Personal Days: Yes, And

A few weeks ago Jana and I were in Chicago and we took in a show at The Second City, perhaps the most famous sketch and improv comedy club in the world.  The Second City alumni list is pretty spectacular: Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, John Candy, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Mike Myers.

As regular readers know, Jana is the high school theater teacher at Abilene Christian Schools. Jana and I both love improv comedy, but our visit to The Second City was exciting for another reason. In a few weeks Jana is doing, for the first time in ACS history, an improv comedy show for a school production.

Jana is pretty excited about it. Rehearsals are going great. A lot of that has to do with how much Jana uses improv in her drama classes. The ACS kids are well schooled in the rules and art of improv, so it's time to let the world see how awesome they are.

All that to say, improv is a big part of our lives. In fact, Jana's love of improv shows up in my book  Reviving Old Scratch where I use the improv rule "Yes, and" to talk about how we might become better theological conversation partners.

On Miracles: Part 1, Building Bridges

One of the least talked about fissures within Christianity, running through denominations, local churches, friendships, families and marriages, is the division between an enchanted and a disenchanted Christianity.

And in my church experience this fissure is often associated with socioeconomic status. On the one hand you have educated, liberal elites who embrace the demythologized theology found among mainline Protestants. A disenchanted spirituality that doesn't have much truck with angels, the Devil or miracles.

On the other hand, you have blue collar and lower income Christians who give witness to an enchanted Christianity, a religious experience full of spiritual warfare and praying for miracles.

If you go to a socioeconomically and educationally diverse church you're likely living with this divide. Some even experience it in their own homes. I have married friends where one partner has a very enchanted spirituality and the other is disenchanted. These couples struggle a bit, finding it difficult to get their Christianity on the same page.

As I recount in Reviving Old Scratch, over the last few years I've been spending more time in enchanted Christian contexts, sharing life out at the prison and at our mission church plant Freedom Fellowship. As a skeptical disenchanted believer Reviving Old Scratch tells the story of how I built bridges to talk about the Devil in enchanted places.

But the Devil isn't the only thing you need to learn to talk about as a disenchanted Christian sharing life with enchanted believers. Beyond the Devil you also have to learn to talk about miracles.

Confession time. As an elite, educated and disenchanted believer I spent years being dismissive of Christians who spoke of God's daily miraculous interventions in the most mundane of circumstance. Praising God for helping find a good parking spot. For changing a red light to green. For finding a lost item in the house.

Over the years I've heard things that sound a whole lot like random or fortuitous coincidences described as God's miraculous intervention. And it can be hard for both intellectual and theological reasons to take these stories seriously.

But when you share life with enchanted believers you're going to be awash in miracles stories, from the grand to the trivial. And given that these miracles stories are being shared from the socioeconomic margins, my commitment to God's preferential option for the poor has caused me to stop rolling my eyes.

So like I did with the Devil in Reviving Old Scratch I've also had to rethink miracles. I don't want to listen to a miracle story, even the most trivial, with the elitist condescension of a theological snob.

If the poor are getting into the kingdom of heaven before the educated than I need to check my disenchanted tendencies when it comes to miracles stories.

But how to do that with theological and intellectual integrity?

In these posts I'd like to do with miracles what I did with the Devil in Reviving Old Scratch, I'd like to build some bridges between our disenchanted and enchanted worlds.

At the Boundary of Holy and Unclean: Grace as Community

In the last two posts I have reflected on how hospitality brings holy and unclean into contact.

In light of that topic it might be good here to remember some of the insights I shared last February about the book Paul and the Gift by John Barclay.

According to Barclay, in the writings of Paul grace was very much about a social revolution, a revolution that brought holy and unclean into contact to create a "new humanity."

As Barclay argues it, the Apostle Paul's great theme concerned the incongruity of grace, that God gave the Christ-gift to the unworthy.

That understanding of grace--grace is for the unworthy--seems obvious to us today, but this was a revolutionary idea in the first century. The incongruity of grace was Paul's great theological innovation. But it's hard for us, thousands of years after Paul, to recover the shock of what he was saying.

The other problem we have understanding Paul's doctrine of grace is that we fail to attend to the social and corporate implications of grace.    

As Barclay argues in Paul and the Gift, Paul's message about the incongruity of grace is less about psychology--stirring up feelings of guilt and gratitude in our hearts to prompt an altar call--than sociology. Barclay wants us to appreciate how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace functioned in his mission to the Gentiles.

Specifically, God's incongruous grace justified Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Grace had been poured out upon the unworthy, upon the Gentiles as Gentiles. Further, Paul's message of incongruous grace was the supportive theology that allowed Jews and Gentiles to come together in table fellowship, the first, tentative social experiments on the road to becoming the church (see: Acts 11.19-26; Gal. 2.1-21).

This is the point I want us to appreciate, how grace brings holy and unclean people into contact.

How did the gospel of incongruous grace facilitate these social experiments, where clean and unclean people come into fellowship?

According to Barclay, these new and revolutionary communities were able to form as the fruit of Paul's gospel because the message of incongruous grace displaced social and cultural standards of value and worth, standards that had previously separated people as either "holy" or "unclean." In the face of the cross all those standards of social evaluation, significance and worth had been "crucified" and thrown away. Freed from these systems of social and cultural worth the Christian community was able to extend fellowship and love across social lines that had been taboo.

As Barclay writes (p. 394-395):

The cross shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly "natural" order of "the world"... the cross of Christ breaks believers' allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right...Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized...

