The Divine Comedy: Week 44, The Rose and the Bees

Beatrice leads the Pilgrim upward through the heavenly spheres, eventually reaching the ninth and final heaven, the Primum Mobile. The Primum Mobile is the abode of the angels, and as the highest heaven is the sphere moved directly by God. Dante sees the angels as nine concentric rings of fire, each giving off sparks.

Above the Primum Mobile, Beatrice brings the Pilgrim into the Empyrean, the abode of God, above and beyond all physical heavens.

And there, in the Empyrean, the Pilgrim beholds the Elect, all the souls of the faithful. The elect are seated in light in the shape of a rose. Above the rose is God, and between God and the rose are angels, pollinating the rose, like bees, with God's peace and love:
So now, appearing to me in the form
of a white rose was Heaven's sacred host,
those whom with His own blood Christ made his bride,

while the other host [the angels]--that soaring see and sing
the glory of the One who stirs their love,
the goodness which made them great as they are,

like bees that in a single motion swarm
and dip into the flowers, then return
to heaven's hive where their toil turns to joy--

descended all at once on that great bloom
of precious petals, and then flew back up
to where its source of love forever dwells.

Their faces showed the flow of living flame,
their wings of gold, and all the rest of them
whiter than any snow that falls to earth.

As they entered the flower, tier to tier,
each spread the peace and ardor of the love
they gathered with their wings in flight to Him. 
People ponder a lot about what heaven is going to be like. Dante's vision is that heaven is like a flower, pollinated eternally by angels with peace and love.

An Evening of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: Part 4, Hurt

Below is our final clip from our evening at Host this summer, where I shared reflections from my latest book Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash and David Benjamin Blower played Cash covers.

In the video below we turn to the final creative years of Cash's life, his work with Rick Rubin and the American Recordings albums. The song I focus on is "Hurt," Cash's iconic cover of Trent Reznor's song, written by Reznor in the midst of his own heroin addiction:

One more time, thank you to Paul Milbank, the curator of Host, for capturing the evening on film. I hope you've enjoyed this week sharing in our evening of Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.

An Evening of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: Part 3, The Man in Black

Below is my favorite clip from our evening at Host.

In my book Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash I use the music of the Man in Black to describe how the gospel is rooted in solidarity. In the clip below I describe what this looks like by setting up three songs that David plays: "The Man in Black," "San Quentin," and "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down."

Again, it was such a honor to share this evening with David Benjamin Blower, musician, author, and co-host of the Nomad podcast. And again, a big Thank You to Paul Milbank, the curator of Host, for capturing our evening together on film.

Be sure to check out Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. One more clip tomorrow from our evening at Host.

An Evening of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: Part 2, Folsom Prison Blues

Below is a another clip from our evening at Host this summer, where I shared reflections from from my latest book Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash while the multi-talented David Benjamin Blower--musician, author, and co-host of the Nomad podcast--played Cash covers for us.

Thank you to Paul Milbank, the curator of Host, for capturing the evening on film so that we can share it with you.

In the clip below, I reflect upon the song "Folsom Prison Blues" before David performs:

Be sure to check out Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. More tomorrow from our evening at Host.

An Evening of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: Part 1, Introduction

This summer it was my absolute privilege to attend again the Host gathering on Jersey Island. This was the third Host gathering, and it has proved itself to be one of the most stimulating and soul-filling experiences I've had the honor to share.

The first evening of Host this summer was devoted to an evening of theological reflection and music. My partner for the evening was David Benjamin Blower, musician, author, and co-host of the Nomad podcast.

The evening took its title from my latest book Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. I shared theological reflections from the book about the life and musical legacy of the Man and Black, and David played Cash covers. Paul Milbank, the curator of Host, had the event filmed and I'd like to share some clips from the evening.

To start, the introduction to the evening:

Be sure to check out Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. More clips to come from our evening at Host!

