Acting Like Jesus While Living Like Everyone Else

Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going "the second mile." turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully--while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does....

We cannot behave "on the spot" as [Jesus] did and taught if in the rest of our time we live as everyone else does. The "on the spot" episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlike but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We've all seen this happen.

--Dallas Willard, from The Spirit of the Disciplines

Plea to Praise

Walter Brueggemann has said that the plea-to-praise movement in the Psalms is one of the most jarring and shocking of transitions in the bible. This move from lamentation into praise, seemingly from out of nowhere, is a hallmark of the lament psalms and other laments in the Old Testament.

For my part, one of the best examples of the plea-to-praise movement is in Lamentations 3.

When I was in college we used to sing a devotional song that came from Lamentations 3. The words:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is Your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in Him."
Those are beautiful words of praise and trust. But do you know what precedes this hymn of praise? One of the most searing and gut-wrenching songs of lament and sorrow. Accusation after accusation is hurtled at God. It's very uncomfortable to read. And then, out of nowhere, a hymn of trust and praise. It's really one of the most startling juxtapositions in all of Scripture.
I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;

he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;

surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;

he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;

he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;

though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;

he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.

He is a bear lying in wait for me,
a lion in hiding;

he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;

he bent his bow and set me
as a target for his arrow.

He drove into my kidneys
the arrows of his quiver;

I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the object of their taunts all day long.

He has filled me with bitterness;
he has sated me with wormwood.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;

my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;

so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!

My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

The Kingdom of God is Seeing

If you've heard me talk over the last two years you might have heard me talk about how the kingdom of God is perceptual rather than moral.

Specifically, the kingdom of God isn't a matter of becoming a good person. The kingdom of God is a matter of seeing. If you see clearly then the goodness--right action--follows as naturally as breathing.

An example of this is Thomas Merton's street corner revelation.

On March 18, 1958 Thomas Merton was in Louisville, KY for an appointment. Merton had been a cloistered monk for seventeen years. He had entered the monastery seeking an escape from the world so that he might draw closer to God. But on this day, standing on a street corner and watching the hustle and bustle of people, Merton had an experience of God that played an influential role in tuning him outward toward the world in the 60s.

Merton recounting his experience (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
A plaque marking the spot of this revelation (pictured above) can be found the corner Fourth and Walnut in Louisville.

Merton's revelation illustrates the point I'm making. Merton comes to see people with the eyes of God. We are all walking around shining like the sun. And upon seeing this, the illusion of separateness disappears and Merton's heart explodes: "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers."

My observation here is that Merton doesn't, in this moment, need to try, through an act of will, to "be a good person." Instead, having come to see clearly, right action is easy and spontaneous.

The kingdom of God is learning to see what Merton saw that day on the corner of Fourth and Walnut.

Second Sunday of Advent



"Shepherds"

The old ewe limps on the edge,
where moonlight bleeds into firelight,
bleating into the blackness.
Lost, forlorn and unanswered.
A sign
of our frayed, fragile hope.
Too stretched for memory.
Legends now
and barely believed.
And then,
within the quick catch of breath,
this cataclysm of light.
The interruption of decaying days
of a world we no longer recognize.
All burned away.
By angels with a song.

Prison Diary: Advent Hymns

Over the years I've written a couple of reflections about Advent out at the prison. The two most popular posts have been Advent: A Prison Story and Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation.

But the most popular Advent post I've written is Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature. And that's especially true during Advent out at the prison.

I've had to educate the men in the Bible study about Advent. They've been liturgically impoverished. So we've started to sing Advent hymns and Christmas carols during the weeks of Advent. Our singing this time of year, given the Advent theme of waiting for the end of captivity and exile, is particularly poignant and profound. Christmas is a hard time for lots of people. You can imagine how hard it is for the incarcerated.

And so we are singing Advent hymns on Monday nights, songs of resistance to fend off despair and chase away the darkness.
O come, O come, Emmanuel 
And ransom captive Israel 
That mourns in lonely exile here

Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 4, Radical Openness to God

In the last three posts of this series I've made two points.

First, faith needs religious experience. We need to bump into God from time to time or faith reduces to ethics and politics.

Second, on first blush it might seem that religious experience is increasingly rare in our secular age, but that's actually not the case, as William James has pointed out. We are surrounded by religious experiences, if we know what we are looking for and are intentional to be on the lookout.

In short, religious experience requires attention and intentionality.

All this made me think of the series of posts I did about James Smith's description of "the pentecostal worldview" in his book Thinking in Tongues.

According to Smith, the genius of the (small-p) pentecostal experience is a radical openness to God, especially God doing something different or new.

This openness is, writes Smith, "a deep sense of expectation and an openness to surprise." Charismatic and pentecostal worship "makes room for the unexpected" where "the surprising comes as no surprise."

Importantly for this series, what is key here is a posture of receptivity. As James says, "pentecostal spirituality is shaped by a fundamental mode of reception." This posture of receptivity creates the potential for surprise.

When I say cultivating religious experience is a matter of attention and intentionality, these are the things I'm talking about. Cultivating...

...a posture of receptivity.

...a deep sense of expectation.

...a capacity for surprise.

...radical openness to God.

Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 3, The Marks of Mysticism

Faith, I've been arguing, is sustained by religious experience, bumping into God from time to time.

But isn't that the very thing we struggle with in a secular, disenchanted age? It's not that we are dismissing the value and importance of these experiences, it's that we just aren't having these experiences in the first place. So facing that void, we're left to create other foundations for faith, things like ethics and politics.

In light of that possible response I'd like to use this post to argue that most of us are awash in religious experiences. These experiences really aren't all that rare if you know what you're looking for.

