Unpublished: The Daily Witness of the Christian in the World is Essentially Sacramental

I was reading a little William Stringfellow the other morning (I know, surprise, surprise) and I read a passage in his book Free in Obedience that I found very profound (edited to be gender inclusive):
...Christians are free to enter into the depths of the world's existence with nothing to offer the world but their own lives. And that is to be taken literally. What the Christian has to give to the world is his or her very life. The Christian is established in such an extreme freedom by the power of Christ, which is so much greater than the power of death, that we live secure from any threats which death may make.

It is in exercising this ultimate freedom in our involvement in the world that the Christian also understands how to use whatever else is at our disposal--money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or whatever else--as sacraments of the gift of our own lives. The daily witness of the Christian in the world is essentially sacramental, rather than moralistic. The public witness of the Christian is a symbol and communication of our death in Christ every day in each situation in which we find ourselves. We thereby demonstrate our faith in God's triumph over death in Christ. The ethics of witness to redemption are sacramental ethics of grace, rather than of prudence or of law.

But such witness with respect to the world means involvement, not indifference; realism, not withdrawal; knowledge, not ignorance. The Christian is free enough both from our own death and from the reign of death in the world to realize and recognize the signs of death in the world: narcotics, slums, racism, unemployablity, disease, or the oppression of persons by the principalities of commerce, patriotism, sports, communications media, and ideologies. And the Christian is free to enter into the midst of all or any of these ordinary realities of the world's existence, knowing what they truly represent, without succumbing either to their lust for idolatry or the fear of the work of death of which they are evidence. The Christian is so empirically free from the threat of death in their own life and in the existence of the rest of the world that we can afford to place our life at the disposal of the world or of anybody in the world without asking or expecting anything whatever in return.
If you've read the Slavery of Death series you'll see this as a wonderful summary of some of the key ideas: Freedom from the fear of death allowing us to be indifferent to the self-esteem and meaning-making idols of the age: Freedom from the fear of death giving us the ability to become available to others in love.

A line I really like in Stringfellow's quote is this:
The daily witness of the Christian in the world is essentially sacramental, rather than moralistic.
A sacrament is an outward sign of grace. And Christians in the world should be such visble signs of grace.

In a world governed by death and ruled by the principalities and powers Christians should be sacraments--visible signs of resurrection, love, life, hope, joy and grace.

--an unpublished post

The Lost Art of the Church Potluck

My favorite memories of growing up in a small church are of the church potlucks. And that church still puts on awesome potlucks.

I expect that many of you have similar fond memories of church potlucks. Jana does. This last Sunday I was guest speaking at the East Side Church of Christ in Snyder. Jana was weighing if she wanted to go with me. Jana is a high school drama teacher and she was tired because her show just wrapped up and we'd gotten to bed late after striking the set.

I told Jana that after the service there would be a potluck.

"I think I'll come," Jana said, "there might be banana pudding."

And there was!

I don't know if it's a regional thing, but banana pudding is a staple of potlucks in Texas churches. And it's one of the best things you'll ever eat.

And yet, while it breaks my heart to say this, I think the art of the church potluck is on the decline.

We recently had a discussion about this with some friends at church, that potlucks are happening less frequently and, when they do happen, they aren't done very well. A symptom of a potluck gone bad at our church is when the potluck has to be supplemented by Little Caesar's pizza.

So I have to ask, is the Golden Age of the Church Pot Luck over?

It seems so.

With our friends we floated two hypotheses about the decline of the potluck.

The first was church size. It seems that churches are either very big or very small, making it harder to achieve the sweet spot for a congregation-wide potluck.

Our other hypothesis was about a loss of generational skill. The consensus was that our mothers and grandmothers really knew how to do a potluck. And the main thing was that they brought to the potluck a ton of food, enough for their family and many, many more.

And that, we all know, is the secret to having a good potluck. You have to have a critical mass of people bringing more food than they or their families will eat. A lot more food. And our mothers and grandmothers had go-to pot luck dishes to help produce this abundance.

But today the exact opposite happens. When people under forty go to a potluck most everyone brings a small side dish, not even enough for their family. And you don't have to be a resource allocation guru to know that if most people bring less than what they themselves will eat then that potluck is doomed. But more and more often that's what happening with church potlucks, people bring less than what they will consume.

It seems like an entire generation has forgotten the Golden Rule of the church potluck: Bring more that what you will eat. A lot more.

Because it's that excess and abundance that makes the hospitality of a potuck possible, allowing the spontaneous invitation to the visitor who comes empty-handed to be an experience of gift and grace.

Let Us Be the Heart Of the Church Rather Than the Amygdala

I was watching last week how Christians on social media reacted to the news that Pope Francis had met with Kim Davis, mainly the distress and disappointment from progressive Christians who have a lot of fond feelings for the Pontiff.

I completely understood the reaction, but as I watched things play out online it struck me how emotionally reactive we are to social media, our feelings getting jerked around by the latest thing that breaks on Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes it is happiness and euphoria. Yay, our side is winning! Sometimes it is despondency and despair. Oh no, the other side is winning!

It seems that every day on social media is an emotional roller coaster ride. Our feelings swinging up and down, up and down, with every hashtag trend or viral video.


