Unpublished: Being Church of Christ

I believe in the locally autonomous congregation, where the gathered believers bind and loose in their own unique contexts.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers.

I believe that preachers are not pastors but evangelists and that being an evangelist doesn't automatically make you a pastor.

Theologically, I believe that a capella congregational singing is the purest form of worship there is.

I believe the reason we gather on the Lord's Day is to partake of the Lord's Supper.

I believe that the proper response to the gospel proclamation is to be buried with Christ in baptism by immersion.

I don't confess any creed but the Bible alone and that we must daily search the Scriptures reasoning together in our local congregations.

I believe we should try to pattern our common lives together after the example of the church as revealed in the book of Acts and the Epistles.

I believe in the unity of the body of Christ, that we should claim to be Christians only but not the only Christians.

--from a draft of an unpublished list I was working with trying to articulate why I am affiliated with the Churches of Christ

You

It goes without saying that Psalm 23 is the most famous psalm. Perhaps the most famous text in the whole of the bible.

What is the source of its appeal?

No doubt it is due to the imagery of the loving shepherd caring for the sheep. But there is also a subtle shift in the poem that enhances its emotional intimacy and potency. But it's a subtle shift. Can you see it?
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.
The poet begins by addressing a human audience and referring to God in the third person:
The Lord...
He makes me...
He leads me...
He restores my soul.
The imagery is powerful and rich but it's held at a distance. Describing another time and place and a person who is not present.

And then, suddenly but subtly, so subtly that you don't really notice it, the focus shifts away from a human audience to address God directly. "He" shifts to "you."
You are with me...
Your rod...
Your staff...
You prepare...
You anoint...
It's a shift--the change from "he" to "you"--that we hardly consciously register. But the emotional effect is one of deepening intimacy. The poem starts with God held at a distance and then, almost imperceptibility, it becomes a very personal, intimate, direct and face-to-face engagement.

You.

I Don't Believe in Universalism

Calm down, let me explain.

I would like to explain why I don't believe in universalism.

Actually, the reason is pretty simple.

I don't like -isms.

I don't believe in -isms.

-Isms are ideological systems and I struggle with those. Especially metaphysical systems.

In the case of "universalism" I struggle with the metaphysical specificity you have to articulate about how God--given all the things that have to get juggled, from human sin, free will, evil, God's justice, God's holiness, hell, the biblical text, the atonement, time, sanctification vs. justification and on and on and on--will reconcile all things in Christ. If believing in universal reconciliation means believing in a specific theological vision--an -ism--that explains how all this stuff is going to get worked out then, well, I'm out. I don't believe in that.

To be clear, I love thinking about and creating those theological systems, how this or that issue or tension or biblical text "fits together" in a vision of universal reconciliation. I think such system building and system testing is a part of what it means to say that that faith is seeking understanding. It also helps us compare and contrast the reasonableness and coherence of different systems.

In short, I think creating these systems, these theological -isms, is both valuable and important. But I don't believe in these systems. The systems are tools and hypotheses. That is all.

Consider universalism. There isn't a single view--universalism. There are all kinds of views. There are universalisms. I don't believe in universalism because I can't tell you which of all these different views is the right view. I have my opinions of course, but I'm not particularly interested in determining in any final way which system is the "correct" system. I don't know how you could even determine such a thing.

So what do I believe in?

I believe God is love. That is what I believe. "God is love" is axiomatic to my thinking. A theological non-negotiable.

And what I've noticed is that when you are truly non-negotiable on this point and when you try to express God's love eschatologically what you end up articulating is something that earns the label "universalism."

If someone asks me about specifics about how this or that is going to work out or fit together in the end I'll start talking about theories, ideas and systems showing how all those things might be reconciled. For example, I have a system about how to reconcile God's wrath and eternal punishment with my axiomatic conviction that God is love. That system would earn the label "universalism." But I'm not sure my system is right. God might work it out some other way. In fact, I'm pretty sure God will work it out in some other way.

So I don't believe in the -ism. I believe that God is love and I refuse to negotiate on that point. That's about it. And while there are lots of theories about how God's love is expressed eschatologically I can't tell you which of those is right or wrong. So I hold the -isms very, very lightly.

Like I said, I don't believe in universalism.

But I do I believe that all things will be reconciled to God in Christ.

I believe that God is love.

Bonhoeffer and the Negro Spiritual

The most influential contribution made by the Negro to American Christianity lies in the "Negro Spirituals," in which the distress and delivery of the people of Israel ("Go down, Moses . . ."), the misery and consolation of the human heart ("Nobody knows the trouble I've seen"), and the love of the Redeemer and longing for the kingdom of heaven ("Swing low, sweet chariot . . .") find moving expression. Every white American knows, sings and loves these songs. It is barely understandable that great Negro singers can sing these songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination.

One may also say that nowhere is revival preaching still so vigorous and so widespread as among the Negroes, that here the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the savior of the sinner, is really preached and accepted with great welcome and visible emotion.

--Dietrich  Bonhoeffer

///

I still believe that the spiritual songs of the southern Negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America.

--Dietrich  Bonhoeffer

///

During the year he lived in the United States (1930) Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was there at Abyssinian Baptist where Bonhoeffer encountered the gospel and spiritual songs of African-American tradition. Before leaving the US Bonhoeffer bought a crate of albums of African-American spirituals.