To illustrate this I'd like to go back to William James, his chapter on mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Mystical experiences are the quintessential examples of religious experience. And in his wide-ranging survey of these experiences James argues that there are four characteristic marks of mystical experiences:
1. Ineffability
Mystical experiences are difficult to capture and describe with words.

2. Noetic Quality
The definition of "noetic" is "relating to the intellect," from the Greek "to perceive." Mystical experiences are experienced as experiences of insight, revelation, and knowledge. A change in perception occurs. Scales fall from our eyes. We are enlightened and woke.

3. Transiency
Mystical experiences are fleeting and short-lived.

4. Passivity
Mystical experience happen to us. They act on us. We receive or surrender to them. They interrupt us. We feel, in the words of James, "grasped and held by a superior power."
Having set out these four marks of mystical experiences, James goes on to show how common these experiences are. He starts by reflecting upon those moments in our lives where we struck by an deep insight. We say to ourselves, "Now I understand what people have been talking about when they say..." We've been illuminated. We see things more clearly or deeply. We're interrupted by profundity. Often these insights occur through art, literature and music.

If you ponder the four characteristics above I bet you've had lots of mystical experiences in your life, large and small.

My point here is that mystical, religious experiences are more common than we think. If you know what you're looking for.

Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 2, William James on Religious Experience

That we need to bump into God from time to time, that religious experience vitalizes faith, came home to me this semester as I taught William James to my students in my Psychology of Religion class.

Religious experience is the focus of James' magisterial The Varieties of Religious Experience. James describes religious experience as our "direct personal communion with the divine." Bumping into God.

James goes on to make religious experience central to his definition of religion: Religion is "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they many consider the divine."

What is "the divine"? James' response is that the divine is that which we approach and respond to "solemnly and gravely." The divine is associated with experiences of wonder, reverence and awe. 

Teaching The Varieties of Religious Experience to my students this semester reminded me just how important religious experience is to faith. For James, religious experience--bumping into God--is primary. All our God talk, all our debates about theology and doctrine, are secondary to religious experience. This is important because, for many of us, we spend a lot of time and effort engaging in, monitoring and improving God talk. Faith reduces to theology. But theology without religious experience, God talk without "direct personal communion with the divine," eventually becomes an empty intellectual exercise, a chess game we play with other theological hobbyists.

In a related way, James is also keen to point out how religious experience is different from morality. This is important for Christians who reduce faith to activism and ethics. There are many who identify as "Christian" because they follow Jesus as a moral, humanistic exemplar. Christianity reduces to "following Jesus" as a moral guide, a model for how to live as a human being.

Let me be clear here, I'm not being judgmental about this. For many people, belief is hard and "following Jesus" is the only thing keeping them tethered to the faith and identifying themselves as a "Christian."

But the point William James makes in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experience--bumping into God--is different from following a moral exemplar like Jesus, as praiseworthy as that may be. This is what I meant in the last post about how many Christians, in reducing their faith to "following Jesus," have cut themselves off vitalizing sources of faith.

For James, religious experiences are fundamentally emotional. Religious experiences stun, stop and interrupt us. Religious experiences inspire wonder, awe and reverence. Religious experiences fire our passions and imaginations. Religious experiences fill us up with joy and peace. Religious experiences make us fearless and courageous.

Bumping into God from time to time vivifies and vitalizes faith.

If William James is right, and I think he is, when we don't have direct, personal experiences with the sacred and divine--experiences that move, stun and shake us--faith becomes unsustainable. We come to lean on secondary structures--God talk and morality--that eventually collapse without the foundation of religious experience.

Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 1, We Need to Bump Into God From Time to Time

Last summer I had a wonderful conversation with Brian Smith while visiting our dear friends the Bywaters in St. Albans. During that conversation Brian said something that really struck and has stuck with me.

Among many of the things we talked about, Brian and I were discussing faith in a secular age, church-going in particular. An increasing amount of people, younger adults in especially, just don't find going to church very compelling. Brian's observation was that unless one is encountering God at church--having a religious experience of the sacred and divine--then church isn't going to be very attractive to people.

That might seem to be a fairly obvious observation, but I think Brian put his finger on something very important. That is why his comment has stayed with me.

Yes, it seems obvious that we'd go to church to encounter God, but that's not happening for many of us. And while some of this is a problem with the church--so feel free to pile on--a lot of the problem, as I'll argue in these posts, has to do with how we have closed ourselves off to having religious experiences. And if you cut yourself off from religious experiences, you cut yourself off from what makes faith vital, energized and passionate.

For many Christians--and especially post-evangelicals going through a season of deconstruction--faith is being increasingly reduced to political activism and ethics. And while politics and ethics are really important things, we need to bump into God from time to time if we want to sustain faith across the long haul.

First Sunday of Advent



A poem I shared last year...

"Exile"

The faces of the old men
glow orange in the brazier's light,
seeing through time
with white milky cataract eyes.
The camels snort somewhere in the dark.
Huddled against the desert cold
they tell us the stories.
One Story, really.
Of a hope, now tenuous and dim,
rendered more fragile with the tellings,
like the glowing cinders rising
and taken by the wind
into the dark beyond seeing.
Of a king
who would come.
Of a God
who had not forgotten us.

Prison Diary: Brenden's Letters

My son Brenden is a sophomore in college. When he left his bedroom here at home his freshmen year, he didn't quite get it all cleaned out. And last summer, when he moved back home, it filled up some more. So over Thanksgiving one of the things I helped him do was to get the room fully and finally cleaned out. We took everything out of the room and he sorted through it all making two piles. Keep and Throw Away.

As he sorted we came across letters the men in the prison had written him.

During his Senior year of High School Brenden was baptized. The men in the study relish news about my life. They don't get to have ordinary days and rhythms of life--family, job, church. They don't get to see movies or go out to eat. But they see all these things on TV. So they live vicariously through us. Have we tried that new burger at Whataburger? Are you going to the Star Wars movie?

