Unpublished: Refuse to Blow the Candles Out

I think that life is hard. I think that life is sad and painful. I think that love is rare and fragile. I think that life is full of loneliness and loss and heartbreak and that we're all desperately grateful for even the smallest scraps of human warmth, kindness and intimacy.

So if I see even the smallest flicker of love, grace or tenderness I want to protect it. I want to fan it so that it might grow. I don't want to move through life extinguishing the flames. I don't want to be the cold, chilling wind blowing the candles out. There are too few. And the night is very dark and cold.

Maybe on some far eternal horizon God will stand in judgment of all the ways we warmed ourselves with whatever affection we could find. Or of how we sheltered those who loved in ways that others found unacceptable.

Maybe. Maybe one day we will plead for a mercy that will not be granted. Maybe.

Shall we be asked to repent of love?

No one knows. So here with you, huddled in the cold blackness, I make my choice.

I refuse to blow the candles out.

--unpublished thoughts about empathy, loneliness and love

Searching for Sunday



I expect that many of you who follow my blog also follow Rachel's blog. But if you don't let me point you to Rachel's newest book Searching for Sunday which released this week.

I'm almost done with Searching for Sunday so a fuller review of the book is to come. Just a note to alert you that the book is now out. And that it's great. And this brief comment:

I'm so grateful for this book, for its focus upon the church. What I love about Searching for Sunday is the same thing I love about Sara Miles' Take This Bread. I love books about the holy, gritty, intimate and flesh and blood struggle to become the Kingdom of God, about the holy struggle to become the church.

I might be crazy or overly romantic, but I believe that God is trying to save the world through the local church. I truly believe this.

God is trying to save the world through the local church.

That is why I write so much about my own church and why I'm grateful for Searching for Sunday.

On Free Will and Restless Hearts

I want to pick up on a theme from yesterday's post about the role of human freedom in how we think about hell and the possibility of universal reconciliation.

As long time readers know (and more recent readers who have delved into my early writings on this blog), I used to write a lot about my struggles with what we'd call "free will." Some of my questions and doubts I shared back then about "free will" were (and continue to be) quite alarming to some readers.

I haven't written about this topic for many years so a brief note to update you on where my thinking is currently on this subject.

Perhaps surprisingly, my view of human freedom has become quite Augustinian. Specifically, my view of human freedom is nicely summarized by the famous lines at the start of Augustine's Confessions:

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

It's not that we aren't free. It's just that with our disordered and broken affections our freedom doesn't move us forward, doesn't bring us anything but more sorrow and frustration.

That is to say, I think the discussion about "freedom" and "will" is missing critical and essential parts of human nature. We might be "free" but what do we want, crave, desire, love or care about? The discussion about "free will" is a thin, hollowed out discussion which misses these critical elements.

So it's not that I don't believe in free will. It's that I think a discussion about freedom and will separated from a discussion from affections and desires isn't a conversation that truly reflects human experience. A debate about "freedom" doesn't address what we love and the restlessness that disorders our desires.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an old and perhaps unfashionable metaphor for sin:

Sickness.

Sin-as-sickness is a metaphor that really preaches out at the prison. The men in the prison know they have made mistakes. They know they have made bad choices. Note how the language of mistakes and choices focuses upon the will, the free will.

But what the men really, really struggle with is this deep sense that sin is a sickness, that deep down their desires are disordered and broken.

Yes, the men in prison want forgiveness for their crimes, for the wicked choices they have made. But what they really, really want is something much, much deeper...

Healing.

What they long for--what I long for--is healing.

Hell Exists But Is Emptied

Thanks to Alan for sending this video to me. It's a nice theological discussion from 2011 in the midst of the Love Wins debate giving a Catholic perspective on hell and universalism:



I think many readers would land where Fr. Barron lands, universal salvation as a "reasonable hope."

For my part, as regular readers know, my issues swirl around the issue of human freedom. Specifically, I don't think it is psychologically or theologically realistic to believe that a finite human will could resist the infinite love of God for all eternity. Because of this I'm a bit more sanguine about the prospects of hell eventually being emptied.

Hell exists. And will be "crowded" for a season. But hell is eventually emptied. Not forcibly emptied, but emptied because of God's infinite patience.

How Not to Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in North America

"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."  --Jesus

I think this command of Jesus--the heart and soul of his Kingdom vision--is felt more acutely in Christian/Muslim relations than anywhere else. So I'm grateful for my friends Josh Graves and Sean Palmer. Josh for writing the book and Sean for providing us this review.

///     

Christians and Muslims make up half the world's population and the world is at war.

The September 11th hijackings and attacks, orchestrated and performed by Al-Qaeda, introduced many western Christians to the battle between certain elements within Islam and the rest of the world, particularly the Great Satan, America.

In part, the response of the West has been to return bloodshed for bloodshed. Regardless of the merits of the on-going military conflicts in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other contested territories, the fact that eyes are being exchanged for eyes cannot be ignored by the church. At the same time, too many of the voices calling for increased violence or tensions or exclusion toward Muslims, both in the U.S. and around the world, are Christian.

Into the discussion of relations between Christians and Muslims enters Dr. Joshua Graves (a friend) and his newest book, How Not To Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in America. In short, Josh gives Christians a framework in which to engage, not only the idea that there are Muslims in the world and we have deal with their presence as a reality, but that there are Muslims in the world and the way of Christ mandates we see and love them as neighbors.

At the heart of How Not to Kill is a fundamental assumption: The Christian community has lost her story. The story, Josh argues, begins with the obvious and simple fact the Ismael and Isaac, central figures in the story of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are brothers. What's more, and this is the central textual argument, is that Jesus' parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10) is the primary model for enemy/Other-love and requires Christians to view their Muslim neighbors with grace, love, and compassion.

The story we've lost, Josh argues is the story of the Bible.

Arguing for a different kind of interaction with Muslim and Islam is where Josh does his best work. His prescription: Knowledge of God and knowing of neighbor.

While I don't want to step on his punchline, suffice it to say that what is being called forth is a life rooted in the story of God more than a life rooted in headlines and/or misinformation. The headlines of the day, Graves asserts, create and nurture fear, rather than engagement. What's more, it's a story either ignorant of or ignoring the Biblical narrative and the nature of God revealed in the ministry of Jesus. Add to that the fact that most American's knowledge of Islam could fit onto a Post-It Note and we have a recipe for exclusion rather than embrace. Perhaps the best part of How Not To Kill is Graves' final chapter, 'Islam For Dummies,' where he simply lays out the meaning and history of many of the terms popularly used but largely misused about Islam.

What is striking about this engagement is that the book itself is the result of intentional engagement of Christians with Islam and Muslims in Nashville where Graves lives and minsters. This fact alone saves the book from the theoretical wasteland so easily accepted in the church and academic theology. What's more, many conversations about Muslim and Christian relations get side-tracked by discussion of ISIS, Syria, the Iran deal and other particulars you and your neighbor can't do anything about. Here, Graves hold our feet to the fire regarding persons living in and shaping our local communities; people we can actual have coffee, lunch, and prayers with. How Not To Kill gently reveals our own lack of love, grace, and humility or our stubborn, self-serving refusal to engage with others at all.

Yet as I read the book, I was haunted by a sense that there were a few things Josh would like to have done differently.

