cor. 15:24-26 which reads, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

If anyone should be talking about death, it should be the church. We have the space–in a Nation that pretends that death is not real–to speak truth and announce foolish hope. We believe that death is a semi-colon, not a period. It is the beginning of what’s next, not a dead end street that leads to nothingness.
February 5, 2014

One of my Lipscomb graduate students wrote this in an introduction to St. John of the Cross. Too beautiful to keep to myself. I share with this student’s permission: “A man never knows how long he shall live, whether his days be few or numerous, for even our next breath is not promised unto us. Man, also does not have the luxury of deciding the fate of his birth nor the pathway of his youth, but I have determined that life is not measured by the quantity of years nor by the extravagance of wealth he may acquire or the height of elevated status he may achieve within the social realm of which he is apart. Rather, a man’s life should be measured by the quality and depth to which he seeks to better know his Creator, regardless of pathway he may travel.” 

Here’s my favorite movies list…movies  that “messed me up” or “opened me to God and humanity” or “won’t ever leave me” . . . and they all have a relationship with this blog series on death. In no particular order save Cold Mountain (probably my all time favorite movie). Stories are the means by which we make sense of our lives. Here we go, it takes a story to make a story (Flannery O’Connor). I never realized this until today … almost all of my favorite movies has the explicit meaning of death at the core of its story. Wow.
Cold Mountain. The most humanizing of all the Civil Wars stories ever told.
Places in the Heart. The Gospel set in small town Texas. The Eucharistic life of forgiveness.
The Shawshank Redemption. Liberation beyond circumstance.
Losing Isaiah. The strongest bond in the world is that of a mother and child.
Philomena. The Sermon on the Mount really works when people surrender to it.
Big Fish. The power of story in the imaginations of generations.
Raging Bull. You were born to do this one thing.
Life is Beautiful. No seriously, life really is beautiful. No matter how ugly, there’s beauty.
Slumdog Millionaire. A piece of art more than a film. A story for the ages.
The Mission. The paradox of the church who brings the Jesus Story to the world.
A River Runs Through It. Everything belongs. Everything is a sign post back to God.
Inception. Stunning. Still thinking about it.
Les Miserables. Yes, I can hear the people sing. And, it’s beautiful.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So odd and strange, so powerful.
Melancholia. The most important movie I’ve seen in 5 years (very edgy, Old Testament edgy).
Man on Fire. Man crush alert.
Glory. I told you.
Malcolm X. Still don’t believe me? Denzel is amazing in these 3 films.
Tender Mercies. Sleeper pick. Oldie but goodie.
January 23, 2014

A Theology for Funerals

The Christian funeral is a sacred moment when people of faith (because all people are technically people of some sort of faith) come together to make sense of their lives, God, and perhaps what lies beyond death. Some practical theological observations for the minister and leader serving the role of pastor or officiate. Jonathan Storment  asked me several months ago to frame a theology for the funeral, so I’ll refrain from chasing other paths. If you didn’t see THIS POST, I think it’s beneficial to plan your funeral ahead of time.

1. The body matters in Christian theology. Despite what some of our old and new worship music suggests, the body matters as much as the soul. In I Cor. 15, for instance, Paul saves his theology of resurrection and the body as the antidote for the disease of destruction and divisiveness plaguing the Christian communities in Corinth. A proper understanding of the body and the future of the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus bodily resurrection is an inauguration or a new commentary of God’s ultimate hope for the body. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he says, in Luke, he’ll refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper (a bodily activity) until all people are with him at the great banquet party (Lk. 22:17). Jesus wasn’t a ghost or hologram. He was a resurrected Jewish prophet, the son of God, who definitively embodied God’s passion to redeem creation and the bodies within it. After all, it’s in these bodies that God made us in God’s own image. God has vested interest in something that ultimately connects back to God. This is not to suggest that “cremation” is a sin. God made you from dust once, God will do it again. But, having the body present is helpful in talking about resurrection. It’s difficult to evoke the imagination of resurrection without a body.

