How The Church Summons Demons

How did the German church allow Adolf Hitler to come to power? How did Christians come to summon those demons?

The German intelligentsia knew Hitler was crazy and racist. Mein Kampf told you that. So why did the German church go along with Hitler?

The German church approached Hitler pragmatically. Hitler could be used for good purposes. Yes, the man himself was completely antithetical to Jesus Christ, but the agenda and policies he stood for, these were good things.

Separate the insanity and immorality of the man from the good he would do for the country.

You could disagree--vehemently, as a Christian--with the racist motives behind Hitler's "Germany first" agenda, but still agree--wholeheartedly--with his Germany First policies. Did that support, then, make you, yourself, a racist? Of course not. There were very good pragmatic reasons for supporting Hitler. Hitler was crazy and racist, but Hitler's policies were good for Germany.

Who cares if Hitler had racist views, so long he made Germany great again?

And so, the German church summoned the demons.

How did American Christians come to summon the demons to our shores, emboldening a new generation of Nazis to carry torches through the night chanting "blood and soil"?

For the same reasons the German Christians did. Trump was a pragmatic choice. Admittedly, Trump was a little crazy. And true, he was no model of morality and virtue. And yes, Trump flirted with and his campaign energized white nationalists and white supremacists.

But all that could be bracketed because many Christians found the policies Trump espoused to have merit. A conservative Supreme Court justice. A border wall. Tighter immigration standards. Vigorous enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books. An "American first" approach to trade.

These polices were not inherently racist or xenophobic. Though, of course, racists and xenophobes would wholeheartedly agree with such policies. But that was just a sad, unfortunate coincidence. Just like how most of the Germans who supported Hitler were not Nazis.

And so it was that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. Evangelicals and many other Christians viewed Trump's mental instability and the enthusiasm white nationalists displayed for his campaign the same way the German church viewed Hitler.

Trump might not be a good person, even a bit crazy, but he would make America great again.

And so it was, that the church, once again, summoned the demons.

America's Holocaust

As we are aware, white nationalists, white supremacists, the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups descended upon Charlottesville because of the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (pictured here).

Last year I wrote a post entitled "America's Holocaust," the content of which I keep thinking about. I offer that post here again.

All the pictures in this post are from  Charlottesville.

This post will stay up the entire week. [Update: Today I posted "How the Church Summons Demons"]

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to lead our Study Abroad experience in Germany. During that time in Germany I was impressed with how the German people had and were continuing to reckon with their great national shame: the Holocaust.

Right in the middle of their capital city, Berlin, we spent powerful hours experiencing their Holocaust memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In that same city we also experienced the Topography of Terror museum. Outside of Weimar, German tour guides led us through the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Displaying the Nazi flag and giving the "Heil Hitler" salute are illegal in Germany.

Wherever we went in Germany we saw evidence that a national reckoning with the Holocaust had been and is being attempted.

I thought of the German ban of the Nazi flag recently when a truck in a car show here in town was proudly flying the Confederate flag as it drove past.

No one blinked or winced. People cheered and applauded.

And the question came to me, "Why don't Americans see the Confederate flag the same way the Germans view the Nazi flag?"

The answer that came to me was this: America has never reckoned with its Holocaust.

Ponder this. In the middle of Berlin there is a massive memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Where in Washington DC is a memorial to the lives lost in the Middle Passage?

When do Americans, collectively and culturally, reckon with their guilt in the slave trade?

What happened on those slave ships and on American soil was as horrific as what happened in the Nazi concentration camps. But has the US reckoned with that legacy the same way Germany has reckoned with its Holocaust?

For example, have you ever seen or visited a Holocaust memorial in the US? Many of us have. There are numerous Holocaust memorials in the US. Almost every major US city has one.

By comparison, have you ever seen or visited a memorial to the Transatlantic slave trade?

We Americans do better mourning Nazi sins than we do facing and grieving our own.

In 2015 the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was unveiled on the grounds of the United Nations. That such a memorial was just erected in 2015 is stunning. That the memorial was erected by the United Nations and not the United States goes to my point.

True, you can see exhibits about the slave trade in our civil rights museums and you can experience slavery themed tours at historical sites like Monticello. But such experiences only go to reinforce the fact that America has not morally reckoned with the slave trade the way Germany has reckoned with the Holocaust.

In our museums the ugly legacy of slavery is routinely connected to exhibits of civil rights progress, from the Middle Passage to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such a narrative is morally consoling. These dark evil things are in the past. We've made progress. Let's move forward.

