The More Things Change….

Today’s Google Doodle (2/19/13) is a model of our solar system, celebrating what would have been Copernicus‘ 540th birthday. He did a lot in his day, but perhaps what he’s best known for is leading the scientific charge to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

Copernicus was a devoted Christian–there technically were no scientists back then, but he did study math, the stars, economics, medicine, and more. In those days, everyone ascribed to geocentrism-the belief that the sun, moon, planets, and other stars all revolve around the earth. 


Makes sense on the surface if you’ve ever looked up at the sun or night sky. Plus, the Bible backs the idea up:

“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” I Chronicles 16:30

“The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Psalm 104:5

“The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Ecclesiastes 1:5

The Bible, conventional wisdom, and plain old common sense taught people one “right” way of thinking about the issue for thousands of years.

But Copernicus (who was a devoted Christian) and many others weren’t satisfied with traditional explanations. What about the fact that Venus and Mars appear to revolve around the sun? If we assume the sun is at the center, all our other calculations make sense. Just for the sun to provide heat and light to the planet from a great distance, it has to be many times larger than the earth, and that would make it likely that the earth is subject to the sun, not the other way around–call it heliocentrism.

Maybe, just maybe, God made the earth revolve around the sun.

Whoa, that’s crazy talk in the 15th century! People were kicked out of the church, put on house arrest, and even killed for pressing this theory forward. “The Bible makes it plain, so why don’t you just leave it alone, Copernicus?”

He couldn’t leave it alone because the facts told a different story. It wasn’t good enough to accept what he had been taught by other people. He was on a quest to discover what revelations if any God had for the current time.

It must be pointed out that even though he went against what the majority of Bible believing folks believed, and even though he was more right than they were, he didn’t have it completely correct either. The most notable hole in his theory is the concept that the entire universe revolves around our sun. Astronomers building on his work later discovered that our sun is one star out of billions in our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions of known galaxies in the universe.

Copernicus’ work didn’t set out to “prove the Bible wrong,” nor could it. The people who wrote the Bible were inspired. Copernicus was also inspired, and he had the benefit of more knowledge. The Bible says “the earth can’t be moved,” but in fact it’s moving around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at 1000 miles per hour. Whether those facts go against your biblical interpretation or not–you’re along for the ride.


How I Prepare A Sermon

About 150 sermons into the game, here are some humble insights into this mysterious process.

1. Decide on a scripture. Every Sunday morning message is rooted in the Bible. A specific passage, rarely more than 5 verses, serves as the anchoring concept. I know I’m going to be able to preach a particular text because I hear the ring of truth in it. It really is like a little psychic bell or clicking that goes off in my head. Sam Proctor (among the best of the old dead black preachers) called it “the certain sound of the trumpet.” Hearing it takes away the butterflies of public speaking because it reassures you that God is on the throne.

2. Explore the meaning of the text to discover its significance and relevance. This is also referred to as exegesis. I put pen to paper to answer some or all of the following questions and more: Why are these verses ringing bells in my head?  Have I ever heard this scripture before? What does it make me think of? What does it say in a nutshell? How do people feel about this one? Just writing all I can consulting only myself and the biblical passage.

3. I was advised to find the dictionary definition for every word in the passage. Not always feasible, but we don’t know some words as well as we think we do. Getting into the dictionary just helps you understand what you’re going to be talking about better–and that’s good.

4. Check commentaries. More exegesis, but I think up as many insights as possible myself first, then read what everyone else has to say. I like the Interpreter’s Bible. I also check out, the The Urantia Book Paramony, and anything else I can find in my study that relates to the chosen verses. When, where, why and by whom was it written? Got to check the passage in Hebrew or Greek at, a complete interlinear translation you’ll get something out of whether or not you read Hebrew or Greek. I write down everything that seems interesting, knowing that I won’t use it all in the sermon. There are many definitions for what a sermon is. One calls it “the fruit of exegesis.”

5. Figure out what I’m preaching about. Not the same thing as deciding on a scripture. You’re not preaching about John 3:16–you’re preaching about how much God loves the world or about how we never really die. What are you preaching about? Sometimes you know in the first 30 seconds, sometimes you have to patiently pray your way into it. What are you preaching about? Scary question, but you must be able to answer it elevator pitch style.

6. Look for examples in nature and media. Facebook friends’ status updates, a mall food court, a walk around the block, a dog’s reaction to meeting other dog’s, the pain of dieting, your last argument, an eerie coincidence, good performance art, childhood memories, your last plane ride. When you know what you’re preaching about and keep it at the top of mind, ideas come a-flooding from all angles.

7.Talk to people about it. Work the truths and stories into regular conversation. Find people who appreciate preaching and bounce sermon ideas off ofthem–when you start talking to people who appreciate preaching about your ideas, they usually end up giving you more good ideas to preach. Write them down no matter where you are because you won’t remember them all.