While Josh begins a needed conversation between Muslims and Christians -- and in particular educates Christians about Islam -- that education seems preliminary. Throughout the text, I kept coming back to two questions. The first was, "Is Josh fairly representing conservative Christians?" My sense is that many, if not most, of my conservative friends would read How Not To Kill, might say, "That's not really what I think..." or "That's not fair...."

I'm not arguing that the book in uncharitable, but rather incomplete in this regard. Since the genesis of the text began with actual people with real questions, it would have been nice to have some thoughtful, coherent arguments exposing how more conservative readers have worked through these issues and why what seems like hate or disrespect to some may be their attempt to "not kill a Muslim." Even if some feel that the elimination or marginalization of Islam is best for the world, why they believe that's the case. In short, I don't think Josh (again, my friend) makes their case well for them (though I'm sure they're making it in their own forums).

The second area I felt the book was incomplete was that it leaves the reader (at least this one), saying, "Yeah, but what about ______." I say this as a positive. As I turned through the pages, I wanted to hear more. More about Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; more about Jesus and the images of God (a chapter that was absolutely beautiful and may be the inspiration of my first tattoo); more about American immigration law and interpreting Jesus' teaching in view of His actions rather than a separate theological compartment.

I would have loved for Josh to tackle the issue concerning the ascendancy of Christian Zionism and how it is affecting American Christian's relationship with Muslims and why, for some, and American agreement with Iraq -- or any predominantly Muslim country -- necessarily jeopardizes Israel. Where most books I read are too long; this one is too short.

And, that, perhaps, is the most glowing review I can give. When the book was over, I didn't want it to be over. I wanted to know more, in Josh's words, "see more." And that's the reason, I think you should rush out to get your own copy. Then read it. Read it again. And order a few copies for your friends.

You can order one or more copies here and here.

///

Sean Palmer, the author of this review, is the Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Profiled in Christian Standard Magazine’s “4O Leaders Under 40” issue, Sean is a blogger, speaker, writer, and teacher to various age groups and travels annually across the U.S.

You can find more of Sean’s writing at his blog, The Palmer Perspective as well as Wineskins.com and Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed.

You can also follow Sean on Twitter.

Unpublished: Faith as Hallowing

Faith, as I've come to see it, is less about believing in objects existing or not existing than it is about valuation.

To be a human being we have to add value to the world. Otherwise the world is just a swirling mass of elementary particles with each particle, to use religious language, no more holy or sacred than any other. To be human is to lay value on top of existence. And everyone does this, consciously or unconsciously.

Faith is the activity of hallowing, the practice of picking out patterns from the indifferent egalitarianism of particle physics to say that these things are sacred, these things are holy, these things are worthy of honor, these things are worthy of care, these things are worthy of emulation, and these things make us human.

Faith, then, is any reflective and intentional system of valuation. And more.

Faith is a system of valuation that is accompanied by personal and social rituals that help inculcate and form the values of interest. Such rituals are especially important if the valuation being aimed at goes against the grain of self-interest, as it does in the Christian faith. Learning to hallow in a certain way, for some faiths, is very difficult, unnatural and effortful. Faith, then, is a lifelong process of being shaped into a certain kind of human being. Faith posits avenues of formation, personal and corporate pathways to move us closer to the things we value. These are rituals and liturgies, repetitive habit-forming activities that remind us of our values, shape the virtues needed to embody our values, and create experiences where the values are physically enacted, where you are literally practicing what you are preaching.

And, finally, faith incorporates a diagnostic element, an account of human nature and social life that attempts to explain why the values we are striving for are hard to attain. Faith gives an account about why the things that make us most human are not natural and require enormous effort. For example, if one values, honors and hallows something like kindness faith will give an account about why kindness is so hard, why it is so scarce, and why it will take a lifetime of training to become more and more kind.

--from an unpublished post experimenting with a definition of faith, faith as valuation and hallowing

Consider

In yesterday's post I included the word "relaxed" in a list of traits that I felt characterize what it means to be a Christ-like human being.

But relaxed isn't a word you hear a great deal in discussions of Christian virtue and character. And yet, I think relaxation is key, a foundational issue.

Non-violence flows out of relaxation. Kindness, gentleness and mercy all flow out of relaxation. Joy and gratitude are rooted in relaxation.

And by relaxation I mean being physically and mentally at ease. Being non-anxious. Peaceful and calm in body and mind. Non-defensive. Non-neurotic. Unselfconscious. Emotionally quiet and still.

Most of us are not relaxed in this way. We are constantly being triggered by the successes and failures of others. We are emotionally reactive--always being angered, disturbed or upset by other people. Our fuse is short. Our nerves are on edge. Our stomachs clench and turn. Our heartbeats race. Our thoughts swirl and obsess.

We feel jerked around by events, small and large. We feel pushed and pulled by every little thing. We feel knocked off balance.

We crave. We desire. We worry. We obsess. We ruminate. We rant. We self-medicate. We despair.

We are not relaxed.

And it's difficult to be a human being if you aren't relaxed. It's difficult to be emotionally available to others if you aren't relaxed.  

So how do we become relaxed?

Religious traditions differ in how they answer that question. The stoics have their approach. So does Buddhism.

Jesus's answer is twofold.

First, trust. Trust that God will take care for you. Consider the lilies and the birds.

Second, place your heart in a location where moth and rust do not destroy or thieves break in and steal. Your heart must be "hidden in Christ" in a place where death has no dominion.

Trouble is, these recommendations strike us as pious platitudes. Trust. Lay up your treasures in heaven. These are the sorts of things we tell children in Sunday School. These are recommendations we find in inspirational books and on bumper stickers.

Trust. Lay up your treasures in heaven. We are way, way too sophisticated for that. Life is too dark and too hard for such saccharine recommendations.

But hold on, just for a second. Put your cynicism and your education aside for a moment.

Seriously, stop and consider the lilies. Consider. Consider the birds.

What would it mean to live like that, if just for a moment, today? What would it look like to live like the flowers and the birds?

And what would it mean that my heart was hidden in a place where what I treasure couldn't be lost, broken or destroyed?  What would it mean to "seek first the Kingdom"?

Might I become more relaxed? More natural? More at peace? More awake? More aware? More free? 

True, we have our doubts about all this.

It all sounds so childish and childlike. Like a lesson we've heard before but never learned.

It's almost as if one must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Consider.

On (Not) Being Religious

As a faculty member at a Christian university you put yourself out there, even if you don't want to or feel inadequate, as a Christian role model. At ACU a question about being a Christian role model is included in the course evaluation forms students fill out each semester about your performance in the classroom.

So it makes you wonder, what sort of role model am I?

The other day I was discussing this with my students in my statistics class. Half-joking and half-serious I told them this:

"This is what I'm after: I want you to think I'm the most religious person you know and the least religious person you know."

That may sound weird and paradoxical, but I am getting at something real here. I think many of my students would say that I'm one of the most religious people they know while at the same time being one of the least religious people they know.

You may wonder, How's that work?

I could write a lot about this, but the short answer is this.

I use my religion to become a human being. Religion, for me, is the praxis of becoming a human being. Students can see the praxis--the hard work I'm putting into religious observance--but the outcome of that work isn't religious piety but a human being who is joyful, relaxed, kind, non-judgmental and emotionally available.

Not saying I've reached those goals, but those are the outcomes--being a human being--my religious observance is aiming toward.