For example, in the national mall in Washington there is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights hero. We want pride rather than guilt. We memorialize racial struggle with a heroic symbol of progress. In moral contrast to Germany, there is no memorial in our national mall remembering the lives lost during the slave trade and during America's years of slavery.

America has a Holocaust. And truth be told, America has two Holocausts: Slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans.

And yet, America has never morally reckoned with either slavery or the genocide of Native Americas as Holocausts. The Confederate flag is not moralized in America the way Germans see the swastika.

And this, I would argue, is the single biggest reason America has not been able to adequately address the racial problems plaguing our nation. Because there has never been a formal and culturally sustained moral reckoning with the American Holocausts we are always starting the conversation about race from two different moral locations. African Americans and Native Americans begin with the experience of Holocaust and expect us to engage this conversation with the moral, spiritual, political, and economic seriousness a Holocaust deserves.

The rest of us? We are the Holocaust deniers.

And from those two moral locations we cannot find our way back to each other. The moral chasm is too wide.

When that Confederate flag goes by in a parade, our African American friends and neighbors see that flag as the symbol of America's Holocaust. The hulls of slave ships were the American concentration camps, the Auschwitz and Buchenwald of the Middle Passage.

The rest of us cheer and applaud the Confederate flag as a symbol of "Southern pride."

That is what separates us, at the deepest level.

The Holocaust and its deniers.

Prison Diary: Birthday Cards

One of the things that I most look forward to every year is the birthday card I get from the Men in White.

I've written about these contraband birthday cards before. Anything the inmates make is contraband. But it's one of those things that is tolerated. But technically, making a birthday card is breaking the rules.

I love these outlaw birthday cards. Not only is the paperwork and art of the card impressive, what I most cherish are the notes and birthday wishes each man writes to me.

It's humbling to read the card, pondering the journey we've been making together on Monday nights over the years. There is genuine affection between us.

And they never miss the date. Every year Herb gets a card and so do I. Mine came late this year. I was with dear friends in England and Jersey in June.

But the first day I got back to the unit, there was my card.


Mr. Breen

The Catholic Worker communities founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin are known for their radical hospitality. If you've read the work of Dorothy Day you know how a lot of idealistic people were drawn to her Catholic Worker community in New York but were repulsed by all the drunks, dead beats and downright crazy people in the Catholic Worker house.

But Dorothy Day wouldn't kick anybody out. Not even Mr. Breen.

Mr. Breen was hard to live with. He was irascible and racist. Because of his racism and angry outbursts people wanted Dorothy to kick Mr. Breen out of the house. But learning to live with and love Mr. Breen, Dorothy repeated over and over, was a part of the "harsh and dreadful love" God had called us to. Mr. Breen would stay.

And Mr. Breen had his good points. He was always ready to help out around the house. The cranky old man became a fixture in the community.

That angry, racist old man should have died alone. But he didn't. Mr. Breen died with the Catholic Workers.

"He left only his cane," Dorothy Day wrote in her Catholic Worker column "On Pilgrimage," "that cane he used to shake at people in arguments. Many a time he had threatened to wrap it around the neck of one or another around the house. That cane is now mine. And when I use it on the hills around the farm, I shall think of Mr. Breen, part of our family who is now gone."

The only other thing Mr. Breen left behind was a poem he had recently wrote: 
Red Fox, step lightly
On the crisp, gray moss;
St. Francis said his prayers here.
Look where his cross
Is sunk in the stone!
On the bracken and brier,
Let four feet and two
Seek the shortest trail
    homeward
Through moon-filtered dew.
And each in innocence
Folded in night,
Lie on the heart of God
Safe until light.

Spanning the Jaws of Death

Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men...

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.

Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.

--Saint Ephrem

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

We were starting a series on the Psalms in our adult Sunday morning Bible class at church. And, of course, you start off with Psalm 1:
Psalm 1.1-2
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
We spent some time wrestling with how counter-cultural this passage is for modern Americans. Who of us "delight in the Law"?

We are a people who prize independence, autonomy, liberty and freedom. From children to teenagers to adults we equate law with rules, limitations and restrictions.

We are ill-equipped to hear the message of Psalm 1.

And yet, every great wisdom tradition--from Judaism to Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism to Stoicism to Christianity--agree on this one central point: human flourishing flows out of discipline. There is wide agreement across this wisdom traditions on this issue. Human flourishing requires discipline.

Americans, by contrast, think that flourishing flows out of the maximization of choice and freedom. The more choices and the fewer restrictions the better our ability to seek and find our happiness.

Two visions of flourishing sit before us.

Does happiness flow from saying "No" to the self or from saying "Yes" to the self?