8. Compile all notes. I know for myself that 2 pages of single-spaced notes is enough. More is OK, less than a page and a half of notes is not enough for me, repeat steps 2 through 7 until you’ve done sufficient exploration of a given text.

That’s about right.

9. Number 9 should have been number 1 to me: pray and meditate. Prayer is the way to see and know the text, the community, yourself, and God ever more authentically. How else can you hope to speak the truth? Meditation does a lot of things as well. One benefit of meditation is that it allows me to intensify the intention behind the preaching. If I aim to be inspirational, I can be more inspirational by meditating on it. If I need to provide healing to listeners, my words become more healing through healing meditation. The more prayer and meditation, the better the sermon–it’s at the beginning, middle and end of the process.

10.Type out a final draft. Whether you work from a manuscript, extemporaneously, off an outline, or without notes, I think it’s good to have the key points of the sermon typed and saved/emailed to myself for easy reference later.

11. Rehearse I’m eternally grateful I was exposed to Linklater’s freeing the natural voice techniques. The more rehearsal, the better. Also important to be acquainted with the ideas you are preparing to espouse. The more I rehearse, the more excited I get about the preaching moment.

You actually read that to the bottom? You probably need to be preaching. Let me know how I can help.

Top Ten Components of Shaq’s Legacy

1. In terms of his basketball stat sheet, he earns a chair among the upper echelon of all time elite players. Let’s see: beast in college, #1 draft pick, multiple Finals and league MVP. Retires with more points than Olajuwon, Iverson, Bird, Doctor J, more rebounds than Motumbo, and more championships than Bill Walton.

2. He was just so generous. Remember the eighteen wheelers full of Christmas toys for kids? I’m saying.



3. Shaq is the cheif cornerstone of the link between hip-hop and basketball. I was probably a freshman in high school when he was jumping around as Shaq-fu on Arsenio. He had a platinum selling, critically-acclaimed rap album.  He was one of the first with the big, visible tattoos, driving custom Mercedes and big vans with booming speakers.

4. Is he an endorsement whore or what? Just off the top of my head, there was Radio Shack, Pepsi, Nestle Crunch, Powerade (or was it All Sport?), Reebok, the whole dunkman clothing empire, the action movies with hastily though out plots. He’s not a businessman. He’s a business, man….

5. Definitely 9th grade when he pulled the rim down on the NBA on NBC one Sunday afternoon.

6. Played for six different NBA teams by my count–the Magic, the Lakers, the Heat, the Suns, the Cavs, the Celtics. Any team he’s on, they are a guaranteed playoff contender.

7. He’s a 14 time All-Star. A FOURTEEN TIME ALL STAR!

8. He played this prolific career carrying around 300 pounds of person. That gets tiring–still lasted 19 seasons.

9. Took the most physical beating of any player. He was so big and strong, you could foul him hard and even though it didn’t stop him from scoring, he still just absorbed a hard foul. One can only absorb so many.

10. He’s still around. He was only 39 when he retired–still has plenty of good years left in him. I’m interested to see what he does next.

Guest Blogger Oronde Stephens is Marching Toward Perfection

Thanks to one of my best friends, Oronde Stephens, for this list. Check out his blog, What Hip Hop Needs (Is Me) at

10 Tips to Perfecting Your Spiritual Path (sounds easy: NOT!)

1.Power is only true power when it is used in an unselfish manner.

2.Peace truly is a state of mind, a retreat within, an escape from the outer life. It’s not complicated unless we make it so.

3.Know that truth is self-evident and recognized and registered by the spiritual mind.

4.Sin is merely anything that deters you from seeking the true and living spirit which is in you.

5.If we learn to trust the Spirit, it will respond by sending us more “frequent flashes” of illumination and enlightenment.

6.Lessons are lying all around you, awaiting your study and mastery.

7.Bad habits can be natural or learned, but learned habits become natural through time. Be careful what you subscribe to.

8.Your soul is not bound by pleasure or pain. See beyond the relative and focus on the absolute.

9. You are a manifestation of God. All are actions/behavior should allude to this.

10. Beware of the “Threefold Gate of Darkness” (lust, anger, and greed). Liberate yourself from these and one has no choice but to embark on a higher path of understanding.

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma

This book was a joy to read. I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I was able to get through the 198 pages in a weekend. It helped that Little Seth happened to take 2 uncommonly long naps on Saturday and Sunday–maybe the universe really is conspiring to shower me with blessings….

Long story short: A hard-charging, successful lawyer has a heart attack in the court room. It’s just a symptom of a bigger problem: he eats bad, drinks and smokes, barely sleeps, works constantly, etc. After the heart attack, he quits his practice, sells his ferrari, mansion, and beach house, and treks to India. There, he meets a tribe in the Himalayas that leads him to enlightenment. He comes back to the states and teaches whoever will listen–specifically his law protege– all he has learned.

