Talking With the Dead

ACU Honor's Chapel, All Hallows Eve, 2007


I like talking to dead people.

The trouble is, in today’s world the dead aren’t around much. It’s hard to find them.

This is why I visit cemeteries. I enjoy visiting cemeteries because I feel like I need to converse with the dead. I find it an important part of my spiritual life. The dead tell you things the living do not.

My favorites cemeteries are the Cities of the Dead I saw in Uruguay and Argentina. I got to visit them a few years ago on an ACU-sponsored trip. In South America, for those who can afford it, the dead are put in “houses” along streets. Over time the houses accumulate and what is produced is a whole above-ground city with street after street of houses for the dead.

These cemeteries were great places to find the dead. But in modern America it is harder and harder to find the dead.

Why is this? Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.

But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.

But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”

And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.

And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.

But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.

For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.

Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.

To invite the dead I'll decorate my frontyard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage, capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.

Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.

And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.

I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.

I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.

And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.

The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.

Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.

Happy Halloween.

Search Term Friday: Halloween, Death and Monsters

I always get huge traffic this time of year with Halloween-oriented search terms.

Halloween, vampires, monsters. You name it, those search terms bring all sorts of people to this blog.

Why? Because of all the Halloween-themed and monster-focused meditations I've written over the years.

And much of that material has ended up in my three books, what I like to call my "death trilogy."

I hope you have a blessed and Happy Halloween. A collection of reflections for the day:

You Kiss What You Love

The number of people whom I regularly kiss is pretty small.

Jana, obviously, and my two sons, Brenden and Aidan. Plus my Mom and Dad. My siblings and their boys. And that's about it.

One of my fondest memories is of when the boys were small. After tucking them in at night we would give each other a peck on the lips to kiss goodnight. They were too small to be embarrassed about that. But as they grew older that tradition stopped.

But the other night I was walking by Brenden who was sitting in the living room studying. Brenden is seventeen. I hadn't kissed him a long time. But this night I bent over, lifted his bangs and kissed his forehead.

"You're never too old for your father to kiss you," I said.

He smiled back, "I know."

You kiss what you love.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair and kissed them... (Luke 7.37-38)

The picture above is Pope Francis kissing the feet of elderly and disabled persons during Holy Week.

Rarely have I kissed women in church. But I have done it once or twice. In the midst of pain or suffering I've kissed a sister, often with tears, on the forehead. Those have been sacred moments.

I've actually kissed more men at church than women. When I visited South America it took me some time, as an American, to get used to the way the men greeted each other. You greeted not with a handshake but with an embrace and two quick kisses on each cheek.

You can imagine how much kissing there was on a Sunday morning at church in South America. It felt like I kissed everyone in attendance, every woman and every man.

It was at church in South America where I glimpsed the mystery and beauty of St. Peter's command (1 Peter 5.14): "Greet each other with a kiss of love." And while I cherish the passing of the peace in liturgical churches those handshakes don't live up to the kisses I shared in South America.

Because you kiss what you love.

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. (Acts 20.36-37)

I remember the first time I attended an Orthodox worship service. I was surprised to see before, during and after the service how everyone kissed the icons. Kissing the image of Jesus. Kissing Mary. Kissing the saints.

Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. (1 Thessalonians 5.26)

That was many years ago, that first service with the Orthodox. I have many of those same icons hanging in my office, along with a crucifix, above a prayer kneeler in my office. Upon rising from prayer I'll often kiss an icon of Jesus or kiss his feet on the crucifix. During Lent sometimes I'll kiss the five wounds of Jesus.

One kiss on his feet. A kiss each for his hands. A kiss on his side.

And then a final kiss, like with Brenden, upon his head, bleeding and encircled with thorns.

And sometimes, during the day, I'll lift the crucifix around my neck and kiss it.

That kiss is a wordless prayer.

I can't recall kissing being mentioned in any book I've ever read on theology, church or spiritual formation.

I think that's strange.

Because you kiss what you love.

And you come to love what you kiss.

The Metric of a Prophet

Out at the prison bible study we've been working through the entire bible. This night we started the book of Ezekiel. After discussing Ezekiel's vision in Chapter 1 we turned to Ezekiel's prophetic commissioning in Chapters 2 and 3:
Ezekiel 2.1-7, 3.7-9
He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.”

As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious..."

"But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” 
The people Ezekiel is being sent to are described, over and over, as rebels. They are obstinate and stubborn. They are hard-headed. And living among them is like living with thorns and scorpions.

Hearing these descriptions the inmates perked up. The bible was describing their life.

These men knew what it was like to live with scorpions.

Consequently, they needed to be tough. Like Ezekiel needed to be tough. If the people are stubborn the prophet must be even more stubborn. If the people are hard-headed the prophet's head must be harder still.

"I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them."

When you live among scorpions you gotta be tough.

And what about the mission of the prophet? How will the prophet measure success?

In a world where the church is increasingly taken with corporate metrics of growth and success what is the metric of the prophet?

Of course, we always pray for revival. The men in the prison always pray for revival. As they should. But revival isn't what Ezekiel is promised.

Ezekiel is promised an outcome. There is one metric of success to be found in the text above.

Did you notice it?

It's found in 2.4-5:
The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 
They may listen. They may not listen. But the one thing they will know is this:

A prophet lived among them.

That's the metric of success. That a people would remember that a prophet had lived among them.

So that's what I told the men out at the prison.

This, I said, is the only thing you can control. That when people look back at their lives they remember your words and life. They remember, perhaps from a long time ago, that they once knew a person who spoke truth to them. In a world full of thorns and scorpions they once knew a child of God. A man or a woman who spoke words of judgment and words of grace.

They remember a prophet once lived among them.

The Politics of Exalting the Humble

Thanks to Alastair Roberts for inviting me to be a part of The Politics of Scripture series at the Political Theology blog where contributors share theological and political reflections based upon the week's lectionary readings.

This week the gospel reading was Matthew 23.1-12 and my post--"The Politics of Exalting the Humble"--starts off this way:
In 2003 Dacher Keltner, Deborah Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson shared the results of unpublished study done by two psychologists (Keltner was one of the researchers) in what has been dubbed “the cookie experiment.”

The experiment was about power and about how power affects entitlement.