Prison Diary: Rob Bell in Prison

Regular readers know I've lamented the poor theology that is often found in prison ministries. The theology is often fundamentalist and revivalistic.

To be clear, I love to thump the Bible and I like a good altar call. But if all you ever get, theologically speaking, is Bible thumping and altar calls your spiritual formation gets unbalanced.

Plus, I'd like to insert some progressive perspectives into the Bible study. Last week, for example, I used the Passover to talk about Christus Victor atonement, how salvation isn't just about guilt and forgiveness. Salvation is also about liberation and emancipation from dark, enslaving forces. And if Christus Victor make sense anywhere, it makes sense in a maximum security prison, where the dark forces are rampant.

As a part of all this, expanding the theological perspectives in our study, a few weeks ago we started showing Rob Bell's NOOMA videos. A few each week with discussions in between.

The NOOMA videos have been around churches for years, a staple of youth ministries. Many of my college students were raised on the NOOMA videos.

I don't know if NOOMA videos have ever been used in a maximum security prison. But we are doing it.

So, how does Rob Bell and NOOMA play in a prison?

The inmates love it!

The videos have worked really well. Great conversations after each video, accomplishing exactly what I hoped they would: Kicking us out of the fundamentalist and revivalistic ruts.

Psalm 37 and the Imagination of Jesus

The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, is a diverse and mixed theological bag. Grab some things over others and you reach one set of conclusions. Grab different things over others and you reach a different set of conclusions.

For example, during the time of Jesus the zealots grabbed some Old Testament texts and reached a particular set of conclusions. The Pharisees grabbed different texts and differed from the zealots.

So I've always been curious about what in the Old Testament grabbed and shaped Jesus' imagination. What passages in the Hebrew Scriptures captivated and guided Jesus' teachings?

The more and more I read Psalm 37 the more and more I'm convinced that it had to be one of Jesus' favorite psalms. As I read Psalm 37 I see so many echos in Jesus' teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

What I find important is how in Psalm 37 a link is made between peaceableness toward enemies with a lack of anxiety about the successes and threats of enemies. I find that connection--social peace and tranquility flowing out of inner peace and tranquility--to be a critical thread that runs through the Sermon on the Mount.

Here is Psalm 37 for your consideration:
Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.

The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.

The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

Better is the little that the righteous has
than the abundance of many wicked.
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.

The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will remain forever;
they are not put to shame in evil times;
in the days of famine they have abundance.

But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
but the righteous is generous and gives;
for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
He is ever lending generously,
and his children become a blessing.

Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever.
For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his saints.

They are preserved forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land
and dwell upon it forever.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.

Mark the blameless and behold the upright,
for there is a future for the man of peace.
But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

Untitled

Burning on
the ink horizon
steel trees of light
illuminating
bone white
blocks of concrete
and making the razorwire sparkle.
The City of the Damned
on a darkening plain
on the outskirts of nowhere.
Souls housed
convicted condemned,
ringed by distances
colder and harsher
than the clinking medal doors and bars.
This vast separation,
the metric
measured in unfeeling hearts.

They are dead to us.

Living ghosts
we dress in white.

///

A poem I composed one night driving out the the prison. When it's winter it's dark when I drive out to the unit. Dark until I see the lights illuminating the low white buildings. It's startling to see this City of the Damned emerge out of the darkness. A great pool of light out in the middle of nowhere.

Far from sight. Far from our minds and hearts.

Spatio-Temporal Continuity and the Ontological Permanence of the Principalities and Powers (Or, What Private Golf Clubs Can Teach Us About Spiritual Warfare)

If you're not following it, you need to check out Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History.

I was recently listening to the Season 2 episode "A Good Walk Spoiled" about the golf courses in Los Angeles. The episode is mainly a reflection upon how rich, private golf clubs in LA avoid paying property taxes, depriving the citizens of LA access to much needed green space in a city that lacks public parks.

Beyond the justice issues raised in the podcast, the episode caught my attention as it provides a great illustration of how we can think about the principalities and powers as suprahuman forces at work in the world. Lots of people have tried to describe this aspect of the Powers--from Walter Wink to C.S. Lewis to N.T. Wright to my own attempts in Reviving Old Scratch.

It's best to just listen to the whole podcast, but the part to focus on is how the ownership of a golf club changes but doesn't change over time because of spatio-temporal continuity. Legally, because of spatio-temporal continuity, the "ownership" of these golf clubs hasn't changed over time, even though members have come and gone over the years. This allows the ownership of these clubs to remain under pre-1978 property tax rates (Prop 13).

The point for our purposes is how the Power is more than the sum of its constituent parts as it moves through time and how, due to spatio-temporal continuity, the Power keeps unjust structures firmly in place.

