Prison Diary: The Bible Study

We have a two hour block of time for our study, which goes from 6:30 to 8:30. That's a big chunk of time to fill every week.

The schedule we've adopted is one we inherited from Bob Gomez. Bob was the one who started the Monday night study many decades ago. For years Bob led the study all by himself. Bob's a bit of a hero in my eyes.

When I started Bob, Herb and I all were co-teachers. But with my arrival Bob was soon able to retire. So now it's just Herb and I.

Herb had the seniority, so he became the lead teacher. Which I rest into. I love being second fiddle.

After the reception line welcome Herb kicks the study off with our traditional opening song (a mash up of "This is the Day," "Alive, Alive" and "What a Mighty God"), a welcome, announcements and a prayer. After that Herb moves into whatever material he's working through.

About an hour in Herb stops and hands it over to me. I always start with the songbooks and those hymn sings I'm always writing and talking about. After singing I then move into my material until the end of class.

So basically there's two studies going on, what Herb is doing and what I'm doing.

So what am I doing?

Well, a few years ago after I finished up a study I asked the Men in White what they'd like to study. They said, "Let's go through the whole Bible." I agreed, and the next week we started in Genesis 1.

I wish I had noted the date when we started in Genesis. I know it was over three years ago. Maybe longer.

Right now we're in the Gospel of John, so I expect it'll take us another few years to get all the way to Revelation.

This week the first song called out was "I Need Thee Every Hour":
I need thee every hour
Most gracious Lord
No tender voice like thine
Can peace afford

     Chorus:
     I need thee oh I need thee
     Every hour I need thee
     Oh bless me now my savior
     I come to thee

I need thee every hour
Stay thou near by
Temptations loose their power
When thou art nigh

I need thee every hour
Most holy one
Oh make me thine indeed
Thou blessed son
And our text in John was John 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Not Obeying the Sermon on the Mount

The adult Sunday School class I co-teach at church is doing a quick study (eight lessons) on the gospel of Matthew.

With only eight lessons you have to be very selective about what you want to study in Matthew. For example, this last Sunday my task was to do a class on the Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes. (The rest of our 45 minute class time in spend on visiting, announcements, sharing prayer requests, and praying.)

The Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes!

Obviously, you can't survey the whole thing. So you pick a topic or a question raised by the Sermon and talk about that.

The question I picked was this: Are we supposed to obey the Sermon on the Mount?

That might seem like a really weird question. Of course we're supposed to follow the Sermon on the Mount. Why else would Jesus have preached it?

But there's actually a great deal of debate on this point. For my class I highlighted three places where Christians have balked at obeying the Sermon.

1. Morally Impossible
Some within the Christian tradition have argued that the Sermon is so severe and lofty in its demands that it can't possibly be obeyed. Then why was the Sermon given? To expose and humble us. By setting the bar so high the Sermon shows us that we can't be righteous through moral performance.

2. Theologically Problematic
On a related note, the Sermon equates righteousness with moral performance: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

You want forgiveness? It's not about grace: You have to forgive. You don't want God to judge you? It's not about grace: You must not judge others. When it comes to getting into heaven, the measure you use to judge others will be the measure that you'll be judged by (Matthew 7.1-2). Not much atonement theology here.

There's also a legalistic strain that runs through the Sermon. For example: 
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.19-20)
Moral perfection is also assumed in places: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

And finally, beyond righteousness being the result of moral performance, damnation for moral failure lurks everywhere in the Sermon:
"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."

"Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3. Politically Irresponsible
Perhaps the biggest argument that the Sermon shouldn't be fully obeyed is the opinion that the Sermon is politically impractical.

"Do not resist an evil person," "love your enemies," and "turn the other cheek" are taken to be immoral stances in the face of evil. And if not immoral, than morally irresponsible.


So these are the reasons you hear for not obeying the Sermon on the Mount. And yet, in his final comparison in the Sermon about the wise and foolish builders, Jesus cuts across all these objections:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

The Dark Spell the Devil Casts: Refugees and Our Slavery to the Fear of Death

I wrote a post in 2015, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, that I think remains very relevant to the political and spiritual climate in the US in regards to immigration bans.

In that post I talked about how my book The Slavery of Death explains a lot about what is going on today in American Christianity regarding our debates about accepting refugees and immigrants in the US.

The Slavery of Death is a theological and psychological meditation on this text from Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 
In this passage the power of the Devil in our lives is described as our slavery to the fear of death. As 1 John tells us, fear is the enemy of love. Consequently, perfect love must cast out fear.

As I describe in The Slavery of Death our fear of death manifests in one of two ways, what psychologists call basic anxiety and neurotic anxiety.

In the affluent West, where our culture is characterized by a "denial of death"--a culture where we like to pretend, due to modern medicine and our technological wizardry that we are immune to death--our slavery to the fear of death is mostly neurotic. We strive, in the words of Henri Nouwen, to be relevant, spectacular or powerful in our quest to live a meaningful and significant life in the face of death. If you looked in the mirror today to check your appearance or checked your Facebook, Twitter or blog accounts to see who was paying attention to you, well, that's your neurotic death anxiety at work. That's the power of the devil in your life. That's your slavery to the fear of death.

But from time to time in the West we also face basic death anxiety. In these instances we fear death directly and straightforwardly. With the news of a terrorist attack we feel a surge of this basic death anxiety. Our fears become less about self-esteem and more about physical security.

And as the fear of death falls upon us so does the power of the Devil.