[As used by Paul in his argument in Galatians] The enormous creativity made possible by this vision of reality is immediately obvious: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation."... Paul announces the irrelevance of taxonomic systems by which society had been divided in subtly hierarchical terms: old "antinomies" are here discounted in the wake of a new reality that has completely reordered the world..[I]n context the primary focus is the social novelty of communities that disregard former boundaries by discounting old systems of worth. The "new creation" is indifferent to traditional regulative norms and generates new patterns of social practice. 
We can clearly see the social effect of grace in Paul's famous declaration in Galatians 3.28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
What's important to remember here is how the distinction between Jew and Gentile was between the "holy" (the Jews) and the "unclean" (the Gentiles). Recall Peter's vision of unclean animals in Acts 10.

In all this we can appreciate the sociological impact of Paul's gospel as he attempted to plant Christians communities that violated social taboos throughout the Greco-Roman world. Jews and gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women crossing taboo social boundaries and discarding hierarchical systems of social capital. All these systems of social valuation, distinction and worth were rendered null and void, crucified with Christ in baptism, so that a new creation, tangibly incarnated in the new social reality of the Christian church, could be realized and enjoyed. As Barclay summarizes toward the end of Paul and the Gift (p. 566, emphasis his):
Paul's notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of this missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God's incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ.
Grace is a community, a sociological revolution where holy and unclean came together in love. Grace creates communities where cultural and social systems of worth are thrown away so that "new creation" can be experienced through surprising, boundary-crossing fellowship. As Barclay writes (p. 567):
Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common "calling" that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize the differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditional terms by which each was welcomed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 14-15).

At the Boundary of Holy and Unclean: The Church, Lady Gaga and the Little Monsters

Since I talked about monsters yesterday, and that we are inching toward Halloween, I thought we could revisit my theological reflections about Lady Gaga and her "little monsters."

Plus, it's timely in that Lady Gaga is about to release a new album.

In 2011 I wrote a post entitled The Gospel According to Lady Gaga, which has been one of the more popular posts I've written. I've seen lots of preachers use that post for sermons and youth pastors for classes.

Lady Gaga may be an odd location for theological reflection, but the prompt for my post was the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, who was gay and who had faced prolonged bullying because of his sexuality.

Prior to his suicide, Jamey had filmed an "It Gets Better" video in which he described himself as one of Lady Gaga's "little monsters," a term of affection Lady Gaga uses for her fans. The point I was making in my post is that kids who feel like "monsters"--the freaks, weirdos, misfits, deviants and outcasts--are drawn to Lady Gaga because of her affection for them, in a way these kids don't feel attracted to the church.

And what is strange about this is how Jesus was a minstrel for the little monsters of his day--the freaks, weirdos, misfits, deviants and outcasts.

In my post I used work from my book Unclean (with a dash of Girardian scapegoat theory) to deconstruct Gaga's "little monsters" to point out how religious institutions--in Jesus's time and in our own--continue to scapegoat outsiders. I use Lady Gaga to raise an indictment and challenge for the church.

The "little monsters" should feel affection from the church.

And if you don't have the time to read that post, a fan of Lady Gaga took a quote from it and posted it on a Gaga fan page.

At the Boundary of Holy and Unclean: Monsterous Hospitality

Last week I shared a story from the prison, about a paradoxical object created when someone had thrown up on a bible. The book was simultaneously holy and unclean, too unclean to be used or touched, and too holy a book to be thrown into the trash.

As I noted in that post, my book Unclean is an exploration of the psychology of the holy and unclean and the tensions that are found at the boundary.

For example, since Halloween is coming up, I explore the topic of monsters in Unclean.

One of the things we see with monsters is hybridization. Many monsters are mixtures, say, half human and half animal. When this mixing is illicit and transgressive--bringing holy and unclean into contact--a monster is created.

And once a monster is created an explusive psychology is set into motion. We expel monsters from community.

All this creates a quandary for the missional community aiming to extend hospitality to the unclean, the way Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes to table fellowship. In the eyes of the religious leaders Jesus' hospitality was monstrous as it brought the clean into contact with the unclean. Jesus' table fellowship with notorious sinners was the most scandalous part of his practice.

And the point I'd like to highlight here are the psychological tensions and paradoxes that have to be attended to and managed in the act of hospitality. Hospitality isn't intuitive and easy. Hospitality can be troubling, paradoxical, scary and strange. And these psychological tensions cause churches to turn away from extending welcome to the outcasts and the unclean.

Personal Days: The Sky and the Butterflies

West Texas, in the eyes of many, doesn't have a lot of natural beauty. The land is flat and dry.

Our main attraction is the sky. With flat, open land the sky dominates our lives here. Our sunrises and sunsets are stunning. The night sky, with the vast canopy of stars, is full of wonder and magic. The huge cobalt blue sky with puffy white clouds from horizon to horizon looks hyperreal, the colors too vivid to be real. And a line of thunderstorms rolling in, with lighting flashing down from towering, roiling black clouds, is one of the most awe-inspiring sights you will ever behold.

Beyond the sky there isn't much natural beauty in West Texas. But we do have, for a couple days in the fall, the butterflies.

Every autumn the cold fronts from the north begin to push the Monarch butterflies southward toward Mexico where they will stay for the winter. The path of the annual Monarch butterfly migration goes right through Texas.

It happens fast, the butterflies only stay in town for a day or so, but there is always a day during the fall when assorted trees on our campus, mainly pecan trees, fill up with Monarchs. Hundreds of butterflies flying about and resting in a single tree.

It really is one of the most fairyland-like things you'll ever see, a tree full of butterflies.

All that to say, Tuesday in Abilene was that day. The butterflies chose a tree right outside the Psychology Department. It's hard to get a picture of butterflies up in a tree, but this picture was one photo I took with my phone of a Monarch-laden branch.

So, yeah, not a lot of natural beauty in West Texas.

But we do have the sky and the butterflies.