Oh no!


Oh no!

Every morning we log onto social media and our limbic system gets jolted. The adrenaline and stress hormones and the serotonin buzzing.


Oh no!


Oh no!

It all seems so emotionally and physiologically exhausting, constantly taking the temperature of the world through social media. Having your emotions ping-ponging around. Always being emotionally zapped and jolted by social media.

So let's remember the wisdom of Thérèse of Lisieux.

Our vocation is to be the heart of the church, not the amygdala.

The Hypocrisy of the Benedict Option

There has been a lot of recent discussion among evangelicals in the wake of the Obergefell ruling to adopt what Rod Dreher has called "the Benedict Option."

Rod named the Benedict Option after St. Benedict, the father of Christian monasticism. As Western culture descended into moral darkness and decadence in the waning years of the Roman Empire Benedict withdrew to create a monastic community devoted to the cultivation and protection of a rich, thick and vibrant spiritual community.

Advocates of the Benedict Option suggest that Christians today must do something similar. Christians no longer control our increasingly secular and post-Christian culture so we should give up trying. The battle has been lost. So Christians should give up fretting and raging about the loss of our "Christian nation," as so many evangelicals are doing now. In our stages of grief Christians should get past the anger and depression and move on to acceptance. Christians should now withdraw from the culture wars and turn inward to cultivate and foster Christian counter-cultures that are vibrant and rich.

Now, there's been lots of debate about the nature and shape of what, exactly, we mean by "withdrawal" in speaking of a Benedict Option. I don't want to wade into those waters. What I'd like to point out is the hypocritical nature of much of the very recent discussion about the Benedict Option within evangelical circles.

Almost all of the recent conversation about the Benedict Option among evangelicals has been in response to the gains same-sex couples have made in marriage equality. Talk among evangelicals about the Benedict Option spiked after Obergefell v. Hodges. Now that gay persons could marry it was time for evangelicals to think about the Benedict Option, time to withdraw from the depraved and secular culture.

What I'd like to point out is the hypocrisy that is haunting and contaminating this recent interest in the Benedict Option among evangelicals.

Specifically, for decades the evangelical witness regarding marriage has been abysmal. Divorce rates among evangelicals have been no different from non-Christians, and some studies show divorce rates as higher among evangelicals when compared to unbelievers. Consequently, if evangelicals cared so much about the sanctity of marriage why were there no calls for the Benedict Option decades ago? Why wait until Obergefell?

Because a Benedict Option among evangelicals, and this conclusion seems inescapable, isn't really about protecting the sanctity of marriage. It's about the denunciation and rejection of gay persons. That's the only reason I can see for why calls for a Benedict Option have been all the rage recently. Straight Christians, it seems, are allowed to desecrate marriage with impunity. But if gay people do it? Well, that's not allowed. Time for the Benedict Option.

To be clear, I'm not talking about my evangelical brothers and sisters changing their minds about gay marriage. I'm talking about the hypocrisy in their recent calls for a Benedict Option.

If the Benedict Option were really about the cultivation of a rich Christian culture, especially in the arena of marriage, we would have been having this conversation decades ago. And it would have been a healthy conversation because the Benedict Option would have been, at that time, directed where it should have been all along: at the church.

Let me be clear about that. The Benedict Option is healthy and good when it is aimed at the church.

But now? Now the Benedict Option isn't being aimed at the church. It's being aimed at a particular group of people, gay people in particular. Rather than being a reform movement of the church the Benedict Option, as it is currently being discussed, is simply an exercise in Othering, an exercise in dehumanizing.

And didn't Jesus, by the way, reject the othering Benedict Option devotees in his time and place?

Anyone remember...ahem...the Pharisees?

A Benedict Option that is motivated mainly as a response to the culture wars, and a response mainly aimed at denoucning gay persons, is a Benedict Option rooted in an in-group/out-group mentality that builds the Option upon a dehumanizing foundation.

Listen, as a progressive Christian I love the notion of a Benedict Option. I absolutely love it. I think the cruciform way of Jesus requires a rich, thick and disciplined Christian culture. I think progressive Christians should be calling for their own version of the Benedict Option. Because I think liberalism, nationalism and capitalism are corrosive to the Christian faith. I just disagree with my conservative brothers and sisters about what the corrosion looks like.

I embrace a progressive vision of the Benedict Option, a vision that might be better described as the Francis Option, named after St. Francis of Assisi.

A Francis Option would be, following St. Francis, a monastic reform movement aimed at the church where we cultivate the thick culture, theology and discipline to serve the outcasts of the world, as St. Francis and his followers spent their lives.

The church needs to form and shape cruciform lovers. And that's hard to do in America today. Liberalism, nationalism and capitalism are killing the church. We really do need rich and vibrant counter-cultures where we can detox from American culture and be formed into Christian patterns of living.

But the post-Obergefell Benedict Option being discussed by evangelicals? That sort of Benedict Option is inherently Othering and intrinsically hypocritical.

We need a Benedict Option, but a Christ-shaped version of it.