Gripped by fear our capacities for love, compassion and hospitality quickly dry up and evaporate. Perfect love, battling hard to cast out fear, goes on life-support. If it's not already dead and flat-lined.

And the words "cast out" are prophetically appropriate. Again, in the words of Hebrews fear is the power of the Devil. And America is in dire need of an exorcism.

As I point out in The Slavery of Death and in Unclean, love involves opening yourself up to risk. And risk involves fear and uncertainty.

There are no guarantees with love. That doesn't mean you act recklessly or foolishly. But it does mean that doing the loving thing, the compassionate thing, the humane thing involves facing down legitimate fears and a willingness to live with very real risks.

The fog of fear, rooted in concerns over safety and security, is the dark spell the Devil casts to bewitch the Children of Light, the diabolical alchemy that transforms gentle and kind people into the Children of Darkness.

The Christianity of Lady Gaga

A week ago last Sunday my old post from 2011 "The Gospel According to Lady Gaga" got a new life on social media. Thanks to everyone who Tweeted out the post in response to Lady Gaga's Superbowl halftime show.

The other reason the post got a second wind was because of the Superbowl Sunday article in the Washington Post by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons "The Provocative Faith of Lady Gaga."

One of the observations made by Graves-Fitzsimmons was the focus of my 2011 post: "The Little Monsters who flock to her concerts resemble the group of outcasts and misfits who flocked to Jesus."

The Addict as Prophet: Part 6, Modernity and Loneliness

This is my last post summarizing selected material from Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

I've been focusing on Dunnington's argument that addiction can be viewed as a prophetic critique of modernity. Addiction, if we pay attention to it, points us to the failures of modernity. Addiction is addictive because it gives us what we find missing in modern life.

In the last two posts we described how addiction helps us overcome the existential vacuum of modernity. Lacking a Story that gives life motivated and clarifying purpose and direction, addiction gives us a habit and a lifestyle that fills this void. Addiction makes something matter, creating a focused, unifying, consuming and motivated lifestyle.

This is not to deny the physiological aspects of chemical dependency. This is simply the observation that even when the addict is detoxed and clean the lifestyle of addiction remains alluring because of how it addresses the spiritual and psychological vacuum of modernity.

Consequently, if detoxed addicts cannot replace addiction with something that is as equally compelling and consuming they will remain vulnerable to addiction's allures.

And yet, as we've seen, modernity, because it lacks a Story, cannot give us anything as compelling or consuming. Thus we remain ever vulnerable to addictive habits and lifestyles.

Beyond filling the existential void, addiction also reduces the feeling of loneliness in modernity. As Dunnington says, "Lonely people make good addicts."

Again, loneliness is a uniquely modern problem. We are, as Robert Putnam has so ably documented, "bowling alone."

Addiction thrives in this social vacuum. Addiction often starts in social contexts, is sustained by circles of friends, and is often maintained by a webs of connection between fellow users and suppliers. And even when addiction isolates us from others it does so by becoming a surrogate "friend." Addicts often refer to the chemical they are addicted to as their "best friend." Addiction is a companion.

Thus, once again we see addiction filling a great void in modernity.

In conclusion, then, addiction provides a critique of modernity and puts a challenge before the church. Can the church provide us with something more compelling than addiction? Can the church provide us with a life that overcomes the malaise of modernity? Can the church address the modern symptoms of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness?

I'll leave the last word for Dunnington (p. 123):
Addiction is in fact a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet. The church has a great stake in listening to such unwitting prophets. If the church will listen, it will be led to an examination of how its own culture contributes to the production of addiction, whether it offers an alternative culture and what such an alternative culture would require.

Prison Diary: Prison Coffee

After the set up crew gets the chapel ready (see last week's entry), Joe heads off to get Herb and I some coffee.

I never ask for or request coffee. Joe just really wants to get it for us. It's his way of saying "Thank You for coming." It is always a touching gesture on his part.

How can I describe prison coffee?

I expect many of you would find prison coffee absolutely harrowing to drink. If you have a delicate constitution this drink isn't for you. It's so dark and thick I swear you can stand a spoon upright in it. It's like motor oil. On top of that they throw in a bunch of powered creamer and an obscene amount of sugar. The coffee tastes thick, bitter, burnt and sickly sweet all at the same time. It's really quite something.

Still, I drink it. Joe brings it as a gift, so I drink it.

And over time I've acquired a taste for this concoction. I don't normally take sugar in my coffee, but now, whenever I encounter bad coffee, I'll add powered creamer and lots of sugar. This transforms the bad coffee into a taste I associate with many fond memories.

I used to avoid bad coffee.

Now I just transform it into something worse. A drink I've come to love.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 5, Modernity and Boredom

After discussing in Addiction and Virtue how addiction addresses our feelings of arbitrariness in modernity--making something matter in a world where nothing matters--Dunnington goes on to discuss a second symptom of modernity's malaise.

Boredom.

Because modernity lacks a telos, we don't have a Story that gives life purpose, direction and meaning. Any story we do have is the story we pick for ourselves, a story that can be dropped in an instant, making that story seem hollow and arbitrary.

You'd think that this would create a feeling of existential crisis for us. But as Dunnington points out, most moderns don't feel existential angst. What we tend to feel is bored.

Why is boredom a uniquely modern problem?

Dunnington points to two things.

First, due to our material affluence modernity has increased our leisure time. That's no small accomplishment.

And yet, to Dunnington's second point, modernity has accomplished this feat by eliminating our Story.