A Prison Story: A Book Both Holy and Unclean

Michael, one of the inmates out at the prison, has been reading Unclean. He's totally fascinated by the psychology of disgust and divinity. It really is a fun psychology to explore. Once you read Unclean you'll see the dynamics at work all over the place. Truly, Unclean will change the way you see the world.

So the last few weeks before our bible study Michael and I have been talking about the psychology at work in Unclean, him sharing with me stories about examples he's stumbled upon or witnessed out at the prison.

For example, last week Michael shared with me a hilarious disgust/divinity paradox the inmates recently encountered.

The precipitating event was this: someone threw up on a bible.

And that created a problem.

On the one hand the vomit ruined the bible, contaminating the book. No one wanted to use it or touch it. The bible was ruined.

So what to do with the bible? Well, throw it away, right?

But that seemed wrong. The bible is a holy and divine object. You can't just throw a bible in the trash.

So the inmates were flummoxed. They didn't know what to do. The bible was ruined, but they couldn't throw it away.

So they just let the bible sit there all day, debating what to do.

"So what happened?" I asked Michael.

"Well, we all went to bed that night and when we woke up, the bible was gone."

The guards we presume disposed of the paradoxical object, a unique relic in the annuals of religious psychology.

An object both holy and unclean.

The Orthodox Prayer Rope

Yesterday I mentioned my use of an Orthodox prayer rope, also called a chotki. I had some readers contact me to ask about these ropes. What follows is from a post from 2013:

"I like your prayer rope. Are you Orthodox?"

Over the last year I've written a few times about my use of Anglican prayer beads. Many of you have written me about how, because of those posts, you've begun to use prayer beads and that they have been a great help to you and your prayer life. To receive notes like those is extremely touching.

In some of those posts about prayer beads a few of you, my Orthodox readers, have pointed me to the use of prayer ropes in the Orthodox tradition. Following your lead, and curious as always, I began investigating Orthodox prayers ropes.

Basically, prayer ropes work like prayer beads with knots working like the beads. For the Orthodox the knots on a rope are generally used to count the number of Jesus Prayers: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

The most common lengths of Orthodox prayer ropes are 100-knot or 150-knot ropes, though you can get ropes of 33 or 50 knots up to 300 or 500 knots. Similar to how the smaller week beads are separated by larger Cruciform beads on a string of Anglican prayer beads, the knots on a prayer rope are also separated by beads at regular intervals (usually at 25-knot intervals in the longer ropes).

The ends of an Orthodox prayer rope can differ. The Greek style ends with a knotted cross. The Russian style ends with a cross and tassel.

The traditional material and look of an Orthodox prayer rope is black wool, though ropes can be made from other materials and in other colors.

Finally, the knots of an Orthodox prayer rope are complicated, with many crossings and very symbolic. For an online tutorial in tying the knots see here.

Prayer ropes are carried in your pocket, but they can also be worn on the wrist.

Intrigued by the suggestions of Orthodox readers, last year I ordered a 100-knot, black wool, Greek-style prayer rope from St. Paisius Monastery. (Update: the 100-knot rope has been retired for the 150 knot rope I mentioned in yesterday's post.)

I began to wear the rope on my wrist as a prayer reminder and as a prayer aid (taking it off and using it to pray 100 Jesus Prayers). But just to make sure that this would be okay (I didn't want to be offensive to the Orthodox, a non-Orthodox wearing an Orthodox prayer rope) I emailed our local Orthodox priest, Fr. LeMasters. He gave me the green light stating that, from his perspective, anything that promotes prayerfulness is very much encouraged.

As so I wear an Orthodox prayer rope on my wrist. Most of the people I'm around just think it's a bracelet of sorts. No one knows (well, until now) that it's a prayer rope. There aren't many Orthodox in West Texas.

But when I travel out of state I've had an Orthodox person notice, every once in awhile, the prayer rope. Last time I was buying something at a store and the young man who was the cashier remarked, "I like your prayer rope. Are you Orthodox?" I explained, as I do, that I'm not, but that I owe a great deal to Orthodox theology and the prayer ropes of the Orthodox have been a great blessing to me spiritually.

And maybe, now, for you as well.

The Jesus Prayer

I mentioned last week that this summer I spent a day in contemplative retreat at a monastery.

I had my 150 knot Orthodox prayer rope with me. The Orthodox use the prayer rope to say one Jesus Prayer--"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."--for each knot.

I had planned to go through the rope like this, among other structured prayers and readings, a few times during the day. But in my first session using the rope I added something.

I spent some time thinking about and then listing on paper all my sins, all the places in my life where I struggle with pride and insecurity. All the places where my sin causes me to treat people poorly in my life. I also simply listed the names of people I was struggling with.

After writing down this list I began going through the knots and the Jesus Prayer, one by one looking at each of my sins for each prayer and knot.

It was a powerful way to go through the rope. Saying "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" over and over as you look at sins, vices, struggles, and the names of people made the prayer so much more specific and impactful.

It's a practice I'd recommend.

Silencing Spiritual Warfare

Two weeks ago Jana and I were grateful attend the Why Christian? conference hosted by our friends Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber. As a part of the conference I led a breakout session entitled "Exorcism 101: A Progressive Vision of the Devil, Demons and Spiritual Warfare" based on my recent book Reviving Old Scratch.

I was curious, and not a little apprehensive, about how the session would go.

I knew that the Why Christian? crowd was very progressive and liberal, drawing from mainline traditions to post-evangelicals, a group I knew would be very suspicious about any attempt to rehabilitate the notion of "spiritual warfare." Would anyone come to the session? What would the reception be like?

Well, the room was packed. And the reaction was strong and positive.

I think it helped that we took some time at the start to talk about all the worries, concerns and potential for abuse attendant to any talk about the devil or demons.