Problems with Twitter Feed

In July 2013 a very kind soul, I don't know who, set up an automated Twitter feed for this blog. Since 2013 about 700 or so people follow that Twitter feed. So I included a link to it in my blog header.

However, since last week that feed account hasn't been updating. And since I didn't create it I can't fix it.

So my question is, do people care? Do you want that fixed?

If so, I need to locate the person who created the Twitter feed to look into it or create a new one that people can join.

Tzimtzum, Cruciformity and Theodicy

When it comes to theodicy--Why does a loving and all-powerful God allow suffering?--two of the biggest theological snarls are creation ex nihilo and omnipotence.

According to creation ex nihilo God is the origin and source of creation, creating the universe from nothing (ex nihilo). And that introduces a theodicy issue because creation ex nihilo makes God responsible for how creation turned out. If not the proximal cause of suffering then the distal cause.

Omnipotence creates a second set of issues. Even if you can get God off the hook for creating a universe that is full of suffering the doctrine of omnipotence seems to put God on the hook for not doing more to reduce or stop horrific suffering.

Now, there are no fully adequate answers to these issues, but the two ideas I've gravitated to to help with these questions--creation ex nihilo and omnipotence--are tzimtzum and cruciformity.

Tzimtzum comes from the Jewish mystical tradition and describes the idea that God creates the world by withdrawing to "make room" for creation. But because this space is a space that has been vacated by God it is characterized by formless chaos, the dark and churning "face of the deep" in the opening vision of Genesis. Another way to say this is that creation, because it is formed via tzimtzum, is characterized by God's absence.

That's Act One of the story, divine withdrawal to leave behind raw materials. Act Two is God's attempt to reinsert Himself back into creation to indwell and reign over it. In the opening scenes of Genesis this is God's Spirit hovering over the chaos, ordering the chaos to create "goodness." God doesn't say the raw material of creation is good. The chaos, the deep isn't good. What is good is ordered creation. For example, God says the light is good. Tzimtzum leaves behind a raw, chaotic material. God's Spirit indwells and orders that material to create goodness. Goodness is naming the "reign" or "kingdom" of God in and over creation.

Here is where cruciformity comes in. God reenters creation not through coercive power but through cruciformity. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, God is ruling over the world and setting the world to rights through the Lordship of Jesus. But Jesus rules and sets the world to rights through the power of the cross. Yes, God is all-powerful, but the scandal of the cross is that God's power in ruling the world appears to us as weakness, as cruciform love. God is all-powerful, but that power is always cruciform.

Why does suffering exist? I don't know.

But the best answer I have is that, because God created via tzimtzum the world is characterized by the absence of God and the raw material of creation is always tending toward chaos, disorder and dissolution. But God's Spirit is always "hovering over" creation, seeking to indwell, order and reign over creation. God is everywhere inserting light into the darkness.

And yet, the shape of this invasion and ordering is always cruciform in nature.

God reigns and rules through an invasion of love.

And if God's power ever looked otherwise, or to expect something otherwise, it wouldn't be the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. True, in the face of suffering we might want a different sort of God, and that's fine, we can refuse to confess Jesus as Lord and say that we'd rather God set the world to rights by something other than love.

We can worship some other vision of power, some other God, Lord or Kingdom.

But if we confess Jesus as Lord we're only ever going to expect God's power among us, even in the midst of suffering, to be cruciform in nature. And that's always been the stumbling block.

Unpublished: To the Big Spoons

From a conversation at the Beck house:

Jana and I were talking about a speaking invitation I had received from a conservative group. As I'm not very conservative we were pondering why this group had invited me.

"Well," I said, "maybe they like to mix things up."

"Maybe," Jana replied, " but, Honey, you're a pretty big spoon."

So here's to all the big spoons out there!

May you keep stirring things up.

--an unpublished post

Thérèse of Lisieux and the Little Way

In the Catholic church today is the feast day of Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Yesterday I posted about how I use the Little Way of Thérèse as a practice of hospitality.

Regular readers will know that Thérèse of Lisieux has been one of the most formative influences upon my spiritual life.

A prized possession of mine is a vintage medal of Thérèse from Italy that Jana found in an antique shop. I'll be wearing it today.

If you don't know about Thérèse of Lisieux I devoted a series to her in 2012 entitled "Meditations on the Little Way." The posts in the series:
Part 1, Thérèse of Lisieux and the Democratization of Holiness

Part 2, Story of a Soul

Part 3, "My Vocation is Love" 

Part 4, The Elevator to Jesus: The Practice of the Little Way 

The Little Way of Hospitality

Two years ago I wrote about my discovery of Thérèse of Lisieux and her practice of the Little Way. And odds are, if you've heard me speak over the last two years there was a good chance that I brought up the Little Way.

I have come to see myself as a devotee of the Little Way. So has Jana. We talk about the Little Way and Thérèse just about every week. And the practice of the Little Way has disrupted our lives, sometimes in hard ways but more often than not in surprising and life giving ways.

When you hear the Little Way described it's often described as a practice of self-mortification, of putting up with people when they frustrate and irritate us.

But that's not how I see it. For my part, as I teach the Little Way, I see it as a practice of approaching people, moving toward people in love. As I explain it, the Little Way is a practice of welcome, embrace and hospitality.