The subtitle is “A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny.” The book has many of the qualities that make a good novel like a first page that draws you right in, wealthy, successful characters, and a journey half way around the world for what’s important.

At the same time, it has the makings of a solid self-help book: it’s not too long, there were practical steps the reader can take toward improvement, and plenty of quotes from the likes of Gandhi, Einstein, and Emerson.

I like to read personal development books because they elucidate the concepts that are necessary for success, peace of mind, prosperity, fulfillment, and vitality. These ideas are fundamental–everyone wants to be happy.

The only problem with fundamentals is that there’s nothing really new about them. Whenever I’m deciding whether or not to buy a book, I open to a few random pages and read a few random paragraphs. When I did this to The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I concluded: “Do I need another book to tell me that it’s important to laugh, or that everything that happens to us is the result of our thoughts, or that exercise and time spent in nature are important, and that I should be writing goals down?”

Well, I believe those things to be true, but I don’t really live by them as much as I like to. So, I decided to cop it. There are some excellent points in it, including the idea that we have to re-read the best books continuously. Whether it’s the Bible or How To Win Friends and Influence People, if a book moves you, you should go back and read it over periodically. The core of Monk might be the “10 Rituals For Radiant Living.”

“If you continue to apply them,” The monk says, “you are bound to reach a state of perfect health, limitless energy, lasting happiness and peace of mind. Ultimately, you will reach your divine destiny–for this is your birthright.” All you have to do is:

1. Spend at least 15 minutes a day in silence.

2. Spend at least 5 hours a week engaged in rigorous physical activity.

3. Eat as much raw food as possible and less and less of everything else.

4. Continue to read and study enriching books, articles, and blogs.

5. At the end of the day, reflect on all you did and decide what you can do better tomorrow.

6. Wake up with the sun.

7. Listen to good music often.

8. Have at least one mantra you repeat 100 times a day to improve your self-image.

9. Take steps daily to improve your character, like being kinder and more honest.

10. Keep life simple by focusing on things that are most important.

Some of those things aren’t easy. In fact, doing all 10 of those everyday would probably lead to some suffering. But, they can all be turned into habits after sticking with them for a few weeks. Besides, if your life isn’t moving in the direction of those 10 rituals, you’re almost certainly suffering anyway. Like Jim Rohn says, the pain of discipline is never as bad as the pain of regret, so go for it.

Most importantly, know that you can achieve whatever your imagination can dream up and much more.

My Mom’s Obituary

Patricia Ann McCallum was born on August 19, 1941 to the union of Mary Jane McCallum and Garland McCallum in Baltimore, MD. She was the youngest of three children. She accepted Christ at the age of twelve and was baptized at Faith Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD. Pat always excelled academically. She graduated from Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in 1959 with a variety of interests, awards and a multitude of friends. She filled her youthful days with Girl Scout and Sunday School activities. A lover of music, she received advanced piano training at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Pat attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education in 1963. Pat taught elementary school in the Baltimore Public School System for two years before continuing her education at Kent State University in Ohio where she earned a Master of Education in 1966.

After graduation, she worked in Ohio for a short time before moving to Detroit where she worked for the State of Michigan as a vocational rehab counselor. In Detroit, Pat joined New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church. Many of her most valued activities took focus there. She taught Sunday School at New Prospect for over thirty years and was an active member of the Trustee Ministry for over twenty years. In 1968, Pat met Alex Pickens, Jr. at a friend’s party. That initial meeting led to a wonderful relationship that would blossom into their marriage on September 12, 1970. In 1974, they began a family with the birth of their first son Alex III (Trei). In 1978, they welcomed another son, Seth Watson. Above all, Pat was a devoted mother, giving her children firm foundations of faith, love, and family values.

Alex and Pat were also business partners. They purchased Brightmoor General Medical Center in 1983, where she served as Chief Operating Officer until her death. Her contribution to medical care in the community did not go unnoticed. She was named Phenomenal Partner of Medicine in 2005 by the Southfield Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Pat served on the Board of the Haiti Outreach Mission. She was former commissioner to the Detroit Historical Commission, an NAACP lifetime member, and active in Jack and Jill of America, Inc. She was a recipient of countless awards and citations for her dedicated service, philanthropy, and desire to “leave things better than she found them.”

Pat and Alex were inveterate travelers. They journeyed together to all corners of the world; from Vienna to Vietnam; from Acapulco to Abidjan; from Machu Picchu to Macau and from Kathmandu to Timbuktu. They both valued these traveling experiences and often shared their adventures through stories, pictures and gifts to family and friends. Patricia M. Pickens was a wife, mother, nana, sister, daughter, friend, manager, teacher, scholar, soror and citizen of the world. Above all, she was truly the example of a Christian. She loved deeply and was deeply loved.