After logging all those concerns I went on to sketch out six reasons progressive Christians need to invest in a theology of spiritual warfare, from Jesus to what I called the "colonialism of disenchantment" to the "spiritual dimensions of justice work."

I concluded by sketching out the foundations of a progressive theology of spiritual warfare, drawing from the last part of Reviving Old Scratch.

During the session and after, there was a strong and emotional desire to have this conversation. That surprised me.

Let me highlight two comments from the session.

One attendee talked about how she believed in the devil and spiritual warfare but feared sharing those beliefs in her liberal, mainline church for fear of educated members of her church looking down on her, intellectually and theologically. That struck me, that people in progressive churches feel shamed for believing in the devil. As I mentioned during the session, the enchanted/disenchanted divide is one of the least talked about fractures running through our churches. It's not just about the devil, but about prayer, miracles and host of other things.

Toward the end of the session another attendee shared experiences of spiritual attack and oppression but, again, felt silenced in her liberal, progressive church, fearing that people would think she's crazy. She had tears in her eyes sharing the painful isolation she was experiencing in her church.

All because liberal and progressive Christians don't want to talk about the devil.

I guess what struck me about these comments was the shame and the pain happening in progressive, liberal churches due to the silencing when it comes to the devil.

Personal Days: My Favorite Election Year Graph

Given that I'm a statistics teacher I've been a long time fan of Nate Silver's work. I started following Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog during the 2008 presidential race.

(BTW, FiveThirtyEight refers to the fact that there are 538 electoral college votes.)

I check FiveThirtyEight a couple times a day to keep track of the presidential election. This election cycle FiveThirtyEight has introduced a new graph to display how the electoral college vote looks given state by state polling.

The "snake graph" is really an outstanding example of the fusion between visual design and quantitative display. It's the best graph I've ever seen if you want a quick, rich and easy to understand graph of the electoral college race.

The "snake graph" looks like this:

You can see and follow the current "snake graph" here.

You Are Gift

During the summer I spent two nights and a day in contemplative retreat at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie monastery.

In the guest book in the room this is the welcome the Sisters have written for their guests:
By following Benedict's Rule to welcome the guest as Christ we open our hearts and receive you with reverence and respect. We offer you place and space to seek God. May it be an opportunity that leaves you with a clearer understanding of the Benedictine way of life as well as the Benedictine charism of hospitality. May it be an opportunity for our community to grow because of your presence among us. You are guest, you are Christ, you are gift. We welcome you.

--The Benedictine Sisters of Erie

Song of the Three Holy Children

One of the blessings being a Protestant who uses the Catholic Divine Office as a resource for structured prayer is being exposed to texts not included in Protestant Bibles.

One of those texts is the Song of the Three Holy Children from Daniel 3.

This canticle is included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles in Daniel 3 after Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace. The song is a hymn of praise sung by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in response to God's deliverance.

If you're an evangelical Protestant you've likely never heard this song, I never had, but it's a common text in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican liturgies and prayers. I think it's a beautiful song and would like to bring it to your attention.
Song of the Three Holy Children / Daniel 3.57-88

Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you heavens;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all you waters above the heavens;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all you powers of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, sun and moon;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, stars of heaven;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all rain and dew;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all you winds;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, fire and heat;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, dews and falling snow;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, ice and cold;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, frosts and snows;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, nights and days;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, light and darkness;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, mountains and hills;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you springs;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, seas and rivers;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all birds of the air;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all people on earth;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, O Israel;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.
For he has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the power of death,
and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace;
from the midst of the fire he has delivered us.

Of Course God Exists

I had a friend in the middle of some doubts ask if I had a book about the existence of God. He was wondering, Does God exist?

And my response was this: Of course God exists, that's not the question that is bothering you. What you are needing isn't apologetics, an argument for the existence of God. What you are looking for is a compelling vision of Christianity.

To be clear, I'm not saying this response is wholly satisfactory. Nor is it an answer that fits everyone. But it fits some people, like my friend. And for these sorts of people my answer is gesturing toward something I think is important but often missed in discussions about "doubts."

Specifically, a lot of people have a deep, often unarticulated, feeling that the world is mysterious and that "something" is going on with the universe. There is something transcendent tied up with and mixed up with truth, beauty and goodness. There is something sacred and hallowed. We suspect there is a God.

What is lacking, generally, isn't this experience of sacredness, transcendence or awe but a compelling vision of who or what God is and how we might find our place in the unfolding drama and adventure. The issue isn't really about if God exists but how our feelings of being haunted by transcendence can be translated into a compelling, vital and energized mode of living, working, creating and loving.

Personal Days: Hart Auditorium

I teach a class every semester at ACU, PSYC 120 Introduction to Psychology. Numerically, this has been the most popular class at ACU for the last ten years. For a school the size of ACU PSYC 120 is a big class with 300 students.

I used to teach this class in Walling Lecture Hall. Walling seated about 250 students. But Walling was a half circle and bowl shaped. So despite its size the class felt smaller and more intimate. I didn't need amplification. The students on the back row were close. And because of the semi-circular shape when we had a class discussion we all could see and hear each other.

But last year we lost Walling because of the renovations to the science building. The only other room that could accommodate a class my size was Hart Auditorium in the bible building.

What a nightmare.

Where Walling was bowl-shaped and circular, Hart was long and rectangular. The distance between the stage and the back row feels like ten miles. The room is so long I required, for the first time in my teaching career, amplification, clipping on a mic before each lecture. That felt distancing to me. Even worse, Hart kills class discussion. If a student asks a question in the front rows no one from the middle of the class back can hear what is being said. Let alone that we can't see each other's faces, everyone seated in rows facing forward.

Last year, teaching in Hart was hell for me. The cozy, discussion oriented vibe I had created in Walling for a big class had evaporated. Every lecture I felt that I was losing connection with the back third of the class given how far away they were from me.