For example, I consider the passage below from Story of a Soul to be the quintessential example of the Little Way. Note in the passage the overriding theme of approaching others with small expressions of warmth, welcome and kindness. Thérèse describes how the Sisters in her convent were variously popular or shunned. And having noted these distinctions--the socially rich versus the socially poor--Thérèse goes on to describe how the practice of the Little Way is a practice of hospitality, of welcoming the Sisters who were shunned and marginalized:
I have noticed (and this is very natural) that the most saintly Sisters are the most loved. We seek their company; we render them services without their asking; finally, these souls so capable of bearing the lack of respect and consideration of others see themselves surrounded with everyone's affection...

On the other hand, imperfect souls are not sought out. No doubt we remain within the limits of religious politeness in their regard, but we generally avoid them, fearing lest we say something which isn't too amiable. When I speak of imperfect souls, I don't want to speak of spiritual imperfections since most holy souls will be perfect in heaven; but I want to speak of a lack of judgment, good manners, touchiness in certain characters; all these things which don't make life agreeable. I know very well that these moral infirmities are chronic, that there is no hope of a cure, but I also know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life. This is the conclusion I draw from this: I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom...I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus.
Again, what I find powerful in this passage is how the Little Way is described here by Thérèse as less a discipline of self-mortification than a practice of approaching and welcoming:

"I must seek out..."

I must seek out. That's the practice of the Little Way of hospitality. Seeking out, approaching and moving toward people you might not have normally approached, for whatever reason. All with the goal of extending a small act of welcome and hospitality, a kind word or a smile.

That's it. That's the practice. Moving toward people with small acts of welcome, inclusion and kindness. That is the Little Way of hospitality.

And while it seems a small thing, this practice of approaching and seeking out has completely disrupted my life.

The Little Way of hospitality is the most potent practice of spiritual formation that I have ever engaged. If you want to be more like Jesus this is the practice I recommend. And I preach it wherever I go.

When You See the Donkey of Someone Who Hates You

Exodus 23.4-5 (NLT)
If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.


What to do when you see the donkey of someone who hates you...

I had no idea this was in the bible. And it just became my favorite bible verse. 

Flood of Red

Every week Jana and I share fond memories from our UK trip this summer, a trip made possible by our bestest friend Hannah, known to the readers of this blog as The Girl With the Rainbow Stairs.

Jana and I mostly talk about all the amazing people we met in Jersey, England and Scotland. Too many to name, but oh dear friends, you know who you are and we miss you terribly! Our days with you were so very rich and life-giving.  Our hearts ache with joy as we think of the days we shared together.

One of the people we got to spend time with was Drew Worthley, who invited Jana and I to break bread with the Borough Common Church during our time in London. Beyond being a lawyer Drew is also a musician (check out his website) and I was excited to get an advance listen to Drew's recently released album Crucible (which you can buy on Bandcamp or iTunes).

Drew doesn't describe himself as a Christian artist, but many of his songs are theologically rich and speak to the longing, fragile brokenness of faith in a post-Christian world.

I told Drew that my favorite song from Crucible is "Flood of Red." It's a winter Christian song, a song about doubt and the dark night of the soul. But it's also a song about the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular, about how the broken bread and flood of red can carry our faith when it's just to hard to get out of bed.
"Flood of Red" (listen along here)
I am the doubt of Thomas
I'm the finger in the wound
I am Indiana Jones with no Short Round to help
And I'm trapped in the Temple of Doom

I am Saint John of the Cross
In his darkening night of dread
I've the stark bloodshot eyes of the lonely and lost
And I can't seem to get out of bed
I'm struggling to get out of bed

But the broken bread and the flood of red
In silver cup won't lift me up, fill me up
The broken bread and the flood of red
In silver cup won't lift me up

But I'll drink it down still
Yes I'll drink it down still
Speak my holy verse
So that Adam's curse
Might lift from me now

I am the heir of Jonah
And I'm still stuck inside that fish
I've misplaced my strength, my honour, my love
And I'm striving not to forget this

Still I grasp the husk of my fervour
Like a suitcase stained with time
Oh it's torn up and tattered and splattered with hope
And my faith is spilling out of the sides
Yes my faith is spilling out of the sides

But the broken bread and the flood of red
In silver cup won't lift me up, fill me up
The broken bread and the flood of red
In silver cup might just lift me up

So I'll drink it down still
Yes I'll drink it down still
Speak my holy verse
So Adam's curse
Could lift from me now

Unpublished: Rain

I was walking
at work
between buildings
And the grey cloud
began to drop
her rain.
I noticed it first
in the small circles
turning grey to black
as each tiny drop
touched the sidewalk.
I stopped
and turned my face upward
closing my eyes
to the sky
as a child would.
And the rain
like cold pinpricks.
Small, chilly kisses
upon my skin.
All it was
was a soft
spring shower.
But my heart ached
as I looked up to heaven.
For I felt surprised
by kindness
and grace.

--an unpublished poem

Summit 2015 Sermon

On Monday it was my great honor to participate as one of the theme speakers for this year's Summit at ACU.