And these two things--time without a telos--create an existential vacuum. Space in our lives has been created--leisure time--but we lack a Story to fill that space with meaningful activity. Consequently, we fill our leisure time with entertainments and distractions. Again, this situation is perfectly suited to capitalism, large amounts of free time needing to be filled with products and activities for sale.

The trouble, we all know, is that after we cycle through all these entertainments we become increasingly bored. There's a million shows on TV and we can't find anything to watch.

Addiction, according to Dunnington, cracks through the boredom by giving use something compelling to do. Addiction, if it's anything, is a motivated state, somthing that consumerism struggles to give us consistently.

Further, rather than facing a vast, undifferentiated sea of choices, addiction focuses life upon a single, unifying activity.

When we're bored we have a million things we could do, but nothing we want to do. And if that's the experience of modernity, the experience of addiction is the exact opposite. Addiction gives you a single, compelling thing to do. Once again, addiction fills the void of modernity, functioning as a form of social critique.

Here's Dunnington (p. 118):
Addiction provides a response to the underwhelming life of boredom that plagues the bourgeois in its leisure time by making one thing matter. And addiction provides a response to the overwhelming life of boredom that plagues the working class with the fragmented and compartmentalized striving by making one thing matter. For those who are bored with nothing to do, addiction stimulates by entangling and consuming; for those who are bored with too much to do, addiction disburdens by simplifying and clarifying.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 4, Modernity and Arbitrariness

In my last post we raised the fascinating claim made by Kent Dunnington in his book Addiction and Virtue that addiction can be viewed as a prophetic critique of modernity.

How so?

Dunnington argues (p. 101) that "addiction is ubiquitous in contemporary life...because  addiction makes accessible certain kinds of moral and intellectual goods, which the development of modernity have made otherwise difficult to attain."

So, what are the "moral and intellectual goods" of addiction?

What makes addiction so addictive?

Dunnington makes the argument that modernity is characterized by a moral, spiritual and psychological malaise. Malaise is defined as "a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify."

According to Dunnington, this malaise--the uneasiness we experience in modernity--is characterized by three main symptoms: Arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. Addiction, Dunnington argues, is so addictive because addiction uniquely addresses these three symptoms. Addiction is, thus, a uniquely modern problem as addiction is particularly well-suited for "treating" what ails modern people.

This is not to deny that addiction existed or was a problem before modernity, just the claim that as modernity exacerbated our feelings of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness it has caused us to become increasingly drawn to addictive behaviors to reduce the discomfort we experience in modernity.

Consequently, addiction functions as a form of prophetic critique, pointing us toward the moral, spiritual and psychological failures of modernity.

In this and the next two posts we'll walk through how addictions address the three symptoms of modernity's malaise. We start with arbitrariness.

As many scholars have pointed out, modernity has lost its telos (goal, direction, purpose). In the words of Robert Jenson, modernity lost its story. According to Charles Taylor, the modern "secular age" lives in the "immanent frame." We've lost the metaphysical framework that tells us who we are and where we are going.

All that is left in modernity is freedom and the individual will. There is no "point" to anything, just you and your choices. Any meaning or telos for your life is the one you choose for yourself. There is no grand narrative or plotline you're being caught up in. Life is, rather, a Choose-Your-Own adventure novel.

This view of the human person is perfectly suited to capitalism and consumerism. In modernity our choices and freedoms are maximized allowing us to pursue our true, "authentic" selves in the quest for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.

The trouble with this, as we all know, is the person looking back at us in the mirror. True, in modernity I am the Captain of my own ship. And that's a thrilling prospect. But as I ponder my life I quickly come to the conclusion that I'm a pretty unreliable captain. I'm fickle, weak-willed, and self-deluded. My true, authentic self--the Real Me--seems to change year to year, if not day to day. Sometimes I want this, and sometimes I want that.

Again, this is the perfect situation for capitalism, marketers wooing me with rival visions of my best self, getting me to indulge or improve myself with this or that product or plan, people making money off me as I spin my wheels searching for happiness and fulfillment.

In short, without a larger goal, telos or story guiding my life, it all seems pretty arbitrary. I could do this or that, and the choice doesn't matter all that much. Because I can change my mind. I can reinvent myself in this instant.

Yes, freedom and choice provide us with a sense of control, but they do so by removing the existential weight of existence. Nothing matters, not really and not ultimately. There's just the next commercial, the next vacation, the next gym membership, the next Netflix episode, the next iPhone, the next house (bigger and better), the next shopping trip, the next Super Bowl party, the next Stars Wars or Harry Potter release, the next Friday night out with the boys or girls.

Modernity is just an arbitrary string of nexts that don't add up to anything substantive or valuable.

According to Dunnington, then, addiction is addictive because it addresses this sense of arbitrariness, that nothing matters more than anything else. Addiction is addictive because it gives weight to the unbearable lightness of being, gives texture to the consumeristic flatness of modern life.

Addiction is addictive because it makes something matter in a world where nothing matters.

Dunnington's summary of this (p. 112):
Addiction is a sort of rejection of consumerism's enthronement of the immediate over the teleological. It is true that many addictions begin from a desire to be distracted by immediate gratification. But addiction is addicting rather than merely distracting exactly because it provides the kind of propelling and purposive force that consumerism cannot provide...