Of course, I could have opted for a smaller class. But I would have been turning away hundreds of students each year who wanted to take a psychology class, the only psychology class they would ever get a chance to take during their college career. And if someone wants to take a psychology class I want to give them that chance. That makes the class enrollment swell, but it's my job to make the class feel small. In Walling I was about to do that. But Hart was giving me headaches.

So this semester I started doing two things different.

First, I started walking up and down the aisles during lectures. I'll start from the stage and then slowly walk down one aisle all the way to the back rows. I use a remote clicker with a laser pointer so I can still advance my slides while at the back of the room. I'll then slowly walk back down toward the stage, linger at the front, and then head up the other aisle.

This walking the entire room, and it's an enormous room, has completely changed the engagement of the back half of the class. They are much more attentive. They get close to me and I get close to them.

The second thing I've done is place a hand held mic in my back pocket. So as I walk around the class whenever I ask a question I just pull that mic out and hand it to the student who raised his or her hand. The students talk into the mic and everyone can hear. With that small change we're back to having class wide discussion. True, I have to run around a lot to get the mic to a student on the other side of the room who has raised their hand. But as I run from side to side I just keep talking, filling the space with content and reflections to keep the conversation moving.

All that to say, I think I'm finally getting the hang of Hart auditorium. I'm making Hart feel smaller.

I'd Rather Be At Church

I often get asked by skeptical readers, "You seem like a pretty smart guy. So explain to me again why you go to church?"

There are lots of answer to that question, but one of them is that I like to be in climates that cultivate a moral seriousness and reflectiveness, climates that routinely convict me and push me to be a better person.

Yes, there are lots of things I could do with those two hours on Sunday mornings. I could sleep in. I could mow the grass. I could read a book and drink a cup of coffee. I could take a walk. I could surf the Internet.

I could do all those things. But I find it a wonderful and profound use of my time to go to a place where we talk about deep, important things. I think it's a valuable investment to spend some time thinking about what sort of person I'm trying to become, where I'm slacking off and where I might do better.

Seriously, I've never been in a place that so routinely startles, interrupts, disturbs and shakes me to the foundations of my being as the church. It doesn't happen every week, but it happens with regularity. So why wouldn't I want to keep dipping into that milieu?

(Sometimes I jokingly call this my "Road Kill" theology of church. God doesn't show up every Sunday, but like a chicken running back and forth across a busy highway, eventually, if you keep showing up, the Holy Spirit will hit you like a truck.)

So yes, there's lots of things I could do on a Sunday morning. But all things being equal, I'd choose church every time.

Crescimento Limpo Horta Update

For those who expressed interest in the work of Crescimento Limpo Mark and Ali have posted an update about the  CL Horta (garden).

Again, I can't tell you how impressed I am with this ministry. CL continues to look for partners so if your church or organization is looking to partner with an international ministry please reach out to Mark and Ali (you can contact CL through Facebook).

And if you, as an individual, want to partner and support CL their PayPal site is here.

The Spiritual Dimensions of Justice Work

Recently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, made an announcement on social media that she had resigned her position as a law professor at Ohio State to take a job at Union Theological Seminary.

Alexander's reason for this career change--from law school to seminary--goes to the heart of one of the arguments that motivated me to write Reviving Old Scratch.

Specifically, as I discuss in Reviving Old Scratch when progressive Christian reduce "spiritual warfare" to social justice work they miss the spiritual backdrop at work behind oppressive systems. The tools of social justice activism are impotent in addressing these spiritual dynamics and, thus, are largely ineffective in changing unjust systems. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.

What many social justice warriors are missing is what I recently called "the spiritual roots of liberation theology" or, in the words of Michelle Alexander, the "spiritual dimensions of justice work."

From Michelle Alexander's statement:
This week I officially joined Union Theological Seminary in NYC as a Visiting Professor. I have known for some time that I need to stretch myself, move beyond what I know and out of my comfort zones. As a lawyer, it comes naturally for me to speak only when I’ve done all my research, know all the facts, and can make my case. Law, policy and advocacy have been my world for more than 20 years, and my singular passion for 10 of those years has been finding ways to awaken people to the racial dimensions of mass incarceration and help them see it for the human rights nightmare that it is.
And yet I now feel compelled to change course. I am walking away from the law. I’ve resigned my position as a law professor at Ohio State University, and I’ve decided to teach and study at a seminary. Why?

There is no easy answer to this question, and there are times I worry that I have completely lost my mind. Who am I to teach or study at a seminary? I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power. American history teaches how these games predictably play out within our borders: Time and again, race gets used as the Trump Card, a reliable means of dividing, controlling and misleading the players so a few can win the game.

This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.

I have found that these questions are generally not asked or answered in law schools or policy roundtables. So I am going to a place that takes very seriously the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of justice work: Union Theological Seminary. Union has a proud history of deep commitment to social justice, and I am happy to call it home for awhile.

Does the Devil Exist?: Resistance Over Existence

Since the publication of Reviving Old Scratch I've talked a lot with podcasters, reporters and radio hosts about the devil.

Many of these conversations tend to fixate on a single question: Does the devil exist?

I get why I'm asked that question. Does the devil exist? Everyone wants either a Yes or No answer. The subtitle of Reviving Old Scratch is "Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted." And if you only read that title you could be excused for thinking that my book is trying to convince skeptical readers that the devil indeed exists.

But my book isn't, at root, an apologetics for the existence of the Devil. I leave the question about the existence of a literal Devil to the side, making the book practical for both believers and skeptics alike.

So what I try to communicate to people interviewing me about the book is that the book focuses less on existence and more on resistance.

Because here's the interesting thing. A lot of people who believe in, say, demonic possession don't actually experience a lot of that in their day to day spiritual formation efforts.