In the cookie experiment three same-sex participants were asked to discuss various political issues and make policy recommendations. One of the three participants was given the role of “judge” and asked to assign points rating the quality of the recommendations made by the other two participants. This placed the judge in a “high power” position relative to the other two.

About thirty minutes into the discussion the experimenter brought the three participants five cookies on a plate. And the number of cookies was carefully chosen.

Five cookies. Three people.

Someone isn’t getting a second cookie. Who would that be?
You can read the rest of the reflection here at the Political Theology blog.

The Weakness of God and Sin: A Theological Sketch

In my recent podcast with Luke Norsworthy we were discussing the weakness of God--that God is love rather than a coercive force in the world--and how that relates to spiritual warfare.

The point I made in the podcast and in the series of posts where I wrestled with these questions (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar) is that if the power of God is "weakness"--the cruciform love of Jesus on the cross--then love is always "in a battle" with the forces antithetical to love in the world. Love has to struggle to assert and insert itself. That is, since love doesn't control the world with coercive, top-down power love is always intruding and inserting itself from below. Spiritual warfare in this view is guerrilla warfare, the tactical interruption of the world with love.

As St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love." That is spiritual warfare, putting love where there is no love.

But back to the podcast. My description of spiritual warfare is all well and good, but I struggled with the origins of sin and evil in my "On Weakness and Warfare" series and that issue came up again briefly in the podcast. Where does evil come from? Especially if God is weakness?

Because as Luke mentioned very briefly in the podcast, reflections along these lines can tend toward dualism. That is, if you start to take evil as a "given," as the background into which love must insert itself, that "givenness" can drift toward "pre-existent" or "co-existent" with the good. Which is dualism. Good and bad, side-by-side for eternity.

One way to deal with the origins of evil, and this is where Greg Boyd came up in the podcast (see his book God at War), is to posit free will. Free will introduces sin and evil into creation.

That has been a classic move in these discussions, but I come at the issue a bit differently given my starting point with the "weakness of God."

So, how do I understand the origins of sin and evil given my emphasis upon the weakness of God?

To start, and taking a cue from theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, we don't posit a creation ex nihilo with a big flashy display of power. What we posit, rather, is a divine withdrawal. God withdraws to make room and space for creation.

Consequently, creation is characterized, to a large extent, by God's absence.

So that is Act One, divine withdrawal making room for creation.

Act Two is God's re-entry into creation, God's movement back toward creation. This is the Spirit hovering over the formlessness left behind in the wake of God's withdrawal. God's re-entry is characterized by the insertion of order, beauty and goodness into the chaos. Creation, as described in the first lines of Genesis, is the Spirit of God (re)introducing order and goodness. That is the primal signature of God's working in the world, the ordering of chaos and making it good.

God's action in the world is as that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that brings goodness out of the chaos. God is that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that is present at all times and all places, ever attempting to enter more fully into creation so that the Spirit of God can indwell and fill all of creation.

Thus the drama of the biblical story, the constant movement of God toward us. The movement to bring the "Kingdom of God" to earth.

Importantly, God doesn't re-enter creation or bring the Kingdom to earth forcibly and coercively. God re-enters creation and brings the Kingdom through weakness. God enters the world through cruciformity, through the love Jesus displayed on the cross. God re-enters the world from the bottom up, in the midst of the least of these.

Sin enters the world when we fail to trust God, fail to trust that love is the "the grain of universe" and that those carrying crosses move with that grain. Sin rips the loving fabric of shalom. Sin is violence, in all its various guises.
[Since writing this post I read something from Robert Jenson that gives a different spin on all this.

Specifically, what God creates is history. What God creates is a Story. And in this Story Love alone is pre-existent. Sin and evil enter the Story as a falling away from Love, away from the primordial condition. Thus, what runs beneath the Story/Creation isn't conflict--a war between good and evil--but Love. Love, to use a musical metaphor, is the Cantus Firmus of Creation. Sin and evil come into existence when play dissonant notes, when we "fall away" from the Melody of Love. Behaviorally, the life of Jesus functions as our "tuning fork," the way we locate the right notes in finding our way back to the Cantus Firmus. Salvation, then, is returning to the harmony and melody of Creation. Salvation, to return to the literary metaphor, is narrating our stories back into Love's original plot line.]  
The vision here is less about agents with free will making choices than it is about the harm caused by the exercise of power and dominion over others and creation. The contrast is between actions that move with the grain of the cross versus actions that move against that grain, actions that rip the fabric of the Kingdom of God. Anxious about our own survival we do not trust God. We rebel against and reject cruciformity. We attempt to use force to violently secure our well-being.

The call of faith, then, begins with the call to repentance. We are called to enter the Kingdom, to trust that the grain of the universe is demonstrated, enacted and incarnated in Jesus, the image of the invisible God. The gospel proclamation--the Good News--is that the Kingdom of God--where God reigns and where God's Spirit has re-entered and re-filled creation--has been inaugurated in Jesus and in the midst of communities who celebrate him as Lord.

Eschatology is the vision of the Kingdom coming in its fullness, the goal and direction we are loving our way toward. Eschatology imagines that future where God's Spirit infuses all of creation bringing wholeness and shalom. Eschatology is the vision of God's Spirit filling the whole of creation as prefigured in God's Spirit filling the Temple. Eschatology is the Kingdom having come upon earth as it is in heaven, the completion of Act Two.

Judgment is the future vision of the Kingdom apocalyptically intruding upon the present moment in the prophetic pronouncement of blessings and woes. Judgment is the moral verdict the future Kingdom pronounces upon the Now.

Pronouncement of blessing--"Blessed are the..."--names and makes salient those locations in the world where the Kingdom of God intrudes and is celebrated, even when it is as tiny as a mustard seed and is as small as cup of cold water.

Woe and pronouncements of damnation are prophetic judgments naming and making salient the forces of darkness in the world, the forces that are antithetical to love and valorize coercive violence and the domination of others and creation.

These three things remain, faith, hope and love.

Faith is covenantally trusting in God and in God's Kingdom as inaugurated in Jesus. Faith is covenantally trusting that God is love and that cruciform love is indeed the grain of the universe.

Hope is the fully imagined future of the Kingdom of God, the vision we are journeying toward, the vision that guides, orients, directs and judges us.

Love is walking as Jesus walked, taking up the cross and following the Lamb wherever he goes.