This collection became one of Bonhoeffer's most prized possessions and featured prominently in his pastoral ministry. Bonhoeffer played this music to poor working-class German children in his confirmation class, to his youth group in London, to his college students in Berlin and to the seminarians at Finkenwalde.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
(picture above of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem)

Unpublished: Addicted to Stories

In my limited experience in writing books and speaking and in my much greater experience in reading best-selling Christian books and listening to popular Christian speakers I've noticed something.

Stories sell.

If you are, say, a pastor or a church planter and you want to write a best-selling book or be a popular speaker you need to have a lot of good stories. Funny stories of your mishaps. Stories where you learn something important in an unexpected way or from an unlikely teacher. Stories that move people emotionally.

And maybe a person doesn't set out to be an author or a speaker. But something huge happens to them. Suddenly, they have this huge, dramatic story to tell. So a book deal comes along with the associated speaking tour.

None of this is bad, but our addiction to stories can be problematic. Emotionally and intellectually.

Emotionally, a captivating story can move you deeply. How many of us have listened to a speaker who just ripped our guts out with a powerful story? The seduction here is that by evoking strong emotions a story can make us feel, temporarily, like we've been changed. But we haven't. We've felt something deeply, but our habits haven't changed. Odds are, 48 hours after hearing that gut wrenching story, we are back to our old self.

Intellectually, stories can make you feel like you've learned something when you haven't. You might read, say, a church growth book. In the book you'll hear all sorts of stories about how this church went from ten members to ten-thousand. It's all very inspirational and motivational, all those stories, but when you put the book down can those stories be replicated in your own experience? Same goes for business and parenting books. Lots of stories of successes and failures, but little of it adds up to something concrete you can use in your own life. You're a different sort of person in different circumstances. Those stories can't be or won't be your stories. So after reading all those stories you're still standing at Square One.

In short, because stories give us an emotional or intellectual buzz I think we can become addicted to stories. Addicted to the buzz we find ourselves moving from story to story looking for the next mind-blowing or tear-inducing tale. And the Christian publishing and speaking industries are geared to keep these stories coming, to keep us buying and consuming more and more stories.

But in the face of all this consumption the question presents itself: How do we move from story consumption to spiritual formation, behavioral change and habit formation?

--from an unpublished post ruminating on how feeling moved and inspired by a good story so rarely translates into the hard sacrificial drudgery of Christian discipleship

Expanding the Moral Circle

A couple of years ago it was my pleasure to spend time with North Point Community Church, recording some material about the psychology of hospitality for use in their training of group leaders. North Point recently put some of this material online at their blog supporting their group leaders.

If you've heard me speak on this subject before you'll remember me talking about the expansion of the moral circle, using an example I share with my students about how we treat servers in restaurants.

And let me give a shout out to all my friends at North Point. It was great spending time with you. I remember the gummy worm and dirt cupcakes quite fondly! (When you speak about the psychology of disgust this is the sort of snack that shows up.)


Richard Beck: The Moral Circle from NPM GroupLeaders on Vimeo.

Litany of Penitence

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ.
We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Newsworthy with Norsworthy: The Haircut Episode (and a Bit of Ash Wednesday)

To get ready for Ash Wednesday tomorrow join me over at Luke Norsworthy's site for another podcast on Newsworthy with Norworthy where we discuss, in Luke's words, "the C21 conference, gratitude. singing in a maximum security prison, Dieter Zander, crying more, turning upon celebrities, hero worship, Ash Wednesday, stacking time, the Laundromat post and why he cut his hair."

"A Bid For the Attention of Strangers": Self-Esteem Through Shaming

If you get a chance go read Jon Ronson's NYT article (H/T Daniel Jonce Evans) "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life." I was particularly struck by some of the final lines of the article regarding the source of social media shaming:

"Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval...a bid for the attention of strangers."

Our self-concept is rooted in a desire for approval, an approval we often get by shaming the right people with the right people. In shaming others we stand with the crowd and, thus, gain the approval of the crowd.

As I've written about before, because self-esteem is inherently an act of social evaluation we achieve our sense of self-worth through acts of violence. We build up our self-worth by tearing down the worth of others.

This is one of the things I've learned from writers like James Alison and Rene Girard, how rivalry is intimately associated with our self-concept. Our sense of self-worth is created and supported by some contrast and opposition to others, generally a moral contrast. I feel good about myself because I am better than others. More virtuous. More righteous. More authentic. More humane. Less hoodwinked. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.

From sunrise to sunset every thought I have about myself is implicated in acts of comparison, judgement, and evaluation of others, allowing me to create a sense of self via contrast/opposition with others and then filling that self with feelings of significance and worthiness. 

And the toxicity of social media is that it harnesses and fuels these tendencies to shame others in a bid for the attention and approval of strangers.

Self-esteem is a violent flame waiting to burn others. Social media is the accelerant, an incendiary device where shame is thrown like a bomb at the right people and with the right people.

A New Apologetics

When I sent my publisher a book summary for the back cover of The Authenticity of Faith I characterized the book as providing a "new apologetics."

My publisher wondered if that description was too bold or audacious. Was I really providing a "new" apologetics?

I said it was. The Authenticity of Faith really was a new sort of apologetics. Nothing like this book had ever been published.