The Summit theme for 2015 was "Same Mind: United in Imitating Jesus" with the theme sermons coming from the book of Philippians. My Monday sermon in chapel was entitled "Imprisoned for Christ" from Philippians 1.12-21. The video of my talk came online yesterday. And it was pretty special to have Jana introduce me.

Jacob Green

Jacob Green got busted for possession.
Next morning early he appeared in court.
But he was sent to jail to wait to be tried at some later date.
Next morning early, there came a sad report.

At the jail they took away his clothes to shame him.
And to make sure Jacob Green had no pride left
they cut off all his hair. Today they found him hanging there.
Afraid to face the day he killed himself.

It happened yesterday and if you turn your head away
somewhere in some dirty hole the scene will be rerun.
Not only Jacob Green, but many more you've never seen.

It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done.
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done.

Jacob's father hired a team of lawyers.
Inspections and long inquiries were held.
The sheriff then retired and the papers said two guards were fired.
They put a brand new coat of paint on Jacob's cell.

But like a tomb that looks so white and shiny,
inside you'll find corruption never seen.
And somewhere out there tonight, in a dirty cell without a light,
they will be locking up another Jacob Green.

It happened yesterday and if you turn your head away
somewhere in some dirty hole the scene will be rerun.
Not only Jacob Green, but many more you've never seen.

It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done.
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done.

--"Jacob Green" by Johnny Cash (listen on YouTube here)

Johnny Cash before taking the stage at Folsom Prison

Love is the Allocation of Our Dying

I've been thinking a lot lately about this post I wrote two years ago. You write something and then it keeps haunting you.


What does it mean to give your life away in order to give life to others? What does it mean to say that love is sacrificial, a taking up the cross, a form of self-denial?

In trying to puzzle this out I've meditated a great deal on this quote from Arthur McGill:
The way of Jesus is the way of self-expenditure.
Is that hyperbole? Dysfunctional? Is it suicidal? A thirst for martyrdom?

I don't think so, but I do think there is a martyrological sensibility to all this. This is what I think:

Love is the  allocation of our dying.

Life is a finite resource always slipping away. Every minute that passes is a passing of life, a movement toward death. Every moment we are being expended and used up.

But we have some choices in how we are expended. We can allocate our dying. We can specify the times and places of our dying.

My point here is that, because life is a finite resource, giving ourselves to others is a very real sort of sacrifice. It's not suicidal or dysfunctional, but it is sort of martyrological in that I am literally dying the minutes I spend with you. To be with you--to love you--is to die a little bit. A sacrificial giving of my life to you.

When we think of "giving our lives away" our minds tend to jump to big, dramatic gestures. And it can be that sort of thing. In crisis situations people do act heroically, giving their lives in a big single action to save others. But I wonder if the difference here is more quantitative rather than qualitative, a matter of degree rather than of kind. Because to love other people in small but tangible ways over a lifetime is a way of dying. But a slower, drip, drip rather than a big splash.

Which is to say that I do think there is something sacrificial and martyr-like in giving small gifts of love to each other. Love is a sacrifice, an expenditure.

Love is a beautiful way to live, which means that love is, in the final analysis, a beautiful way to die.

We Feel More Comfortable With Power Than With Powerlessness

A couple of months ago my friend Grant Boone shared with me and some other dear friends this meditation from one of Richard Rohr's Daily Meditations:
In all honesty, once it was on top and fully part of the establishment, the Church was a bit embarrassed by the powerless one, Jesus. We had to make his obvious defeat into a glorious victory that had nothing to do with defeat--his or ours. Let's face it, we feel more comfortable with power than with powerlessness. Who wants to be like Jesus on the cross, the very icon of powerlessness? It just doesn't look like a way of influence, a way of access, a way that's going to make any difference in the world. We are such a strange religion! We worship this naked, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, but we always want to be winners, powerful, and on top ourselves . . . at least until we learn to love the little things and the so-called little people, and then we often see they are not little at all, but better images of the soul.

Unpublished: Looking Like a Donkey

St. Francis once asked his followers to tie a rope around his neck and lead him around like a donkey. It was an act of public self-mortification peculiar to Francis's spirituality and leadership style. It was his way of combating pride.

The other day I was thinking about that incident in Francis's life.

I can't speak for every blogger, but I often struggle with self-image and presentation. With what "people think about me."

Online and in real life I often struggle with having the last word or the final answer or the correct opinion. Consequently, when a post of mine is criticized for being in error or lacking in nuance or contradictory or not in keeping with my professed values I start to struggle with ego issues. I want to argue back and push back. And my goal in pushing back isn't the pursuit of truth but the restoration of my self-image, mainly in the eyes of others. And if I can't effectively address the concern then I feel like there is this loose end, a blot on my self-image record.

All this is totally neurotic and self-absorbed. I know this and recognize it as a temptation. So how to deal with it? This question made me think about St. Francis.

What Francis was doing is what the famous psychologist Albert Ellis called a shame-attacking exercise. Ellis would often have clients who were socially crippled because of their neurotic anxiety to do some weird thing in public. The classic example is pulling a banana around on a string. If you did that in public you'd get some funny looks and people might think you're a bit daft. But that's the point of the exercise: So what? So you get some funny looks and people think you're odd. Who cares? By attacking the shame you come to see that it's no big deal. You being to relax and stop caring so much about what people think about you.