Search Term Friday: Sinning In Your Heart

I often get people coming to the blog searching for answers to the question "can you sin in your heart?"

Those queries link to some old posts of mine that summarized some psychological research regarding how Jewish and Christian persons differ in how they moralize mental states and how that research prompted some of my own students to investigate the snarly issue of "sinning in your heart."

Remember the famous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter? In that interview Carter caused some controversy by confessing that he had "lusted after women in my heart many times."

Most Christians would sympathize with President Carter as many Christians believe that you can "sin in your heart," that thoughts have moral status. This belief is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother ]will be subject to judgment."

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This phenomena of "sinning in your heart" is illuminated by an interesting study conducted by psychologists Adam Cohen and Paul Rozin (Cohen & Rozin, 2001. "Religion and the morality of mentality." JPSP, 81, 697-710).

In this study, Cohen and Rozin compared Jewish and Christian participants on the degree to which they moralize mental events. In the study, Cohen and Rozin found that Jewish participants did not moralize mental events. Only choices leading to behaviors appeared to have moral status (i.e., be designated "right" versus "wrong").

By contrast, Christian participants did moralize mental events. That is, even if a person made proper moral choices and acted in an ethical manner they could still "sin in their hearts," and, as a result, be a "bad" person.

Why this difference in how mental events are or are not moralized?

One answer is that the rabbinic tradition posits a different moral psychology than what most Christians subscribe to. Specifically, the Jewish rabbis have distinguished between two fundamental human inclinations which clash in the human psyche. There is an evil impulse, the "yezer ha-ra," which struggles against our good impulse, the "yezer ha-tov." Psychologists call this kind of theory a "folk psychology," a psychological theory about how the mind functions that is culturally posited or phenomenologically derived. Most cultures have a "folk psychology," common assumptions about how the mind works.

What is interesting is that this rabbinic folk psychology, positing an internal conflict between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov, creates a situation where mental events are not moralized as was observed by Cohen and Rozin. How so? Well, given the constant presence of the evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, thoughts of lust or hate or envy are, in principle, present in all moral choices. Thus, it is no "sin" to have such thoughts. It is just a part of human psychology (from the Jewish perspective). A person cannot rid themselves of the yezer-ha ra, one can only choose not to obey it. And, thus, it is the choice that has moral status, not the thoughts of the yezer ha-ra.

By contrast, Christians don't have a folk psychology to help them sort out how any given thought is a temptation versus a sin. For Jewish persons the situation is straightforward, all thoughts are temptations, only behaviors have moral status. Christians, by contrast, believing they can sin in their hearts, can't rely on a behavior/thought distinction. Christians have to sort between the thoughts themselves. Which is tougher to do and creates a lot of neurotic, paranoid, and confused Christians.

When does a thought become a sin?

Many years ago some of my students investigated this question.

Specifically, these students asked, How might a typical Christian decide when a particular thought becomes a sin?

For example, let's say, borrowing a stimulus from Cohen and Rozin's study, a married man works with a sexually attractive co-worker. Due to her attractiveness he finds, fairly regularly, sexual thoughts drifting through his mind. Is this man, per Jimmy Carter, committing infidelity in his heart?

Maybe, but we'd like some more details. What do we mean by "sexual thoughts"? And when might such thoughts move from temptation to sin?

My students came up with two related ideas that might be guiding how Christians judge these questions for themselves.

First, maybe a thought becomes a sin if the thought starts moving toward "obsession." That is, if the man in the example above thought about having sex with this co-worker for much of the day Christians would be increasingly likely to label those thoughts as sin.

Second, maybe it is not the amount of thought that matters but how the person responds to and resists the thoughts. Going back to the example, when the sexual thought emerges does the man try to shoo the thought away? Or does he entertain the thought, allowing it to sit in his mind for a time?

Clearly, these two things are correlated--degree of contemplation and resistance to the thought--but they are distinct features. That is, although resisting "tempting" thoughts should reduce their frequency, there are many cases where there is both high thought frequency and resistance. The struggling addict comes to mind.

To test how these dynamics might affect judgments of "sinning in your heart," my students borrowed the experimental protocol of Cohen and Rozin and tweaked it to manipulate the degree of contemplation and resistance displayed by the people described in the scenarios (like the one discussed above). And among a group of Christian participants my students found that assessments of sinfulness were based upon degree of resistance. No effect was found for degree of contemplation.

What these results suggest is that, at least for the sample we studied, Christians appear to view "sinning in your heart" as a sin of omission rather than one of comission.

Specifically, a lustful or hateful thought can erupt in your mind at any time. Further, these can even be very frequent thoughts. But that, according to our research, doesn't make the thought a sin. What is critical, morally speaking, is what happens next. If what happens next is a cognitive attempt to shut down the thought, then the thought is judged to be a temptation and not a sin. And you might be tempted a lot, over and over. But if you keep shutting down or fighting the thought that's okay.

But if, however, the thought is entertained, courted, and elaborated the mental events are increasing judged as being sinful, examples of lust, envy and hate.

Summarizing the findings, the sin isn't in the experience, even the frequent experience, of the thought--a sin of comission. Sinning in your heart is a sin of omission, failing to "do battle" with the thoughts, no matter how frequently or infrequently they occur.

This, at least in the sample we studied, is a part of the "folk psychology" guiding how Christians judge thoughts as being temptations versus sins.

The Better Wine

Mary, called in the gospel "the mother of Jesus," appears twice in the gospel of John. At the beginning and at the end. And in both cases thirst and wine are involved.

The first story is the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine because the wedding hosts had run out:
John 2.1-10
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Jesus initially resists the request saying that his "time has not yet come." What time is that exactly? The master of the banquet also makes the observation that the "cheaper" wine comes early and the better wine comes out later.

That's all very interesting. We are left leaning into the story wondering when Jesus's "hour" will come and the better wine be poured out.

And wine, along with Mary, does appear again later in the story, drawing our attention and forming a connection between the wine of Cana and the blood poured out on the cross:
John 19.25-35
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
Is this the time, "the hour" that Jesus was referring to at Cana? Is this what the miracle of Cana was pointing toward all along, the true miracle of "turning water into wine"? Is the blood of Jesus the "better wine" that comes out at the end of the story, the observation made by the master of the wedding feast at Cana?