And that's my point about resistance over existence. For far too many Christians, the question over Satan's existence reduces to a conversation about the existence of occult and exotic experiences, things like demon possession. In my estimation far too much time is spent debating these things.

Why? Because if the conversation doesn't have any direct, immediate and daily impact upon spiritual formation then the question of existence is mostly irrelevant, a debate about things that rarely happen, and if they do happen it is stuff that happens to other people in other places.

Fine, demon possession might be happening in the Third World, but if you don't have any room for demons in your daily life, say, while you stand on the sideline watching your daughter's soccer game, well, what's the point of debating the existence of demons? From a spiritual formation perspective, it's an irrelevant conversation for you.

That's what I mean about resistance over existence. We have to see spiritual warfare as daily acts of resistance to the diabolical forces that we confront everyday in the most mundane of circumstances--from cleaning up the house, to going to church, to standing around the workplace water cooler, to waiting in a line at the store.

Spiritual warfare happens daily in all these locations, in ways that aren't very occult or exotic.

And if you don't see it that way, well, debates about "Does the Devil exist?" don't strike me as either very interesting or important.

Personal Days: Touching Up the Trinity

Four years ago I got a tattoo of Rublev's icon The Hospitality of Abraham, also called Rublev's Trinity.

In the Orthodox tradition you cannot write God directly (for the Orthodox you "write" an icon, you don't paint it). So God as the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--is depicted indirectly by writing the scene from Genesis 18 where Abraham welcomes God as three angelic visitors.

I've loved this tattoo, all that it symbolizes and reminds me of as I look at it, but after four years the yellow ink in the sky had faded a bit. (Sunlight is the great enemy of ink.)

So I got back with Travis Eason, the original artist, to touch up the Trinity.

With the yellow in the sky back to its vibrant best I'm falling in love with the tattoo all over again.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 6, The Greatest Source of Suffering in the World

One final post reflecting on Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

Again, for a variety of reasons--some temperamental, some political, some theological--I've always struggled with Romans 13.

But for reasons I've outlined over the last few posts, I've been rethinking my reactions to this text. Stated simply, when I place myself in certain social locations, like a woman in a village in Africa or a stateless person in a refugee camp, I can see how Paul's claim that a functioning state is "God's servant for your good."

One last reflection about this.

What really has given me pause regarding my antipathy for Romans 13 is what I think is the obvious source of most of the suffering in the world.

I'm a compassionate person and I'd like for the suffering in the world to stop. And when I ask myself the question--What is the source of most of the violence and poverty in the world?--I think the answer is pretty clear.

Failed states.

Whenever you look at locations of widespread and persistent violence and destitution in the world you'll find a failed state.

Thus it stands to reason that one of the things most helpful to human flourishing, if we seek to escape violence and destitution, is a stable, functioning state. 

And if you doubt this, let me encourage you again to watch Gary Haugen's talk about the locust effect.

Now before I say anything more about this, let me add an important clarification.

When I say that failed states are the source of most of the violence and destitution in the world I am not blaming the failure on those states. Most of the failed states worldwide are due to the dark legacy of colonialism. During the colonial era the West broke and crippled many states. And the West continues to cripple these states politically and economically.

Consider also what happened in Iraq after the second Iraq war under George W. Bush. We cracked Iraq and couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

So my point here isn't to blame failed states for failing and continuing to fail. There are historical, cultural, political and economic reasons for these failures, failures often rooted in a colonial past that continues to cast a very long shadow.

Still, and this is a key point, however we sort out the blame game, what people need in these places are functioning states. Functioning law enforcement and justice systems and economies.

Because origins aside, I think it is clear that in the absence of a functioning state there is massive, widespread, persistent and catastrophic suffering.

And I think that is what Paul meant when he said that the state is "God's servant for your good." 

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 5, "One Could Do As One Pleased Only With Stateless People"

We are continuing to reflect on Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

I've been discussing various things I've encountered that have made me think again about Paul's claim about how the state "wields the sword" might be experienced as "good news" in social locations different from my own.

In this post I want to bring your attention to the analysis made by Timothy Snyder in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

There's a lot in Black Earth to wade through, but the core of its argument is relevant to our musings about Romans 13.

The relevant statistic is easy enough to share. Most of the Jews killed during the Holocaust were not killed in Germany. Most of the Jews were killed in stateless regions, formerly functioning states, like Poland, that were destroyed by the Nazis. These stateless regions became lawless killing zones.

By contrast, nations that were able to keep some state function alive during Nazi occupation, states like France, saw much less of the killing and genocide.

In short, an argument from Black Earth is that there is a connection between statelessness and genocide. Black Earth builds on the assessment of Hannah Arendt: "One could do as one pleased only with stateless people."

That quickly brings us back to Romans 13.

States, as was the case in France during WW II, protect their citizens. Poland, by contrast, was totally dismantled by Nazi Germany and thus lacked the capacities to protect its citizens, creating the lawless zones that became the killing fields of the Holocaust.

Beyond WW II, you can also see a connection between mass killings and statelessness when states fail or when a vacuum of state control is created. Historically, murder proliferates in these lawless areas where states don't exist or don't function properly.

We also see the extreme vulnerability of stateless persons in displaced and refugee populations. Without a state to protect them, as citizenless persons, these people are extremely vulnerable, if not to mass killing than to local violence (e.g., violence within refugee camps) and global abandonment.

Without a state no one cares about, claims or protects these displaced persons. Refugees live in a lawless vacuum and are, thus, vulnerable to violence, on either a personal or genocidal scale.

Once again, does this not cause us to rethink Romans 13 from the social location of stateless persons? Yes, states commit horrific crimes. But states also protect their citizens.

When states fail violence and destitution grow to massive, genocidal and world-historic proportions.