Or, phrased more conventionally, I practice my Christianity in order to be conformed into the image of Jesus. Christianity is the religious praxis of becoming Christ-like.

Home

Another story from the Good Friday vigil we held with some friends last week.

As I mentioned yesterday, the sanctuary was dark except for a few candles. And to mark the passage of time, at the top of each hour, someone would read a passage of Scripture.

For me, that was the most haunting and powerful part of the experience. Listening to Scripture being read into darkness and silence makes the words so crisp and distinct. I don't know how else to say this, but darkness and silence makes Scripture so vivid.

And it's also comforting to hear the voices of your brothers and sisters in the darkness. A story of the night from Jana.

During the vigil Jana purposefully dozed a couple different times as she had a huge all-day rehearsal with her theater students in the morning. At one point, in the wee hours of the morning, Jana woke up to hear Julie's voice reading Scripture.

And the sound of Julie's voice was reassuring and comforting and sweet. For second when Jana woke up she experienced a bit of alarm and disorientation. "Where am I?"

But as she listened in the silence to her sister's voice softly filling the darkness Jana realized that she was safe.

She was at church. She was home.

Blood of Christ Be Our Salvation

Last week on Good Friday a few dear friends gathered with Jana and I at church to hold vigil through the night. We lit candles in the darkened sanctuary and kept watch as the hours of the night passed. At the top of each hour, to mark the passage of time, I set my phone to sound a tolling bell and we would listen to someone read a passage of Scripture. Not everyone stayed the whole night. But a few of us made it through to morning.

Pictured here are some of the candles along with the Christ the Bridegroom icon Ben brought to the vigil. A perfect icon for a Good Friday vigil:
Matthew 25.1-13
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’

And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 
To pray through the night I used a couple of different prayer books. I like Catholic prayer books during Passion Week because there are many Catholic prayers that focus upon the five wounds and blood of Jesus.

In the wee hours of the night I was praying through a litany of The Precious Blood of Jesus. A litany, if you don't know, is a series petitions echoing a repeated chorus. The litany I used is similar to this one I found online (which I've abridged a bit):
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy

Blood of Christ, only Son of the Father
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, incarnate Word
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, of the new and eternal covenant
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, that spilled to the ground
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, that flowed at the scourging
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, dripping from the thorns
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, shed on the cross
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, the price of our redemption
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, our only claim to pardon
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, our blessing cup
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, in which we are washed
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, torrent of mercy
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, that overcomes evil
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, strength of the martyrs
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, endurance of the saints
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, that makes the barren fruitful
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, protection of the threatened
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, comfort of the weary
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, solace of the mourner
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, hope of the repentant
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, consolation of the dying
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, our peace and refreshment
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, our pledge of life
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, by which we pass to glory
~be our salvation
Blood of Christ, most worthy of honor
~be our salvation

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world
~have mercy on us
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world
~have mercy on us
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world
~grant us your peace
No doubt many readers will be a bit spooked, disturbed and freaked out by a litany meditating upon blood. I understand. But my impulses during Passion Week can be quite Catholic. There is a medieval monk deep in my soul and he likes to make an appearance during Passion Week. To be sure, there are problems with any theology when pushed to the extreme but, crazy as it may seem, I actually like to focus upon the Passion during Passion Week.

And it helps, of course, that I have well-worked out atonement theology that guides me in praying a Passion-related litany. When I think of the blood of Jesus I don't think about how blood satisfies the wrath of God. When I think of the blood of Jesus I think of love being poured out.

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.

After reading the litany of the Precious Blood I picked up my notebook and jotted down a few lines in the candlelight.
the litany of
the Precious Blood of Jesus
I pray
the insistent repetition
like a heartbeat
like a rhythm of breath
as vital and as necessary
reckoning the accumulating weight of sorrow
accounting each drop
collecting the pain
following the etching of crimson on wood, flesh and earth
tracing the rivulets of love

An Easter Meditation: Love Will Decide Everything

An Easter reflection.
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.

--Pedro Arrupe, S.J. 
My prayer for you is that you fall in love this Easter season. This is not a romantic sentiment, for nothing is more practical than love.

And love is the power of resurrection.

As it says in 1 John, the one who loves moves from death to life.

My brothers and sisters, Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. 

A Holy Saturday Meditation: The Cross is the Devil's Mousetrap

On a day, Holy Saturday, when we ponder the creedal confession that Jesus "descended into hell" a meditation from 2012:

St. Augustine once compared the cross of Jesus to a mousetrap--crux muscipula diaboli.

"The cross is the devil's mousetrap."

This idea strikes modern Christians as alien and strange. Largely because we have lost the Christus Victor frame of the early church. For those new to this blog or these ideas, Christus Victor was the dominant view of the atonement for the first thousand years of the church. It is the view that the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus was involved in liberating us from our captivity to sin, death, and the Devil.

Then as now, Christians tend to push past general formulations such as this--Christ rescues us from the Devil--to ask question about mechanisms. We move from "What happened?" to "How did it happen?"

For example, modern Christians subscribing to penal substitutionary atonement often ask about the mechanisms at work in the theory: Why does God demand our death and how exactly does Jesus's death satisfy God's wrath and justice?

In a similar way, the early Christians wondered about the mechanisms of Christus Victor: How exactly did Jesus liberate us from the power of the Devil?

These sorts of questions lead us out onto thin ice. When we turn to stories about mechanisms--hypothetical scenarios about how it all works--we start to get specific about things that the bible only hints at. No doubt, for example, the bible suggests that there was a substitutionary facet to the death of Jesus. Something bad happened to him that should have or could have happened to us. But how, exactly, that substitution "worked" in saving us is hard to say as the bible doesn't get into specific mechanisms. In fact, most biblical scholars would say that substitution isn't really a mechanism, it's a metaphor, and that what we have in the bible are a lot of metaphors without a lot of unpacking of those metaphors.

And yet, not being content with poetry what a lot Christians have done throughout the ages is to fixate on one particular metaphor and then unpack the hell out of it, specifying in great and specific detail how this one particular metaphor might literally and mechanistically "work." These attempts are sort of like reading a great poem and then insisting in your English term paper that this is what the poem literally means. That's fine if you are a 5th grader, but we expect more from adult readers of poetry. And Scripture.

Still, we thirst for mechanisms. We like to get specific. We crave cause and effect stories. And so, in unpacking the Christus Victor metaphors of ransom and liberation in the bible, Augustine posited a mechanism. How did the cross save us from the Devil? The cross, he suggested, is like a mousetrap.

How so?

The idea goes like this as unpacked by various church fathers. From the beginning of Jesus's ministry Satan tries to thwart Jesus. But failing to get Jesus to fall into sin Satan ultimately decides to kill Jesus, to just get rid of the guy. (Recall that Satan enters Judas's heart suggesting that the death of Jesus is Satan's idea and plan.) Satan, we know, eventually succeeds and Jesus is killed. Thus, Satan, who possesses the keys to Death and Hades, now "owns" Jesus and has him locked up in Hades.

Satan has taken the cheese.

However, what Satan doesn't know is that Jesus isn't just another human being. Jesus is God Incarnate. In this Jesus is sort of like a Trojan Horse. So when Satan takes Jesus to Hades--Surprise!--he finds that the enemy has entered the gates. There in hell Jesus takes the keys of Death and Hades from Satan, binds him, and then releases the captives. In Christian theology this is called the Harrowing of Hell.