And here's the paradox in all this:

When you stop caring so much about what people think of you you become more open to what they have to say.

When you're motivated by shame and self-presentation you have to win and always be right. Image trumps learning, which generally involves being wrong and corrected in public. That's the paradox.

The more you care about what people think of you the less you listen to people. Conversely, the less you care about what people think of you the more you'll listen and learn from them.

--an unpublished post about self-presentation and shame attacking

God, Creation and Evil

I have argued, for many long and lonely years, to any who would hear, that the doctrine (or hope) of universal reconciliation (UR) has more to do with theodicy than soteriology, more to do with addressing the problems of suffering than about salvation. More, I have argued that UR is the only coherent theodicy available to the Christian faith. The only coherent theodicy.

For most of those years I was deemed crackpot for my beliefs. So it's nice to find support from some of our most respected theologians.

That UR is our only coherent theodicy is the case that Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes in his recent article "Creation, God and Evil." George MacDonald even makes a surprise appearance in the article.

Read the article, and then read it again.

(H/T Electic Orthodoxy)

Newsworthy with Norsworthys: On Suffering Well

This week I'm back over at Luke Norsworthy's podcast along with Luke's father and my dear colleague in the ACU Psychology Department Larry Norsworthy. In the podcast we talk about neurosis, learning to suffer well and Luke's issues with Justin Bieber.

Surf on over to give it a listen.

Here are some of the books mentioned in the podcast:
Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution

Man's Search for Meaning

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition

Finally, Carl Jung's quote "neurosis is the substitute for legitimate suffering" comes from Jung's book Psychology and Religion (p. 92).

The Contamination of Prayer

Over the weekend I was speaking at a retreat for some amazing undergraduate students at Oklahoma Christian University. The theme of the retreat was "Embrace" and I was sharing some of my work on the psychology of hospitality.

At one point I was talking about the disgust and contamination psychology discussed in my book Unclean. I was talking about proximity and contact attributions in judgments of contamination, how we become contaminated by making contact with a polluting object.

And in the midst of that discussion I told the students how on Sunday I had been asked to lead a prayer for ISIS at a prayer vigil for the Syrian refugee crisis. I noted how that prayer would likely contaminate me in the eyes of some. By praying for ISIS I make contact with them and, thus, become contaminated. That was the worry I had in leading the prayer, that it would contaminate me in the eyes of people.

That's the scandal of praying for enemies, I said to the OC students, the contamination of prayer.

A Prayer for ISIS

Last night our church, the Highland Church of Christ, hosted a prayer vigil for the Syrian refugee crisis. Many local congregations participated. The order of the service:

Welcome / Why We Are Gathered
Derran Reese / Highland Church of Christ

Prayer of Confession for Our Silence and Our Turning Away
Rev. Susanna Cates / Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church

Prayer for the Millions Suffering in the Midst of Conflicts and Wars Around the Globe
Brittany McDonald / Pioneer Drive Baptist Church

Prayer for Christians in Syria and Iraq
Fr. Phillip LeMasters / St. Luke’s Orthodox Church

Prayer in Syriac from the Ancient Church
Kelli Bryant Gibson / Abilene Christian University

Prayer for Enslaved Women and Children
Summer and Ava Walters (Mother and daughter) / Highland Church of Christ

Prayer for Refugees
Felicia Hopkins / St. Paul United Methodist

Prayer for Churches, Nations, Communities, Individuals to Welcome / Litany of Refugees
Susanna Lubanga / International Rescue Committee

Prayer for Our Enemies
Richard Beck / Highland Church of Christ

A Call to Action
Darryl Tippens / Highland Church of Christ

Jonathan Storment / Highland Church of Christ
I'm proud of my church for taking the lead in bringing our local churches together to stand in solidarity, in both prayer and action, with the Syrian Christians and all those who have been displaced, killed, enslaved or traumatized by the Syrian civil war.

As you can see from the order of service I was asked to lead the prayer for our enemies, ISIS in particular. After a moment of silence I took off my sandals, knelt and then offered this prayer:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we tremble before this cup,
give us the strength to drink it,
this: our prayer for our enemies.

And we confess
that we are but dust,
we do not have the strength to carry this burden.
So fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May your Spirit intercede for us in this moment.

For nothing draws us to this prayer.
And we confess
that we kneel before you
more out of obedience than grace.
Obedience to the one who commanded us to love our enemies
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies
because the love of Christ compels us.

Father, we pray for our enemies. We pray for ISIS.
And in doing so we face in this moment
the terrible mystery of our faith.
The stumbling block.
The scandal of the cross.
Give us your Spirit, Father,
so that we will not falter in this, our great test, to carry the cross.
Give us the strength to carry the burden of this love.

We pray for our enemies. We pray for ISIS.

We pray for their repentance, their conversion and their salvation.

We pray, dear Father, that you carry these words, through your Spirit, to our enemies.
We pray that these words pierce their hearts and trouble their souls.
Father, may your Spirit move in the hearts of our enemies
to hear these words:

Dear brothers, hear the Word of the Lord.