Sigmund Freud (along with many others before and since) claimed that religious faith was the result of wishful thinking, a craving for consolation and solace. That assessment has proved to be very potent. Especially as honest people know there is evidence backing up the claim.

As we say, there are no atheists in foxholes. And isn't life just one big foxhole?

But what can theologians, philosophers or biblical scholars--specialists in what I call "classical apologetics"--say about any of this?

Nothing really. Freud's claim isn't biblical, historical, theological or philosophical. It's an empirical claim about human psychology, about the motivations behind religious belief.

Which means that if you want to assess or evaluate Freud's claim you can't do it from the theologian's armchair or the philosopher's lectern. To get directly at the question you're going to have put Freud's claim to the test, to assess it empirically.

Is religious belief motivated by wishful thinking? Empirically speaking, either it is or it isn't.

Given that the issue regards human motivation, this seems to be a question only psychologists can address.

And if you haven't read the book, what is the take home point?

Based upon some of my own research, I conclude that Freud wasn't wholly wrong. Religious persons have to take Freud seriously. The motivations Freud describes do exist. Faith is often motivated by a need for existential consolation, and this motivational configuration has a lot of pernicious outcomes. So beware. And be aware.

That's a lesson I share with my students. "I know you want to blow Freud off, but you can't. He's making an important observation, an observation a thoughtful religious person will take seriously."

But Freud's mistake, I go on to say, was his "one size fits all" approach, his insistence on cramming the whole of religious experience into this narrow motivational box. Consequently, a better approach in describing religious motivation is the one used by William James: there are varieties of religious experiences and motivations.

And if that's the case, if there are religious varieties, how could you tell the difference?

This, it seems to me, is the crucial, diagnostic question. For individual believers and for faith communities.

And the book, which I hope you'd read, tries describe a way to answer that question.

Eucharistic Identity

In my book The Slavery of Death I discuss, borrowing from Arthur McGill and David Kelsey, how an eccentric identity can emancipate us from our slavery to the fear of death, a fear which functions as the power of the devil in our lives (Hebrews 2.14-15).

The key idea behind an eccentric identity is coming to receive your life (and the things in your life) as gift. The experience of gift, cultivated through the practices of doxological gratitude, reduces both our basic and neurotic experiences of anxiety and scarcity, our worries about having enough (basic anxiety) and being enough (neurotic anxiety).

So gratitude sits at the heart of the eccentric identity.

And as I've pondered the central role of gratitude in our Christian identity I've wondered, post-publication, if I shouldn't have chosen another word to describe this sort of identity.

Specifically, while I really like the label "eccentric identity" I'm more and more taken with describing all this as being a "Eucharistic identity."

Eucharist, we know, comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία (eucharistia) which means "thanksgiving."

Which, it seems to me, makes Eucharistic a wonderful word to describe an identity that is to be founded upon gratitude and gift.

As Christians we are to cultivate a Eucharistic identity.

"Let My People Go!": On Worship, Work and Laziness

I was reading the book of Exodus and came to the first confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

And I was surprised by something.

I was expecting, because we all know this story, to find Moses walking up to Pharaoh and saying "Let my people go!"

But that's not quite what you find in the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh as recounted in Exodus 5. What you get is this:
Exodus 5.1
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Yes, we get the demand "Let my people go." But it's not a demand to leave Egypt. It's a demand for liberation and freedom to worship.

The demand is this: "Let my people go worship."

Pharaoh, we know, refuses and makes the Israelites work harder. They have to continue making bricks and make the same quotas but they have to gather their own straw.

All overworked people know the refrain.

More bricks, less straw.

And what's interesting to note in Pharaoh's reaction is that he assumes that a request for worship is symptomatic of laziness:
Exodus 5.8, 17-18
[Pharaoh said to the Israelite overseers:] "Require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’"

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
What I find interesting in all this is how the worship of God is perceived to interrupt the work and quotas demanded by Pharaoh. The tension, at least here in the beginning of Exodus, isn't the clash between slavery and liberation but the clash between worship and work.

I don't know about you, but that conflict seems extraordinarily relevant to our time and place.

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for more and more work?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for greater and greater productivity?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the quotas demanded by the Pharaohs of capitalism?

And will not the worship of God in our time and place be ultimately perceived as laziness?

"Don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy. That is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'"

Instead of a Coffee Shop How About a Laundromat?

Many years ago my church was pondering how to create a "third space" in our neighborhood. A third space is a place where people can mix on a regular basis, a place that is relaxed and non-threatening. A lot of people feel intimidated walking into a church. A third space, it was hoped, would be a non-religious place where relationships with neighbors could be formed.

A lot of churches have created third spaces by starting up a coffee shop. That's a great idea, but coffee shops tend to be a part of affluent White culture. The working poor don't hang out in coffee shops with their Mac laptops. Nor can they afford $4 specialty drinks.

So a coffee shop isn't going to be frequented by the working poor--White, Black or Hispanic--in our neighborhood. To be sure, a cool coffee shop would attract White hipsters, but that's not the demographic of our church neighborhood. 

So what would be a good third space for a poor neighborhood like the one surrounding our church? A place that would serve the neighborhood but could also be a place where people would spend time talking and forming relationships?

My idea has always been for our church to run laundromat.