Gladwell makes the connection between the spatio-temporal continuity of the Power and injustice at the 29:38 mark in a conversation with philosopher Mark Cohen (emphases mine):
Gladwell:
But it strikes me that in a political context this kind of thinking [i.e., spatio-temporal continuity] can be used to perpetuate inequality and injustice. For example, what is an aristocracy but a political formulation of the spatio-temporal continuity principle? It's troubling in precisely that way because it is saying, circumstances can change, and the holders of the privilege can change--the father can die and the son can inherit the peerage--but the peerage remains intact. It has this quality that's independent of all that is going on around it.

Cohen:
Yes. Where the identity of the object confers, for example, a right or a title, and if it's considered to be held intact and in full by whoever holds it at any one time, then basically that removes change altogether from the realm of what matters as far as ownership is concerned. So the seventeenth great-grandson of the peer has all the rights and privileges, even though so far removed from the rights and privileges as they attach to the original holder of them. So there is something that is unfair and anti-egalitarian about the way this principle can get applied
Basically, if you want to ponder the suprahuman aspect of the principalities and powers, listen to this podcast explore how, in Gladwell's words, "large groups of rich white people possess ontological permanence." 

“The Battle to be Like Jesus is Won or Lost in Milliseconds”

If you haven't seen it yet, I wanted to alert you to my recent podcast and blog post with Tim and David at the Nomad podcast.

I start off my blog post Practicing Your Way Into Loving Like Jesus with this comment: “The battle to be like Jesus is won or lost in milliseconds.”

You can read the post to unpack why that is so, and the whole post is a teaser for my new book coming out in November Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise.

Prison Diary: Home

After many weeks being away on travels and family vacation I was back with the Men in White on Monday.

It was very good to be back.

I relished in the drive out to the prison. To most people, West Texas isn't very pretty. The landscape is too flat and scrubby, mainly just mesquite trees, brush, rocks and cacti. This time of year, if we haven't had a lot of rain, the landscape has a dry, burnt look.

But there really is something about wide open spaces.

It's taken me years to emotionally resonate with the landscape, having grown up in lush Pennsylvania. But on the drive out to the prison, which is a few miles northeast of town, I get clear of the city and out into the open countryside. I can't describe the feeling, but when the space opens up--the cobalt blue sky, extending from horizon to horizon, over the rocky scrub below--something opens up inside my heart. The only way I can describe the feeling is that it feels like a happy ache.

Maybe it's just the feeling of being back home, but I find West Texas beautiful. Achingly beautiful in ways I cannot explain.

And maybe that's the best definition of home there is, an affection that can't be explained, justified or accounted for, only felt by the few who have come to love a particular place.

Reading the New Testament in 89 Days

I recently discovered a Bible reading plan from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This plan has you reading through the entire New Testament in 89 days.

The idea is simple. Each day read one chapter from the gospels, starting in Matthew 1 all the way through John 21. It'll take you 89 days to do this.

For the epistles, read two chapters each day, starting with Acts 1 all the way through Revelation 22. Two chapters from the epistles each day gets you through them all in 86 days.

So that's the plan. Each day, one chapter from the gospels and two from the epistles for 89 days.

The Wicked Problems of Jails and Prisons

Many thanks to Kim for pointing out to me an article at ABC's Religion and Ethics. "Can Systematic Theology become 'Pastoral' Again, and Pastoral Theology 'Theological'?" is written by Sarah Coakley, and in it she shares some of her reflections about the need for more rigorous theological reflection in pastoral locations like jails and hospitals.

The article is a reflection on the disjoint between pastoral and systematic theology, and a call for pastoral theology to become more rigorous so that it can tackle the "wicked problems" we face in our penal and health care systems.

Kim was interested in how my experiences in prison lined up with Coakley's.

This part of her essay caught my attention:
I was struck that in my time in the Boston jail I was up against a nexus of issues which no one seemed adequately to have probed in relation to one another - or at least no one seemed to have probed theologically. There was the harsh legal response to minor drugs offences; the racialized policy of policing in the "black" area of Boston; the deliberate brutalizing and further criminalizing of young men in impossibly cramped cell conditions in the jail; and the scarcely-veiled threat by the jail authorities towards chaplains and other well-wishers that any dimensions to their ministry that might be construed as politically subversive would be harshly riposted and repressed. 
One of Coakley's points in the article is that when pastoral theology focuses on emotional and therapeutic issues, in either hospitals and jails, it fails to give theological attention to the systemic causes of suffering in the world.

Simply stated, when pastoral theology reduces itself to the emotions of the inmate or patient, it becomes a form of palliative care.