Addiction provides what consumers do not believe exists: necessity. Major addiction can therefore be interpreted both as a response to the absence of teleology in modern culture and as a kind of embodied critique of the late capitalist consumerism which this absence has produced.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 3, Addiction As the Mirror of Modernity

In this and the next three posts we get to what I think is the most interesting and provocative thesis of Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

After making the case that addiction is best viewed as a habit, rather than a choice or a disease, Dunnington turns to the second big thesis of his argument. Here's how he describes it in the Preface:
The second broad thesis of the book is that the prevalence and power of addiction indicates the extent to which a society fails to provide nonaddictive modes of acquiring certain kinds of goods necessary to human welfare. Addiction is therefore an embodied critique of the culture which sustains it. I propose that addiction as we understand it is a particularly modern habit, and that addiction can be viewed as a mirror reflecting back to us aspects of modern culture that we tend to overlook or suppress. Persons with severe addictions are among those contemporary prophets that we ignore to our own demise, for they show us who we truly are.

Christians must heed prophets. Christians, therefore, are called to appropriately describe the addictive experience and to consider how the church may be complicit in the production of a culture of addiction.
According to Dunnington, addiction is a disease of modernity. Addiction thrives because it uniquely and particularly addresses the failures of modernity to offer us any compelling vision of the good life. Lacking this vision we cannot flourish and thrive. Later in the book Dunnington writes, "Addiction, I contend, is the definitive habit of our time exactly because it offers the most powerful available response to this particularly modern lack." In this way, by holding up a mirror to modernity's failures, addiction functions as embodied social critique. The addict as prophet.

So what are the symptoms of modernity's failure?

Dunnington points to three symptoms of modernity: Arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness.

Dunnington then goes on, as we'll review in the next three posts, to show how addiction uniquely addresses all three symptoms.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 2, Addiction as Habit

Is addiction a choice or a disease?

The first half of Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue is an attempt to tackle this snarly question. This not the part of the book that I want to focus on, but it's an important issue that lays the foundation for any theology of addiction.

We tend to moralize addiction when we frame it as a choice. Addiction, if it's a choice, is a sin and the addict is viewed as a bad person.

A key advantage, then, of viewing addiction as a disease--as a brain pathology--is that it marshals sympathy for the addict. Viewing addiction as an illness lowers moral accountability. We shift to treating addicts rather than blaming them.

There are two good reasons for viewing addiction as a disease. First, there appear to be biological correlates for addiction, genetics that appear to make some brains more susceptible to addiction. Second, addicts report a degree of compulsion that give the impression that, in the grip of addiction, their ability to exercise rational control has been compromised.

The general consensus among medical and mental health professionals is that addiction is a disease. And yet, this consensus is controversial and contested. Many professionals working with addiction think the disease model is wrong, and perhaps even harmful.

Regardless, if addiction is a disease it is a really weird disease. As Dunnington points out, most addicts recover from addiction and when they do it's often without any medical intervention. Some addicts just stop cold turkey.

Those cold turkey testimonies seem to reinforce the "choice" model of addiction. And yet, addiction is accompanied by such overwhelming and self-destructive compulsions that it's unlike anything resembling a rational choice.

In short, addiction is a paradox, falling somewhere in that murky interface between voluntary (choice) and involuntary (disease).

Our current theologies of addiction are ill-equipped to handle this murky space as we're pulled to either extreme, choice or disease. Dunnington's work is helpful as he uses Aristotle and Aquinas, the virtue traditions in Greek and Christian thought, to explore the interface of voluntary and involuntary action, the territory where addiction seems to live.

Borrowing from these virtue traditions, Dunnington suggests that addiction is best viewed not as a choice or a disease but as a habit. As Dunnington shows, the category of habit best fits the paradox of addiction, how addiction responds to non-medical interventions but is also experienced as an involuntary compulsion.

Having argued that addiction is best viewed as a habit (rather than a choice or disease), Dunnington then goes on to the second part of his argument, the part of his book I want to focus on.

Specifically, if addiction is a habit, what makes this particular habit so addicting?

Prison Diary: The Set Up Crew

To get out to the prison on time I have to head out around 5:40. It takes about twenty minutes to get there. The study starts at 6:30, so we get out there around 6:00. We have to clear security and make the walk to the chapel. If things go smoothly we're at the chapel around 6:15.

When we arrive we're greeted by Cody, Diego and Joe. Our set up crew.

The origins of the set up crew are murky. A lot of what happens in a prison depends a great deal upon your ability to convince an officer to allow you to do something, like going to the chapel early to set up.

Cody, Diego and Joe are skilled and confident talkers. A year or so ago they self-nominated themselves to become our set up crew, convincing the officers in their respective buildings to release them early so that they could help set up the chapel for our study.

And you know how it is. Once something happens once it's a tradition ever afterward. Eventually that tradition becomes expectation and something that is informal becomes formalized. Cody, Diego and Joe now have lay ins that let them come early to the chapel to help set up.

And there is a great need to set up. We have to find, collect and arrange chairs to accommodate the size of the study. So Herb and I have always been appreciative that Cody, Diego and Joe selected this job for themselves.

But more than the set up, what I appreciate most about the set up crew are the relationships. Because we get to spend some time alone each week with each other, waiting for the 50+ men to arrive, I have the closest relationships with Cody, Joe and Diego.

Everything I know about prison life and culture they have taught me.

Like how to get yourself appointed to being a set up crew.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 1, The Need for a Theology of Addiction

I'd like to share some posts walking through some insights from Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

If you've read Reviving Old Scratch you know that, because of my life at Freedom Fellowship, we spend a lot of our time walking alongside friends struggling with addiction. One of the reasons I've grown disillusioned with progressive Christianity is how little it talks about addiction. Addiction stalks the margins of our society, like a hungry predator, so if you want to stand in solidarity with the margins you need to have something to say about addiction. But not many Christian bloggers write about addiction.