So when Brenden was baptized I shared the event with them and wanted them to be a part of it. I asked them, as men who have been on this journey with Jesus for many years, to write a letter to Brenden, congratulating him on his baptism and sharing some encouragement and wisdom.

Then men responded, and as a part of his baptism Brenden got a stack of letters from the men in the study. And last Christmas Brenden got to meet a lot of the guys when we handed out Christmas Sacks. Christmas Sacks is a ministry of local churches where we give a gift sack--mainly food, socks and necessities--to every man out at the prison. Volunteers hand deliver the sacks to the inmates. Last year Brenden came along with me and got to talk and shake hands with many of the guys in our study as we handed out sacks.

Anyway, we came across those baptism letters while cleaning out his room.

He put them in the Keep pile.

Empathic Open Theism Revisited

In 2014 I wrote a provocative theological piece about a view I called "empathic open theism." That post has continued to attract attention and shares on social media.

To be clear, empathic open theism is probably heretical. It's sort of a open/process theology mashup. That said, I recently read David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God, so classical theists will be encouraged to know that Hart has given me a lot to think about, making me rethink my process and open theology leanings.

Interestingly, though, Hart's discussions about consciousness in The Experience of God are similar to a lot of what I share below. It's interesting to see how consciousness has become a common conversation point for both classical and process theism.

Regardless, I'm just experimenting in posts like these. I never hold any of my ideas very tightly or strongly.

Mostly, empathic open theism is a creative reflection on the meaning of Hebrews 4.15--"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin."--that fuses science, epistemology, consciousness, and theology.

///

I'd like to sketch out a view I've been kicking around regarding open theology. This view is, I think, I unique view, a relational view of God that seems to stand somewhere between open and process theology.

In general, I really like open theism. Mainly because it preserves a real and robust relational view of God as opposed to the faux-relationalism found in the deterministic vision of Calvinism.

To summarize quickly, open theism is, at root, a belief about the nature of the future. Open theism is not, as open theists repeatedly point out, a belief about God's omniscience. Crudely stated, according to open theism God does not know the future because the future does not yet exist. This does not limit God's omniscience because if the future does not exist then there is nothing for God to know. In short, the future is "yet to be," the future is "open" and unfolding.

The openness of the future in open theism is generally rooted in a libertarian account of human free will. Because humans have free will God does not know what exact future will unfold in the face of human choices. Thus, open theism is described as a relational view of God as God is waiting upon and responsive toward the free choices of individuals. God, being infinitely powerful and resourceful, will bring about God's purposes for the world, but how exactly that future will unfold is to be determined. God is playing, so the metaphor goes, a chess game with humanity. God will win the game, that outcome is "predetermined," but the exact course of the game is an unfolding and relational process given the moves humans will make and how God opts to respond as a consequence.

That's a quick and crude sketch of open theism. And at this point there are a variety of objections to open theism and some standard rebuttals to those objections. But for this post I'd like to point out where I demur from open theism and then describe the view I've constructed to take its place in an attempt to keep a relational view of God firmly in view.

Because, for me at least, that's the great attraction of open theism, its dynamic and relational view of God and humanity. I want to keep that vision. But I don't agree with how open theism gets us there.

Specifically, as stated, the mechanism of open theism is libertarian free will. That's the lynch pin. The trouble is that, as a psychologist, I find libertarian visions of free will to be psychologically implausible. I'm just not sure how free will would operate psychologically. Of course, I'm willing to admit that I might be wrong in this instance, and I'm open to being persuaded on this point, but as things stand today I've had to build a different sort of model to create a different sort of open theism, a vision that doesn't rely upon libertarian versions of free will.

So, what is this new view I've been experimenting with?

The vision I have in mind is one that is rooted in the disjoint between consciousness and science, what has been called "the hard problem of consciousness."

Specifically, science relies upon a third-person, publicly-adjudicated, and objective methodology. Consciousness, however, is a first-person, privately-experienced, and subjective phenomenon. Thus, there is an ontological and epistemological disjoint between the data (subjective experience) and the method (science). Simplistically stated, I can study, in an objective way, the way your brain acts when you smell apple pie. But the subjective experience of the smell of apple pie can never be captured on a brain scan. The phenomenon under investigation cannot be captured by the methods of science.

In short, as many others have argued before me, consciousness cannot be reduced to a scientific account. Let's call this the non-reductionism hypothesis.

We can go further.

It's not just that consciousness can't be reduced to physics. Consciousness has causal potency. We move away from things because they create the conscious experience of pain. We move toward things because they create the conscious experience of pleasure. The conscious experiences of pleasure and pain are causal forces in the world. Let's call this the causation hypothesis.

Now, if you combine the non-reductionism and the causation hypotheses you reach a pretty bold conclusion. Specifically, a reductive scientific account of the cosmos is impossible, because there will always be aspects of causation in the cosmos--those related to conscious experience--that can never be captured, accounted for, explained, or reduced to physical, material or scientific accounts. To be sure, science has and will continue to explain much within the cosmos. But science will never be able to explain everything. The causes and effects related to consciousness will always remain a non-reductive residual to any scientific account of the world.

This argument is not new to me. If you'd like to read a good account of this position I recommend Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. David Bentley Hart also makes this argument in The Experience of God.

Let me continue by articulating two more hypotheses to bring my theory fully into view.

If consciousness cannot be known from the "outside" then it can only be known subjectively, from the "inside." That is, knowledge of consciousness is experiential and participatory. And when you cannot experience things first-hand you have to proceed empathically. As the saying goes, to understand what it feels like to be you I have to walk a mile in your moccasins. Let us call this the experiential epistemology hypothesis, that knowledge of consciousness can only be gained experientially (directly) or empathically (approximately and/or imaginatively).