And if you need a reminder, here's the definition of palliative: "relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition."

And so, Coakley argues, pastoral theology should strive to give more than palliative care. Pastoral theology should attend to how the system creates suffering.

But the trouble in my experience, as Coakley notes in the last sentence of the quote above, is that if a chaplain attempts more than palliative care, and begins to offer theological reflections on the justice of the system, they risk being labeled as politically subversive and kicked out of the jail/prison.

So the point I made to Kim is that the disjoint between pastoral and systematic theology, at least in the prison, isn't only due to the historical developments Coakley describes in her article. The disjoint is produced by the system itself, forcing the chaplain to make a wicked choice. Here's a bit of what I shared with Kim:
I have a friend who was doing prison work in Tennessee. Very justice-oriented guy. He got kicked out of the prison because he was helping the prisoners organize. So now he can't go inside a prison anymore.

So the system forces you into the pastoral position--helping the men "cope" with their lot (i.e., submit to their punishment). Anything that has the men question the justice of their condition is risky. If I address these issues I may never see the men ever again, or be allowed to work in a prison again. In short, the principality and power of the prison forces you to divorce the pastoral from justice.

You have to pick your fight. Do you want to be inside, with the men, or forever exiled to the outside? That's the wicked problem.

That Man Is the Whole Human Race

This is a great truth, that he ascended above all the heavens, yet is near to those on earth.

Who is this stranger and neighbor if not the one who became our neighbor out of compassion?

The man lying on the road, left half-dead by robbers, the man treated with contempt by the priest and the levite who passed by, the man approached by the passing Samaritan to take care of him and help him, that man is the whole human race.

When the immortal one, the holy one, was far removed from us because we were mortal and sinners, he came down to us, so that he, the stranger, might become our neighbor.

--St. Augustine

Sabbath as Means or End?

We often hear calls for Sabbath as a means to sustain and support our work in the world, especially our work for the kingdom.

That call often sounds like this:

We're all so busy and over-committed. Consequently, we're stressed and exhausted. Often because we're doing good things for the kingdom, yes, but we're burning out. The pace of our lives, even doing good things, is unsustainable.

So we need Sabbath. We need to rest so that we can recharge the batteries. Sabbath slows us down so that we can keep the work going but at a more humane pace.

This call to Sabbath in the midst of soul-killing busyness is very common. You've heard it before and likely feel the need to rest yourself. We are all very tired.

But let me make the provocative claim that this call to Sabbath is the very worst way of thinking about Sabbath.

Here's my argument: We're ruining Sabbath because we're treating Sabbath as a means rather than an end.

Let me say it a different way. We are missing the point of Sabbath because we are instrumentalizing Sabbath, turning Sabbath into a technique and a tool.

Notice how the call to Sabbath tends to work. We're busy. That's unsustainable. So we need to rest. Why? So that we can keep working.

Sabbath in this view is a technique to sustain work. Sabbath isn't the end, it's a means to an end, the sustaining of work.

In short, we've turned Sabbath into a self-help technique. Sabbath is a recommendation for busy people to keep them from getting stressed out.

And by and large, that's how many Christians think about Sabbath, as a call to rest and relaxation, as a self-help technique to help them manage stress and busyness.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath isn't a means to work, Sabbath is the end of work. Sabbath isn't to sustain work. Sabbath is the enjoyment that comes at the end of our labors.

This is a subtle but important distinction as it defines what we take to be our default condition. When Sabbath is a tool to sustain work then labor is our default condition, Sabbath is always spitting us back into the world of stress and busyness. We celebrate Sabbath in order to work.

But if Sabbath is the end and not the means then Sabbath rest, abiding with and enjoying each other, is our default condition. Work is the means to create and sustain that space.

I think the main reason we've missed the boat on Sabbath is that in the West our vision of Sabbath is too individualistic. When we think of rest we think of "recharging our batteries." Rest is all about me regaining energy to fuel more work.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath was social, relational and communal. Sabbath was being with others, the cessation of work to create space for community and fellowship. Sabbath was not created to "recharge our batteries," but to create space where we could abide with each other.

Sabbath, in short, is the kingdom of heaven on earth. Love and community. Resting into each other.

Sabbath isn't a self-help recommendation for busy people.

Sabbath is intimacy and relationship.

Sabbath is not a tool to sustain more work, but the goal and end of life itself.

Prison Diary: Prison Pamphlets

I was raised on church pamphlets and tracts. Do you know about these?

In the congregations of my youth in the church foyer there would be a rack filled with small little booklets and tracts on all sorts of biblical topics. Most of the pamphlets had an evangelistic thrust, tackling questions associated with heaven, hell, and what we called "the steps to salvation."