That said, I'm not particularly impressed with conservative conversations about addiction either.

In short, there's a gap here in our theological reflection, among both conservatives and progressives, and I think Dunnington's book is a provocative and helpful contribution.

And if you don't know a lot about addiction in America let me suggest you pick up Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic as a place to get started.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 3, We Need a Liturgy of Peace

I think the main reason I'd like to see churches passing the peace is because if our world needs a liturgy right now that liturgy is passing the peace.

We're all so divided, polarized and angry at each other. Even in our own pews. So it seems to me that it might be a good idea if we all started practicing, week in and week out, looking each other in the eye and saying "Peace be with you."

Right now, other than the Eucharist, I can't imagine a more important and necessary liturgy for us. A stand-and-greet-your-neighbors liturgy isn't going to cut it. We need to practice extending peace to each other.

Seriously, to lament our polarized, divided and fractured churches, communities and nation and to not practice passing the peace is liturgical and political malpractice.

It's Spiritual Formation 101. You can't become something you're not willing to practice.

Dear churches, start passing the peace.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 2, The Foundation of Christian Community

Socially and pragmatically, passing the peace is a hospitable liturgy for introverts and for those who are struggling on a Sunday morning. The Christ-focused script--"The peace of Christ be with you."--helps the introverts and it doesn't force us to pretend.

But the deeper reason for why passing the peace is a better liturgy than the "let's stand and greet those around you" liturgy is that passing the peace focuses us on the true foundation of Christian community.

The problem with the "greeting time" liturgy is that it asks us, in sixty awkward seconds, to find some common ground between yourself and a stranger. You ask those standard get-to-know you questions, looking for some point of connection.

The theological issue here, beyond this time being hell on introverts, is that this "greeting time" liturgy is forcing us to look for the source of community within ourselves. We look for commonalities and similarities, and when we find these we find connection and community.

In short, the "greeting time" liturgy is malforming us as it is asking us to find community in similarity and sameness.

Passing the peace, by contrast, points us away from ourselves toward the true ground of Christian community: the peace of Christ. We don't bond over the fact that we both watched the Dallas Cowboy game. We bond because we are recipients of the peace of Christ.

The "greeting time" liturgy is awful because it brings up college football.

Passing the peace, by contrast, points us to Jesus.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 1, Think About the Introverts!

On Friday in my post about the Bible study I lead out at the prison I mentioned that, outside the Eucharist, my favorite part of the liturgy is the passing of the peace.

I also mentioned that my church doesn't pass the peace and that I wish we did.

So I'd like to follow up with a few posts this week to make the argument that every church should pass the peace. Because a lot of churches, particularly low-church Protestants like my church, don't pass the peace. And they should.

I'm going to get to some important theological and political reasons for why we should pass the peace each Sunday, but let me start today with a simple, pragmatic reason.

Think about the introverts!

Instead of passing the peace, a lot of churches, like mine, do have a moment in the service where we're asked to stand and greet the people around us. This "greeting time" is often assumed to be the equivalent of passing the peace. But as I'll argue in the next two posts, this "greeting time" is a very poor substitute for passing the peace. In fact, as I'll argue, rather than forming us into a Christ-centered community this "greeting time" is actually malforming us.

But before we get those heavier arguments, for today I just want to point out how inhospitable the "greeting time" is for introverts. Seriously, I know many introverts in my church who intentionally come to church late so that they can miss the greeting time. That's how difficult and hard the greeting time is for many introverts. To say nothing about the people who are emotionally or spiritually struggling on any given Sunday. The greeting time privileges extraversion and positivity.

Passing the peace, by giving us a script, words to share with each other, is so much more hospitable to introverts. This is a fact. I know introverts who come to church late to skip the greeting time who absolutely love passing the peace.

Passing the peace is also more hospitable to those who are struggling on Sunday morning. When you are passing the peace you don't have to smile and pretend life is awesome. Which, let's admit it, the greeting time forces you do do. You are not, in the sixty seconds you're given for greeting time, going to spill your troubles to the strangers sitting next to you. So you are forced by the greeting time liturgy to smile, nod and show a happy face. The greeting time is a liturgical nightmare because it is a liturgy of pretending.

Passing the peace avoids this falseness because it focuses us on Christ.

Prison Diary: La Paz de Cristo sea con vosotros

The Men in White in our bible study don't have a lot of liturgical knowledge or experience. For the most part they are, as they say, "unchurched."

So one of the things that I've enjoyed over the years is introducing the men to liturgy and the liturgical calendar. I've explained to them the difference between Advent and Christmas. One year during Lent I heavily smudged ashes onto a piece of paper to get ashes in the prison so that they could experience the imposition of ashes. My smudge was heavy and thick enough that I could rub my thumb over it to leave a faint black cross on the foreheads of the men.

This week I was talking about the passing of the peace in liturgical churches. Outside of the Eucharist the passing of the peace is my favorite part of liturgical services. I wish my church passed the peace. It's a powerful symbol of reconciled humanity as New Creation.

Most of the men in the study had never passed the peace. So I explained the point of the liturgy and the words we say to each other. "Peace be with you." or "Peace of Christ." or simply "Peace."

After this little lesson, 50 plus men got up and passed the peace.