Consider the Eucharistic overtones.

Is not the wine enjoyed in the Eucharist the "better wine" of our own wedding banquet?

Sex: The Center of Christian Morality Is Not Here

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Nadia Bolz-Weber Called Me What?: More On Christian Celebrity Culture

Toward the end of my podcast last week with Luke Norsworthy Luke took great delight in reminding me that Nadia Bolz-Weber called me an asshole during her podcast with Luke. If you heard that you might have wondered what that was all about.

In her podcast with Luke Nadia was reflecting on the issue of "Christian celebrity." Nadia recounted how she was at a speaking engagement and was feeling exhausted and needing some time away from the people where she was speaking. And during this moment of refreshment she opened an email from a friend sharing my post on Christian celebrity culture. In that post I shared a "test" about how to spot a Christian celebrity. Specifically, where are we to find the speaker before or after his or her talk? Does he or she take the time and effort to be with people? Or does he or she go off by himself or herself? Nadia, at the moment taking time away to refresh herself, read that "test," felt a bit guilty, and mentally called me an asshole for making her feel that way.

So, obviously, she wasn't mad at me as a human being and, in fact, noted that her reaction was more about her own feelings than anything about me.

Still, if you listen to Nadia's podcast with Luke she does go on to give my "test" some good pushback, pointing out how what she was doing in that instance--getting some time away--was important and a healthy form of self-care.

And I'd agree. And I'd also agree with the pushback that Zach Lind, drummer of Jimmy Eat World, gave to that same post in his podcast with Luke. As well as with the pushback Rachel Held Evans gave in the comments of my post.

Looking back now, I would have written my post differently. The "test" I gave in the post--Does the speaker make himself or herself available before and/or after his or her talk?--is a bit too narrow and limited. It doesn't apply to the music concert situation that Zach talks about. It doesn't take into account Rachel's point that many of us can "work a crowd" to create the illusion of being "accessible." And it doesn't take into account Nadia's comments about legitimate times and spaces for self-care and that she can't be everyone's pastor.

So I think the "test" I gave in that original post is limited in some pretty significant ways. But I think the heart of the post still holds up pretty well.

Basically, I made two points.

First, I argued that there is a difference between popularity and celebrity. Just because you're in the spotlight or there is a long line at your book signing table doesn't make you a celebrity. All that stuff just makes you popular.

So what makes a celebrity? That was my second point. Celebrity, as I described it, was creating distance, generally elite distance between yourself and others. When people chaff at "Christian celebrity culture" I think that's what they are chaffing at. It's not the big crowds or the long lines at book signings that's the problem. It's the insiderism, the cool, influential people hanging out together with the attendees--the normal, regular folk--being asked to stand behind the ropes to observe the red carpet proceedings.

You can see how, if this is my definition of "Christian celebrity," why I came up with the "test" that I did. If Christian celebrity is the creation of elite distance between influential insiders and everyone else then this can be combated by the breaking down those barriers.

Basically, we combat celebrity by cultivating practices of hospitality, with popular people welcoming and making room for others.

To be sure, we need to be attentive to issues of venue, crowd size and self-care. Still, I think the general point holds: we battle celebrity with hospitality.

And I think another point I made holds as well. In my original "test" I also mentioned speakers or performers being willing to listen to other speakers and performers. And again, issues of venue and context matter here, this just might not be workable, but I do think the general point holds.

Specifically, what I was gesturing at with this "test"--listening to others--was humility, a keen interest in learning from others. Personally, I think listening to others is the quintessential sign of humility. In fact, a willingness to listen to others may be the quintessential act of hospitality as well.

In short, a speaker only interested in talking and not listening is, well, an egoist, a self-absorbed celebrity. Only their thoughts, words and ideas matter. Again, listening to others at an event just might not be feasible for many speakers, but the issue here is a willingness and desire to listen. The craving to sit in the audience with rapt attention along with everyone else. And a feeling of regret that if, for whatever reason, you can't sit in the audience that you would have missed something special, precious and potentially life-changing.

A recent example of this.

Last week I was at Streaming with Greg Boyd. I was sitting by Greg while Sara Barton was giving her presentation. Greg had a legal pad out and was filling it with notes about what Sara was teaching. Greg was the headliner at this conference, the "celebrity," the author with all the books on the book table, the speaker people traveled many miles to listen to. But at Streaming Greg didn't act like a celebrity.

As Sara was teaching Greg was sitting there, like the rest of us, listening and taking notes.

Search Term Friday: The Isenheim Altarpiece

I get a lot of traffic each week on the blog with people searching for the "isenheim altarpiece." I've written a lot about the Isenheim Altarpiece, sharing many of the things I've learned from my colleague Dan in our Art Department at ACU.

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 at Golgotha. 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 thoughts on this perspective 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 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...

Warfare Theology

I'm back over at Luke Norsworthy's podcast this week talking about my recent conversations with Greg Boyd about spiritual warfare and demons.

Luke and I also talk about free will, the weakness of God, the problem of evil, Lady Gaga, pole vaulting, tattoos, and the benefits of guilt. 

Among other things.

And speaking about progressive Christians and the powers, yesterday Fred Clark posted some very insightful comments in two posts giving me some pushback about my recent post Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity.

See Fred's first post 'Spiritual bondage to the powers of death’: Why Screwtape should’ve read some James Cone and his follow-up post ‘You have to keep scooping out of the boat’: More on progressive Christianity and sin in response to a clarification I offered.


Blood Trumps Everything: Why the Church Needs Her Martyrs

Human life is the most sacred thing. Blood trumps everything.

To be sure, many would rush to say that God is the most sacred thing. That God trumps everything.

But in point of fact, that's not true. Empirically speaking, we behave as if--as well we should--that human life is the most sacred thing.

And this is what makes patriotism and the flag the most sacred thing. This is why the nation is the most sacred thing. Because human life was sacrificed--blood was spilt--for these things. The blood of the solider consecrates and baptizes the flag and the nation. And because blood trumps everything, because there is no holier and more sacred thing than human life, the flag and the nation is the most sacred thing in the world.