Combining all three hypotheses--the non-reductionism, causation and experiential epistemology hypotheses--what we have is this: I cannot know or predict what any given human being will do unless I have perfect knowledge of his or her subjective experience. And since I can only know any given person's subjective experience approximately--that is to say, empathically or imaginatively--I can only make imperfect predictions about what any given person may or may not do.

The upside here is that the more and more intimate I get with a person--the greater and greater my ability to understand and empathize with him or her--the greater my predictive knowledge.

For example, I've gotten better over twenty-six years of marriage at buying gifts for my wife. I've gotten better at predicting Jana's future--for example, that Jana will love a particular gift--because of my improving empathic capacities--listening to and watching Jana over the years, getting a better and better sense of what it's like to "be Jana." Still, given that I'm a human being I will never know Jana fully and completely. Sometimes I predict wrong and the gift isn't so perfect. So you always have to keep listening and learning.

In short, it's this connection between knowledge and empathy that creates the relational dynamic.

Which brings us to the final of our four hypotheses.

My last hypothesis is this: the experiential epistemology hypothesis applies to God. Specifically, God cannot know what it feels like to be me from "the outside." If this is so, God cannot "compute" or "simulate" the future the way a super-computer might run an infinite number of simulations for a physical system. Because consciousness has causal effects all possible futures of the cosmos cannot be simulated in this way. No brute force calculation, even those of an Infinite Mind, can make perfect predictions of the cosmos. Due to consciousness the cosmos will not unfold like a chess game. Chess pieces don't scream "Ouch!"

Ouch does not compute.

This means that God can only gain predictive knowledge of the future the same way your or I do: with experiential participation and/or empathic imagination. That is to say, God can only know or come to predict the future through relationality.

God's full knowledge of the cosmos, particularly where humans are concerned, must be--necessarily and inherently--relational, experiential, empathic and participatory.

Stepping back, all open/relational views of God have to, in some way, limit God's omniscience. This is why they are so controversial. Openness views, as we noted above, tend to handle this by adopting a theory about the future, that the future doesn't actually exist and, thus, God not knowing a non-existent future puts no limit on God's omniscience. God can't be expected to know stuff that doesn't exist.

By contrast, in the view I'm presenting here I am arguing that God's knowledge is limited by an empathic gap. God's ability to know and predict my future is limited by God's ability (or inability) to know exactly what it feels like to be me, privately, subjectively and experientially.

I am arguing that God is limited in this way. Now, just why God is empathically limited in this way I cannot say. Perhaps, following someone like Moltmann, the empathic gap between God and humanity is due to the self-limiting withdrawal that God had to preform to "make room" for the creation. God's self-limiting in the creative act created a vacuum, a space in which I could exist. Perhaps that vacuum experientially externalized God to some degree, creating an experiential "gap"  between God and humanity.

Of course, that gap can be overcome. And should be. That is the drama of salvation. And it appears that God chooses to overcome this gap in a relational and non-coercive manner. Just like with any intimate human relationship. God has vacated my internal experiential space, and I must invite God back into that space. So that I can both know God and be known by God.

All that is just speculation about how the empathy gap was created. But that an empathy gap existed I believe is the clear testimony of Scripture. Specifically, in Hebrews we read:
Hebrews 4.14-16
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. 
If we read this text in a straightforward way, it seems to argue that the Incarnational participation in the human experience increased the empathic capacities of God. Because of the Incarnation God comes to understand the human experience "from the inside." The Incarnation ushers in a new, more empathic relationship between God and humanity.

Let us, then, call the fourth and final hypothesis the Incarnational empathy hypothesis, the hypothesis that the Incarnation--God's participation in the human experience--increased the empathic capacities of God.

Now it's here where my view dips into process theology a bit. I'm positing that the Incarnation changed God in some way, that God "learned" something in the Incarnation. Specifically, God "learned" about the human experience through participation in the Incarnation. And because of the Incarnation God is better able to empathize with us.

And if I may be still more bold, let me add this last bit of speculation.

I'd argue that, because the Incarnation was, well, incarnated, God's experience of humanity was limited in certain ways. Jesus was, for example, a man. Jesus never gave birth. Jesus never faced Alzheimer's. Jesus was never married. And so on.

Thus, I'd argue that even after the Incarnation God's empathic capacities were limited in certain ways. We might say that the Incarnation created the capacity for a generalized empathy but that, after the Incarnation, there remained the need for particular empathy, the narrowing of the empathy gap between God's Jesus-experience and your particular life experience.

Narrowing that gap, it seems to me, is a story by story, biography by biography process. This is where I think we insert a pneumological account, how the Spirit of God takes up residence within us so that God's Spirit and our own can do the particular individualized work of relational intimacy. Similar to my example above about intimacy with Jana. This will be a love story that plays out between each person and God in unique and individualized ways. The goal of which is the contemplative, experiential, participatory "union" between God and the individual.

Right now God and I see each other but dimly, as in a mirror. One day we will see each other face to face. And in that moment I will both know and be fully known.

The experiential gap will be fully overcome in the process of uniting the human with the divine. I am describing here theosis and perichoresis.

But right now, today, I am well short of those marks. I am not fully known. There are parts of me that remained blocked off from both myself and God, hidden by my sin. I can grieve the Holy Spirit indwelling me.

Thus the ebb and flow of ongoing relationship, surrender and intimacy.

So this, then, is my theory.

As best I can tell, though I have borrowed all the bits and pieces from others, I can't recall coming across this particular viewpoint anywhere else.

So lets tentatively name this view "Empathic Open Theism," an account that roots the relationally open dynamics of the human/divine relationship in an empathic gap between God and humanity where each partner works to overcome that gap in deepening intimacy until "perfect knowledge" is achieved in the union of theosis and perichoresis.