The poor and working poor don't have washing and drying machines. Consequently, it's a real, real hassle to get clothing washed. What middle and upper class people seriously take for granted is taking a few steps to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine.

Can you imagine the hassle and the disruption to your day if you had to drive--or, more likely, walk or take a bus--to a laundromat? To say nothing of the lost time standing around attending your clothing as it washes and dries?

And then there's the money to run the machines, money you might need for dinner...

But here's the third space upside. Do you know what people do as they sit around waiting for their clothing to wash and dry?

They talk. As neighbors.

The laundromat is a local, neighborhood third space.

The acute need in my town for well-run, attended and inexpensive laundromats was highlighted this weekend for my wife. Wanting to catch up on the laundry--mostly huge stacks from two teenage boys--Jana loaded up the car and drove a few blocks to a laundromat in our neighborhood (which is very close to our church).

And what Jana experienced at that laundromat profoundly affected and disturbed her.

Jana saw refugee families bring in wet clothes that had been washed in the bathtub. Why? Because they could only afford to dry them.

Jana saw people break down in tears after, having walked many, many blocks with their loads of laundry, they found all the washing machines full. Of the twenty washing machines in the laundromat only nine of them worked. Of the twenty dryers only seven worked.

People began to cry when they found out that the change machine didn't have any quarters.

Jana watched Hispanic patrons grow frustrated and confused because they couldn't read the English instructions on the washing machines.

The place was filthy and disgusting. Jana called the house and we brought her some supplies. A broom to sweep the floors. Windex and paper towels to clean out the washing and drying machines. As many quarters as we could find so that she could make change for customers.

While Jana cleaned up the place the patrons of the laundromat--White, Black and Hispanic--shared that this laundromat was actually one of the better laundromats in town! Many people arrived at the laundromat after having visited one or two others in town in much worse condition.

Our town, if the reports of these customers were accurate, lacks well-run and clean laundromats. The working poor in our town are basically screwed if they want to wash their clothes.

All this, as Jana recounted her experience to me, reminded me about our church wanting to create a neighborhood third space. Listen, I love coffee shops, by what about churches running laundromats in their towns?

Laundromats are local, neighborhood third spaces, places where relationships can be formed. Plus, laundromats meet a need in a way a Carmel Macchiato cannot.

To say nothing of the blessing it would be to hand out free quarters or provide an attendant so that errands could be run while clothing was being cleaned or dried. Perfect ministry opportunities for church members wanting to serve and get to know neighbors.

So, that's my third space suggestion.

Churches, I like the coffee shops.

But how about a laundromat?

[Pictures taken by Jana at the laundromat 1.8 miles from our church.]

Thank You

Andrew Sullivan's The Dish has been my favorite blog. I read The Dish every day. I especially loved Sundays with The Dish when the content, much of it curated by Matthew Sitman, turned toward the religious.

So it was a sad day today when The Dish came to an end, Andrew and his team feeling it time to move on to other projects and endeavors. It felt like losing a dear friend. I'll miss The Dish. And I'll always cherish the fact that The Dish linked to a couple of my posts.

As I pondered my emotional connection with The Dish and Andrew Sullivan, someone I only know through his blog, I began to think about you, the readers of this blog. Over the years I've received so many emails, letters, comments and gifts from you sharing with me and thanking me about how much this blog has meant to you, how it has saved your faith, how it carried you through a dark place. I imagine that the connection you've felt with me is similar to the connection I felt for Andrew Sullivan.

So, similar to what Andrew did much of this week wrapping up The Dish, I want to take a moment to share with you how important you, as readers, have been to me. I might have saved many of you, but you have saved me as well.

When I started this blog back in 2006 I was in a pretty lonely place. Yes, I had friends but my thoughts and struggles and beliefs about Christianity were so unique and peculiar I never had found anyone who deeply understood where I was coming from. I felt alone.

But I also felt some of the things I was thinking and some of the conclusions I had reached about the faith could be of help to others in the church. But I had no outlets to see if that was the case. I was, and remain, a psychology professor who mostly taught statistics. Why would anyone give a book contract to a statistics teacher wanting to write about theology? Why would anyone invite a statistics teacher to preach or speak?

In my faith tradition the preachers were the ones with a voice. The preachers wrote the books. The preachers were the ones who were invited to speak to large audiences. Me? I had lots of thoughts about what the preachers were talking and writing about. But I spent my days in classrooms talking about the standard deviation and the correlation coefficient. No one cared about my theological musings. Why would they? I wasn't qualified to have a theological or biblical opinion.

And then I started a blog.

Suddenly, I didn't need to score a book contract. I didn't have to wait for the speaking invitation. I could talk to the church directly through the Internet. And amazing things happened.

Before the blog I would be awed when I saw preachers getting to speak in front of thousands. There was so much I wanted to say to the church, so much I wanted to share. But who was ever going to give me, an unknown statistics teacher, that chance? 

Thousands of people now read this blog every day. Many millions of people have visited this blog. I can't get my head around that. Millions. I don't need a pulpit or a publisher. I don't need a speaking invitation or a book contract. I have this blog. I have millions. I have you.

I'm sharing this not to share a success story of how a lonely, marginalized voice found its way around the gatekeepers that controlled and curated the conversation of a particular faith tradition. I'm sharing this story because when I found you and when you found me all my alienation and loneliness ended. Here on the Internet I had found my people. We were sprinkled across a hundred different faith traditions. We were lonely, minority voices from a thousand different churches.