I experience this viscerally whenever I'm asked to stand at an athletic event for the national anthem. All around me there are grey haired men, many wearing ball caps telling about their military service. Veterans. Theologically, I chaff at displays of national allegiance. And yet, I feel awkward standing around these grey haired gentlemen during "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't want my theological beliefs to be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. These men gave their blood, their lives for that flag. That they survived doesn't diminish this. For in their memories, as they sing the national anthem, they see the faces of friends who made, as we say, the ultimate sacrifice.

And again, blood trumps everything.

My point in all this is that debates about things like nationalism or pacifism aren't simply abstract theological discussions. These debates need to, but often fail to, take into consideration the sacred element of human blood. These debates need to reckon with the fact that blood is the most sacred thing we know, more sacred, even, than God. Emotionally, where this argument will be won or lost, blood will trump theology. Always.

And this is why the church needs her martyrs.

Phrased another way, an issue like pacifism cannot be adjudicated theologically. It can only be adjudicated ecclesiologically. Pacifism isn't about ideas. It's about blood. And without blood the academic defense of pacifism will never prevail in the pews. Because blood trumps everything. Which is why the church needs her martyrs.

Is it any surprise that the Protestant tradition most associated with pacifism and anti-nationalism--the Anabaptists--is the Protestant tradition with the most robust commemoration of her martyrs?

I'd argue that this is no coincidence. John Howard Yoder didn't make the Mennonites pacifists. The Mennonite martyrs made John Howard Yoder a pacifist. Theologians need to remember that.

In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

Because that flag, given how much blood it represents, is very, very sacred.

And blood trumps everything.

Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity

While at Streaming last week during one of the panel discussions I was asked about my use of Christus Victor atonement in my book The Slavery of Death. During that conversation I made an observation about a problem I'm noticing in how many progressive Christians (by progressive I mean post-evangelicals) have been increasingly attracted to Christus Victor atonement.

Specifically, given their disillusionment with penal substitutionary atonement many progressive Christians have been attracted to Christus Victor atonement because it presents us with a non-violent vision of the atonement. In Christus Victor atonement Christ dies to liberate and free us from dark enslaving powers. In this vision God's actions in allowing or sending Jesus to the cross are wholly benevolent and non-violent.

There is no wrathful God being appeased by blood sacrifice in Christus Victor atonement. And because of this progressive Christians--in their commendable search for a non-violent atonement theory--have been increasingly making appeals to Christus Victor theology.

But here's the problem I noted at Streaming.

For Christus Victor theology to make any sense you have to have a robust theology of those dark enslaving powers, a robust theology regarding our spiritual bondage to the powers of death, Satan and sin. And yet, because of their pervasive struggles with doubt and disenchantment, along with their post-evangelical reluctance to talk about our enslavement to sin, progressive Christians lack an important aspect of Christus Victor atonement: a vision of enslavement to dark spiritual powers.

Basically, what are you being rescued from if you aren't enslaved to anything in the first place?

Progressive Christians like the idea of Jesus spiritually rescuing us but they do a damned poor job of describing how all of us, without Christ, are in spiritual bondage. But without a robust vision of spiritual slavery and bondage in the hands of progressive Christians Christus Victor theology is a non sequitur, it just doesn't make any logical or theological sense.

Personally, I've noted this problem and have been trying to work on it. The Slavery of Death is an attempt to articulate what slavery to death might look like and why that slavery can be described as the power of the devil. In a similar way I've also tried to rehabilitate the notion of "spiritual warfare" for progressive Christians (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar). I'm doing all this work because I'm attracted to Christus Victor atonement and, thus, note the necessity to articulate a vision regarding the power of sin, death and the devil, a vision a spiritual bondage to these powers. Otherwise, if I can't articulate that vision, I should give up appealing to Christus Victor theology.

What I don't see among many other progressive Christians who make appeals to Christus Victor  atonement are similar efforts to articulate a vision of spiritual bondage. Greg Boyd, while he and I have different visions of the spiritual powers, is an exception, which is why I made this remark at Streaming while presenting there with him.

And if I'm right in this assessment, that many progressive Christians lack a theology of spiritual bondage, then I wonder if progressive Christians should drop their discussions of Christus Victor atonement.

The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism

I had wonderful time at Streaming last week with Greg Boyd and many others. Thanks to Mark Love for putting together, year after year, such a wonderful event.

(BTW, if you're thinking of pursuing a graduate degree in ministry be sure to check out the missional leadership degree directed by Mark at Rochester College. I show up in that program for a class in year two, helping teach a course on hospitality taught in Durham, NC as a part of a visit to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House community.)

As you can tell from the Tweet above, Greg and I talked a lot about the Churches of Christ, where we've come from and where some of us might be going. This was, in fact, a conversation I had with quite a few people at Streaming.

What will be the future of the Churches of Christ? Given all the changes we are experiencing will there be anything left of the movement in a generation or two? And if so, what is that going to look like?

Before answering those questions, some quick backstory and context for Non-CoCers.

As I've written about before, right now there are two streams in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian stream and an ecumenical stream. Historically, the CoC has been very sectarian, believing only those from our tribe to be the only faithful Christians in the world. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else were headed to hell. At its worst that's what CoC theology represented and communicated. And that is what a lot of people have in mind to this day when they think of the Churches of Christ.

But starting in the 70s and 80s an increasingly ecumenical impulse began to emerge within the CoC, an increasing willingness to see ourselves as a particular stream flowing into the much broader river of Christianity. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This, obviously, is the group of CoCers I identify with.

Now to a second point before we can discuss the future of the CoC. The CoC has been a movement centered around church practices, about restoring a "New Testament pattern" of worship and church organization. The CoC has been less focused upon theology (historically a dirty word in our tradition) than upon ecclesiology.

Now, the most distinctive aspect of CoC church practice, the other big thing we are known for, is acapella worship (voices only, no instruments). This has been such a defining feature of the CoC that we split with the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church over this issue. And as you know, if a church splits over an issue that issue--because you've spilled blood over it--becomes deeply rooted in the psyche and DNA of a tradition. If you spilled blood over an issue that issue has to become a test a fellowship, a boundary that cannot be crossed. For the Churches of Christ acapella worship became that defining issue, perhaps the most defining issue (because of the split) of our movement.

But now, with the rise of the ecumenical impulse within the Churches of Christ, this worship practice has been rapidly changing. Many of the largest and most influential congregations in the Churches of Christ are adding instrumental worship services. My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is now among this group.