The Divine Comedy: Week 43, Faith, Hope and Love

There's a remarkable passage in Canto XX of the Paradisio:

Regnum celorum [Latin: the Kingdom of heaven] suffers violence
gladly from fervent love, from vibrant hope
--only these powers can defeat God's will:

not in the way one man conquers another,
for That will wills its own defeat, and so
defeated it defeats through its own mercy.
The Kingdom of heaven suffering violence is an echo of Jesus' enigmatic words in Matthew 11.12: "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force."

Here in The Divine Comedy, love and hope are the violent powers that "can defeat God's will," a "will that wills it's own defeat" to extend mercy. We violently seize the kingdom of heaven though love and hope, a seizure God willingly allows so that we might win the kingdom and possess it as our own.

Toward the end of the Divine Comedy, before he can gain entrance to the highest heavens where God dwells, St. Peter interrogates the Pilgrim. And the test? It's faith, hope and love, as seen when Beatrice asks Peter to begin his questioning and testing of the Pilgrim:
now test this man on questions grave or light,
as pleases you, pertaining to that faith
by means of which you once walked on the sea.

If love and hope and faith he truly has,
you will know, for your eyes are fixed upon
the place where everything that is is seen.
Faith, hope and love. This is how we seize and gain entrance to the Kingdom of God.

Late Have I Loved You

have I loved you,
O Beauty
ever ancient,
ever new,
have I loved you!
were within me,
but I
was outside,
and it was there
that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness
I plunged
into the lovely things
which you created.
were with me,
but I
was not with you.
Created things kept
me from you;
yet if they had not been
in you
they would have not been
at all.
You called,
you shouted,
and you broke
through my deafness.
You flashed,
you shone,
and you dispelled
my blindness.
You breathed
your fragrance
on me; I drew in breath
and now I pant
for you.
I have tasted
now I hunger and thirst
for more.
You touched me,
and I burned
for your peace.

--St. Augustine, set to free verse, from the Confessions


Sunlight seeps through shards of blood
red glass, blue, orange, green, dizzying
in showered kaleidoscopes of grace.
Rainbows transfiguring
sleepy motes of dust into dandelion
tufts, slight angels dancing on the air.
Crowded panels preaching in light,
irradiating this Story of Love.
A lone heart listening in the loud
silence with the restless, attentive bones.
All of us waiting for the surprising, expected bells,
and the promised wind of fire.

--written sitting in a small country church in England

Flannery O’Connor on the Eucharist

In the collection of her letters The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor shares about a literary dinner party she once attended. During the gathering, the topic of the Eucharist came up. It was assumed that Flannery, being the only Catholic in attendance, would defend the sacrament. In her letter, Flannery goes on to share the exchange she had with Mary McCarthy, the writer and essayist:
 "Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

"The Bright Field"

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

--"The Bright Field" by R.S. Thomas

The Divine Comedy: Week 42, Thinking and Dancing With God

As Dante moves upward through the heavenly spheres, each heaven associated with a celestial body, he encounters various saints.

In the fourth sphere, associated with the Sun, the Pilgrim meets some of the great theologians and philosophers of the faith. The Pilgrim meets Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, Gratian, Boethius, Bede and even King Solomon.

Again, in Paradise the souls of the blessed appear to the Pilgrim as lights. Upon reaching the fourth heaven, the souls of the theologians swirl around and encircle the Pilgrim and Beatrice like ladies in a ballroom dance: 
When singing, circling, all those blazing suns [the souls of the theologians]
had wheeled around the two of us [the Pilgrim and Beatrice] three times
like stars that circle close to the fixed poles,

they stopped like ladies still in dancing mood,
who pause in silence listening to catch
the rhythm of the new notes of the dance.
First of all, I love the whimsy of comparing these great intellects to ladies swirling, wheeling, and dancing at a ball. For me, it captures the romance of theology, how all our heavy thinking about God--all the twirling, whirling thoughts we have--is an expression of our romantic, love affair with God.

Second, I love the imagery of theological reflection as being a silent pause in the dance where we listen to "catch the rhythm of the new notes of the dance."

The Grain of the Universe: Ontology and Grace

Yesterday I shared lines from Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life regarding the way of nature and the way of grace, which Malick borrowed from Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ.