No more. No more.

Dear brothers, repent. Repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God is in your midst.

Dear brothers, the Kingdom of God is there in the faces of those you kill and rape.

Dear brothers, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom you seek, is there weeping, pleading in front of you.

Dear brothers, can you see it?

Can you see through the lies of the Evil One?

Dear brothers, my God, your God, the God of Abraham, is a God of peace and love.

So no more, dear brothers, no more. Do not do this terrible thing.

Repent, and believe the Good News.

We are all children of God.

We are all brothers and sisters.


For God is a God of love.

Father in Heaven, carry these words,
by your Spirit
carry these words to our enemies.
Wound them with our love and yours.

Unpublished: Liturgies of Polarization

Let me describe what I'll call liturgies of polarization.

Imagine there is a contentious issue X out there. It can be a religious issue, a moral issue, a political issue. And when this issue gets raised people immediately fall into two polarized debating teams, Team A and Team B.

The liturgy of polarization starts when one team member floats a clear and strong defense of their view, often with criticism about the other team. At that point, with the gauntlet thrown, everyone chooses up sides on social media and argues their team's position. Sometimes this is done with snark and mean-spiritedness and sometimes with reason and respect. Regardless, the choosing up sides and dueling is the inexorable and inevitable outcome.

Which is why I'm calling all this a liturgy. A ritualistic repetition about what we value most deeply, a ritual that cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally reinforces and deepens those values.

This is why I'm always ambivalent about kicking off one of these liturgies. Because if I really do think one side of a debate is wrong then articulating the opposite won't change minds. It will only kick off the liturgy of choosing sides and defending them which will, ultimately, ritualistically reinforce and deepen the views in question. Which is exactly what I don't want to do. Instead initiating a conversation or a debate what I'm actually doing is everyone to worship. And by the time the worship service is over--once everyone has finished all their commenting, tweeting and posting--we've accomplishing what worship accomplishes--a deeper love for the position we were defending.

Which makes me wonder if this is one of the reasons why social media is making us more and more polarized. I wonder if these liturgies of polarization aren't pulling us further and further away from each other, each round of outrage creating deeper and deeper emotional divides.

--an unpublished post speculating about how social media debates are forming and shaping us

Luke 4.17-21 (KJV)

And there was delivered
unto him
the book of the prophet Esaias.
And when he had opened the book,
he found the place
where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he hath anointed me
to preach
the gospel to the poor;
he hath sent me
to heal
the brokenhearted,
to preach
deliverance to the captives,
and recovering of sight
to the blind,
to set at liberty
them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

And he closed the book,
and he gave it again to the minister,
and sat down.
And the eyes of all them
that were in the synagogue
were fastened on him.

And he began to say unto them,
This day
is this scripture
fulfilled in your ears.

Online Debates and Stages of Change

When should you debate someone, in person or online? It's hard to make that call.

On the one hand, sometimes debate is worth the effort. People can change their minds, or open them up a bit. Sometimes debate fosters if not agreement than mutual respect. Debate well done can be humanizing.

But on the other hand debate can be like talking to a brick wall. No one is listening, there is no openness to the risk of actually learning from each other. The debate devolves into flame-throwing, scoring points and the dehumanization of ad hominem attacks.

How to make a judgment about how a conversation with a person might go?

Something to ponder here is a notion that psychologists call "stages of change." What I want to focus on are the first two stages of change, precontemplation and contemplation.

When someone is struggling or having issue but are in denial about it they are in what is called the precontemplation stage. That is to say, this person isn't even willing to contemplate, think about or talk about having a problem. Their mode of thought is, "Problem? What Problem? I don't have a problem."

As you might guess, change is hard for anyone in the precontemplation stage. If you're not willing to even contemplate that you might have a problem it's hard to get you to admit the problem to say nothing about actually changing to resolve the problem.

The second stage of change is when you move from precontemplation to contemplation. Enough has happened in your life that you are open to considering the fact that you might have a problem. You're not yet ready to change, but you've begun the process of thinking about a change.

I think we can apply these same ideas to debate, how open we are to changing our minds.

Some debating partners are in a precontemplation stage. They are unwilling to even entertain the possibility that they might be wrong. Consequently, conversation partners in the precontemplation stage see the conversation as a one-way street: you have to change your mind because you are wrong.

In short, I'd avoid debate with anyone who seems to be in the precontemplation stage.

By contrast, debating partners who are in the contemplation stage are willing to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong. To be sure, they aren't saying they are wrong and they might not change their minds. But they are at least open to the risk of the conversation, to the risk of being persuaded, to the risk that the conversation might change them, perhaps in lasting and significant ways.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there's how all this applies to my side of the conversation. 

If my goal is only and always trying to change the mind of the person I am debating what does that say about how open I am to change?

We Could Believe We Loved Everyone

Many months ago in a conversation about church with my friend and colleague David (check out his blog here) I revisited a quote from Jean Vanier's book Community and Growth.

Vanier, if you did not know, is the founder of the L'Arche community. Many will recall that Henri Nouwen famously left academia to serve in the L'Arche community.