2. Encourage and model the reality that grief is as diverse as New York City. Stoics need to stew. Extroverts need to pour out their memories, feelings, hearts. Servants need to do something to honor the deceased. The important thing is to remind people, in the funeral moment, that it’s not so much how you grieve but that you grieve. Scientists can detect a substantive difference between tears that come from common experience (onions) and the tears of raw emotion. Literally, tears are cleansing to the soul.  What soap does for the body, tears do for the soul. Sacred Hebrew and Christian scriptures attest to this. Psalm 56:8 tells us that God desires to record every tear we shed. For when we are so sad that we are moved to tears, the very action of crying is comforting. So Paul writes in 2 Cor. 2:4 “For I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart with my many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” Paul’s tears were from the deep places of mourning in his own heart. Mourning—the deliberate grieving, crying, processing, and sharing of shame, pain, and loss—is the means by which we curiously take on the strength of that which we overcome. The White Church in America probably struggles the most with knowing how to grieve. The technical diagnosis: We are too proud.

3. North Americans live in denial of death. We are hyper-fixated on avoiding the appearance of death. We nip this. Tuck that. Botox here. Lift there. We search for the fountain of life hoping we’re the exception from the appearance of dying. That is, we know we are going to die, we just want to convince others that we don’t appear like we are capable of such a thing as death. We will defy it. We will pretend like we can “out smart” death. Funerals are a moment in which we graciously (or surgically) present people with the brevity and gift that is life. I’ve read somewhere that some monks leave an open grave on their campus as a reminder that someone is next.

4. The most meaningful funerals are the ones that remind us that death, in the end, is a semi-colon and not a period. There is a fine line between optimism and denial. As a person invested in the Jesus Story I am interested in neither downplaying the troubles of this world nor do I want to give into the notion that this is all there is. I want to live with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. I want to explore how this life now is connected to the life to come, “the renewal of all things” Jesus refers to in Matt. 19:28. The best moments in this life (the birth of your children, the wedding, the moment when you realize God made Niagara Falls) are small compared to the moments Jesus has in store in the New Heavens, the New Jerusalem. Death reminds us that we do not ever lose control, we lose the illusion that we were ever in control to begin with. To die is to let go, and trust that the God who spoke you into being is going to see you through into the next great chapter of life. The life that will not end.

January 21, 2014

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.– Jesus, Luke 5.31

*NOTE: GUEST POST by Adam Graham, budding writer and thinker in Nashville.

I don’t think depression was a big concern in the Garden of Eden.

“Naked and not ashamed” leads me to think Eve didn’t wrestle with anxiety about body image.

That came later, after our rebellion and separation from God, the author of life. It came after death, the ultimate meaning and consequence of being separated from God. Only in a world in rebellion to God’s good dream for the creation do we see death and it’s corollaries of decay, destruction, suffering, and illness (including mental illness). Mental illness is a symptom of a world that is not as it should be, a symptom of death having infiltrated life, of us not being as we should be.

And so now depression is a big concern for many, and wrestling with anxiety common. Amy Simpson in her new book Troubled Minds tells that one in four Americans meet criteria for a mental illness every year.

One in four.

Think about that next time you look down the row at church and see more than four people. What do we do with this? How are we as church to understand this?

In trying to understand mental illness, I think it’s easy to start by trying to find what or who is responsible. We’re not the first ones: “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind (depressed, schizophrenic)?” Jesus handles this question in John 9 with a rich story in which he reveals the illness to be an opportunity for the power of God to be displayed. God is seen through  the outer healing of the man’s eyes and the inner healing of his  purpose –  the poor forgotten beggar discovers a commission to testify and call to account the religious leaders. There is much we have to learn from this story. For now we can take Jesus’ lead in starting with a different question. Take Luke 5:

Jesus calls the tax collector Levi to come follow him. Levi does, and then throws a great banquet for Jesus, inviting his tax collector friends. The Pharisees complain, “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers with a proverb: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.Jesus starts out with a different question in response to humanity not being as we should be. As Fred Craddock points out, Jesus in this story lays out two sets of groups: the well and the sick, the saint and the sinner. And Jesus does so without addressing or indicting anyone. Every listener, including us, must decide whether we are well or sick, saint or sinner.