Then and now.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 4, Do Black Lives Matter in Ghettoside?

Of course, not everyone gets a fair shake from law enforcement in a land of 911.

If the events in America since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson have taught us anything, it is that whites and blacks have very different encounters with the police.

As I pointed out in the last post, Romans 13 and 911 might be "good news" to a woman in Africa, but what about on the streets of Ferguson?

Last year I read the book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. Ghettoside was an interesting, even paradoxical, book to read during the unrest America was and is experiencing over police shootings.

Let me describe the paradox by taking us back into the issues of Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

Ghettoside is the story of black-on-black murder in LA. Now, this is a difficult statistic to swallow, but in LA black males are more likely to be killed by other black males than by white police officers. And for far too many people, such statistics are often used get white law enforcement off the hook when it comes to police shootings.

Ghettoside, however, comes at the issue from a very different angle. Why is there so much black-on-black violence in places like LA? According to Leovy it's because black lives don't matter to law enforcement in LA. Specifically, black deaths aren't given the investigative attention they deserve to bring homicide charges against the murderers. When there is inner-city black-on-black violence the general feeling among many LA homicide detectives is that the killers "did our job for us," one gang-banger killing another gang-banger. The person who was shot probably deserved it.

And so there is no investigation. No charges. The killer walks. Black lives on the streets of LA are cheap.

And that's the paradox of Ghettoside. Black lives are costly, black lives matter, when there is functioning law enforcement, when killers don't walk.

Consider the value of two lives. One life is that of a white woman shot in Hollywood. How much law enforcement would be devoted to catching and bringing her killer to justice? A lot. That law enforcement effort makes the life of that white woman costly. Her life matters.

By contrast, consider a young black male shot dead in a drive by in South LA? How much attention is his death going to get from law enforcement? Especially if that young man had some gang affiliation?

In the eyes of law enforcement, the lives of black men in South LA are cheap. They don't matter. Especially compared to a white woman shot in Hollywood.

Here's how the argument of Ghettoside is summarized in a NYT review of the book:
As Leovy sees it, the problem in a place like Watts is not only the high homicide rate, but the fact that so many people who commit murder are never punished. In the 13 years before the homicide that opens her book, she writes, “a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles.” This lack of accountability is the primary cause, she argues, of the high homicide rate in some African-­American neighborhoods: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” she writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”

There are more than 2.2 million people now confined in American prisons and jails, and yet, in her view, the criminal justice system is not only“oppressive” but also “inadequate.” “Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem,” she writes. “The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and ‘preventive’ policing” — like stop-and-frisk — “remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims.”
This assessment--“Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”--brings us back to Romans 13.

The paradox of Ghettoside is that it argues that the black community needs more rather than less law enforcement, and by more we mean more adequate and appropriate. From a law enforcement perspective, many of America's inner cities are functionally equivalent to the failed states in Africa. In many neighborhoods there is a vacuum of law enforcement. And where there is a vacuum of law enforcement the locust effect reigns. Lives become cheap. And where lives are cheap murder become endemic.

And in America the places that have been abandoned by law enforcement have largely been black neighborhoods. Black lives don't matter in Ghettoside.

Again, all this is a paradoxical assessment in the wake of Ferguson, leading one to think that the last thing black communities need is more police driving around. But I'd argue that these police shootings are, in fact, the direct product of police officers not driving around black communities.

When black communities are abandoned by law enforcement when the police drive to certain zip codes on a 911 call they are, functionally, driving into what they implicitly take to be a war zone, full of danger and hostile intent. And perhaps it is. Regardless, the police are driving to the call on alert and wary, their bodies pumped full of stress hormones and adrenaline. And that stress reaction affects cognition, making the police hypervigilant and prone to overestimate risk. It's not surprising that triggers get pulled in these situations with tragic outcomes.

But isn't the message of Ghettoside relevant here? Aren't these shootings at least partly caused by law enforcement functionally abandoning black neighborhoods, bringing white officers into contact with black bodies only under highly stressful and emergency situations?

Might these police shootings be due to a chronic lack of appropriate law enforcement in black communities? A lack of regular contact and engagement that breeds distrust between both parties? A distrust that goes tragically wrong when two paranoid groups come into contact in stressed and emergency situations?

All that to say, similar to my reaction to the locust effect, Ghettoside gave me pause in how I think about Romans 13.

Might a problem regarding US law enforcement be that some zip codes in the US are, like in South LA,  functionally operating as failed states? Similar to the failed states worldwide that are prone to the locust effect? Don't we describe these zip codes as being "abandoned" by empire? And isn't a part of that abandonment a lack of functional law enforcement leading to endemic crime and violence?

Might a appropriate and functional law enforcement in places like South LA make black lives matter, even in Ghettoside?

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 3, Political Theology in a Land of 911

To get where I'm coming from in this post it is essential that you watch Gary Haugen's TED Talk about the Locust Effect that I posted yesterday. Please wait to weigh in if you haven't taken the time to watch that video.

Again, in this series I'm struggling with my feelings about Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

As an anarchist-Anabaptist leaning pacifist that text from Romans 13 gives me a lot of heartburn. In my political theology I've tended to see the principalities and powers, the nation state chief among them, as a force of wickedness in the world rather than as God's servant for our good.

But Gary Haugen's TED Talk about the locust effect, about the plague of everyday violence the poor face in the world, especially women, sent me into a deep, deep think about Romans 13.

What really struck me in Gary Haugen's talk was the 911 call, the terror and vulnerability we'd face if 911 suddenly was unavailable, as it is in much of the world, especially for women.

Worldwide, what happens when there is a vacuum of law enforcement? Thugs take over. The strong take advantage of the weak. Without 911 you have the locust effect, the plague of everyday violence that ruins all our charitable attempts to help the poor throughout the world, especially women.