I was sharing with David what I found important and valuable about church. Though Vanier is speaking about communities living under the same roof, I believe his insights apply to all faith-based communities. This is why church is so important to me:
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realise how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are.
As I shared with David, church is simply the place where I find myself revealed as being vain, judgmental, envious, jealous, competitive, irritable, selfish, self-absorbed, neurotic and stubborn. Church helps me know this about myself.

More, it's easy to love people in the abstract. And social media can aid in this illusion. It's easy--oh, so easy--to write a loving, grace-filled and big-hearted blog post.
Come close. Take my hand. Lean in and let me whisper to you. You are loved. 

Know this, dear one, you are loved.
And the easiness isn't just with poetic and lyrical blogging. It's just as easy to write a blog about loving others in academic jargon.
Christian community is a participation in the Triune life of God, where the perichoresis of the Father, Son and Spirit reflects the koinonia of the Kingdom of God. 
How easy was that to write? I could blather on like that for days.
Loving others through social media is one thing, but when it comes time to love actual flesh and blood people many of us remove ourselves from the daily grind of simply getting along with others.

I used to think this was a failure of effort, of not wanting to put in the time and effort to be in concrete relationships with others. Church is a chore. It's hard relational work.

But as I mentioned above, I think a lot of our disengagement is being driven by ego. The disciplines of community expose our selfishness, vanity, impatience, entitlement and our brokenness.

And rather than enduring this exposure it easier to withdraw into the illusion that we are loving people through social media.

While we are alone--in front of screens typing and Tweeting--we believe we love everyone.

Unpublished: Weakness and the Kingdom

Because God is love God's influence in the world is the influence and "force" of weakness and powerlessness. The "weapon" of God is the weakness and powerlessness of the cross. God is always found in the position of weakness and powerlessness, in the position of the servant. Jesus declared that he is found--incarnated--in our midst "as the one who serves" (Luke 22.27). Finally, because God is love there is no "lording over" in the Kingdom, only the powerlessness of servanthood and self-giving.
Mark 10.42-45
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 
The implication of all this is that God can never be "in charge" of the world. Not in any way we humans normally understand "being in charge."

God's reign among us--our enjoyment of the Kingdom--is fragile and fleeting. As David Kelsey writes, God's Reign in our daily lives--the quotidian--comes and goes against a backdrop of darkness, decay and violence. David Kelsey:
Signs of God's providential righting of the moral balance are not a steady-state feature of the quotidian [i.e., daily existence]. Rather...signs of God's providential preservation of a moral order break out in the quotidian like a small rash: patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable. God's providential action in creation is often eruptive...These occasions are but patches on the broader spaces of the quotidian stained by violence...
Because of the way love operates--dying for rather than killing, serving rather than ruling, giving rather than taking--love cannot create a "steady state" in the moral order. Love will not be consistently "in charge" of an evil world because love will not use violence to forcibly keep dissenting others in line.

Thus our experience of love--the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven--is experienced as "patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable." The Kingdom of God is not a location to be defended by arms and high walls. The Kingdom of God is an event.

--from an unpublished post about the shape of the Kingdom if God is ruling through weakness

How Is It That You Are Rich?

Tell me then, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom did he transmit it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor, He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

 --St. John Chrysostom, Homily 12, on 1 Timothy

Family Politics

Out at the prison bible study we recently worked through this provocative passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 10.34-38
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
It's a perplexing text. We have the Prince of Peace saying "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." More, Jesus goes to to say that he has come to turn family members against one other.

Our enemies will be our family members.

Many interpreters have given their opinions about this passage. I don't intend to review those but simply share a point I made out at the prison.

When we think of families as we approach this text we tend to think of American families of, say, a father and a mother and some children living in a home. And when we think of family in this way Jesus's teaching seems strange and harsh. Why would Jesus turn the people in a home against each other?

We can think, of course, of the early Jesus followers, how their decision to confess Jesus as the long awaited Messiah would have set them at odds with their families. That would have been difficult to do. So Matthew, we can surmise, inserts this teaching to help these converts: the conflict you are experiencing in your Jewish homes is to be expected.

I think that's right, but I also think there is something else going on here. Specifically, ancient Israel didn't think of families the way we Americans think of families. I like said, when Americans think of families they think of a mom and a dad with a few kids out in suburbia. But when the Israelites thought of family they thought of something more extended, they thought of clans and tribes.

More, they thought of an entire nation.

That's the thing we tend to miss, how the nation of Israel was one big family. All descended from the same father, each tribe associated with one of his sons. Everyone related. Israel was a political nation, but it was also one big family.

In short, when Jesus is talking about "loving father or mother more than me" he's not just talking about the intimate sphere of the home. When Jesus talks about family there is something bigger at stake. Because of the way family and nation were conflated in the life and history of Israel when Jesus takes on family he's also taking on tribal and national allegiances, the very fabric of ancient Near Eastern society.

Jesus wasn't just talking about how you treat your mom and dad. That's too narrow a view. Don't think of the American family.

Jesus was speaking about how his Kingdom proclamation would shake nations--socially and politically--to their very foundations.