The Hispanic men passed the peace to me with "La Paz de Christo" ("the Peace of Christ") and "La Paz de Cristo sea con vosotros."

May the Peace of Christ be with you.

And also with you, my brothers. And also with you.

On Spiritual Warfare: Dualism vs. Apocalyptic

One of the concerns when Christians talk about the Devil and spiritual warfare is a worry about ontological dualism.

Specifically, images of "warfare," with light being opposed to darkness, makes us think that Good and Evil are an ontological pair, eternally pitted against each other. To be sure, there are some religious cosmologies that embrace that dualism, but Christianity isn't one of them.

And yet, Christians see themselves as battling dark forces, collectively described as "the satan," the Adversary.

So how do we avoid drifting into dualism in light of that struggle?

In Reviving Old Scratch I borrow from the work of scholars like Louis Martyn, his commentary on Galatians in particular, to argue that the reason we experience spiritual warfare isn't because of dualism but because God's invasion of the world. Scholars call this framework apocalyptic. The world is held in captivity by dark cosmic forces--the Devil, Sin and Death--and God invades the cosmos to liberate humanity. Yes, this is Christus Victor atonement.

The key, though, for the concern about dualism, is that we experience warfare not because of ontology but because of God's apocalyptic invasion of "the present evil age."

Prayer Labyrinth

I mentioned that two weeks ago I was teaching a class on hospitality for a wonderful group of people in Spring Arbor University’s MA in Spiritual Formation and Leadership program. The residency class was at the lovely Michindoh Conference Center.

Michindoh has a prayer labyrinth on the grounds, and since we all were there as a part of a spiritual formation program a lot of people in the cohorts taking the class couldn't wait to get out to the labyrinth. Apparently, there are prayer labyrinth junkies out there.

Sad to say this, but even though there is a prayer labyrinth on my own campus, I've never walked a prayer labyrinth. Oh, I've looked at and walked around plenty of prayer labyrinths, but I've never prayerfully walked my way through a labyrinth the way you're supposed to do.

So on my last day at Michindoh, during a time of silent retreat, I headed out to the prayer labyrinth. It was a damp, cold winter day. But I love weather, so damp, cold winter days are atmospheric to me. There is nothing I love more than being appropriately dressed on a cold winter day. I love the contrast of feeling snug and warm with the feeling of cold air on your face. Have you ever delighted in that feeling? Being outside on a cold day but being perfectly comfortable because you've nailed the clothing? Not too hot, not too cold. Perfected matched to the climate. Externally, the day seems forbidding and chilly, but you're walking around warm and contented. I love that feeling. That's the feeling I had walking out to the prayer labyrinth at Michindoh.

I reached the labyrinth and took a centering breath before starting.

I slowly walked the labyrinth saying the Jesus prayer all the way into the center. At the center I lingered, resting into silence. I exited the labyrinth bringing to mind the names and faces of all the people in my life I want to be available and present to. My family, co-workers, people I've been neglecting.

I loved the experience. I walked slowly back to the conference center, pausing for long minutes to watch a black and white spotted Downy Woodpecker. The two of us sat together, alone by the grey lake.

Finally, with a stilled, quiet heart I said good-bye and walked back into the world.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 4, Wanted: Liturgies for Loving the Hard to Love

Last post reflecting on the work of James Smith as we processed his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love at last fall's Rochester College Streaming conference.

Again, if there was big point I struggled with at Streaming it was the issue I raised in Part 1, that liturgy isn't a magic bullet when it comes to spiritual formation.

So what's missing?

I think what's missing is summed up in what we mean by "kingdom" when we say that liturgy forms us to "desire the kingdom." What is this "kingdom" that we are trying to love?

Most of the time when I hear Smith describe his work kingdom is referring to the transcendent. Rarely does Smith describe liturgies, habits and practices that help us love hard to love human beings.

Basically, I agree with everything Smith describes in his books except his definition of the kingdom. Smith's implicit definition of the kingdom is too spiritual and too transcendent and not tied closely to where most failures of Christlikeness occur, the realm of social psychology and interpersonal relationships.

I love things like liturgy, the liturgical calendar, structured prayer, silence, Sabbath, Lectio Divina and on and on. I'm a huge liturgical nerd. I geek out on this stuff. But none of it is directly forming in me the interpersonal affectional capacities required to help me love hard to love people. It's this interpersonal aspect that is missing in most conversations about liturgical practice and spiritual disciplines.

I agree that we need habits and practices to shape and direct our loves. But what I want to see more of are habits and practices that form and direct our loves toward human beings.

Love, especially for the the hard to love. That's my definition of the kingdom.

So where are we describing the liturgies that help us with that?

Prison Diary: Reunions and the Greeting Line

On Monday we weren't sure if we'd be having the study since it was MLK Day. But we got late word that the chaplain's office had issued the lay-ins for our class.

(A lay-in is an approval slip, sort of like a High School hall pass, allowing the inmates to leave their cell block to attend a program offering. So if the lay-ins aren't sent out, and sometimes they aren't on holidays, the men aren't allowed to leave their cell blocks to attend our study. This is one of the glitchy things about working at a prison. You can show up at the facility ready to go, but if someone forgets to process the lay-in paperwork you won't have a class showing up.)

I was so happy we had class. I'd been missing the guys. Due the Christmas holidays (lay-ins were not given for the two Mondays around Christmas and New Year's) and being out of town last week it had been a few weeks since I'd been at the study.

