OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

Thanks for “Pieces of Heaven” Birthday Book Launch!

Today is my birthday, and I wanted to take a moment out of our regularly scheduled blog content to thank my wife and friends for the birthday book launch they sponsored for my new book, Pieces of Heaven: Recognizing the Presence of God. They asked friends to help celebrate my birthday and the release of the book by doing one thing, such as:

• Buy the book for themselves or a friend

• Post a review of the book on Amazon.com

• Review or mention the book on their blog, Facebook page or elsewhere.

I have heard from many friends over the past week telling me of things they have done, and I am very grateful. The book has spread to places it never would have reached otherwise. It makes me wish all my books had released around the time of my birthday! If you would like to get involved, it is not too late!
Here is the Amazon page about Pieces of Heaven:


Here is a video interview that Alton Gansky did with me about the book a couple weeks ago for his Writer’s Talk video series:


Thanks you again for your encouragement and support.

“Pieces of Heaven” Is Released!

My publisher, Beacon Hill Press, announced this week that my new book, Pieces of Heaven: Recognizing the Presence of God, is now available. This book has been a major focus of my writing and thinking for the past two years. For those who are interested in knowing what the book is about, I am posting the introductory chapter. More information is available by clicking the “New Releases” or “Books” tabs above and choosing the Pieces of Heaven page. I also wrote a Study Guide for the book that small groups may wish to use. It is available on the Pieces of Heaven page. I hope you enjoy the book. If you do, please consider spreading the word to others and posting a review on Amazon and elsewhere. 

Chapter One

The Thin Place in the Veil

God doesn’t behave the way I wish He would.

Even though I’ve been a Christian for many years, I still have a hard time explaining to someone who is not a believer why I can’t help but be a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s not that I lack the words to describe the doctrine or to tell the story of how God got hold of me. But how do I describe God’s powerful but invisible presence that keeps pulling me toward Him?

It would be easier if God chose to be more visible and obvious about how He inserts Himself into people’s lives. I would love to be able to say, I am a Christian because God appeared above my house in the form of a radiant fireball and summoned me outside. In view of all my neighbors, who recorded the whole thing, He declared (in a booming voice, of course) that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation and that I should follow Him.

When Hollywood portrays God, they often do it in this more readily graspable, visual way. Who comes to mind when you think of a Hollywood-created God? A kindly, cigar-smoking George Burns? The wise and unflappable Morgan Freeman? Or maybe you prefer it when the special effects kick in and you get something like the God of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember how the presence of God is portrayed in that movie?

The Nazis want the Ark of the Covenant because they think they can use the power of God’s presence in it for their own evil purposes. When they finally get it, they lift up the lid and watch as bright white waves of smoke rise up from the box. The light swirls round and round, dozens of ribbons of it flying high in the air, with awe-inspiring beauty and power. Then majestic columns of fire rise from the Ark and extend high into the air. The Nazis are triumphant.

But then, because God is apparently smart enough to know that these guys are Nazis and therefore bad guys, the whole scene turns ugly for them. The fire forms into huge daggers that stab right through the center of the soldiers’ bodies and kill them.

But that punishment is only for the low-ranking Nazi soldiers. The top Nazis suffer an even worse fate. The heads of the two leaders begin to melt, and they scream in pain. As if that were not gruesome enough, the head of the most villainous, whiny-voiced Nazi leader explodes in blood and gore like a smashed watermelon. Then all the fire and smoke comes together in one gigantic column that shoots high above the island. Finally it collapses back down into the Ark, with a tremendous slam of the lid.

Beautiful. Smoke and fire and melting heads. That may not fit everyone’s concept of God’s presence, but at least it’s something people can see and understand.

In my own life, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way. He is not flash and spectacle. He is not a booming voice. Nor is he a crusty but affable old man. He is not anything a Hollywood camera could capture.

He is a loving, abiding Presence. More than anything else, I am a Christian because of God’s powerful, pursuing Spirit. As Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” I can also discuss my faith in terms of doctrine and theology and biblical principles, but God’s presence is what keeps me tied to the faith even through crises of doubt, discouragement and my own failures. How can I describe that presence? It’s the most important part of my faith, but it’s also the hardest to talk about and the easiest for skeptics to dismiss.

The idea for this book was sparked by an overheard conversation about the presence of God. It was a simple moment, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. As my friends in the Christian writers group that was meeting in my home were getting ready to leave, I walked into the kitchen to hear one of our members, Lynn, speaking to another member of the group. Lynn was describing a recent worship service she had been part in which the people powerfully sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. She said it was one of those times when the veil between us and eternity seemed very thin, and almost disappeared. I can still picture the way she held her palms together as she said this, as if she were touching this thin, almost transparent barrier that she was describing.

That thin place in the veil is what this book is about.

God is always with us, I believe, but often the barriers are so thick—because of noise, disbelief, indifference, daily responsibilities, and other distractions—that we often pay little attention to Him. He is easy to ignore. Popular entertainment mocks Him, the political world is wary of Him, much of the intellectual elite denies Him, and a frenzied online social media loses Him in a flurry of trivia. It’s easy to leave God out of our conversations and thoughts—at work, at school, in social settings, and unfortunately sometimes even at church. How can we open our eyes to His presence?

This book will consider “God in the Ordinary” and “God in the Extraordinary.” In the Ordinary, His Spirit is powerfully present in music, in nature, in the intellect, in prayer, and in Scripture. We may find God’s presence in our relationships, not only with those we love, but also in those who cause us problems. In the Extraordinary, He also manifests Himself at rare times in more unusual ways, in powerful revivals, in people’s encounters with angels, or in the moments before death.

I wish reaching the thin places was all in our own power, but it isn’t. As this book will explore, God reveals and conceals His presence in His own timing for His own purposes, as He has always done. The temptation, when God seems distant, is to fill the space with a counterfeit god. You don’t even have to choose one—they will choose you. Many people are worshiping multiple counterfeit gods right now without even knowing it.

I wrote this book because I want to do all I can to strip away the barriers that hide God’s presence. I long to get as close as I can to the thin place in the veil that my friend was describing.

If you long for that too—for a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit—then I ask you to join me in these pages.

No Ordinary Blog—I Hope

Consider these three very different questions:

  • Is literature still necessary in an era when we have video games and Facebook to bring us together and make us feel not so alone?
  • Is there any question more disturbing for me to hear from students than, “Do we have to know this?,” as if the goal is to keep their brains free of any knowledge that isn’t absolutely required to be there?
  • As a writer, when I consider the hundreds of thousands of books published every year, added to the millions of books already available free at the library, why is it that I still can’t help myself from going through the anguish of writing one more book to add to that enormous pile?

As I launch the Life of the Mind and Soul blog, those are just a few of the many questions I hope to explore, and I don’t plan to do all the talking. As this blog develops, I particularly hope to bring in voices from the lively intellectual community where I work, Azusa Pacific University. The blog will be targeted not just to readers at my university, but also to curious readers far beyond our campus who may be interested in some of the issues we’re dealing with—issues of literature, spirituality, science, current events, writing, and others. My hope is that the blog will not simply report on… Continue reading