And we found each other.

We struggled with the same questions and resonated with the same answers. Before we had been alone. We were the crazy heretic sitting in the back of the Sunday School class or stewing through the sermon. But here we felt known and understood. Here we felt normal.

So thank you. Thank you finding me. Thank you for reading. Thank you for encouraging me. You have saved me. Since 2006 I've felt normal. And known. And loved.

I hope I make you feel the same.

Bible Study

As someone who grew up in and is a member of the Churches of Christ I just love bible study. I love gathering a bunch of translations, stacking up some commentaries and consulting a concordance. Sure, a lot of this you can do online now. And I have my laptop open as well. But I'm still old school. I'm addicted to the feel of being buried under a stack of books.

The other day when Jana called me to dinner I was in our bedroom on our bed getting ready for a lesson out at the prison. After eating I came back to finish up and snapped this picture:


If a picture is worth a thousand words then this picture tells you a lot about me and my religious heritage. I love bible study.

Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils

In the estimation of many who attended C21 two weeks ago in Phoenix the presentation of Dieter Zander was the most profound and impactful. The gospel story in microcosm.

Dieter had been at the top of the Christian world, a popular pastor and music minister at Willow Creek who spoke and performed in front of thousands.

But a stroke crippled Dieter's right hand, ending his ability to play the piano, along with aphasia, ending his ability to speak and preach.

The stroke ended Dieter's life as a mega-church pastor.

Dieter now works as a janitor at Trader Joe's.

In its "downward" trajectory--from Christian celebrity to janitor--Dieter's story seems sad and tragic. But only if you tell the story from the outside using worldly standards of success.

Because inside the story Dieter been on a profound and revolutionary spiritual journey. It has been journey into service, love and joy. A journey into the very heart of God.

To help us get on the inside of this story, LaDonna Witmer put Dieter's words to verse as a part of Dieter's video "Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils." This video is, quite simply, one of the most spiritual things I have ever seen.

The Forgotten Work of Mercy

Two weeks ago Jana and I were deeply blessed to share breakfast with Danny and Abby Cortez. Many readers will need no introduction to Danny. Danny is the pastor of New Heart Community Church which made news last year when they announced that they would become a Third Way church regarding the acceptance of LGBT persons. The church experienced expulsion from the Southern Baptist Convention as a result.

But this wasn't simply a church drama. For years Danny had been on a theological journey, a journey he described in a sermon for his church viewed by many online. The very week Danny had, in his own heart and mind, reached an affirming position his son came out to him. It was as if God had been preparing Danny for that very moment.

So we talked a lot with Danny and Abby about the journey the Cortez family and the New Heart Community Church had been on. As you might expect, it has been a difficult journey at times but one filled with grace, love and beauty.

What really struck me during our conversation, and what I wanted to share with you, is something Danny described regarding where he gained (and still gains) spiritual strength during all the SBC fallout. Specifically, Danny had gotten involved in hospice care, working as a chaplain to visit the dying.

As a part of this ministry, Danny requests to be called when there is a homeless person in hospice care, a person alone in the world facing their final moments. These experiences are holy, sacred moments and they formed and sustained Danny while the controversies swirled around his church.

As I listened to Danny share stories of his hospice work I was deeply moved. And listening it struck me how visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As justice warriors we love the works of mercy described in Matthew 25 where we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, shelter the homeless and visit the prisoner. We like to thunder and rage about mass incarceration, homelessness, hunger and poverty. Around these issues the activism and hashtags proliferate.

But no one seems to talk about visiting the sick and the dying.

Visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As I shared with Danny, I've come to believe that we are called to practice all the works of mercy, that the works of mercy, practiced collectively, nurture a spirituality that cannot be cultivated if we practice the works of mercy selectively and piecemeal.

For example, crusades for justice are accompanied by a suite of temptations. Many of us get involved with justice work to cover up or compensate for deeply felt personal inadequacies. Fighting for justice helps us run from our own inner demons. Justice makes us feel important and like we matter. Justice allows us to become the hero of the story. We feel powerful and vital.

But visiting the sick and dying chastens the hero-complex. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you of your impotence and helplessness. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you that your heroic quest for justice is often just a way to repress your own fears of failure, loss and death.

When you visit the sick and dying there is nothing there that can be fixed. And for many justice warriors that is a deeply destabilizing realization. There is nothing here that you can fix. 

The only thing you can offer is your presence.

So you can see, perhaps, why I think it might be important to practice all the works of mercy, and not just the ones we associate with justice. If we selectively practice the works of mercy we might become spiritually malformed, caught up in temptations that would have been ameliorated if we had practiced all the works consistently.

We might have learned, for instance, that many things in the world cannot be fixed. That we are not a savior or a hero.

And as I see Danny holding the hands of the homeless facing death, I am reminded that in the final analysis what we really fear is being alone and that the simple sacraments of presence, touch, silence and prayer are the greatest gifts of all.

The Super Bowl Commercials Prove God Exists

We enjoyed watching the Super Bowl last night with some good friends from church. The big question of the night was if Katy Perry would keep her cloths on. She did.

Like many who watched the game we had fun watching and evaluating the commercials. Which are almost as big an event as the game itself.