What strikes me about the way of grace in The Tree of Life is how Malick evokes grace as the grain of the universe. This is difficult to put into words, so you'll have to watch (or rewatch) the film, but Malick uses the visual poetry of the film to create an ontological feeling, how grace saturates every moment, how grace permeates everything. The way of nature, by contrast, cuts against this grain, tries to dominate and control rather than surrender and flow with the grain of grace.

All that to say, I think The Tree of Life is one of the most profound depictions of "the grain of the universe," the fusion of morality and ontology.

The Tree of Life: The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace

Yesterday I quoted from Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, comparing nature versus grace.

You may be aware that in the move The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick uses this contrast between "the way of nature" and the "way of grace" to frame the entire movie. Early on in the movie the mother says:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Nature Versus Grace

My child, pay careful attention to the movements of nature and of grace, for they move in very contrary and subtle ways, and can scarcely be distinguished by anyone except a person who is spiritual and inwardly enlightened. Everyone, indeed, desires what is good, and strives for what is good in their words and deeds. For this reason the appearance of good deceives many.

Nature is crafty and attracts many, ensnaring and deceiving them while ever seeking itself. But grace walks in simplicity, turns away from all appearance of evil, offers no deceits, and does all purely for God in whom she rests as her last end.

Nature is not willing to die, or to be kept down, or to be overcome. Nor will it subdue itself or be made subject. Grace, on the contrary, strives for mortification of self....does not desire to rule over anyone, but wishes rather to live, to stand, and to be always under God for Whose sake she is willing to bow humbly to every human creature.

Nature works for its own interest and looks to the profit it can reap from another. Grace does not consider what is useful and advantageous to herself, but rather what is profitable to many. Nature likes to receive honor and reverence, but grace faithfully attributes all honor and glory to God. Nature fears shame and contempt, but grace is happy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus...Nature seeks to possess what is rare and beautiful, abhorring things that are cheap and coarse. Grace, on the contrary, delights in simple, humble things, not despising those that are rough, nor refusing to be clothed in old garments.

Nature has regard for temporal wealth and rejoices in earthly gains. It is sad over a loss and irritated by a slight, injurious word. But grace looks to eternal things and does not cling to those which are temporal, being neither disturbed at loss nor angered by hard words, because she has placed her treasure and joy in heaven where nothing is lost.

Nature is covetous, and receives more willingly than it gives....Grace, however, is kind and contented with little, and judges it more blessed to give than to receive...

Nature does everything for its own gain and interest. It can do nothing without pay and hopes for its good deeds to receive their equal or better, or else praise and favor. It is very desirous of having its deeds and gifts highly regarded. Grace, however, seeks nothing temporal, nor does she ask any recompense but God alone. Of temporal necessities she asks no more than will serve to obtain eternity.

Nature rejoices in many friends and kinsfolk, glories in noble position and birth, fawns on the powerful, flatters the rich, and applauds those who are like itself. But grace loves even her enemies and is not puffed up at having many friends. She does not think highly of either position or birth unless there is also virtue there. She favors the poor in preference to the rich. She sympathizes with the innocent rather than with the powerful. She rejoices with the true man rather than with the deceitful, and is always exhorting the good to strive for better gifts, to become like the Son of God by practicing the virtues.

Nature is quick to complain of need and trouble; grace is stanch in suffering want. Nature turns all things back to self. It fights and argues for self. Grace brings all things back to God in Whom they have their source. To herself she ascribes no good, nor is she arrogant or presumptuous. She is not contentious. She does not prefer her own opinion to the opinion of others, but in every matter of sense and thought submits herself to eternal wisdom and the divine judgment...

This grace is a supernatural light, a certain special gift of God, the proper mark of the elect and the pledge of everlasting salvation...

--Thomas à Kempis, from The Imitation of Christ

Salvation as Sanity

I was thinking about Jesus' healing of the demon-possessed man in the gospels, the man filled with "Legion," in relation to recovery.