Preceding her in death is her father, Garland Penn McCallum. She leaves to cherish her memory: her husband, Dr. Alex Pickens, Jr., her sons, Rev. Alex Pickens III (Naudia) and Rev. Seth Watson Pickens (Isis); three grandchildren, Catherine, Seth Isaiah and Christian; her mother, Mary Jane McCallum; one sister, Alice Cooke (Jesse); one brother, Nathaniel Fleshman (Geraldine); four nieces, Cynthia Lacewell (Ronald), Aimee Johnson, Monique Johnson, and Sucre Woodley (Freddie); five nephews, Anthony Fleshman (Donna), Kofi Johnson, Todd Ledbetter (Sislena); Wallace Johnson, Jr., Wayne Fleshman; two other sisters-in-law, Betty Johnson (Wallace), Daisy Johnson, and myriad friends, relatives and admirers.

My Mother Died

My mother, Patricia McCallum Pickens, died last Wednesday, January 14. Don’t really feel like doing a long, sappy post just yet.

I’ll just say a few things:

1. She was a great person. I would probably say that even if it wasn’t true, but it is. The outpouring of support has been crazy (good).

2. For me, hugging her was different than hugging anyone else in the world.

God and Gays

A little over 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois rightly predicted that “the problem of the 20th century [would be] the problem of the color line.”

The 20th century has come and gone, and while the “problem” of race relations has not been completely “solved,” we as a people have made some incredible strides toward equality since DuBois first published Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Sure, as a black man, I could be killed by the police at any given moment for no good reason, and that really isn’t cool. But even with that hanging over my head, I still feel like an empowered, full-fledged United States citizen. That’s a claim neither of my grandfathers could have made, even though they were both born here, too. I hesitate to say Jim Crow is dead, but he is on life support.

If racial issues dominated the 20th century, perhaps sexuality is the the battleground of the next great civil rights struggles.

Day before yesterday, I was leading the weekly Bible class at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. I started going there a few months ago, but that’s not the point. We were dealing with Leviticus, so I had to point out the oft-quoted chapter 18 verse 22: “Do not lie with a man as with a woman; that is detestable.” For many Christians, that’s the beginning and end of the discussion. There were several sincere, God-fearing students in my class who got quite passionate when I defended gay rights in spite of this text. Here’s a recap of some of what I told them.

-“Text-proofing” is the act of taking one verse or thought out of the Bible and applying it blindly as a binding rule to be followed in all circumstances. Everyone does this at some point. For example, Galatians 5:22 says that there is no law against such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. I like that idea.

The Bible also teaches in Numbers 5 that if a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful (no proof is necessary), he can take her to the priest, and the priest can make her drink poison. If she is innocent, God will protect her and the poison will have no effect. If she’s guilty, the poison will do the irreparable damage that it does. In all of this, by the way, the man is held blameless. I teach that to people as an anecdote, but it’s not a part of my Christian marriage counseling, fortunately.

This doesn’t mean that the whole Bible is not the word of God–it just means that when we read it, we have to understand the cultural context it was written in, keeping in mind that no society is perfect. John Wesley argued that reason and personal experience are just as important as scriptural authority, and I tend to agree.

Also, Christians can’t ignore the fact that Jesus never spoke against homosexuality. Maybe he did and no one wrote it down, but judging gay people goes against my understanding of his teachings. He said that we are all neighbors, and the call to compassion is greater than the call to follow human rules and laws. He also said that what goes in your mouth doesn’t make you unclean, but what comes out of your mouth is what gets you in trouble. He was talking about food and speech, but maybe the idea can extend to various form of sex, too. ;0

Besides, messages of acceptance and hope were preached to eunuchs in the Old and New Testaments (see Isaiah 56 and Acts 8). There are different ideas about what a eunuch was in biblical times, but if they were around today, they would certainly be a part of the LBGT community. More importantly, they would be eligible for salvation just as they are.

By now, one of the sweet old ladies in the class raised her hand and asked me if I thought homosexuality was a sin. I gave her a short answer–“no.” As an analogy, people have destroyed their lives with alcohol, but one sip of wine passing your lips at a party is not in itself a sin. Similarly, homosexuality is not inherently sinful, but anytime anyone throws morals, wisdom, and restraint out of the window, as many gay and straight people have done, it’s sinning and people eventually pay the price for their actions.

But back to Jesus, and his call to “judge not lest we be judged.” It’s okay to be turned off by the thought of two men kissing–it’s okay if you think it’s a sin. But Jesus begs the question in Matthew 7: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Spirituality is a personal thing, and if you’re really dedicated to getting yours right, you have very little time left over to worry about other people’s.

Finally, as a black church leader, neither the pastor nor the capitalist in me will allow me to start kicking sinners out of the church. If I did that, where would we be?