At some point during the second half, after having watched many commercials, I declared, "The Super Bowl commercials prove God exists."

What I meant by that is how many of the commercials sought to connect their product with the transcendent. In many commercials the product is Messianic, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

For example, the Coke "Make It Happy" commercial:



McDonald's "Pay With Lovin'" and Jeep's "Beautiful Lands" are other examples, even Nationwide's controversial "Make Safe Happen." 

These are companies selling fries, cars, soda and insurance policies.

And what they appeal to to sell these products is God.

Unpublished: The Political Tragedy of America

Here's the political tragedy of America. Most of the poor people in America are White people. There are more poor rural Whites than there are poor urban Blacks. But those two groups are so separated by walls of suspicion and distrust that the greatest political force in America today--poor to middle class persons of all colors--remains divided and thus conquered by powerful monied and political interests.

America is built around two great ideas that sit in tension, democracy and capitalism. Tending to that fraught relationship is our Grand Experiment. It is, I would argue, the great question of our generation. Shall capitalism come to control democracy? Or shall democracy control capitalism? Over the last few decades capitalism has come to rule and dominate. The political and military machinery of America is increasingly being run by corporate and monied interests. America today is a corporate oligarchy.

--from an unpublished post pondering the divisions that separate poor and middle-class voters from becoming a powerful voting coalition

The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

Let me offer some final reflections regarding my last two posts (here and here) about the relationship between scarcity, shame and exhaustion.

As I've argued it, following Brene Brown, many of us are operating out of a mindset of scarcity. What Brene calls the "never enough" problem. Physically and psychologically we feel exhausted and depleted, which interferes with our ability to invest in authentic community and prophetic ministry.

What is causing this exhaustion?

Some of it is caused by what I've described as "the scarcity trap," the way neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety. Facing what Brene calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary" we push to be noticed, successful and significant. We work hard and over-commit because we want to matter. As I put it in yesterday's post, shame produces exhaustion.

Now, the solution to exhaustion, many will tell you, is the practice of Sabbath. And I agree. But that observation is missing something very important.

Specifically, we all want Sabbath. What stressed out and exhausted person isn't craving rest, margin and restoration?

So the issue isn't convincing us that we need Sabbath. We all know that. The issue is this: Why is Sabbath keeping so difficult? 

Why aren't we doing something we want to do? Something weird is going on. We want to rest. We crave it more than just about anything. But we can't, won't or don't rest.

What's going on? Why don't we practice Sabbath?

Here's why: Because to practice Sabbath means that you have to start saying "No" to create the margins you need to rest and rehabilitate. But with each "No" the shame increases. With each "No" you are backing away from something that would have made you important, noticed, successful, significant or more materially well-off. We don't practice Sabbath because when we stop the world starts rushing past us, making us feel like we're getting left behind, like we're losing, like we are missing something. Sabbath starts to feel like failure.

In short, we don't practice Sabbath because Sabbath is an assault upon our self-esteem. Sabbath shames us. Or, more precisely, Sabbath surfaces our shame.

So we need shame-resilience to practice Sabbath. That, in my estimation, is what has been missing in the ubiquitous calls to practice Sabbath. We all know we need Sabbath. We all want to rest. But our fears of failing and falling behind keep tempting us away from rest. Our culture shames us out of Sabbath.

Which is why I think Sabbath is a form of spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers. With the rise of capitalism our culture has been infected by what Alain de Botton has called "status anxiety." Which is to say, shame is the fuel of capitalism. Capitalism feeds off of this neurotic anxiety, using fear to create wealth and abundance but leaving us physically exhausted, psychologically broken and spiritually depleted. Which is why we call it the rat race.

Conservative Christians like to think that spiritual warfare is about the spiritual, psychological realm. Liberals like to think of spiritual warfare as being about the political realm. Both are missing the point.

Pay attention to what I'm saying here. The therapeutic is the political.

As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, Sabbath is resistance. Sabbath resists the spirituality of the principalities and powers--the capitalistic and consumeristic rat race--to nurture the physical and psychological resources to fuel further resistance, making us increasingly available for both community and prophetic ministry.

If shame is the fuel of capitalism then Sabbath is the fuel for the Kingdom of God.

But, and here's the big take home point, Sabbath-keeping requires shame-resilience. Sabbath requires relaxing into the "shame-based fear of being ordinary" as we allow the world to rush by as we settle into the humble, small and human rhythms of Sabbath. To practice Sabbath means to go quiet, to be less noticed, to rest into the ordinary. And it takes shame-resilience to do that.

The therapeutic is the political. 

Sabbath is spiritual warfare.

The Scarcity Trap

In yesterday's post I argued that scarcity is one of the if not the biggest obstacles facing ministry and spiritual formation efforts in our churches. Feeling depleted, run-down, tired, stressed and over-extended people find the way of Jesus too to exhausting to fit into their lives.

In that post I used the analysis of Brene Brown to describe this mindset of scarcity. In this post I want to describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap" by connecting some more things from Brown's book Daring Greatly with the analysis I give in The Slavery of Death.

What is the scarcity trap? Why are we so exhausted, tired and stressed out? Why can't we make room for ministry and spiritual formation in our lives?