These reunions are awesome. After the guys get patted down by the guards (to make sure they aren't bringing contraband into the study) they are released to enter the chapel where the study is held. Herb and I wait for the men to enter, creating a sort of receiving line. We hug and greet everyone as they enter. There's over 50 guys, so this takes awhile.

But this receiving line, the 50 hugs given out, is my favorite part of the study. And it's the favorite time of the men as well. To be embraced, to stand and share in some small talk, to chat as friends. It's an incredibly humanizing experience for the Men in White. For many of the men, we're the only people from the "free world" that they ever get to see or talk with. The greeting line really is Holy Ground.

And these greetings, as you might expect, are even more enthusiastic when we haven't seen each other in a few weeks.

So Monday night this week was really special.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 3, Jesus is My Boyfriend

At the Streaming conference, as we talked about the work of James K. Smith, from time to time in our discussions criticisms were made of contemporary praise music.

A frequently leveled criticism concerned the overly romantic themes in contemporary Christian praise music. These sorts of songs are frequently dismissed as "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs.

I found that dismissal odd in light of our discussions about Smith's work about how liturgies should shape our loves and desires. Smith was arguing that our liturgies should engage our emotions, that worship should be more romantic than intellectual, but in the same breath we were dismissing "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs.

What's additionally strange here is that many of the people who are dismissive of the "boyfriend" songs are people immersed in the contemplative tradition. And yet, the contemplative tradition is the tradition most familiar with the erotic aspects of Christian worship and spirituality. If anyone felt that "Jesus is my boyfriend" it was the Christian mystics.

Finally, the patriarchy might also be at work in this criticism of "boyfriend" themes. Which is again strange given that many of the people who dismiss the "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs are liberals and progressives.

James Smith makes all these points in a fascinating footnote (p. 79) in Desiring the Kingdom:
I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of "mushy" worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses, I don't think we should so quickly write off their "romantic" or even "erotic" elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context)...The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship is concerned to keep worship "safe" from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women--and women mystics in particular.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 2, The Hypocrisy of Not Raising Your Hands

A big part of the discussion about liturgies at Streaming last fall responding to the work of James K. Smith was that liturgies engage our bodies and emotions.

We aren't, to use Smith's phrase, just "brains on sticks." The brain is connected to and affected by the body. Consequently, if we want to reform and reshape our loves and desires our liturgies must target our bodies and our guts.

But as I mentioned in the last post, Smith tends to describe Christian liturgy as it appears in the Protestant mainline traditions. And again, that's great. I love The Book of Common Prayer.

But here's the question I asked Smith after one of his sessions: What about charismatic and Pentecostal worship?

At the end of the day, given how Smith defines liturgy as habitual practices directing our love toward the kingdom, every church is a liturgical church. In their habitual worship practices a charismatic church is just as liturgical as an Episcopalian church. True, these liturgies look very, very different, but both churches have habitual worship practices that direct our desires toward the kingdom of God.

Which brings me back to the question I asked. If we are looking for liturgies that engage our bodies and our emotions it seems to me that charismatic worship might be just as or even more potent than a high-church liturgy. And interestingly, where mainline churches are struggling in the West charismatic churches are thriving worldwide.

Maybe, per my last post, liturgy can be potent in spiritual formation but we need to expand what we mean by liturgy.

For example, when we call for more embodied, emotional and Incarnational worship maybe we should think more about raising our hands, along with The Book of Common Prayer.

But here's a strange thing. A lot of the people touting the need for more embodied worship are the very last people who would raise their hands in worship. A lot of people who call for worship to be more Incarnational are the very last people who would dance in the aisles.

There's a disjoint. Theologically, we say we need embodied and Incarnational worship, but when it comes to actual worship we're dismissive of charismatic displays and enthusiasms.

To be clear, I'm not a very demonstrative worshiper. I'm not a big hand raiser.

But after I tout the need for Incarnational worship I'm acutely aware of my hypocrisy when I don't raise my hands.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 1, Liturgy Isn't A Magic Bullet

Last fall I was honored to be a part of the Rochester College Streaming conference where James K. Smith was the main presenter. James presented his work on desire, love, liturgies and spiritual formation from his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love.

I wanted to post a few different thoughts about desires and liturgies reflecting upon Smith's work.

For this post, a quick recap if you aren't familiar with Smith's ideas and then a simple observation.

The first move Smith makes is anthropological. Humans are desiring, emotional animals. It's less about "I think, therefore I am" than "You are what you love."

Second move: Our desires are aimed at some vision of human flourishing, some vision of the Good Life. In theological language, some vision of the kingdom of God.

Third move: Habits and practices shape our affections. Since these habitual practices are shaping our loves and desires for a kingdom we can call them liturgies. So defined, liturgies are everywhere shaping our affections. Smith calls these "secular liturgies," mainly consumeristic and nationalistic liturgies, that shape and direct our affections toward some vision of the Good Life. 

Fourth move: Christian worship is a counter-liturgy, habits and practices that compete for and reshape our affections away from the rival liturgies of the culture. If the secular liturgies of nation and marketplace--the habits and practices of life that make us desire and love the American Dream--deform us then Christian liturgy reforms us.

Overall, I agree with every one of these moves. I really like Smith's work.

But my first response, one that many people at Streaming shared, was that liturgy doesn't seem able to bear the weight Smith puts on it.

For example, as I pointed out at Streaming, among Protestants the mainline traditions have the best liturgy, and we can also throw in Catholicism and the Orthodox, but overall I don't think these liturgical traditions are producing more saintly Christians at higher rates than other traditions.