Jesus and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

You're probably familiar with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Theological reflection is guided by a four-fold combination of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

By and large, conservative Christians lean heavily on tradition whereas progressive Christians lean more heavily on experience. This is one of the reasons I identify more with the progressive Christian camp. When I think about God I heavily weigh human experience, what brings us joy and what causes us to suffer.

I pay attention to theologies and readings of Scripture that cause human pain. Suffering looms large in my theological reflections.

Jesus also used human experience as a hermeneutical and theological tool. In Matthew 12 Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and finds a man with a withered hand. The way the Pharisees interpreted the Sabbath laws prohibited Jesus from healing the man.

But Jesus disagrees, and he makes an appeal to human experience to argue for a different hermeneutical approach to Sabbath keeping. Jesus doesn't appeal to Scripture or tradition, he asks a question about how something would feel.

"How many of you," Jesus asks, "if a sheep of yours fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, wouldn't pull it out?"

Jesus asks the Pharisees to imaginatively place themselves in this situation, asking them to consult their feelings, experiences and reactions. Jesus expects this appeal to experience to lead to an affirmative answer: They would grab the sheep out of the ditch, even on the Sabbath.

And that appeal to experience--what it would feel like if you were in a similar situation--opens up new biblical and theological horizons.

Highland's Christmas Tree

Another big story in Stranger God is my friendship with Kristi, how it started and how it changed my life.

As I recount in Stranger God, after the publication of Unclean churches started to call. I'd travel to churches and talk about social psychology and hospitality.

Inevitably, someone would ask the question, "Given all the emotional obstacles you're describing, how can we change how we react to strangers?"

At the beginning I didn't have a great answer. Unclean ends with a call for better Eucharistic theology and practice, but that's only going to be a small part of the answer. Liturgy is important, but we put way too much weight upon it. What we need are daily, intentional practices that can widen the circle of our affections and open us up to surprising and unlikely friendships.

And so I went on a long search. Chapter 10 of Stranger God is titled "Searching for the Science of Love." Eventually I discovered the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux. And the Little Way led me to Kristi. And Kristi changed my life.

Kristi, regular readers may recall, is blind and lives in an assisted living facility due to cognitive disabilities and psychiatric issues. Once I became friends with Kristi, I began visiting her each week at Highland Assisted Living. And those weekly visits allowed me to become friends with the residents at the home. I no longer spend most of my time with college professors like myself. I've traded in the PhDs for Kristi and my friends at Highland.

This week when I went to take Kristi Christmas shopping she wasn't quite ready. (She can take a long time getting ready.) So I sat on the couch in the lobby and visited with everyone.

The Christmas tree was up and presents were stacked under it. (The picture above is the tree.) So that's mostly what we talked about. Everyone was so proud of the tree. And everyone who had helped put the tree up let me know. ("I helped put it up!") And everyone knew exactly where their present was under the tree.

Lots of Christmas spirit and excitement! The perfect way to start the season. 

I relished the conversation, feeling blessed and grateful for these friends and their beautiful Christmas tree.

The Temptation of Caesar: On Power, Sex and Politics

We're aware of the statistic that 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. We're also aware that this endorsement was a moral about-face from how evangelicals raged against the sexual sins of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton's sexual behavior made him unworthy of the highest office. 81% of evangelicals voted for a man who bragged about grabbing women by the p***y.

Why?

Because politics isn't really about morality. Politics is about power. Politics is about winning.

Evangelical leaders and 81% of their followers supported Donald Trump not because he is a good person. They supported him because they wanted to win.

And this same desire to win is now being played out in Alabama among evangelicals supporting Roy Moore. Maybe, it is agreed, that Moore did those things he's been accused of. But it doesn't matter. Because winning is the most important thing. Power trumps morality.

Liberals play the same game. Feminist pioneer and icon Gloria Steinem famously wrote an op-ed in the New York Times excusing Bill Clinton's sexual acting out. Nancy Pelosi defended John Conyers on Meet the Press. Feminist Kate Harding, co-editor of Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled "I’m a feminist. I study rape culture. And I don’t want Al Franken to resign."

What I appreciate about Harding's piece is how clearly she states the case about power taking precedence over morality. Democrats, she argues, are the party that defend and advance the causes of women. Franken, no matter what he may have done, is a Democrat. Thus, for him to step down and allow his seat to be taken by a Republican would, according to Harding, be handing more power to the misogynistic forces in America. And so, Franken should retain his seat. If you want to change the world for the better as a liberal, morality has to take a backseat to power.

Liberal Christians might not agree 100% with Harding's analysis, but I expect they are sympathetic toward it. Sympathetic in the same way many evangelicals became sympathetic toward Donald Trump.

The game of Caesar is a game of power. Winning is the name of that game. So when morality gets in the way, for both conservatives and liberals, power has to take precedence.

Now I want to be clear here that I'm not trying to draw a false equivalence between the two political parties. As someone who is politically liberal, I think Caesar's actions can be graded on a continuum of helpful to harmful. Laws and policies can be better or worse. I think, for example, that the tax bills currently in the Senate and House raise taxes on the middle-class to give tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.

So my point isn't to draw a political equivalence. I'm pointing to a psychological equivalence, drawing attention to a moral temptation that intensifies as your faith becomes increasingly politicized. On both the right and the left.

My point is that, as your faith becomes increasingly politicized--liberally or conservatively--you will be increasingly tempted to play Caesar's game, increasingly willing to let power trump morality.

Power, we know, corrupts. And I think power corrupts in exactly this way. In the quest to win, power erodes morality. Influence becomes more important than virtue.

And I think this is exactly why Jesus, at the very start of his ministry, rejected political power as the means to bring about the kingdom of God.