The scarcity trap, as I'll describe it, is how our neurotic anxiety feeds into our basic anxiety.

Recall from The Slavery of Death that anxiety can manifest in one of two ways, basic and neurotic. Basic anxiety is fueled by worries about our physical and material well-being. Basic anxiety is triggered by feelings of scarcity--the feeling of "never enough"--in material or physical resources, like feeling tired or short of time or lacking in money to pay for important things.

As I've just described it, a lot of the scarcity problem in churches is associated with basic anxiety: feeling physically or materially depleted.

So a lot of our experience of scarcity is due to basic anxiety. And yet, one of the reasons we feel so over-extended and over-scheduled is due to our neurotic anxiety.

Neurotic anxiety is associated with our feelings of significance and self-worth. If basic anxiety is associated with materially or physically not having enough, neurotic anxiety is associated with the shame of not being enough. Neurotic anxiety is associated with what Brene Brown calls the "shame-based fear of being ordinary."

With these distinctions in mind we can describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap," how neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety.

So, back to the question: Why are we so busy and stressed out?

To be sure, a lot of our stress is due to real material scarcity. As we know, middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades. In the meantime life has gotten more expensive, especially health care and college education. Consequently, people are working harder and harder for less and less. The scarcity here is real and the resultant basic anxiety is both legitimate and crushing.

However, a lot of our work-related stress and busyness is self-inflicted.

We want to be successful, to get ahead. Success, however that looks in your life and profession, is what fuels our self-esteem and makes us feel important. These accomplishments help us combat the shame-based fear of being ordinary. We can be a winner rather than a loser.

Why are we over-committed and addicted to busyness? Because saying Yes to everything makes us feel wanted, needed, important and vital.

In short, in our thirst for self-esteem--our drive to be noticed, needed or successful--we become over-committed and over-worked. Which causes us, at the end of the day, to become depleted and exhausted. The drive for success and significance, or the flight from shame and failure, exhausts us and runs us into the ground. Neurotic anxiety produces basic anxiety.

That is the scarcity trap, how our neurotic fears of failure and insignificance cause us to push harder and harder which, in turn, exhausts us.

The scarcity trap is how the shame-based fear of being ordinary tempts us into work and busyness depleting us of time, energy and resources.

The scarcity trap is how shame produces exhaustion.

///

For a final reflection on this topic see my follow-up post to this follow-up post: The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

The Biggest Obstacle to Spiritual Formation

I've spoken at a quite a few churches over the last few years and have had even more conversations with ministers and pastors at churches. Most of these conversations have been about hospitality, about how we can create more welcoming and hospitable faith communities.

And over the years I've come to discern what I think is one of the biggest problems facing our churches when it comes to spiritual formation generally and hospitality specifically.

What is that problem?

Scarcity.

Here's how Brene Brown describes scarcity in her book Daring Greatly, a quote I've shared before:
We get scarcity because we live it…Scarcity is the “never enough” problem…Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.
Scarcity is the "never enough" problem. A mindset that is "hyperaware of lack." Brene goes on to share this assessment from Lynne Twist:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is "I didn’t get enough sleep." The next one is "I don't have enough time." Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life. 
One of the  biggest obstacles to spiritual formation is this "reverie of lack," especially a felt lack of time, energy and resources.

That's the mindset people are carrying into church where they will hear calls to be more missional or more hospitable or a more radical, committed and fired-up follower of Jesus.

But do you know what the person in the pew is feeling when they hear all this?

This: You're making me tired. All that sounds exhausting.

Jesus = Exhausting. That's the equation created by the mindset of scarcity. That's the battle churches are facing when it comes to mission, ministry and spiritual formation.

For example. People at a church might complain about not connecting at church and about being lonely. They express a craving for deeper, more authentic community. So the church hires a small group minister to invest in small group ministry. And then guess what? No one has time for small groups! That's a weekly commitment that people just don't have time for.

We crave deeper community. We just don't have the time or energy for it.

How many initiatives and ministries have been started up at churches--often at the request of members--only to have staff people standing around waiting for the members to show up?

That's the paradox in many churches. Members and churches feel that they are spiritually sick and dying but no one has the time or energy to commit to the remedies, even remedies that we've requested and know that we need.

In many ways, it's our exhaustion that has made us sick and it's our exhaustion that prevents us from getting better. So we cycle downward, deeper into a mindset of scarcity.

More and more that's what I'm hearing from ministers, pastors and church leaders. We can't, they report, get our people to invest in the church, in ministries, in mission or in spiritual formation because our people report being exhausted, tired, stressed out and over-burdened.

Governed by a mindset of scarcity the way of Jesus just sounds way too exhausting.

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For follow-up reflections to this post see first The Scarcity Trap and then The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare.

Progressive Evangelism

Progressive Christians aren't known for being particularly evangelistic. But over the weekend I had a conversation which made me wonder about the shape of a progressive Christian evangelism.

Jana was trying on some clothing in a small consignment store. I was the only one in the store with the owner while Jana was in the back. And, as always, I had a book with me.

(I always bring a book when shopping with Jana. It's amazing how cheerful and patient you can be if you have a good book. Hours can pass in a clothing store and I'll hardly notice. It's a win/win. I love shopping/reading.)

Anyway, the owner saw me reading.

"What book are you reading?"

"The Executed God."