Church pamphlets were a memory of my youth. I had not run into a church pamphlet in years.

And then I went out to the prison.

Churches send in all sorts of literature to prisons, much of it in the form of church pamphlets. 

At our unit, the chaplains put these pamphlets in racks in the hallway leading into the chapel. Each week as I wait for the men to arrive I get to peruse this literature.

Most of this literature is very fundamentalist. The better stuff is evangelical. By far the most popular pamphlet is Our Daily Bread. The inmates snap these up like candy, often sending them to their families. The daily meditation format of Our Daily Bread helps forge a spiritual connection between the inmate and loved one as they read through the daily meditations together.

Some of the literature send to prison is also very self-indulgent. The general rule seems to be, if no one will read your unique theological contribution to the world, print it up as a pamphlet and send it to a prison. They're a captive audience.

It all makes me wonder, why aren't liberal and progressive churches sending better literature to our prisons? This question is associated with an issue I've raised before on the blog, about why so few progressive/liberal Christians are involved in prison ministry.

As I stand in the chapel hallway looking at the pamphlet racks, I ask these questions every week.

Mercy

I think we too are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy.

I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.

--Pope Francis, Homily (March 17, 2013)

Calming the Storm and the End of Exile

I've never really been able to get my head around Jesus' miracle of calming the storm, one of his nature miracles.

I've tended to see Jesus' miracles as signs pointing to the end of Israel's exile, new Exodus themes. The new wine beginning to flow (the miracle of Cana), the forgiveness of sins (the healing miracles), captives being set free (the exorcisms).

But how does the calming of the sea fit into this scheme?

The other day I was reading Psalm 107, and I think I found my answer.

Psalm 107 is an ode to the various forms of God's deliverance. The end of exile and Exodus themes start the Psalm:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.
From there the Psalm sings about the various ways God has delivered his people, a list that reads like an inventory of Jesus' miracles and ministry. Feeding. Setting captives free. Healing. Vineyards producing again. Lifting up the needy.

And also this:
Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.

They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
All that to say, I think you can use Psalm 107 to connect the calming of the storm to end of exile and new Exodus themes.

Fall in Love

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

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

--Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

God is Love. Full Stop.

Over the summer I've re-read two of George MacDonald's novels. I haven't read a George MacDonald novel since college when they had such a transformative effect upon me.

I know a lot of George MacDonald fans, but not many of them express my degree of enthusiasm for his novels. Most MacDonald fans love Unspoken Sermons, his fairy stories or his children's stories. There aren't very many people who adore MacDonald's novels. Admittedly, they aren't all that good. But I love them, and they had a huge impact upon me.

Why?

During High School I had reached the conviction that the deepest confession I could make about God is that God is love. Simple enough, but at that time I still lacked the courage to make that confession unconditional. I lacked the courage to confess that "God is love" full stop.

Everything I had been exposed to within Christianity pushed me to qualify the confession. "God is love, but..." God is love, but most of humanity would suffer eternal conscious torment. God is love, but God demands a blood sacrifice to be appeased. God is love, but it really is okay to kill your enemies.

Yes, God is love...but.

George MacDonald was the person who gave me the courage to drop the qualifications. God is love, full stop. No ifs, ands, or buts.

And it really does take a bit of courage to unconditionally confess that God is love. So few Christians actually believe this. The vast majority of Christians qualify any confession that God is love. God is love, but what about God's holiness, justice, violence, and wrath? Consequently, to confess God's love unconditionally makes you feel like a bit of a crazy person. That's the way I felt as a young adult when I tried to share my convictions. And it's what a lot of people feel when the share the same convictions in their own congregations. 

All this came to mind recently thinking about The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference this November in Santa Fe.

What makes the conference unique is that every speaker--keynote and breakout--is dedicated to a non-violent and non-sacrificial vision of God and Christianity. I can't imagine a more important and timely subject for American Christianity given what is happening to our politics and our faith, on both the right and the left.

Many of the speakers at The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference will be working from a Girardian perspective, explicating how a sacrificial vision of God is at work in the scapegoating dynamics we see on both the Right and the Left, religiously and politically. For my part, I'll be elucidating the purity psychologies at work among conservatives and progressives, and how that psychology functions to mask the scapegoating mechanisms, allowing it to keep rolling on. Emotions--fear, contempt, disgust--continue to fuel the myth of redemptive violence, how violence is okay if we, the righteous ones, use it for good, kingdom of God purposes.