So what are we?

I imagine most would be quick to say that we are sinners, that we, unlike the Pharisees in Luke 5, can see our spiritual poverty and need for Jesus and repentance. But are we well or sick? That is, are we whole, living in the reality of who God created us to be? Or has the reality of death inflicted in us a deep (not just spiritual) poverty that aches for the healing of God?

We all at times wrestle with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, even beliefs that do not correspond well to reality and to which we are not that open to changing (the definition of a delusion). The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (the current authoritative source to diagnose a mental illness) describes symptoms that tend to occur together and draws a line stating that when the symptoms reach a certain intensity (usually vocational or social impairment, or clinically significant distress) it is considered a mental disorder. That is, the mental health community views mental health/illness as a continuum of experience with a subjective diagnostic line separating disorder from not disorder. A continuum which we all experience.

Why do I bring this up? Because understanding mental health/illness as a continuum is crucial, and because, for a variety of reasons, we don’t view it this way. We tend to take the subjective line that intersects the mental health continuum and use it to separate the continuum into two discrete boxes: healthy and sick. People don’t have the same experiences to different degrees, they are either well or mentally ill. Instead of continuity and connection along a continuum, there is separation and stigma. And it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick right?

It’s the “well ones,” (us right?), who bring healing to the sick. It is we, the healthy, who carry the mission of God to the ill. Two roles: givers and receivers. Two levels: powerful and weak. When mental health/illness shifts from a continuum to (unequal) boxes, we participate in the deeper wound of death: alienation – from others and from ourselves.

Think of it like this: it’s hard to hear God speaking through those with mental illness if they are just receivers of the mission of God, people to be served, people graciously invited to be an audience at church. It’s like trying to have a great jazz improv session without the bassist because he’s sitting in the audience and hasn’t been invited to join in on stage. In making the music of the kingdom of God, the church is too often missing the bass line. We alienate each other.

Or think of it like this: there’s a good reason Facebook pictures look good. We prize our personas, our public image. Part of us needs to show others that we have it all together. Part of us knows that naming and owning our own brokenness, our own experiences on the continuum of mental illness, would betray that we are one of the “sick ones.” And we know how we think about and treat “them.” By denying part of who we are, we alienate who we are from ourselves.

Jesus’ whole point in Luke 5 is that we are all sick, and it’s precisely those who realize their sickness who are able to receive healing. Healing that frees us to experience community from the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, and whatever experience of mental health/illness we have. The walls between us fall because Jesus tore down the wall between all of us and God. We then taste the goodness of Eden.

And so in humility we no longer regard one another from a human perspective, but as fellow redeemed image bearers of God, taking our place in the diverse unity of the church. We testify through our love and honor for each other that God comes to and in and through all people, giving hope to the world.

And our hope does not disappoint, because we know that when the Dream of God is restored, death and suffering and illness and alienation will be overcome, we will all be healed and whole and united.

Until the day dawns, we walk in faith, together.

I do not say this from a Pollyanna perspective of mental illness – mental difficulties are terrible and are by no means inherently spiritually deepening. Like cancer or diabetes, mental troubles are symptoms of a fallen world for which we long for healing. But also like cancer or diabetes, the suffering can open people to trust and connect with God in a way that others have not. Most importantly, we do not exclude people from speaking and giving in church because they have cancer or diabetes, if anything, we welcome their voice and perspective. From seven years of work with the severely mentally ill, I have seen the tragedy of it. It’s usually overwhelming. But I have also seen the power of God in who, to me, became schizophrenic prophets.

January 20, 2014
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