Which brings us back to the question: What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?

You can see the issue. If acapella worship was a or the defining practice of our tradition what happens when that practice no longer characterizes our churches? If a Church of Christ goes instrumental what makes us distinctive, say, from the other community or Baptist churches in town that worship with instruments?

Let me frame the question this way. The Churches of Christ have been a movement that has maintained unity via church practices. Each Church of Christ organized and worshiped in the same way. So what holds us together once those practices start to change? If practices have been our organizing core what happens when that core evaporates?

Well, with an emerging diversity of practices we'd no longer have a core, no longer have a consistent expectation of what a Church of Christ might "look like" from location to location. Thus the question: What's going to be the "core" of the Churches of Christ (if it's not going to be acapella worship) going forward?

Now, I'm not a fortune-teller and given my limited experience and perspective from within the Churches of Christ I cannot speak for the diversity within the movement or predict how it will all work out in a generation or two. But as I've pondered the question "What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?" this has been my answer.

In my opinion, if the (ecumenical) Churches of Christ want to maintain a distinctive and coherent identity going forward they should increasingly focus upon articulating a robust and distinctive theology as it pertains to two specific church practices which I believe, unlike with acapella worship, will continue to characterize the movement for the next few generations.

These two practices are the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

Let me comment on each of these in turn.

What will make the Church of Christ distinctive going forward? This: We are distinct (though not unique) in celebrating the Lord's Supper every Sunday. But it's more than that. Our distinctive (though not unique) belief is that the Lord's Supper is the sole reason for gathering, that the Lord's Supper can never be skipped. Sermon, worship and just about everything else can be skipped. But you cannot skip the Lord's Supper. Table is the focal point of our gathering. Going forward my sense is that this pratice will continue to define and characterize the Churches of Christ in both the acapella and increasingly instrumental congregations.

So my recommendation to CoC leaders is this: Let's give increasing attention to our theology and practice of the Table. Our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, how everything we do on Sunday is oriented around the Table, is a distinctive practice. A robust theology informing and supporting this practice will make it even more distinctive. Why go to a local Church of Christ? Because of the weekly welcome to the Lord's Table, and all the profound theology that will rock your world if you step into that practice.

And if I might be allowed to nudge our theology of the Table in a particular direction let me add this. One of the things I've noticed in many Churches of Christ is how in our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper we've begun to explicitly articulate a theology of open communion. In ecumenical Churches of Christ you increasingly hear in the Lord's Supper meditation statements like "All are welcome to the Lord's Table."

What is interesting to me here is how our practice has shaped our theology. Given that many of our congregations are large and that we celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday, Churches of Christ have been, by default, practicing open communion. We pass the trays to everyone. No one can keep track of who is or is not taking the Lord's Supper as the trays are passed, especially in our larger congregations. Week in and week out, we have no idea who is taking communion.

Functionally, and therefore implicitly, communion has been open.

But increasingly what has been theologically implicit in our practice is now being made explicit. "All are welcome to the Lord's Table." That's what is being said in many Churches of Christ. In many places, the Churches of Christ have practiced their way into a theology of open communion.

Is that the future of a distinctive Church of Christ theology? The weekly observance of open communion accompanied by a robust theology of open communion?

I hope so. But if not, the larger observation is what I'm focused on: the distinctive practice of the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper.

The second distinctive aspect that I think will characterize the Churches of Christ going forward is a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. I have a post scheduled to come out in November on this topic, but a bit about this practice in our churches.

In the Churches of Christ we don't say the Sinner's Prayer. We never ask people to "accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and personal Savior." To respond to the gospel we ask people to be baptized by immersion. Simplifying greatly, baptism by immersion is our Sinner's Prayer.

What this means is that the Churches of Christ, as with our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, are poised to have a very robust and distinctive theology of baptism. If there is a faith tradition that can unpack Romans 6 it is the Churches of Christ.

And as with the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, I think this practice of responding to the gospel in the act of baptism will continue to characterize both the acapella and increasingly instrumental Churches of Christ for a least a generation or two.

So that's my other suggestion. Along with articulating a robust and distinctive theology of the Table I think Churches of Christ should articulate a robust and distinctive theology of baptism. We're well positioned to do each of these things.

In fact, we're already doing so. More and more we've been reminding our members of their baptism, calling them back to the symbolisim of that central, sacred and life-defining ritual. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism.

And the same has been happening in our theology of the Lord's Table. Our services are becoming filled with the invitation: "This is the Lord's Table. All are welcome here."

Which is interesting. These are two defining sacraments of Protestantism. Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And here's a faith tradition, the Churches of Christ--because of its weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and its practice of baptism by immersion for the remission of sin upon the confession of faith--that is distinctively (though not uniquely) poised to practice these sacraments in ways that open up a rich and deep theology.

I wonder about this. What future are the Churches of Christ practicing toward?

I don't know. I know I won't live to see it. But I have a clue. And a hope.

Yes, it's for these reasons--our practices of Table and baptism--that I have great hope for the future of the Churches of Christ.

Search Term Friday: The Inclusion of Eunuchs

Recently, someone came to the blog inquiring about the "inclusion of eunuchs." Those search terms linked to some reflections of mine from 2011 on three texts regarding the exclusion and inclusion of eunuchs in the People of God.

The reflection starts with this passage from the Torah excluding eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord:

Deuteronomy 23.1 (NIV)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
For the translationally curious, The King James Version renders this verse in a memorable way:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The New Living Translation I think is the most straightforward, avoiding the NIV's use of the loaded word "emasculated":
If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
So that's the starting point, the exclusion of eunuchs from the Assembly of God.

But later in Isaiah we encounter a great many passages where Zion, the temple and the assembly of God is universalized. All nations will come to Zion to worship God. And in the middle of these texts eunuchs are specifically mentioned. Previously excluded, eunuchs will now be included in the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Isaiah 56.3-5
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Okay, now let's jump ahead to the New Testament. In Acts 8 we find Philip baptizing the first non-Israelite in the book of Acts. The man is from Ethiopia. Interestingly, the man is reading Isaiah. And he's a eunuch.
Acts 8.26-39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
And thus, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, eunuchs gain access to the Kingdom of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

In sum, this seems to be a pretty clear theological story about eunuchs moving from exclusion to inclusion. Persons who were sexually Other and were excluded in Deuteronomy 23.1 now find themselves included in the wider embrace of the Kingdom.