If you don't know the work of Rene Girard, the conference will be a great education. But while Girard is really helpful and insightful, I think the core issue facing Christianity is very simply stated.

Is God love?

And if God is love--full stop--what does that mean for how we read the Bible, think about the atonement, eschatology, political action, social activism, and the church?

At The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference I'm looking forward to being with people who have the courage George MacDonald gave me many years ago.

Christians who confess that our God is love.

Full stop.

Prison Diary: The Eye Glass Hustle

I'm on a family vacation, so I haven't been at the prison for a few weeks. I'm blessed Herb is back home keeping the class going. As I've said before, you really need a team to keep a prison ministry going.

Since I don't have an update from the class this week, let me tell you more about prison hustles.

I recently shared about clothing hustles, how they are used to bleach and double-stitch the prison uniforms. But here is my favorite hustle.

One inmate I know has a lens grinding hustle for glasses. Prison-issue glass frames are huge, black frames. Very nerdy. (Come to think of it, prison glass frames--big, black and nerdy--are pretty fashionable now in the free world. Strange times.)

A lot of inmates, however, walk around with nicer, more fashionable frames. Where do these glasses come from? They come from this one inmate who grinds lenses for the entire prison. How he does it is all very hush, hush. Trade secrets he keeps to himself as this hustle is very in demand and valuable.

Basically, it all starts when a inmate gets his prison-issue prescription glasses with those big, ugly frames. His loved one then comes to visit, wearing the frames he'd like to have. He take those glasses at the visit, wearing them as he leaves. He then pops the prison-issued lenses from his prison glasses and gives those along with the new frames to the inmate with the hustle. He then grinds the prison lenses down to fit the new frames.

Most of the glasses in the prison are contraband eye-wear. Though a few guys do wear the prison-issued frames. And I must say, I like those frames.

Prison-frames are all the rage now.

Burning Love is the Outcry of the Heart

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer...

Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases...

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

--St. Augustine

We Are Saved By Feelings Alone

The problem with many Christians is that salvation is understood to be fundamentally about feelings.

Our predicament--sin and the judgment of a righteous God--starts with an invisible problem in an invisible space with an invisible person.

And the solution--accepting Jesus into our hearts as our Lord and Savior--is an invisible act that triggers an invisible transaction in an invisible space with the invisible person.

The entire thing, problem and solution, is totally invisible.

Salvation, commonly understood, has no material aspect, no political, social, economic, ecological, behavioral or moral signifiers. Salvation is wholly invisible.

Consequently, salvation can only be tracked through feelings. Feelings are your spiritual GPS. You track where you are in the invisible space by monitoring your psychology.

This is one of the reasons Christian worship has gravitated toward creating a "worship high." Given that Christianity has been reduced to feelings, worship and preaching is judged by its effectiveness in creating powerful feelings.

To be clear, I don't want to dismiss the importance of emotions in spirituality. Joy, peace, wonder, and gratitude are all hugely important. But love, generosity, hospitality, kindness and peace-making are behaviors. My concern here is the feeling/action divorce which allows many Christians to feel loved but who aren't very loving.

A Christian who doesn't love isn't much of a Christian, but far too many Christians don't seem to care, so long as they feel loved by God. If they have the feelings, they count themselves a Christian.

If the great dichotomy used to be Faith vs. Works I think it's now been supplanted by Feelings vs. Actions.

Instead of sola fide, the mantra for modern Christianity has become sola affectio.

We are saved by feelings alone.

The Great Irony of Spiritual Warfare

My recent book Reviving Old Scratch grew out of a series I did in 2013 entitled "On Weakness and Warfare." Those posts were aimed at progressive Christians but Reviving Old Scratch was written with a wider audience in view. Consequently, the central point of those 2013 posts wasn't featured in the book.

What was that central point?

The central point was that spiritual warfare is the natural language of progressive Christianity.

That's a bit of a shocking assessment given that progressive Christians tend to be the most skeptical about the existence of the devil and the most worried about invoking "spiritual warfare." These are the "doubting and disenchanted" Christians from the subtitle of Reviving Old Scratch. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are much more comfortable with the devil and spiritual warfare.

And yet, it's my belief that spiritual warfare is a more natural fit for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians.

Why?

It has to do with how we believe God's power works in the world. By and large, progressive Christians claim that God's power in the world is love, the weakness of the cross.

But if that is true, we have to face the fact that love is always contestable. Because love will not force the issue or seek to dominate love is always prone to challenge and rejection.

Again, the key point: Love is always contestable.

In short, love, being love, implies struggle. One has to fight for love. In Reviving Old Scratch I quote singer Pat Benatar: "Love is a battlefield."