As you'll recall, after Jesus heals the man the townspeople come and find him changed:
Mark 5.14-15
People rushed out to see what had happened. A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons. He was sitting there fully clothed and perfectly sane.
The man was restored to sanity. And that restoration of sanity put me in mind of Step 2 from the 12 Steps from the recovery community:
We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
A Power that can restore us to sanity. Salvation as sanity. Deliverance as sanity. Rescue as sanity. Emancipation as sanity.

When we think about sin we tend to think of one of two things. Sin as "missing the mark," as a performance failure. Or sin as "total depravity," a "sin nature" than is bent upon doing wicked things.

But today I'm thinking about sin as mental confusion, untamed, disordered, and broken thoughts. Sin isn't just about desire and cravings, it's also about how we think, our thoughts about ourselves, others and life. Getting control of ourselves isn't just about temperance and self-control, it's about a healthy mind and mindset.

A restoration of sanity.

The Divine Comedy: Week 41, Transhumanized

In Canto I of Paradise, Dante invents a word about what happens to the Pilgrim as he leaves the earth to ascend through the heavens.

The word in Canto I, Line 70, is trasumanar. The word is typically translated into English as "to transhumanize," as in "to pass beyond the human."

We see here a glimpse of the Orthodox notion of theosis, the process through which human beings are changed to become like or united with God. Sometimes this is called "divinization" or "deification," the process by which humans become divine and "godlike."

Theosis is different from sanctification, becoming holy, though the two ideas are related. Theosis isn't simply a process of moral betterment and purification. Theosis is undergoing a material change.

A classic patristic articulation of this process comes from Athanasius who commented upon the purpose of the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." A Biblical text that points to theosis is 2 Peter 1:4:
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
And, of course, there is the Transfiguration, an event in the gospels that has huge significance for the Orthodox, but not so much for Protestants. If Protestants say anything about the Transfiguration of Jesus, it's about Jesus' identity. But for the Orthodox, the Transfiguration is about what happens to the substance of Jesus' body. Because that change is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen to our bodies.

What happened to Jesus, happens to the Pilgrim in the Divine Comedy, and will happen to all of us.

We will be transhumanized.

Grace Is a Gift Exchange

There are two related temptations when we think about our Christianity.

The first temptation is to focus overmuch on the vertical aspects of the faith at the expense of the horizontal. That is, we focus almost exclusively upon the "spiritual" aspects of faith, seeking a heavenly connection, to the point where we neglect the human dimension, our personal and interpersonal relationships. We're always moving toward God and not toward each other.

The second temptation is to focus on "me" rather than "we," to think individualistically rather than communally. God's commands are always about me doing something on my own rather than us doing something together.

That brings me to the text I wrote about yesterday, 1 Peter 4.10.

When we think about something like grace the two temptations I mention above often kick in. Grace is a vertical experience--something happening between God and myself--and something I experience privately, in my heart, a warm, fuzzy feeling of God's love.

But the vision of 1 Peter 4.10 challenges those notions:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.
Here, grace involves the distribution of gifts to each other. Grace isn't a vertical, private experience. Rather, grace is a horizontal, communal experience.

Grace is "varied," it comes in different shapes and sizes, and each of us has been given a bit of it. And all these bits and pieces of grace have to be shared and distributed. Grace is a gift exchange.

Phrased differently, grace must be stewarded. Grace isn't a fuzzy feeling. Grace is an activity. Grace has been put into our hands, and it's up to us to get grace out of our hands and moving toward others.

Again, grace isn't a feeling I get in my quiet time alone with God. Rather, grace comes to us in the words and actions of other human beings.

Our job isn't to feel grace, but to distribute it.

Multicolored Grace

I was doing some research on 1 Peter 4.10:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.
I was looking at the Greek word translated here as "varied." The word can also mean "manifold," "diverse," "variegated," or "multifaceted."

But the really fun discovery was that the word can also mean "multicolored."

I found that idea really delightful, that God's grace is a multicolored, like a rainbow.

So, dear friends, be good stewards today of God's multicolored grace.