What interrupted me about Gary Haugen's TED Talk is that I do my political theology in a land of 911. I rant and rage about "empire" in a land where it is taken for granted that a woman, if faced with a violent intruder, can call 911.

So what I'm struggling with is the social location of my political theology.

In a land of 911, am I missing how Romans 13 would sound to a woman in a failed state in Africa, vulnerable to the violent thugs in her remote village?

Would that woman, if she lived in a land of 911, endorse Paul's claim that the sword of the state is God's servant for our good?

And if she would, if she would experience Romans 13 and a land of 911 as "good news," then does not the preferential option for the poor tell me that I must adopt her reading of Romans 13 rather than my own?

Personal Days: Walden Pond

This last weekend I found myself in the Boston area. And like I do whenever I can, I stopped by Walden Pond in Concord to take a walk.

I only had an hour but Walden Pond isn't very big.

I kicked off my sandals and walked barefoot. Sometimes walking on the water's edge, but mostly walking along the pine needle strewn path around the pond.

I lingered at the Thoreau cabin site. Sat on a rock to read a few pages of Walden. Dipped my feet in the water.

Why do I visit Walden Pond? Outside of Jesus, the biggest influence upon my personality is Henry David Thoreau. I've read Walden more than any other book outside of the Bible.

I read Walden in college, and its call to non-conformity ("If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."), simplicity ("I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.") and intentionality ("I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.") had a profound, decisive and lasting impact upon me.

Before reading Walden I used to care about what people thought. After Walden, I stopped.

Today I'm known to colleagues and friends as a bit of a non-conformist. And I don't own a suit or pants other than jeans. I live each day with great deliberation, preferring to walk barefoot in the rain than send the next email in the office.

That is why I visit Walden Pond.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 2, The Locust Effect

My heartburn over my heartburn regarding Romans 13 began when I watched this TED Talk by Gary Haugen about what he calls "the Locust Effect." See also his book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.

Watch the video, even if you've seen it before, and then re-read Romans 13 below.

Ponder what Paul is saying in light of what Gary Haugen is describing.

See, if you have heartburn about Romans 13, if the reality of "the locust effect" affects your perspective on Paul's claim that a nation is a "servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer," and what happens in the world when a nation fails to do this job.

Romans 13.1-6
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 1, Heartburn

As regular readers know, I have an anti-authority, anti-institutional streak in both my personality and in my theology.

My sympathies tend toward the anarchical, the kingdom of God as that place where there is no "lording over" others, where the only "power" is the washing of feet.

My sympathies run so strongly in this direction that I devote a whole chapter in Reviving Old Scratch linking the use of power to the demonic. I frequently equate "the principalities and powers" with satanic activity in the world, viewing all organizations, institutions and nation states with the greatest of suspicion.

Beyond my anarchical ("no rule") impulses, my theological inclinations are also very Anabaptist, seeing the church as a polis separate and apart from the wickedness of Babylon--the Empires of our age, America chief among them.

Thus it is no great surprise that a Christian like me struggles mightily with this famous text from Romans 13:
Romans 13.1-6
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 
My problems are easy to see. If the nation state is the principality and power of Babylon, the satanic hand working oppression and injustice in the world, then why am I supposed to be in submission to it? If this principality and power is wicked how can I think of this power as being appointed and ordained by God?

And differently but relatedly, if I'm committed to non-violence and pacifism how am I supposed to approve of the state using the sword in the execution of judgment?  Even worse, how am I to understand that the state's use of the sword is approved of by God?

For Christians like me--anarchical, Anabaptist, pacifist--Romans 13 is one of those heartburn texts. Texts that you'd rather ignore and/or qualify.

To be clear, no matter what you believe as a Christian you have your own suite of texts that give you heartburn. Romans 13 happens to be one of mine.

And yet, over the last year I've been rethinking my heartburn over Romans 13. I've encountered a few different things have have helped create a window into what I think Paul is getting at in Romans 13. Not that I have any final or conclusive answers or have had a change of heart--the text still gives me heartburn--but my qualms about Paul's claim that the nation state is "God's servant for your good" have been interrupted a bit.

So I'd like to share a few posts about about how I've been interrupted by Romans 13, about my heartburn over my heartburn.

The Killing

That was the day they killed the Son of God
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
Zion was bare, her children from their maze
Sucked by the dream of curiosity
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill.
After the ceremonial preparation,
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood,
Erection of the main-trees with their burden,
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day.
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse,
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah
And found the Son of God. What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot,
Alone, four women stood and did not move
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled,
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast,
But in his breast they watched his heart move on
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey.
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge
That he was walking in the park of death,
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself.
They waited only for death and death was slow
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it.
They were angry then with death and death's deceit.

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God
Indeed in dying cross my life that day
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

--"The Killing" by Edwin Muir

Memento Mori

I have a skull in my office. And people occasionally ask me why. It strikes some people as an odd sort of thing to have around.

As I've written about this before, I keep a skull in my office as a memento mori.

Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you are mortal" or "Remember you will die." Memento mori refers to an art form where reminders of death were painted or included in a painting. The classic example is a still life of a skull:

Sometimes a hourglass is added to symbolize the sands of time:

Occasionally, more subtle details are added, like bubbles:

The bubbles remind me of these biblical passages:

James 4.14b
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Psalm 78.39
[Yahweh] remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.

Psalm 39.4-6
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be."
I keep a skull around to remind me of texts like these. The skull is a memento mori.

In the middle of a work day I look at the skull and think: Remember the truth about all this stuff around you, all this stuff that is stressing you and everyone else out--all this striving, pushing, competing, assessing, goal-setting, excelling, climbing, and performing.

It's all just mist, a breath. Chasing the wind. Vanity of vanities.