Liturgy isn't a saint factory.

Relatedly, as another attendee pointed out, if liturgy is so powerful then why are many mainline churches losing members at faster rates than some other denominations?

To be clear, I love the liturgy in mainline churches. Jana and I went to an Episcopal cathedral for their Christmas eve service this year. I adored the service, but the attendance was sparse. Clearly, liturgy alone isn't a magic bullet.

The Gospel of Peace & the Peace of the Gospel Conference: See You There!

I'm excited to be a part of the Gospel of Peace & the Peace of the Gospel conference taking place November 2-4 in Santa Fe, NM.

Beyond myself, the keynote speakers include Richard Rohr, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Diana Butler-Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, Brian McLaren, Michael Hardin, Douglas Campbell, and Danielle Shroyer.

I can't imagine a more needed conversation in the year 2017. Plus, I'm excited to meet people like Richard Rohr, whom I've never met before. He's made a huge impact upon a lot of my friends.

If you're thinking about attending the conference the Super Early Bird rate is available until March 1.

Hope to see you in beautiful Santa Fe in November!

Prison Diary: Team Effort

This week I’ve been out of town teaching a class on hospitality for an amazing collection of students in Spring Arbor University’s MA in Spiritual Formation and Leadership program. So I wasn’t able to be out at the prison on Monday night. Herb covered for me.

This is a huge part of what makes our class work on Monday nights, that Herb and I are a team. If I was the only one teaching the class I would have had to cancel this Monday. And if Herb were alone he would regularly have to cancel class.

Trust is hard-won out at the prison. People, many well-intentioned people, come and go. So the dependability and reliability of the Monday night Bible study, week after week and year after year, the fact that we never have to cancel, is a large part of why the men in the study have come to trust, love and respect us. We always show up.

But it takes a team to make that happen. Herb covered for me on Monday and I’ll eventually have to cover for Herb. And not only does our partnership make the Bible study reliable for the men, it also makes it sustainable for Herb and I over the long haul.

Their Homeland is a Foreign Country

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country...They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

--from The Letter to Diognetus

What Are You Looking For?

Our Sunday bible study last spring was studying through the gospel of John.

And one of the things that struck me in the gospel of John were the very first words of Jesus.

From John 1:
John 1.35-38
The next day John the Baptist again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them,

“What are you looking for?”
Some translations have the question as, "What do you want?"

What do you want? What are you looking for?

I don't know about you, but those are some really deep questions. Deep, deep down, what am I looking for? Deep, deep down what do I want?

I bet if we all sat down together and shared our answers we'd find that our answers were very similar.

Deep, deep down, we all want the same things.

And the gospel of John, I think, gives an answer to those longings.

Wheat and Tares

I've been thinking a lot about the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

From the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 13.24-30
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.

So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’

He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
As Jesus goes on to say, the wheat represent the children of the kingdom. The weeds represent the children of the evil one. The field is the world. And both the wheat and the weeds are left to "grow together." Any separating of the two is left to the eschatological judgment. Any separating of the wheat and weeds prior to the judgment will damage both wheat and weeds.

Interpretations about this parable abound. But there is something that struck me recently.

Jesus doesn't describe the kingdom as a bounded location, like a city with a wall around it, a division between Us and Them. The kingdom is, rather, located everywhere, mixed in and found, here and there, among the weeds. The kingdom is distributed, it can be found anywhere and everywhere.

And it seems, if I'm following Jesus, that any attempt to separate the kingdom from the world, to concentrate and localize the kingdom, only does damage to the kingdom. 

We tend to think of the kingdom as a place, a pure space we create in contrast to the world. But in this parable that pure space can't be and shouldn't be created.

All is messy and mixed up and impossible to separate.

Where is the kingdom?

Nowhere it seems.

Yet everywhere.

Singing With the Damned

This week I had a conversation about the hymn "I'll Fly Away." My conversation partner, a progressive/liberal Christian, was expressing disdain for the song.

Given their concerns about social justice in this world, "I'll Fly Away" is routinely criticized by progressive Christians as being other-worldly and escapist. And it's easy to see why when you look at the first verse and the chorus:
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.

To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away;
when I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
I understand the criticism progressive Christians level against these lyrics. As I've written about before on this blog, where in "I'll Fly Away" is the whole "may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Where is the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth in Revelation 21-22?

It does seem like "I'll Fly Away" is pointing us away from this world in anticipation of the next. The song suggests that the goal and aim of the Christian life is to "fly away" from this world to the next.

But as I've written about before, here's the interesting thing...

Each week out at the prison I sing hymns with the inmates. And "I'll Fly Away" is one of their favorite songs. And it's not all that hard to see why. From the second verse:
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away.
I think it's obvious why the inmates like this song.

Sung on the inside of a prison--sung by the damned--"I'll Fly Away" is a song longing for release. Sung by the damned "I'll Fly Away" is an anthem of liberation.

Songs, like theology, depend on social location. Some theology in some locations is obscene. Like the prosperity gospel in rich American suburbs. But the prosperity gospel in the third world? Maybe not so bad. Penal substitutionary atonement for children? Not a good idea. But for murderers? Maybe not so bad.

Same for song lyrics. From the outside, on the outside of a prison, yes, "I'll Fly Away" seems escapist. But on the inside of a prison "I'll Fly Away" is an expression of liberation theology.

When you're singing with the damned "I'll Fly Away" becomes a song of resistance.