N.T. Wright on The Second Coming of Jesus

As regular readers know, I've written here before about preterism, the view that all biblical prophesies concerning "the second coming" of Jesus are references to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Preterism has been a stream of thought within my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, but has mostly been dismissed as crackpot.

And yet, my interest in preterism stems from the fact that the view is increasingly getting support from biblical scholarship. N.T. Wright is a case in point.

For example, in a recent article "Hope deferred? Against the dogma of delay" (published in Early Christianity, 2018, Vol. 9, p. 37-82) Wright, among other things in the article, looks at two of the key "second coming" texts from the gospel of Mark:
Mark 9.1
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Mark 14. 61-62
But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
In both passages, Jesus proclaims that the present generation--his audience in Mark 9 and the High Priest in Mark 14--will witness in their lifetime the kingdom of God coming "with power" and the Son of Man coming in the clouds

What could this possibly mean?

Wright argues that the answer is found in Mark 13. In Mark 13 Jesus again speaks of this "second coming":
Mark 13.24-27
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
This passage in Mark, along with its parallels in Matthew and Luke, are generally read as predictions about some future event related to Judgment Day and the end of the world. And yet, as Wright points out, the events in Mark 13 are clearly about the destruction of the Temple. Jesus' discourse in Mark 13 kicks off this way:
Mark 13.1-4
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 
For Wright, and myself, Mark 13 provides the key to understanding Mark 9 and 14: The second coming of Jesus that would happen within a generation was the calamity of AD 70 when the Temple was destroyed. As Wright comments:
What about Mark himself? Did he think, in writing the passages in Mark 9:1 and 14:62, two of the regularly-cited key texts, that Jesus had been predicting a cosmic catastrophe? The main answer to this is found in Mark 13...this so-called "apocalyptic discourse" is primarily about the fall of the temple...This, indeed, is the event which will happen within a generation...And everything we have seen so far from Paul, from Matthew and from Luke insists that we should read this language [about Jesus's "second coming"] in terms of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus on the one hand and the fall of the Temple (the heaven-and-earth place) on the other.

Gentleness as Contact

Yes, one more post talking about rain and hail. :-)

While Jesus never spoke of damaging hail, he did speak of our love falling upon people as refreshing rain:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.44-45)
The fruit of the Spirit I think of when I think of rain is gentleness. A gentle rain. Nothing quite moves me spiritually as a soft, gentle rain falling on trees, flowers or grass. Seriously, a soft, gentle rain will quickly send me into deep, mystical, spiritual reveries.

All that to say, if we want to fall on others like rain, gentleness is what comes to mind. Gentleness is the opposite of hitting people like hailstones.

And yet, I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on the virtue of gentleness. Kindness, yes. But not gentleness. Are they different, kindness versus gentleness? Patience versus gentleness? Mercy versus gentleness?

Of course, they are all related. But in the semantic range of English, gentleness seems to evoke notions of contact. Gentleness makes contact softly, calmly and tenderly. Something harsh, by contrast, makes contact in ways that hit us hard and roughly. You can, I imagine, do something kind and merciful in a way that isn't gentle. Which is why, I'm thinking, gentleness, in the biblical Greek, slides into notion of meekness. Meekness seems to be less about what you do in the world than how you go about doing it. I think gentleness points to a similar idea. It's less about what you are doing than how you are doing it.

Which is why, to loop back to rain and hail, rain is gentle and hail is harsh. Both are examples of contact, two objects meeting. Which makes it a great metaphor for human interactions. We make contact with each other, all the time, in ways that can be either soothing or damaging, gentle or harsh.

The Divine Comedy: Week 40, Love and Light

Let's retrace our steps across these thirty-nine posts. We've journeyed down through hell in the Inferno, to the frozen center of the earth. From there, we climbed up back to the surface and then upward through the terraces of Mount Purgatory.

And now, here at the start of the Paradiso, we will begin to rise above the earth and through the heavens.