"Huh? The Executed God? What's that about?"

"It's a Christian book about mass incareration and captital punishment. The argument is that since Jesus was arrested and executed by the state we should look for Jesus among those being jailed and executed by the state."

"That's a huge problem in America, all the people we put in jail."

"I know. The point of the book is that if we want to find Jesus in the world we should look for him among those being oppressed by the state."

And what followed was a very interesting conversation. The owner had never thought about Jesus in quite this way before.

As Jana and I were leaving the store she called to me:

"I'm going to by that book!"

The Subversion of the Creator God

One of the distinctive aspects of Israel's monotheism as it developed over time was the fact that Israel began to consider YHWH, the deity they worshiped, as not just another tribal god, one god among other gods, and not just the High god above lesser gods, but the one and only God, the God who was the Creator God, the One who created all things in heaven and on earth.

What struck me the other day about this observation is how worship of the Creator affected the theological imagination of Israel and how worship of the Creator God led to various theological innovations in the Old and New Testaments, some quite radical. In fact, I'd argue that the most radical innovation in the worship of the Creator God was offered by Jesus.

Specifically, what I'd like to show is how the worship of the Creator destabilized and undermined various theological arrangements and settlements. That is, once Israel began to see YHWH not just as a tribal god but as the Creator she introduced into her theological imagination a notion that would begin to work subversively against her religious attempts to own, capture and tame God.

At the start, the worship of YHWH as the Creator allowed Israel to disparage and demean her polytheistic neighbors. Because YHWH was the only God and the Creator God Israel's neighbors were in the grip of an illusion. In the eyes of Israel when the surrounding Canaanite nations bowed down to idols there was no god behind that figure of wood or stone. Because there was only one God idols were nothing.
Habakkuk 2.18-20
“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.

Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.
So at the start worship of the Creator allowed Israel to be pretty smug. Look at those stupid, blinkered idol worshipers bowing down to wood and stone!  

But Israel was in for a surprise. Because when you start worshipping the Creator you start thinking about that theologically. And the places those reflections take you can be pretty surprising and awkward.

How so?

Well, consider how worship of the Creator began to undermine Israel's own religious observance, calling into question the Temple and the entire sacrificial system. Consider, as an example, Psalm 50:
Psalm 50.7-15
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel:
I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
Suddenly, the smugness is gone. Here in Psalm 50 worship of the Creator isn't being used against Israel's neighbors and their idols but against Israel herself, against the very heart of Israelite religious observance. Does the Creator drink the blood of goats? Does the Creator need sacrifices when the Creator owns the cattle on a thousand hills?

Notice here how worship of the Creator has become a subversive theological resource. This wasn't, I'm guessing, what Israel was expecting. Worship of the Creator was exciting when it allowed you to make fun of foolish idol worshipers. But things didn't end there. The notion that you are worshiping the Creator has implications, not all of which, I'm guessing, were known or worked out in the minds of Israel when they make that radical move.

What I'm suggesting is that the worship of the Creator introduced into the religion of Israel a subversive element that began to slowly unwind the smug, insular, exclusive and violent imagination of Israel. Yes, worship of the Creator began to untangle Israel from idolatry, but it also began to untangle them, much to their surprise I'm guessing, from sacrifice.

And Jesus would take the idea even further.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pushes the worship of the Creator to it's most radical extreme. Jesus says:
Matthew 5.43-
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the distinctive heart of Jesus's teaching, the teaching that makes him unique in world history. Love your enemies.

And what is fascinating here is how Jesus grounds this teaching in the worship of the Creator God. Why love friends and enemies alike? Why love freely and indiscriminately? Why love without prejudice or bias?

Because that is how the Creator loves. Without bias or prejudice.

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

For He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.

He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus pondered the sun and the rain. And he discerned something about the Creator God in how the rain and sun fell upon the world, upon the good and the wicked.

The Children of God, Jesus concluded, should love like the sun and the rain. This--being sun and rain, loving indiscriminately--would make us children of the Creator. This would make us perfect.

And this, I would argue, is the subversive notion at the heart of the worship of the Creator God. Loving like sun and rain. I don't think Israel knew this teaching was coming when she turned from idols to the worship of YHWH. I don't think Israel knew the Creator would be used by the writer of Psalm 50 to attack the heart of the sacrificial system they had created, a system of religious gate-keeping, blood and exclusion.

Even less did they see the radical implication discerned by Jesus.

You can't be a gate-keeper of the Creator's love. No sacrifice is needed. God loves freely, generously and indiscriminately.

Like sun and rain.

And the Children of God do the same.

Is Porn the Soul of America?

Pornography is a multibillion dollar industry in America. And since the 1970s it has become increasingly more abusive, exploitative, and demeaning toward women.

This trend, and the fact that more and more men are becoming addicted to porn's dehumanizing and violent content, is a key thermometer about what is happening to the American moral imagination.

Is porn the soul of America?
As porn has gone mainstream, ushered two decades ago into middle-class living rooms and dens with VCRs and now available on the Internet, it has devolved into an open fusion of physical abuse and sex of extreme violence, horrible acts of degradation against women with an increasingly twisted eroticism. Porn has always primarily involved the eroticization of unlimited male power, but today it also involves the expression of male power through the physical abuse, even torture, of women. Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.

--Chris Hedges, from Empire of Illusion