Prison Diary: Welcoming the Guards

In my recent podcast with Luke Norsworthy about my new book Stranger God, we talk a lot about the prison.

One of the things I talk about his how your feelings get shaped doing prison ministry in your attitudes toward the guards. It's a great example of the insidious social psychological dynamics I talk about in Stranger God that make hospitality so hard.

As I described to Luke, because I spend most of my time focusing on and befriending the inmates I subtly take on their attitudes about the guards. The inmates I know by name. The guards are just anonymous men and women who pat me down, check my Bible for contraband, and buzz me through doors. We don't talk to each other much.

Plus, the guards are the ones who frequently interrupt or cut short the study for some reason or the other.

Lastly, the inmates regularly share awful stories about their experiences with the guards.

All this slowly affects your psychology. If you pay attention, you begin to notice that an association is being made: Inmate = Good and Guard = Bad. It's not a strong association, just a slight twinge of emotion. But it's enough, in the language of Stranger God, to shrink the circle of your affections.

That these association are being made shouldn't be news to anyone familiar with the Implicit Associations Test. Check out the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases in Good People.

This tilt of my affections away from the guards is a great illustration of the blindspots I talk about in Stranger God as being our greatest obstacle to hospitality.

Stranger God with Luke Norsworthy

I have a podcast out with Luke Norsworthy talking about my new book Stranger God.

It was wonderful having Mike Cope join us for the conversation. Mike was my former pastor at Highland, and much of Stranger God is the story of life within a local congregation. One of the concluding chapters of the book is entitled "Love Locally." So it was nice to reminisce with Mike about our time together in the same church.

Hope you enjoy the podcast.

Robert and His Monster Bible

Yesterday I mentioned Judy. Judy is married to Robert, who you also meet in Stranger God in a sweet Christmas story.

As I mention in the book, Robert can be hard to get along with. It's hard to tell Robert something he doesn't already know. Still, we're friends.

Both Robert and Judy live on SSI due to cognitive disabilities, but as I recount in Stranger God Robert is sort of a mad genius in many ways. True, Robert's creative streak runs toward the peculiar, but there is some whimsy to it. As I recount in Stranger God, Robert surprises me in delightful ways.

For example, two weeks ago Robert proudly showed me his new, homemade Bible cover.

The cover was already a bit strange. For some reason, Robert had covered it in a brown fur. So the Bible already looked like a dead animal sitting on the table.

But Robert, being Robert, took it to a whole other level.

First, he glued on some googly eyes. Then he glued on some teeth, those fake vampire teeth kids use for Halloween. And then, finally, to make this Bible totally awesome, Robert hot glued red LED lights to the cover. The lights are powered by a battery pack glued to the spine.

Pictures of the greatest Bible cover ever are included here, along with a shot of the battery pack.

I was totally delighted by Robert's creation. So fun and inventive.

And for readers of Stranger God, you'll know it's also totally Robert.

Freedom Thanksgiving

My new book Stranger God is out, and so much of the story of that book was formed by my life at Freedom Fellowship.

Saturday was our Thanksgiving themed meal for our monthly gathering. (We share a meal and worship service every Wednesday, and once a month on the third Saturday.) Darla put hours into cooking the main meal of turkey and dressing. Jana and I brought macaroni and cheese for a side.

The place was packed as we received a van-load of friends from the 180 House, where men and women are walking the long road to recovery. The sun is setting early now, so Tim put out the Christmas lights over the picnic table area. Mr. John, who you meet in Stranger God, was distressed last night. So I helped him get his plate of food.

The Pringles led our worship, as they traditionally do. Herb, my co-teacher out at the prison, was on lead electric guitar. As a worship leader, I always appreciate Rod's vulnerability, his tears quick to surface when he feels emotional about something. Charles and Linnie brought us to the Table. I helped bring the bread and juice to Judy, who you also meet in Stranger God, as she was feeling too dizzy to go down front. Patrica gave out the hugs. Hugs as a part of Eucharist is a Freedom tradition.

Kimberly, a recent graduate from FaithWorks, a Highland ministry that does job training for the unemployed and underemployed, shared her testimony. Kim grew up with a mentally ill and suicidal mother, has struggled with addictions, and has been incarcerated multiple times. But God is restoring her. Kim's story is a typical Freedom story.

After church I drove friends home. Kim and Amber to their transitional housing. Maria and Josh to their parent's house.

The subtitle of Stranger God is "Meeting Jesus in Disguise." Freedom is a place I go to meet Jesus.

And while I can make it sound romantic, it really is all very quite ordinary. Just like it was this Saturday.

Prison Diary: The Crookbook

I can't recall if I've shared this yet, but a few months ago I had this idea to publish a prison cookbook, asking the men in the Monday night Bible study to share their best prison recipes. Along with the recipes, the book would also share spiritual reflections from the men in the study. Prison cookbooks have been published before, but this one would be for a Christian audience.

Well, I'm happy to announce that this cookbook is becoming a reality!

Having pitched the idea to the guys, last week they gave me a homemade, handwritten prison cookbook. Complete with drawn illustrations and a Table of Contents. Entitled The Crookbook, it has over twenty-five recipes. 

Currently, I'm typing up the recipes and am going to start having people test the recipes in their own kitchens to provide feedback. Soon I'll start collecting spiritual reflections from the men in the study. And then I'll start looking for a publisher. I'll keep you posted, especially if The Crookbook gets published. Proceeds to go to a charity picked by the Men in White.

The Gospels: King James Version

I've been using the King James Version a great deal in my personal and devotional reading. It's the Flannery O'Connor, Johnny Cash influence upon me. I like to read about the "Holy Ghost."

Trouble is, I don't like most of the KJV editions out there. Most KJV editions present the text in a verse-by-verse format in double columns. I prefer my translations in paragraph, single-column format, like you'd have in a novel.