I say heavens plural as, like hell and purgatory, Dante will rise with Beatrice through heavenly levels, the the heavenly "spheres," each sphere/heaven associated with a planetary body. The "map" of Paradise is basically a reflection of Ptolemaic cosmology. The spheres/heavens:
1st: Moon
2nd: Mercury
3rd: Venus
4th the Sun
5th Mars
6th: Jupiter
7th: Saturn
8th: the Fixed Stars
9th: Primum Mobile
Above/beyond the Primum Mobile, the final physical heaven which is the abode of the angels, is the the Empyrean, the abode of God.

Paradise, we'll come to find, is all about light. The glory of God shines down from the Empyrean and is refracted through the nine heavenly spheres, filling them with light. And as the Pilgrim rises up through each heaven, the souls he encounters will appear as flashing, glowing, dancing, multi-colored lights. It's all a huge light show.

And as we'll also come to find, one of the beautiful ideas in the Divine Comedy is how the heavens move because of the love of God. Dante's is an enchanted, magical, supernatural cosmology. Instead of the laws of gravity and planetary motion, love moves the planets and the stars.

In the Divine Comedy, paradise is all about love and light.

Hail and Bruised People

Thinking about my metaphor from yesterday--Are you falling on others as refreshing rain or damaging hail?--brought to mind one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus, from a prophecy in Isaiah:
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. (Matthew 12.20)
The "damaging hail" metaphor brought this text to mind as (1) we get a lot of hail here in West Texas, and (2) there's also a lot of agriculture in West Texas. So the image of hail damaging fragile plants (the breaking of bruised reeds) is a common one around here.

All that to say, there's a lot of fragile, vulnerable people out there. A lot of bruised people. Are we falling on them like rain or hail?

Are You Rain or Hail?

Sometimes images and metaphors come to me unawares in the middle of teaching or preaching.

Recently, I was talking with a group of church staff sharing how in our pursuit of God we can become so focused upon going upward toward God, our hearts directed in a heavenly, spiritual direction, that we fail to come down from the clouds to approach each other, here on earth, in loving and gracious ways. As the old gospel song says, we become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good. Even worse, we can become self-righteous and judgmental. In our spiritual pride we can hurt people.

Anyway, in trying to share this idea, this image came to mind and I shared it off the cuff:
"We become so focused upon heaven we get pulled higher and higher, so high in the clouds we freeze, so we fall to earth not as refreshing rain but as damaging hail."
I think that's a great way to think of the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus fell upon the earth as a gentle rain, where the Pharisees, in their pursuit of spiritual/heavenly purity, fell upon people as damaging hail.

Release Day!

Today is the official release day of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel of Johnny Cash. It's exciting, and a bit of a relief, to finally get to this date.

As an author, I try not to swamp you with too much book release stuff. But today is a day to ask for a favor. If this blog has meant anything to you over the years, and you've wanted a way to say "Thank You," you can do one or two things for me today.

First, share the book link today on social media! (Amazon link is here. Indie book link is here.) Even if you're not planning to read the book or can't endorse it (because you haven't read it), even a neutral shout out like "Richard Beck has a new book out about Johnny Cash" would be appreciated.

Second, if you read the book and like it, consider giving it a review and some stars on Amazon or wherever book reviews are found.

Thank you for all your help today!

Hermeneutics as Spiritual Formation

We're in a season of discernment at our church, and yesterday David Kneip, a colleague at ACU, gave a presentation about how we read and interpret the Bible.

During David's presentation, he made a point that I think is very insightful. David mentioned how, in our faith tradition, we've always worked hard to "obey" the Bible. And while that's a commendable goal, David pointed out that this desire has had some unintended consequences.

Specifically, the desire to "obey" the Bible shapes how we think about God. God becomes a Rule Giver, and our relationship with God then reduced to how well we follow the rules. And that whole scheme, David pointed out, makes us very anxious. What if we get it wrong and break the rules?

There's been amble commentary on how this way of reading the Bible creates anxiety. But the deeper point I discerned in what David shared was how hermeneutics functions as spiritual formation.

Hermeneutics shapes our hearts and minds. Hermeneutical strategies can habit us into an anxious posture, making us more neurotic in our relationship with God.