The mousetrap snaps.

Modern Christians tend to find this whole scenario pretty weird and implausible. But I'm fond of this story. I find it theologically rich and interesting, and it has its advantages over penal substitutionary atonement.

So here on Holy Saturday, as we ponder Jesus being in hell, are two reasons why I like the mousetrap story.

First, I think it is a recurring theme in the New Testament, and in the gospels in particular, that the Kingdom of God is hidden. And why is it hidden? Because it is small, weak, and powerless. The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed--too small for us to see or notice. Like the homeless Lazarus at the rich man's gate. Or the child standing off to the side while the adults are talking. Or the slave who is washing your feet. The Kingdom of God is in all these places. But we can't see it.

Thus it is not surprising that those without the eyes to see it will miss the Kingdom and will fail to appreciate its logic and power. In the words of St. Paul, the cross will always be foolishness to the world. Satan cannot see the power of God in the cross. And most of us can't either.

Second, the mousetrap story suggests that evil, in its exercise of power, will overreach. God, by contrast, by allowing evil to overreach, saves us non-violently, with powerlessness. Being Love God appears weak, allowing Satan to kill, allowing Satan to use power and violence to accomplish the purposes of evil.

On the surface, God appears to be the mouse, the dead thing caught in the trap, the one hanging on the cross. God absorbs violence but overcomes it with love. What looks like a dead mouse to the eyes of the world--Jesus hanging on the cross--is actually the power and Kingdom of God. In the biblical imagination, Jesus is enthroned on the cross.

The dead mouse is actually the mousetrap.

Sometimes I wonder if this is why God doesn't use power in this world. I wonder if this is why God doesn't come down and start knocking heads together to make it all work out right right now. I wonder what that sort of god would look like, a god that started kicking ass and taking names to force the world into compliance. A little like Satan?

But maybe God is powerfully at work in the world, but in the hidden, powerless way Jesus described in his Kingdom parables. Maybe, as St. Paul said, God is using the powerless and weak things of the world to shame and defeat the powerful.

Maybe there are mousetraps all around us.

A Good Friday Meditation: The Isenheim Altarpiece

As a Good Friday meditation some reflections from 2012 about the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Matthias Grünewald some time between 1512 and 1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (then in Germany). This complicated work of multiple panels depicts four biblical scenes--the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Resurrection. The first view of the altarpiece is of the Crucifixion (upper panels) and the Lamentation (lower panels). The Crucifixion panels are by far the most famous aspect of the altarpiece:


The Grünewald Crucifixion is considered to be one of the more painful crucifixions ever painted. Perhaps more horrific crucifixions have been painted since the Isenheim Altarpiece, but relative to the genres of its time (and even today) the Grünewald Crucifixion remains unique in the risks it took. But more than this, the fame of the Isenheim Altarpiece is largely due to the fact that this Crucifixion scene was used in a church. Few churches have a Crucifixion scene this difficult as the focal point of worship.

To come to grips with the Grünewald Crucifixion one needs to see aspects of the painting close up. First, a close up of Jesus' body:


One can see the torn flesh with many pieces of thorns or wood embedded in the body from the scourging. Even more difficult is the sickly green coloration that is employed:


These are difficult images. So difficult that we might ask: How could this horrific picture be the central worship image of a church?

The answer to this question comes from noting that the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as "Saint Anthony's fire." In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony's fire described ergotism like this:

"a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."
The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony's Monastery worshiped--and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined--they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

In a fascinating insight, my colleague Dan at ACU has pointed out to me that when the Crucifixition panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece are opened we notice the following. In the upper panel, upon opening, the right arm of Jesus is separated from his body. Below the Crucifixion scene in the lower panels depicting the Lamentation the same opening separates the legs of Jesus from his body. In short, as the Isenheim Altarpiece is opened Jesus becomes an amputee, losing an arm and his legs. We can only imagine the power of this imagery among a congregation of amputees.

You can see Dan's observation best in the following image. I've highlighted the division in the panels with a bold white line. Again, note how when the panel is opened the right arm (in the upper picture) and the legs (in the lower picture) become detached from the body:


I don't understand a lot about what happened on Good Friday. But what I think about the most is how, in the crucifixion, God participated in the horror of the human condition and stood beside--eternally--the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken. Like the congregation of amputees at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.

Some selections from Jurgen Moltmann's book The Crucified God:
The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with them...in concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman.
...
The church of the crucified was at first, and basically remains, the church of the oppressed and insulted, the poor and wretched, the church of the people.
...
But for the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful... but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly...

Killing Jesus: A Movie for Progressive Christians

I finally got to watch the movie Killing Jesus which debuted on the National Geographic station on Sunday.

I think many progressive Christians would balk at the movie because it is based off of Bill O'Reilly's book (with Martin Dugard) Killing Jesus. But here's my assessment.

I think Killing Jesus just became my all-time favorite Jesus movie.

Here are three quick reasons why progressive Christians would like Killing Jesus:

First, the movie (and the book) attempt to portray the historical aspects of the gospel story. The theological, supernatural and miraculous aspects of the story are downplayed. What this means is that Killing Jesus is about the cultural, historical and political reasons Jesus was killed. Jesus's confrontation with "the principalities and powers" makes Killing Jesus a whole lot more attractive to progressive Christians than a movie like Gibson's The Passion with its emphasis upon penal substitutionary atonement. If you think Jesus was killed because of his conflict with Empire then this is the movie for you.

Second, finally we have a Jesus movie where Jesus isn't a white guy of European descent. In Killing Jesus we have a Jesus that looks like a Palestinian Jew. Haaz Sleiman, the actor who plays Jesus, was born and raised in Lebanon. We finally have a movie where we can say, "I think Jesus might have actually looked like that guy."

Third, progressive Christians like a low Christology. Given its focus upon historical events, as mentioned above, Killing Jesus downplays the supernatural. There are a few miraculous moments in the movie, but there are also "miracles" of a more human sort. Specifically, the scene with Jesus and the lepers is one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen in a Jesus movie. Jesus's healing of the leper isn't supernatural but I think it's miraculous. That scene with the lepers captures everything I was trying to say in Unclean.

And a final note about the low Christology. The most theologically fascinating aspect of Killing Jesus is how Jesus comes to gradually discover his identity and vocation as the movie progresses.

For example, Peter's confession of Jesus is a moment of discovery, for both Peter and Jesus. Who am I?, Jesus asks. Jesus isn't quizzing his disciples, Jesus is asking the question for himself. Who am I? And when Peter confesses, "You are the Messiah," Jesus's suspicions about himself are confirmed. Through Peter's confession Jesus's vocation comes fully into view. Peter's confession is preformative, the confession makes Jesus the Christ.

This aspect alone will make Killing Jesus a theological case study for decades to come. The movie explores some interesting Christological ideas.

Unstoppable Love?

The other day I came across the song "Unstoppable Love" by Jesus Culture. It's definitely a song from the worship genre of contemporary Christian music. So if you don't like this genre you might not like the song, musically speaking.

What struck me about the song, especially given the song's popularity in evangelical circles, is that, well, it's a song that beautifully expresses the theology behind universal reconciliation. Seriously, if you sing this song you believe in universal reconciliation.