Recently, I discovered that Oxford Press' KJV edition of the gospels presents the text in a paragraph, single-column format. It also has two other features I like: dropping the italic font and adding quotation marks.

In the KJV whenever the translators added a word that wasn't in the original text they put it in italic font. I appreciate their goals with this choice, but the mixed font is aesthetically unpleasing. Also, in the KJV they didn't use quotation marks. Quotes are set off by a capital letter. You get used to this if you use the KJV a lot, but quotation marks are preferred.

All that to say, if you're looking for an entry point with the KJV let me recommend the Oxford Press gospels. It's cheap and portable, the kind of Bible you can throw into a backpack or briefcase, and has a nice modern, novel-like layout.

A Devil's Cauldron of Wickedness

As scandal after scandal breaks about powerful men sexually assaulting women--from Donald Trump to Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. to Roy Moore--along with the spotlight shown by #MeToo on the scope and ubiquity of sexual harassment, I think it's way past time to admit that sex and power is a devil's cauldron of wickedness.

Sex and power is a toxic combination. When the male libido is embedded within a power hierarchy women and children are going to be harassed, assaulted and abused. Male dominated power hierarchies are simply unsafe. I don't think this can be disputed.

Consequently, one of the biggest reasons we should strive to be egalitarian in gender roles is also one of the simplest and most loving: Safety.

If we care about protecting women and children, women must share power with men. Not only will egalitarian power structures reduce the incidence of abuse, harassment, and assault, egalitarian power structures will respond to incidents of abuse, harassment, and assault with greater moral and legal seriousness. Harm is reduced and cover ups harder to accomplish.

Patriarchy--the rule of men--is simply not safe.

An Act of Will

Last week I was invited to speak to some of our undergraduate students about how to study for finals.

I pondered that invitation, thinking about what I might say, and nothing really came to mind. At the end of the day, the only advice I felt I could share was this:

Studying isn't a technique, it is an act of will.

To be sure, there are techniques to memorization and practice. But the appeal and effectiveness of those techniques vary from person to person. Regardless, when push comes to shove there's no way around memorization. You just have to do it. You have to put in the time and the work. There is no technique to it. There is no trick. It's just work. Studying is an act of will.

This observation about studying put me in mind of the series from last week about intentionality. At the end of the day, there is no technique to spiritual formation. True, we rely upon the Holy Spirit, but to get the ball rolling with spiritual formation, and keep it rolling, boils down to an act of will.

You've no doubt heard the story about turtles and cosmology from the life of William James:
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down."
In our search for tips, tricks, and techniques--from how to study, to how to lose weight, to how to become more organized, to how to improve our prayer life--we want to believe that it's turtles all the way down.

"Here," someone offers us, "try this tip, trick, or a technique."

"Super!" But then we ask, "How do we do this tip, trick, or technique?"

"Well, here is another tip, trick, or technique that can help you with the first tip, trick, or technique."

"Fine," we say, "but what can help me with that tip, trick, or technique?"

We want there to be tips, tricks, and techniques all the way down. But this can't go on forever. At some point the answer simply has to be:"You just have to do it." It starts with an act of will. Techniques can help, but the first domino that has to fall is a choice, a decision, a resolution, an act of will. Spiritual formation starts, to use biblical language, with metánoia.

That's true of studying, and it's true about living like Jesus.

Yes, there are techniques, and there might even be tricks and shortcuts along the way, but it all begins and ends with an act of will.

Prison Diary: The Greatest Commands

You know we like to sing out at the prison. It's one of the most life giving things we do.

Two weeks ago I introduced the Men in White to a popular song in our tradition, "The Greatest Commands."

The song features, as all good Church of Christ singing does, four part harmony. The twist with "The Greatest Commands" is that each voice is singing different words. The words are a mixture of I Corinthians 13 and 1 John. The lyrics:
Alto:
Love one another, for love is of God.
He who loves is born of God;
And knows God.
He who does not love, does not know God,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.

Bass:
Love bears all things,
Believes all things,
Love hopes all things,
Endures all things.

Tenor:
God is love, God is love, God is love.
God is love, God is love, God is love.
God is love, God is love, God is love,
God is love, God is love, God is love.

Soprano:
Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
With all thy soul, all thy strength,
All thy mind.
Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.
To hear the harmony lines on piano click here. To hear voices singing the parts click here.

This song is huge in the Churches of Christ. I absolutely love it. So I was excited to try it out with the guys in the study. They can't really read music, we're not all that great at harmony, and, obviously, we don't have altos and sopranos.

But we did get three the first three parts off the ground, the alto, tenor and bass lines. I had groups of guys who got the various parts down come up front and sing with each other, holding their lines while I introduced the next. That's as much harmony as we've ever pulled off! We've got a new song under our belts.

A blessed night. Goodness, how I love singing out at the unit.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 4, Fruitful Intentionality

What's the biggest problem with Christianity?

In my opinion, it's the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit.

Let's ask the question again: Why aren't Christians any different from other people? I think the answer is pretty obvious: Christians don't approach the Fruit of the Spirit with any intentionality.

My biggest problem with Christian spiritual formation efforts is the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, prayer and fasting are supposed to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I'm not wholly convinced that's the case, all things being equal.

Here's a crazy idea: I think you cultivate something like patience by being focused and intentional about being patient.

For example, my recent book Stranger God is one big argument that you cultivate kindness by adopting practices that make you more intentional about being kind.

You acquire the Fruit of the Spirit when you become focused and intentional about each particular fruit. In a specific, focused and intentional way you go after gentleness, joy or peace. Because without this specific, intentional focus nothing is going to happen. You'll just drift.

Let me give a concrete example about what I'm talking about.