In short, because of the way progressives think about God's power in the world spiritual warfare--"love is a battlefield"--is the natural language of progressive Christianity.

By contrast, many conservatives believe in God's providential and meticulous control of the world. God controls the outcome of every event.

But if that's the case spiritual warfare is immediately ruled out. In such a view there is no space for oppositional forces to operate.

Thus the great theological irony of spiritual warfare.

Conservative Christians embrace spiritual warfare but fail to see how it's inconsistent with a theology of God's meticulous control over the cosmos.

By contrast, progressive Christians are skeptical about spiritual warfare and yet their theology implies that very struggle.

Prison Diary: Prison Hooch

The one item the prison commissary doesn't sell is sugar.

Question: Why not?

Answer: Hooch.

The making of illegal alcohol in prison is big business. To create fermentation you need two things, sugar and yeast. So sugar is often banned from being sold in prisons.

If you can't steal sugar from the kitchen, the main source of sugar for prison hooch is fruit or fruit juice. If you can't get fruit or juice, sugar can be obtained from lots of places, from frosting to candy to ketchup.

So where does the yeast come from?

Bread.

Hooch is usually fermented in plastic bags, and even toilets, by mixing water, bread and fruit and letting it sit for a week.

Sounds delicious!

Summer Reading

If you're looking for some summer reading let me make two suggestions if you are interested in what's happening on the streets of America.

The first book is Dreamland by Sam Quinones.

Dreamland is the best book out there about America's opioid addiction epidemic, a national health crisis that has become our generation's AIDS.

Seriously, if you're a church and you're not tracking with the opioid epidemic you're massively out of touch with what's happening in your city.

The second book is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

This is the best book about poverty in America that I've ever read. Many people have pointed to Hillbilly Elegy as the best recent book about Rust Belt America, but I think Evicted is way, way the better read. Evicted is focused on both whites and blacks and gets you more into the nuts and bolts of how the system affects poor people, their housing especially.

If your church is interested in poverty, housing and homelessness then you need to read Evicted.

That's Not God You Are Feeling, It's Called Vacation

Last week I spent a lovely time with my family on the shores of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We've been going to Hilton Head since I was in high school. So it's a special place to me.

I expect like many of you, I find the ocean spiritually refreshing. My favorite thing to do is linger at the end of the day. Around dinner time all the beach goers head back to their houses and you get to have the expanse of sand, water and sky all to yourself. On our last day at Hilton Head I took this picture. A George MacDonald book in my hand.

But here's the strange theological reflection I'd like to share with you. While I really do get spiritually filled at the ocean, I resist the "finding God in beautiful places" impulse. People say things like this all the time: "I feeling closest to God at the ocean" or "I feel closest to God when I'm in the mountains". Just think of that beautiful place in your own life and memories and how it made you feel closer to God.

Once a friend shared this sentiment with me. She said, "I really feel close to God by the ocean." And I joked, "That's not God you are feeling. It's called vacation."

But I was only half-joking. Because I do think there is something problematic about seeking out a beautiful place to feel close to God.

A few years ago I made a similar point in my post "I Love My Ugly Town," contrasting my not very pretty hometown of Abilene, TX with Malibu, CA. I made the point that if you have to go to Malibu to feel close to God we've got a spiritual problem on our hands. We need to learn to find God in the boring and ugly places of everyday life.

For three reasons.

First, there is a socioeconomic issue.

Most of my friends at Freedom Fellowship (a mission church sharing life with the poor) aren't going to get a chance to go to a Hilton Head or a Malibu. So all this jabbering about finding God on the beach sort of sticks in my craw. Are my friends at Freedom doomed to never experience these spiritual heights because they can't afford a beach vacation?

The second problem is that if we only find God on vacation or at that beautiful destination then God is always somewhere else and never where you are right now.

And the final, related problem is that if we only experience closeness to God at that beautiful vacation spot we fail to develop the spiritual discernment required to experience intimacy and profound union with God in the midst of ordinary life and ordinary places. For thirty years Jesus lived in Nazareth. And from what I can tell, Nazareth was no Malibu or Hilton Head.

But there was beauty in Nazareth. Not vacation, resort beauty. But the everyday beauty of sunrises, starry skies, springtime flowers, and the wind in the trees. These sights, I'm quite sure, would have made Jesus's heart sing praises to his Father, the Creator of all things.

I am spiritually rejuvenated being at Hilton Head. Especially with a George MacDonald novel in hand. So I don't want to dismiss the healing effects of beautiful places and a well-deserved vacation.

But I'm much more interested in developing a Nazareth aesthetic, learning to find God in ordinary places and ugly towns.