From the chorus of "Unstoppable Love":
God, You pursue me, with power and glory
Unstoppable love that never ends
You're unrelenting, with passion and mercy
Unstoppable love that never ends

No sin, no shame, no past, no pain
Can separate me from Your love
No height, no depth, no fear, no death
Can separate me from Your love
God's love is unstoppable, unrelenting and it never ends. Not even death can stop it. I don't know how this song, theologically, avoids being a song about universal reconciliation.

Well, I guess you can sing this song if you endorse the doctrine of election that God's love is "unstoppable" for the very few people whom God elects, the belief that God's love is "unstoppable" if God happens to love you. And if not? Sucks to be you!

But if you believe what 1 Timothy 2.4 says, that God "desires all people to be saved," and that God's love is "unstoppable," I don't know how you avoid the inevitable conclusion of universal reconciliation.

Misery As a Medical Problem?

Over at Slate Anne Skomorowsky has a fascinating article entitled "Don’t Blame It on Depression: That’s not what made the Germanwings co-pilot murder 149 people" about the Germanwings tragedy.

Anne's essay is a meditation on how "depression" has become a catch-all diagnosis for a range of ills that technically don't qualify for the DSM diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder. The reason this is important, as Anne points out, is that if we don't have the diagnosis right then we can't get the prescription right. Specifically, the "disease model" behind the DSM Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis is ill-equipped to capture the psychic pain and relational distress that arise not from brain pathology but from the failures of social support networks.

From Anne's article:
“Depression” [now] seems to signify social ills for which we have no solution, from violent, homicidal behavior, to health illiteracy, to our culture’s neglect of the elderly. Constructing societal deficits as a medical problem does everyone a disservice—because treatment specific for depression won’t work for people who don’t really have depression. People who need social support can be expected to benefit most from programs that provide social support—not from psychiatrists.

The patient with bona fide depression will benefit from treatment with antidepressants or proven psychotherapies. For the lonely great-grandmothers, the junk food addicts, and the violent paraplegics, there has to be another form of intervention. We must turn from the inappropriate use of the disease model of emotional distress and understand that individuals’ psychological pain arises within social systems as well as within their own brains. 
I think that's key. "The psychological pain [that] arises within social systems." By calling this pain "depression" we're often blaming the victim rather than attending to our failure, the failure of our social systems. How we fail each other as friends, family members, neighbors, parishioners, citizens and as fellow travelers on the journey through this vale of tears.

Anne's essay concludes:
Using the word “depression” to describe inexplicable or violent behavior sends two false signals: First, that society has no obligations with regard to our happiness—because misery is a medical problem—and second, that a depressed person is in danger of committing abhorrent acts. Depressed people need help. “Depressed” people do, too—but not the same kind. 
May the church take heed.

Where David Plays the Tambourine

For the last two months on Wednesday nights I wasn't able to attend Freedom Fellowship. (For new readers Freedom is a community associated with my church that worships, feeds and does life together with the poor in our town.) For the last eight weeks Jana and I had been attending a class with our son Aidan at Highland's main building, a class for eighth-graders and their parents.

The class with Aidan was great. But spiritually I was aching to get back to Freedom. Without Freedom I was feeling a bit lost and disconnected from God.

But last week I was back. It was good to stand in the dinner line. Good to break bread again with friends, new and old. Good to be back worshiping with people who dance in the aisles. Good to hear the tambourine. Good to give people a ride home after church.

And about that tambourine. It's David's tambourine. David is an older member at Freedom who is quite a character. Now I'm a man who likes jewelry. I often wear three rings. But David wears a ring on every finger. All ten fingers. And he adds to that bunch of chains around his neck. David is his own man and he has his own style. And as someone who also pushes fashion boundaries--like those overalls I wear--I love David's flair.

Regarding the tambourine, David brings a dove-shaped tambourine to the Freedom services and he loves to use it, banging it on his thigh through the songs. While there are times when I can't tell if it's David or the drummer who is setting the rhythm for us, much to the chagrin of the drummer I expect, David's driving tambourine beat is one of the most distinctive aspects of worship at Freedom. That dove-shaped tambourine ringing out ching-ching-ching-ching...

Before worship it was also good to help clean up after dinner. I like to do the dishes, but Robert wasn't there so someone needed to mop the floor of the dining room. I told Sister Beth I'd do it.

Once the dishes were done we put all the chairs on the tables. Everyone left to go to the worship service. I filled the mop bucket with soap and hot water.

As I mopped the floor alone I heard the praise band begin and the singing start up, warmly pulsing through the walls. Along with that distinctive ching-ching-ching.

I'm writing this because I was so, so happy mopping that floor. I spend a lot of my life being "Dr. Richard Beck." Lecturing in front of large classes. Author. Speaker. Host of a popular blog.

But here's the thing. I always feel this vague ache when I'm in those roles or situations. A hollowness. Not sure what this feeling is exactly, but it's there.

But mopping that floor? The ache dissipates. The hollowness is filled with a relaxation and sweetness. A self-forgetfulness.

And to be clear, I am aware that this is a movement, given my social location, that will be unique to my spiritual development. Given my location, I'm supposed to be stepping away from spotlights, to be the anonymous guy mopping the floor, so that others can have a share of the light.

And here's another thing. I don't experience this as a sacrifice, as form of self-mortification or an act of charity or service. I enjoy mopping the floor. The quietness, the slosh of the water, the swish of the mop, the shiny floor, and the sounds of my brothers and sisters singing and swaying in the aisles. It fills my soul.

I don't think I'll ever drop out of view. I think I'm doing good with what I'm doing, the writing and speaking stuff.

But if I ever do drop out of view I want you to know where you can find me.

I'll be worshiping where addictions are our demons and where the saints smoke after church. I'll be singing where we come in wheelchairs or wearing ankle monitors. I'll be standing in line to eat donated soup with the homeless and the poor.

I'll be worshiping where they raise their hands and dance in the aisles.

I'll be mopping the floor where David plays the tambourine.

--photo of Freedom dining room just before I'm about to mop

See You at the Pepperdine Lectures

If it's not already on your radar screen I hope to see you in a few weeks at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures held on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, CA May 5th-8th. Some of the people speaking at PBL this year are David Kinnaman, Scot McKnight and Nadia Boltz-Weber.

As for me you can catch my act in a few different places. At night I'm co-hosting two evening sessions (Wednesday and Thursday nights) with my friend Mark Love. The Wednesday night session is entitled "Whirlwind in a Thorn Tree: The Music and Theology of Johnny Cash."

On Tuesday morning at 9:30 I'll also be a part of the "Lost in the Right Direction" conversation being hosted by David Todd Harmon from Mana Nutrition.

Finally, my most in-depth session will be on Friday morning as one of the 8:30 In-Depth Tracks. The title of the session is "Angelic Troublemakers: Spiritual Warfare for Progressives and Doubters" which is also the title of my fourth book (due out next year).

You can find out more and register for PBL here. Hope to see you there!

Where No One Stands Alone

Recently I was in Germany teaching some classes for missionaries from the Churches of Christ. It was a wonderful time.

And given that this was a Church of Christ gathering there was a lot of a cappella singing. There is nothing quite like singing hymns with people raised in the Churches of Christ. Song after song the four-part harmony was beautiful.

Anyway, during the singing there was one hymn that I had never heard before. And I was immediately smitten with it.

Yes, I get smitten by gospel hymns.