A year ago in our small group we were contemplating how to spend our time. One suggestion was to make our time a space of sharing and prayer. We'd come together and go around the group sharing how our week had been--the consolations and desolations--and then we'd conclude by praying for each other.

I think this is a very common approach to Christian community and spiritual formation in churches. Get people in small groups to have them "share life" and pray for each other.

This approach to spiritual formation is wonderful for reducing loneliness, helping people feel known and connected, but I don't know if it helps form Christ-like character traits. "Sharing life" tends toward the therapeutic rather than toward virtue. "Sharing life" mostly involves me sharing how shitty my week has been at work, or how worried I am about my kid, so I can get some encouragement, advice and support. All wonderful and vital things, especially if you've had a shitty week at work. But "rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep" isn't spiritual formation or transformation.

So when my small group was having this discussion I suggested the following: "What if, when we come together to share, we filtered our week through a fruit of the Spirit? We share consolations and desolations about, say, patience or kindness. We'd still be sharing about our week, but we'd also be keeping a focus on how we're imitating (or not imitating) Jesus."

My suggestion was all about focus and intentionality. If you aren't intentionally focused on, say, patience, you'll never become more patient. This seems obvious, but few Christians approach spiritual formation this way. We spend enormous amounts of time "sharing life" or learning about spiritual techniques (like prayer), and almost zero time being intentional about cultivating a specific Fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

We fail to focus on the Fruit of the Spirit in any intentional way and, thus, fail to become fruitful.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 3, How Spiritual Disciplines Miss the Mark

It's a truism in the spiritual formation literature that if you want to form Christ-like character you have to involve yourself in spiritual disciplines.

I disagree. I think the general understanding of spiritual disciplines in Christian circles has profoundly missed the mark and kept a lot of Christians stuck.

To be clear, I think the spiritual disciplines can and often are a vital part of spiritual formation. I'm a practitioner of the disciplines. My criticism here is simply this: Jesus and Paul never recommend the spiritual disciplines as means of spiritual formation, if by that we mean contemplative retreats, visits to a spiritual director, a course in various prayer techniques, and so on. What Jesus and Paul do recommend, over and over again, is intentionality.

Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God's kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn't conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: "The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock."

Intentionality.

Consider also Jesus' directive after he washed the disciples' feet: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

Intentionality.

Jesus' vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don't wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.

Consider Paul's many recommendations for spiritual formation and transformation. Like Jesus, Paul rarely mentions spiritual disciplines in this regard. Over and over again, Paul simply points to intentionality.

For example, in Romans 6 Paul says:
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 
The path toward spiritual transformation is driven by intentionality. Count yourself as dead to sin and stop offering yourself as an instrument of wickedness.

This from Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.   
Again, there's no appeal to spiritual disciplines here, just a straightforward appeal for intentionality: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Do not conform, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

What might that mean, "the renewing of our mind"? Elsewhere in Paul (Phil. 4) we get another appeal for intentionality:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 
Again, there is no call for spiritual disciplines here. Just a simple directive for intentionality: Think on these things.

To be clear, practices like prayer, silence, fasting and Sabbath are wonderful techniques to help us "think on such things." My point, however, is that Paul isn't aiming at technique, he's aiming at intentionality.

I don't think Paul cares all that much how you get yourself to "think on such things." Maybe you rise in the middle of the night to light candles and pray the Psalms like a monk. Maybe you crank the Hillsong praise music. Maybe you write in a journal. Maybe you carry prayer beads in your pocket. Maybe you put sticky notes filled with Scripture on your bathroom mirror. Maybe you avoid social media, cable news and the workplace water cooler. You can skin this cat a million different ways. But the thing that makes any of it happen and work is intentionality.

My opinion is that the conversation about spiritual disciplines has missed the mark because we've gotten too focused upon particular techniques, falsely imbuing them with some sort of spiritual potency. We've missed the point about what makes the spiritual disciplines work--intentionality. Whatever prayer might be, it's intentional. Whatever fasting might be, it's intentional. Whatever silence might be, it's intentional. Whatever Sabbath-keeping might be, it's intentional. Whatever Bible study might be, it's intentional.

It's the degree of intentionality in our spiritual lives that is formative and transformative. What is spiritually formative and transformative is waking up with a spiritual focus and keeping that focus throughout the day.

If you lack that focus, nothing happens. You just drift.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 2, The Missing Ingredient

So what's the missing ingredient?

Again, think about the Fruit of the Spirit. How can we become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled?

Think about hospitality and justice. How can we become more welcoming or stand in greater solidarity with the oppressed?

Or think about spiritual disciplines. How can we become more committed to prayer, fasting, simplicity and Sabbath?

Now think about anything else you'd like to change or improve. How can I lose twenty pounds? Improve my relationship with my spouse? Be a better friend? Take better care of the house, yard or garden? Exercise more and eat better?

What's the word that makes any of this happen? What's the missing ingredient?

Intentionality.

Across the board, for all of the questions above, the answer, over and over again, is the same.

Intentionality.

There is no magic bullet. There never was. No matter what the next conference, guru, podcast, or best seller is pitching you. In the end, it all boils down to intentionality.

Does your church want to become more hospitable? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

Do you want to be more kind? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

Do you want a deeper prayer life? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

We want a million different things. But we're intentional about hardly any of it.

In short, forgive the hyperbole, the #1 problem in Christianity is this: We want to be like Jesus, but we're not intentional about it.

For example, how many of us woke up today with an intentional goal to be more gentle? I expect very few. Which means, by the end of the year, none of us will have become more gentle. That's a Fruit of the Spirit, a key marker of being like Jesus, totally ignored.

Because we lacked intentionality.

The examples abound. But they all come back to the same conclusion.

You'll never become more like Jesus unless you're intentional about it. And most Christians just aren't.