To be sure, people will have various opinions about what eunuchs symbolized regarding the sexual or gendered Other.

Regardless, we know this much for certain:

Those who were previously excluded eventually become included in God's ever widening circle of love.

Pacifism and Holy Ingratitude

I've been reading Peter Leithart's book Gratitude: An Intellectual History. This post isn't review of this very informative book, but a thought I had about pacifism as I was reading about how the Romans considered the early Christians to be an ungrateful group of people.

A central theme of the story Peter tells in Gratitude is how the early Christians practiced what Peter calls a holy ingratitude.

Specifically, the Romans believed that Roman citizens owed a certain amount of gratitude toward the state. Romans lived in a great, prosperous and generally peaceful empire. Thus, Roman citizens owed the state gratitude.

But the Christians seemed to differ. Confessing Jesus as "Lord of all" and directing their gratitude toward God rather than toward the state the Christians busted up the cycles of gratitude that had kept Roman citizens bound to the state.

One way that Christians expressed this holy ingratitude was in their refusal to kill for the state. This refusal struck the Romans as hugely ungrateful. Christians benefited as Roman citizens. Yet they refuse to participate in the fighting that created and maintained all those benefits. Non-violent Christians in their refusal to participate in the Roman military were non-patriotic slackers and free-riders.

In short, the pacifism of the early Christians was experienced as shockingly ungrateful.

And yet, this was a holy ingratitude as Christians were obediently following the non-violent ethic of Jesus.

And it seems to me that nothing much has changed.

Specifically, the main criticism directed at Christian pacifists in the US (or in other nation states) is the same criticism Rome directed at the early Christians: ingratitude. How can you enjoy the benefits of the state that others have died for yet refuse to participate in the protection and maintenance of the state?

In short, in the eyes of the state pacifism has always seemed profoundly, shockingly and infuriatingly ungrateful.

This Christian ingratitude was the main reason the Romans hated, loathed and despised the early Christians and persecuted them so vigorously.

And this holy ingratitude continues to be the reason why the Way of Jesus remains so galling today.

A Christological Reading of Psalm 68

Awhile back I was praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer and the evening psalm was Psalm 68. The entry for the psalm in the lectionary looked like this:
Now if you don't know anything about the BCP lectionary those parentheses are alerting you about something. It's basically saying you should most definitely read verses 1-20 and 24-36 but that you might want to skip verses 21-23. Those verses are optional.


Generally, when you see those parentheses in the lectionary you're being warned that you are about to encounter one of those dark and difficult texts in the bible and that you might, depending upon the situation (kids, you know, might be listening in), want to read around those passages.

Psalm 68, apparently, had some difficult moments in it. And it did when I read the psalm that night. But in the midst of that darkness I also found some light and a way to read even this difficult psalm Christologically (i.e., through Jesus).

Psalm 68 is one of those songs where the writer is praising God for a victory over enemies. The first three verses:
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
may his foes flee before him.

May you blow them away like smoke—
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.

But may the righteous be glad
and rejoice before God;
may they be happy and joyful.
This stuff isn't too bad, but things get very dark in verses 21-23, the part in parentheses in the lectionary:
Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins.

The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan;
I will bring them from the depths of the sea,

that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes,
while the tongues of your dogs have their share.”
Okay, those are some of the darkest lines in the bible. Above is the NIV, here's the rendering in the NLT:
But God will smash the heads of his enemies,
crushing the skulls of those who love their guilty ways.

The Lord says, “I will bring my enemies down from Bashan;
I will bring them up from the depths of the sea.

You, my people, will wash your feet in their blood,
and even your dogs will get their share!”
So we have here God smashing skulls and putting the defeated enemies before us so that we might wash our feet in their blood and have our dogs--so they get their share!--lick up the blood as well.

I have some issues with Psalm 68.

But here's the other thing I noticed about this psalm. Specifically, Psalm 68 is quoted in the New Testament in the book of Ephesians:
Ephesians 4.1-13
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
That phrase--“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”--is from Psalm 68, from the verses right before the infamous lines in verses 21-23:
Psalm 68.17-20
The chariots of God are tens of thousands
and thousands of thousands;
the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.

When you ascended on high,
you took many captives;
you received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious—
that you, Lord God, might dwell there.

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
who daily bears our burdens.
 Our God is a God who saves;
from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.
In short, the writer of Ephesians is reading Psalm 68 Christologically. The victory over enemies in Psalm 68 is the victory won by Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection. When Jesus "ascended on high" he took with him "many captives."

Who are these captives? For the writer of Ephesians the quotation of Psalms 68.18 prompts a bit of commentary:
What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
For some reason the writer of Ephesians takes a moment to point out that if Jesus "ascended" then he would have had to have previously "descended" to the "lower, earthy regions." Is this a reference to the Incarnation? Or to Jesus's decent into hell after this death?

Many in the early church took this passage in Ephesians to be a reference to the latter, about the harrowing of hell where Jesus breaks open the gates of hell and releases a captive humanity.

Regardless, the victory described in Psalm 68 is being read Christologically, as a reference to the defeat of Christ's enemies--death, sin and the Devil. This sort of violent, martial imagery in reference to the cross is used in other places in the NT. For example:
Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 
The phrase "public spectacle" refers to the victory parade of a conquering Caesar or King returning to the capital city displaying the spoils and captives of war before a cheering and adoring citizenry. On the cross Jesus is leading just such a victory parade, displaying his captives, the disarmed "powers and authorities." The imagery of Psalm 68, even verses 21-13, fits this picture.

But what is startling about this imagery is how Jesus wins his victory over his enemies non-violently. On the cross Jesus is disarming and defeating his enemies--sin, death and the Devil--and taking them as captives in war.

Be Holy To Love Each Other

Ever since the publication of Unclean I've been wrestling with the relationship between holiness and hospitality. Etymologically, holiness means to be "set apart," to create a social and moral separation between the "clean" and the "unclean," between the "holy" and the "profane."

Given this understanding we can see why holiness and hospitality pull us in two different directions.