The song was "Where No One Stands Alone" written by Mosie Lister in 1955. 

The lyrics (which vary a bit from version to version):
Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In darkness as black as the sea.
And my heart was afraid and I cried, "Oh Lord,
Don't hide your face from me."

Hold my hand all the way, every hour every day
From here to the great unknown.
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

Like a king I may live in a palace so tall
With great riches to call my own.
But I don't know a thing in this whole wide world
That's worse than being alone.

Hold my hand all the way, every hour every day
From here to the great unknown.
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone.
I just love the tune and especially the lyrics. I love the vision of a place where no one stands alone.

You can hear versions of the song on YouTube from Alison Krauss and The Cox Family and the Peasall Sisters.

I've been singing and practicing this song so that I can introduce it to the guys out at prison on Monday nights.

All around the house and at work you can hear me singing to myself...

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone...

The Stations of the Cross

I've shared my story before on the blog, about how when I was in the 6th grade I started going to a Catholic middle school and from there went on to a Catholic high school.

Of course, I was a Church of Christ kid attending these Catholic schools and I was amply warned about all things Catholic. So while I was being exposed to Catholicism during these years I was wary and critical of it. I didn't have an open, inquisitive spirit.

Except when it came to one particular thing. The Stations of the Cross.

My first exposure to The Stations of the Cross was eye-opening. I found it profoundly moving. And disconcerting. I remember feeling shaken when the service ended with Jesus dead and laid in the tomb. Ending on that somber note was extraordinarily powerful and profound. I'd never been to a church service that ended in such darkness. And then we did it again. And again. And again. Each Friday of Lent my classmates and I would walk to the sanctuary go through the Stations of the Cross.

That repeated visitation of darkness marked me, deeply and emotionally.

In my experience, there is nothing quite like The Stations of the Cross in evangelicalism or low-church Protestantism. And I think we're the poorer for it. I know a lot of our churches are experimenting with Ash Wednesday and "giving up" something for Lent.

But for me, The Stations of the Cross are the heart and soul of Lenten observance.

They Shall Take Up Serpents: On Snakebite, Fear and Love

My friend Andrew Boone is going to be playing the role of a snake handling preacher in the show Holy Ghosts. To help Andrew prepare I suggested that he read the book Salvation On Sand Mountain, a favorite of mine.

Andrew and I also revisited my blog series about the snake handling churches of Appalachia (see the sidebar).

Of course, the theology of the snake handling churches seems bizarre and esoteric. But in 2012 I tried to summarize some theological insights about how the snake handling churches handle the theological problem of snakebite and how that experience might have broader relevance. The point I argued is that the theological problem of snakebite is a problem that many Christians share, even if they don't handle snakes:

To start, some background.

Sometime around 1910 George Went Hensley walked down from White Oak Mountain in Tennessee convinced, because of his experiences on the mountain, that one of the signs accompanying believers baptized in the Holy Ghost was power over deadly serpents. Since the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 the main sign of Holy Ghost baptism had been speaking in tongues (along with other miraculous signs such as healings). But because of his literal reading Mark 16, Hensley became convinced that handling poisonous serpents should be added to these signs. Mark 16.17-18 from the King James Version of the Bible:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Hensley descended White Oak Mountain, snake in hand, and launched his first snake handling revival meeting in the community of Grasshopper Valley. So powerful were these revivals in their demonstration of the Holy Spirit that snake handling began to spread throughout the Appalachia region and, for a brief time, was endorsed by the Churches of God.

In the early days of the movement the message was triumphalistic. The Holy Ghost would allow "them that believe" to handle serpents and not be bitten. But over time people were bitten. In the face of snakebite the witness shifted to protection from death by snakebite rather than from snakebite itself. But people eventually also died from snakebite. In fact, Hensley himself, having survived 446 snakebites, eventually succumbed in 1955. Hensley died at the age 75 after being bitten on the wrist by a five-foot rattlesnake during a revival in Florida.

According to researchers Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson (see Appendix 1 in their book Them that Believe), from 1921 to 2006 there were 90 documented deaths associated with snake handling worship. That averages out to about one death per year. Which might not seem like a lot, but these are very small and tight knit communities. One death a year is pretty significant.

All this presents the snake handling church with a theological problem. But the problem has less to do with snakebite than it has to do with a victory over the fear of death.

The central theological experience of snake handling is a victory over death. As the people in the church move toward the snakes and reach into the boxes they report a keen awareness of death. As their preachers repeatedly say, "There is death in these boxes." Snake handling is an eschatological act, a demonstration of a victory over death. Death is the real enemy being confronted. The snakes are just manifestations of Death.

The practice of snake handling, then, sits within a Christus Victor frame where a victory over death is at the heart of the soteriological experience.

But the trouble is, people do die in snake handling churches. How is "victory" experienced in those instances? And it's not just about death. Many snakebites are extraordinarily painful and lead to lasting tissue damage. Practitioners survive but they may go through hours and days of excruciating pain. How do they make sense of that pain? More, how do they experience victory over death when they annually witness or hear report of a death within the church? That's a theological puzzle.

In response, the snake handling churches eventually abandoned a triumphalistic stance toward snake handling. It became clear that "the anointing," the prompt of the Holy Ghost to move forward in worship to take up serpents, did not confer immunity to snakebite or snake venom. People got bit, people suffered from the venom and some people died. So the "victory" could no longer be associated with miraculous immunity. So then where was the victory to be found?

Perhaps surprisingly the answer was found in a close reading of Mark 16.17-18. Go up and read that text again. Notice anything?

There is no promise of immunity. All the text says is that them that believe shall "pick up snakes with their hands." That's it. And that, it was concluded, is the sign. The sign is not immunity. The sign is in simply picking up the snakes. Even if you get bit. Even if you die.

The victory here isn't immunity but fearless obedience. The sign to the unbeliever is the act of faith and obedience--the sign is an eschatological fearlessness in the face of Death.

Overall, then, the theological evolution of the snake handling churches is an interesting illustration of how the fear of death is revealed to be our primary spiritual predicament, the predicament described in Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
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.
Salvation is found in being set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Snakebite is a symbol of this fear in the snake handling churches. Thus taking up snakes becomes a "sign" of salvation.

Does that mean we should take up serpents? Well, feel free to bring that up at your next worship committee meeting. Holler back about how that works out.

For my part I think snake handling, though well intended, misses a critical point about fearlessness. This is a point I bring up toward the end of The Slavery of Death. Fearlessness in the face of death isn't an end in itself. Fearlessness is a means to an end and if that end is lost then fearlessness can become pathological and quasi-suicidal.

The problem of fear is how it handicaps our ability to love, how fear inhibits our willingness to open ourselves up to the messiness and risk of welcoming others. The goal isn't simply to display courage, but to display a courage for. A courage for love. "Perfect love casts out fear."

So there are "snakes" out there. And they are everywhere. Everyone is facing something, some "snake," where the fear of death is felt acutely. The world is snake-infested, filled with fears large and small that inhibit our ability to love others.

Thus "taking up" these "snakes" is an act of courageous faith. Loving others sacrificially and fully is an act of eschatological fearlessness in the face of death

It is a sign of them that believe.

Zach Lind on "The Gospel According to Phil Collins"

A couple of months ago I heard Zach Lind, the drummer of Jimmy Eat World, give a presentation about "The Gospel According to Phil Collins." You can hear Zach discuss some of the thoughts he shared during that talk in his podcast with Luke Norsworthy.

I've been thinking about Zach's talk ever since I heard it. The point that sticks with me was Zach's observation about shame and creativity.

To get that point you need a little background about Zach and Phil Collins.

(BTW, the photo here is of Phil Collins, the same photo Zach used in his presentation.)

As a drummer in the indie music scene Zach and the crowd he ran with was fiercely dismissive of pop music. Pop music was "selling out."

And then one day a few years ago Zach was driving down the road with his kids and a Phil Collins song came on. And for some reason the song captured Zach's imagination. That day Zach became the fan of a pop music icon. Phil Collins.

It was incongruous. On the surface, as a pop star, Phil Collins represented everything Zach was artistically opposed to. But the more Zach pushed past his prejudices and began exploring Phil Collins as an artist the more of a fan he became.

But given the music scene Zach was associated with being the fan of a pop star came with a cost. And that cost was social shaming, good natured no doubt, but Zach did get made fun of by peers for his enjoyment and admiration of Phil Collins.

Which brings us to one of the points Zach made during his presentation about "The Gospel According to Phil Collins."

Specifically, Zach said don't let anyone shame you for liking what you like. Especially if liking what you like is associated with your own creative expression, exploration and inspiration.

So if you like Phil Collins, like Phil Collins. Ignore what everyone else thinks about Phil Collins. Like whatever it is that gives you joy. Even if it's pop music.

Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly talks a lot about the relationship between shame-resilience and creativity. Creative expression involves a lot of risk, mainly the risk of being shamed by others. So if you lack shame-resiliency you'll struggle to take the risks you'll need to take to be truly creative. This is the exact point Zach was making.

And the reason Zach's lesson has stuck with me is because I find living as a Christian to be a highly creative and artistic activity. Which means that living as a Christian means cultivating shame-resiliency so that you can take the risks you need to take to creatively and artistically explore the shape of Jesus in our world. In living artistically in how you creatively express the life of Jesus in your own life you'll have to take risks in what you say or do, things that might cause shame or embarrassment.

I'm reminded of the woman who crashes the party to anoint Jesus. What a risk! What shame-resiliency!

And the woman does get shamed.

But Jesus says, "Leave her alone, she has done a beautiful thing."

A beautiful thing. Not a good thing or a religious thing. A beautiful thing. A creative, artistic thing.

That woman took a risk, faced the shame and did something that was creative and beautiful.

That's "The Gospel According to Phil Collins" according to Zach.

Taking the risk to do the beautiful thing. Taking the risks to live a beautiful life.

Unpublished: The Small Politics of the Church

If you read a lot of Anabaptist theology you know that a key insight regarding the social and political witness of church is this:
The social and political witness of the church is simply being the church.
That's it. The church should be the church. That's Christian political engagement, being the church. Or, at the very least, having political activism flowing out of the life of the local church.

This imperative distinguishes the church from conservative and liberal/progressive Christian politics, which can be tempted by theocratic impulses and, thus, contaminated by Constantinianism and the temptations of Empire.

Being the church--really being the the church--is a political intervention, the church is a counter-politics to the politics of the State. Which means that to think politically in the church is to think locally, focusing on addressing our social and moral ills within the common life of the local congregation.

For example, the goal of the local church is to "have no needy person among you" (Acts 4.34). We are to address poverty locally in our communal sphere of influence, among ourselves. To have no needy person among us.

Relatedly, we also deal with issues of work locally. Paul says that "the one who doesn't work shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3.10). Importantly, that statement has nothing to do with the welfare state and entitlements. Paul is speaking to a local, congregational, and relational issue. The conversation about work is between people who know and love each other.

For example, at Freedom Fellowship we serve a weekly meal. And sometimes you hand a mop to someone and say, "Hey man, it's your turn to clean up."

The point here is that the Christian approach to poverty and work is inherently personal, relational and local. Christians practice a "small politics." These aren't laws being passed by the government but a common life being negotiated among friends.

The State is no substitute for the church. The call, then, isn't to give up the church for political activism but to invest more radically in becoming the church.

I'm put in mind of a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I'd like to tweak:
"The church has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."
--from an unpublished post contrasting the small, relational politics of the church with the political engagement found among evangelical and progressive Christians

Brian Zahnd on Praying Well

Many of you know Brian Zahnd, author of the recent book Farewell to Mars. Recently Brian did a second podcast with my friend Luke Norsworthy on the subject of prayer. (The first twenty minutes is mainly a discussion of the impact of the work of NT Wright, the part on prayer picks up at the twenty-minute mark.)

I struggled with prayer, well, for most of my life. Mainly because I don't think I ever really learned to pray, not in a way that made sense or resonated with me. But for the past few years I've figured out some stuff about prayer. I've prayed every day, often a couple times a day, for a few years now. And the lessons I've learned are many of the ones Brian discusses. Especially using a "liturgy that will form us in prayer" and the church "devoting itself to the prayers." Devoting not to prayer, but to the prayers.

If you struggle with prayer give the podcast a listen.

The Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is one of the most beautiful penitential prayers in the bible but a lot of Protestants are unaware of it as it is a part of the Apocrypha.

2 Kings and 2 Chronicles describe Manasseh as one of the most idolatrous of the kings. Because of this Manasseh is taken captive by the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 33.11-13). There in Babylon Manasseh prays:
2 Chronicles 33:18-19
The other events of Manasseh’s reign, including his prayer to his God and the words the seers spoke to him in the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, are written in the annals of the kings of Israel. His prayer and how God was moved by his entreaty, as well as all his sins and unfaithfulness, and the sites where he built high places and set up Asherah poles and idols before he humbled himself—all these are written in the records of the seers.
2 Chronicles doesn't give the words of the prayer, mentioning only that the prayer is recorded in "record of the seers."

The words of the prayer are contained, however, in the Apocrypha. The Prayer of Manasseh (NRSV):
Prayer of Manasseh

Ascription of Praise

O Lord Almighty,
God of our ancestors,
of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and of their righteous offspring;
you who made heaven and earth
with all their order;
who shackled the sea by your word of command,
who confined the deep
and sealed it with your terrible and glorious name;
at whom all things shudder,
and tremble before your power,
for your glorious splendor cannot be borne,
and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable;
yet immeasurable and unsearchable
is your promised mercy,
for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering.
O Lord, according to your great goodness
you have promised repentance and forgiveness
to those who have sinned against you,
and in the multitude of your mercies
you have appointed repentance for sinners,
so that they may be saved.
Therefore you, O Lord, God of the righteous,
have not appointed repentance for the righteous,
for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you,
but you have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner.

Confession of Sins

For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven
because of the multitude of my iniquities.
I am weighted down with many an iron fetter,
so that I am rejected because of my sins,
and I have no relief;
for I have provoked your wrath
and have done what is evil in your sight,
setting up abominations and multiplying offenses.

Supplication for Pardon

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me forever or store up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent,
and in me you will manifest your goodness;
for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy,
and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.
For all the host of heaven sings your praise,
and yours is the glory forever.
Amen.
The words of this prayer are used by both Catholics and the Orthodox in their penitential confessions. The prayer is also used in the Book of Common Prayer--Canticle 14 in the Daily Office--as "A Song of Penitence" described there as being "especially suitable for Lent and on other penitential occasions."

This is a prayer I've used many times.