But as I argue it in Unclean, Jesus resolves the tensions by radically rethinking what it means to be holy. According to Jesus, loving God (the pursuit of holiness) is equated with loving your neighbor (the pursuit of hospitality). This is illustrated time and again in the gospels where the Pharisees achieve holiness by moral and social exclusion and separation from tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. By contrast, Jesus regularly eats with and welcomes tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes, declaring that God desires mercy (hospitality) and not sacrifice (holiness via exclusion).

In thinking about Jesus's conflation of hospitality and holiness I was struck recently by the associations made in 1 Peter about the relationship between holiness and love:
1 Peter 1.13-16, 22
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.
Notice how the call to holiness--"be holy"--is connected to a very specific goal: purify yourself "so that you have sincere love for each other."

Here's how 1 Peter 1.22 is rendered in some other translations:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,

NRSV: Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.
We are called to be holy as God is holy. We are to purify ourselves.

But what is the goal of holiness? For what purpose is purity?

The purpose and the goal of holiness and purity is that we will have sincere, genuine, deep and mutual love for each other.

Holiness and purity are not the opposite of love. Holiness and purity are the cultivation of love.  The holy person is the loving person. The pure person is the loving person.

Be holy to love each other.

The Lord's Day as Sacrament

Broadly understood, a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a sacrament grace meets us in and through the material world. Grace comes to us in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. Graces comes to us in the water of baptism.

The Protestant tradition generally recognizes two sacraments, the ones I just mentioned, the Lord's Supper and baptism. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions recognize seven sacraments.

In doing some research into the theology of my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, some have argued that our tradition recognizes (in deed if not in word) three sacraments: the Lord's Supper, baptism and the Lord's Day.

The gathering of the saints on the Lord's Day as a sacrament. You don't see this gathering mentioned a lot in discussions about the sacraments. But in my faith tradition going to church--the observance of the Lord's Day--is very much a sacramental practice.

To be sure, more often than not gathering on a Sunday in the Churches of Christ has been experienced more as a duty and an obligation than as a sacrament. But interestingly, the way we've focused on duty and obligation in observing the Lord's Day has informed how I've come to understand the sacrament of our gathering.

Specifically, at least when I was growing up, church services were aggressively non-consumeristic. Church was never supposed to be entertaining. Church wasn't even supposed to be interesting. Church wasn't supposed to be helpful or useful or impactful. Church wasn't there to "meet your needs."

So if you ever expressed a consumeristic sentiment--"I'm just not getting a lot out of church."--you'd be met with a blank stare. Why would you expect to "get anything" from church? Such an assumption betrayed a deep flaw in your theological understanding of what church was about. Church isn't about you. Church is not about your boredom or your needs or your feelings of fulfillment. The fact that your are bored is perfectly irrelevant. Church is a duty. You go regardless. That is all.

That's how I was raised. You go to church. Simply because you are supposed to go. Commanded to go. To expect to "get something" out of church was consumeristic, self-absorbed and ego-centric.   

Consequently, for many decades church services in the Churches of Christ were stubbornly uninventive. To innovate was to betray the fundamental conviction that church wasn't about "reaching" or "speaking to" the audience. If you were trying to please or interest the audience you were focusing on the people and not on God.

Of course all that sounds horrible. A church aggressively committed to being boring doesn't sound like a great way to do church. But this focus on duty had a genius about it. And it was this: a church based upon duty was not anthropocentric. In a church-as-duty model the human agent--our needs, wants, preferences and desires--were marginalized. Church-as-duty just isn't about you.

There is wisdom here. And it points to an irony in a lot of contemporary Christian worship. In striving to be more and more about God contemporary Christian worship has, ironically, become more and more about the preferences and tastes of the audience. True, when church is boring your numbers will be small, but you can be much more confident that the people showing up are showing up for God and not for themselves. Because they would, probably, rather be somewhere else. Yet here they are because they see it as their duty to God. God expects the gathering and they are obliging.

Again, many people will be rightly horrified by this grim vision of going to church out of a sense of duty or obligation. There is something masochistic about dragging yourself and the family out of bed on a Sunday morning to sit through a boring, rote and seemingly pointless religious observance. I myself rebelled against this in my young adulthood. I wanted church to be "meaningful" and "impactful." I saw the "duty" of going to church to be an example of a mindless and spiritually hollow legalism.

Which is to say, I now realize, I wanted church to be less about God and more about me.

So here's the crazy thing. I've found my way back to seeing the wisdom of church as duty. But less as a duty and more as a sacrament.

Here's my confession: I'm increasingly delighted when church is boring or irritating. I only feel the Spirit of God moving in my soul when I'm struggling to stay awake or chaffing at the banality of the praise songs. Spiritually speaking, the worst thing that can happen to me is for me to "like" church.

I don't want church to be like Facebook. I don't want to "like" church. I want to be bored by church. I want the drudgery.

I'm exaggerating of course. I'm simply here trying to gesture toward this notion that, more than anything, church is about showing up. Regardless. Showing up regardless.

I love it when church is stimulating, impactful, meaningful and thought-provoking. But for me, more and more, the showing up part is the most important part. I'd like the other stuff to happen of course, but I'm going to show up regardless.


Because I think the gathering itself--let me make that really clear, the gathering itself--is sacramental. I experience grace in the gathering. And when I look back on my early experiences of church, where we very dutifully gathered every Sunday, I now realize that the grace I experienced was due to the gathering, the simple act of gathering, week in and week out.

Grace came to me, sacramentally, in the material act of congregating. Grace came to me in the bodies and faces of those who greeted me at the door. In the bodies and faces of those who sat beside me in Sunday School class. In the bodies and faces of those who prayed and sang beside me in the pews.

The content of the service varied. Sermons were variously interesting or boring. Songs were variously uplifting or ear-splitting. Prayers were variously inspiring or rote. But week in and week out all that proved to be irrelevant. Grace came to me through the gathering. Church may have been a duty but it taught me that gathering, the simple act of gathering, was an experience of grace.

And so, to this day, the alarm will ring early on Sunday mornings. And the Becks will roust themselves out of bed. We get cleaned up and we drive to church.

And if it's no longer a duty it definitely is a discipline. Who wouldn't rather sleep in on Sunday morning? But we go. Because the sermon will be great? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going. Because the praise will be uplifting? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going.

We are going simply to experience the grace that comes with the sacrament of gathering. That is all.

And that, I've discovered, is enough.