The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: Scrupulosity

After my posts from last week I continue to have a lot of conversations about how purity psychology affects various impulses within progressive Christianity. My original post is here which has a link at the bottom to some follow-up reflections.

In light of the analyses I shared in those posts, a very interesting connection with Catholic moral theology was pointed out to me yesterday by Leah Libresco who blogs at "Unequally Yoked" for the Patheos Catholic channel.

Specifically, Leah pointed out some similarities between my descriptions of the purity psychology at work among progressive Christians and the Catholic notion of scrupulosity.

According to Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity involves persistent worries about being in a state of sin. These worries can be due to a lot of things, from being extraordinarily conscientious to having a very sensitive or tender conscience to something that is more pathological (like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder).

Psychologically speaking, I think Leah is right in connecting scrupulosity to intrusive thoughts and even to what the Eastern Orthodox call logismoi, evil or tempting thoughts. For the Orthodox logismoi are intrusive mental temptations such as lust and greed and pride. In scrupulosity the intrusive thoughts are persistent and nagging worries that we've done something wrong.

In Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity has generally been connected to worries about committing a mortal sin and falling out of a state of grace. Mortal sins are, generally speaking, severe or chronic failures of piety.

But what is interesting for our purposes is how Leah has observed scrupulosity at work in issues related to altruism. That is to say, among compassionate Catholics scrupulosity can manifest in worries about how to do the right or best things for others. Paralleling my analysis, Leah traces this wanting-to-do-good scrupulosity to a purity psychology.

In her post "Purity, Anxiety and Effective Altruism" Leah focuses on the worries many of us feel about making sure the monies we send to charities are being used effectively and with minimal waste. We want our money, most if not all of our money, to get into the hands of those who need it. But when we start evaluating the effectiveness of charities and how best to use our money in alleviating suffering worldwide we can fall down a rabbit-hole. In wanting to do the right thing and the best thing we can encounter, to use Leah's words, "analysis paralysis." Regarding all these worries about trying to do the right thing Leah writes:
...I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why...
Taking a cue from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Leah traces this altruism-related scrupulosity to purity psychology: "My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a 'purity' decision...". Wanting to optimize our altruism, to make it more effective, can, in Leah's words, "trigger scrupulosity."

What is interesting here is how Leah is connecting scrupulosity less with a fear of doing a bad thing (committing a mortal sin) than with the keen desire to do a good thing, the desire to reduce suffering in the world. And as the scope of this scrupulosity expands from domain to domain, to eventually inhabit every facet of existence, we begin converging upon the "everything is problematic" mindset and a sort of moral paralysis sets in.

Of course, the objections here are now familiar. While scrupulosity is definitely an unpleasant neurotic experience, scrupulosity is still focusing upon the actions of individuals and is still centering feelings, generally the feelings of privileged people.

But the answer here wouldn't be for those privileged people to have less scruples or to check their scruples or de-center their scruples. Without scruples the privileged people wouldn't really care or worry about being privileged. Without scruples you'd never check your privilege.

So the scruples are necessary, vital even. The trick, it seems, is having those scruples--and in spades--but rejecting "the will to purity" that curdles into scrupulosity.

Leaving Selma

Having visited Selma last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights march lots of friends have asked us "How was it?"

As I shared last week, our family had a wonderful time. The whole experience was powerful and moving. But we also left Selma with a lot of complex feelings.


We wanted to be in Selma. We wanted to bring our two sons. But we also didn't want to become self-congratulatory or pat ourselves on the back for making some big statement about race relations. Selma was a historical gathering and commemoration. An event. And as an event it was amazing and impactful. We'll carry this day forward in our hearts.

But attending an event is a far cry from change.


We were also haunted by other thoughts.

As I shared last week, for most of the morning before the march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge we were gathered out in front of Brown Chapel where many visiting dignitaries, among them Attorney General Eric Holder, were speaking during the Sunday morning service. We were a part of a huge crowd that filled the neighborhood around Brown Chapel, watching the service on a large Jumbotron set up on the street.

As I stood there watching the dignitaries arrive and then speak my eyes looked up at the spires of the chapel. The white paint was flaking off. Slats were broken and birds had set up a nest. This chapel, so significant in Civil Rights history and on this Sunday the subject of worldwide media attention, was in a state of disrepair.

We also began to look around the neighborhood. We were with a huge crowd standing across the street from the Chapel. Across the street were low-income housing apartments. Our huge crowd was basically standing in their front yard. Laundry was hanging on lines. Many of the residents sat out on their concrete stoops, looking at the crowd who was straining to catch a glimpse of famous people being escorted by Secret Service agents from black SUVs or being interviewed under lights in front of TV cameras.

As the time passed Jana and I started looking less and less at the chapel and more and more at the neighborhood.


Many hours later, after having crossed the bridge, we walked back through the neighborhood toward the chapel where our car was parked. The crowds were gone. People were leaving and heading back home.

And what we noticed was the trash. All the trash the crowds had dropped and left behind.

We also looked more closely at the poverty of the neighborhood, passing abandoned house after abandoned house scarred with broken windows.


For two days--Saturday when the President visited and the march on Sunday--the world was focused on Selma. But now the crowds were leaving Selma, us among them.

Sunday had been a glorious, historic day. But what would Selma look like on Monday morning?

Empty streets filled with trash.

And that realization struck us hard as it seemed emblematic of how we often approach the struggle for justice. Crowds showing up. Voices raised in protest. Banners waved. Outrage and solidarity expressed.

And then it's Monday morning in Selma. Nothing has changed except the trash the crowds have left in the street.

Leaving Selma both Jana and I were working hard to process our thoughts and feelings. We loved Sunday in Selma, but we kept thinking about Selma on Monday morning.

To help herself process her own feelings and share them with the boys Jana jotted down a prayer in the car as we drove back to Abilene. When she had finished she read her prayer to Brenden and Aidan. I asked her permission if I could share the words she shared with her sons. Jana doesn't fancy herself a poet. I told her that's not important, it's more a stream of consciousness than a poem. Her words captured some of our feelings upon leaving Selma.
"Leaving Selma" by Jana Beck

We swept in on our white horses armed with placards and iPhones.
The world showed up in your yard.
Stood next to your laundry drying on the line.
The same line it hangs on today.
Only there's a lot more garbage on the ground now.
Hopefully we left behind more than our trash.
Perhaps we left you with the hope that thousands still care, still remember, still see?
Are you the sparrow?
The one His eye is on?
The world peaked through your window yesterday.
We sat on your porch.
Is it quiet this morning?
Do you feel like a sparrow now?
God saw you before we came.
He sees you today.
Maybe we caught a glimpse of what God sees while you let us lean our weary backs on your gate.
He still sees you.
But do we?
We drive back home in our shiny cars.
Are you still sitting on your cracked front steps watching your laundry slowly dry?
The world remembers Selma from fifty years ago.
The courage, the bravery, the fear, the hope.
I remember the Selma from yesterday.
The broken window panes, abandoned houses, boarded up doors and windows.
Bird's nests filling the broken shutters of chapel spires.

Lord, give me you eyes.
Show me the sparrows.
And let me leave hope in their front yards and not just empty water bottles and trampled flyers.
Put my eyes on the sparrow.

Am I leaving Selma with new eyes?
Where are the sparrows?
There are so many.

And yet you care for them all.