The Trains, Jesus and Murder Soundtrack on Spotify!

Every chapter of Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash is built around a Johnny Cash song. In order, these are the songs and the chapters:
Chapter 1: “I Am Bound for the Promised Land”
Chapter 2: “I Walk the Line”
Chapter 3: “The Man in Black”
Chapter 4: “Folsom Prison Blues”
Chapter 5: “Greystone Chapel”
Chapter 6: “San Quentin”
Chapter 7: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Chapter 8: “Give My Love to Rose”
Chapter 9: “The Legend of John Henry's Hammer”
Chapter 10: “Sunday Mornin' Coming Down”
Chapter 11: “Ragged Old Flag”
Chapter 12: “Drive On”
Chapter 13: “Delia’s Gone”
Chapter 14: “Hurt”
Chapter 15: “The Man Comes Around”
Epilogue: "The Gospel Road"
This list isn't a greatest hits compilation, though some of those hits are here: "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" from early in Cash's career, to "Hurt" and "The Man Comes Around" from the later years. I selected the songs to illustrate or highlight some theological or biographical aspect of Cash's career.

For example, the very first chapter about Cash's boyhood is built around "I Am Bound for the Promised Land," the very first song Cash remembered hearing as a child. In Chapter 10, I use "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down" to tell the story of Cash's drug addiction. In Chapter 11 I use "Ragged Old Flag" to discuss how the gospel intersects with Cash's patriotism.

If you want to listen to the soundtrack of Trains, Jesus and Murder, Fortress Press has pulled the songs together on a Spotify playlist. It's a great way to listen your way through the book.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Books are shipping now! Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5. And if you like the book, consider giving it a review online.

If you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

The Beer I Had For Breakfast Wasn’t Bad So I Had One More For Dessert

As I pointed out in my last post, one of the major themes in Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash is that the gospel is rooted in solidarity, God standing with the oppressed, excluded and marginalized. Cash gave voice to this gospel when he sang for "the poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town."

Another aspect of the gospel is how grace comes to us in our weakness and in our hurt, as Cash also gave voice to late in his career when he covered Trent Reznor's "Hurt."

In Trains, Jesus and Murder I explore these themes of hurt and grace through the story of Cash's struggle with addiction. This is the theme of my third post on the Tokens Show blog:

The song Cash felt best described this time of his life was his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down,” a song Kristofferson wrote to give voice to his own battles with substance use. Looking back over the years of his addiction, Cash said about the song, “It didn’t hit me until one day when I was at home and out by the lake and I realized how far I had come from the days when I felt like the man in the song…so empty and alone. All of a sudden the lines of the song started running through my head and I realized I could identify with every one of them”:

Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn't hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad
So I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day

On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there's nothin' short of dyin'
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleepin' city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin' comin' down
Read the whole post here on the Tokens Show blog.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Books are shipping now! Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5. And if you like the book, consider giving it a review online somewhere.

Also, as I'll share through the week, if you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

San Quentin, You've Been Livin' Hell to Me

Part 2 of my series on the Tokens Show blog comes from Chapter 6 of Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.

The post starts this way:
“Sing it, Cash!” the prisoners roared and screamed. “You know it man, we’re all in hell in here!”

If the gospel according to Johnny Cash is a message of God's solidarity with the poor and oppressed, my favorite example of this comes from the time when Cash almost started a prison riot.

Cash started playing prison concerts in the late 50s. His first concert, in 1959, was in Huntsville, TX. A thunderstorm hit during the outdoor show, soaking the performers and causing a power outage. But what should have been a disaster proved to be a revelation. The enthusiasm and the gratitude from the inmates that day overwhelmed Cash. Cash was so moved by the experience he quickly scheduled another concert at the notorious San Quentin prison. Over the next ten years, Cash would do over thirty prison shows, without compensation. And what he observed during those shows pricked his heart and fueled his activism in the 70s when he became a national voice calling for prison reform. 
Read the whole post "San Quentin, You've Been Livin' Hell to Me" here on the Tokens Show blog.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

Again, if you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5.

And if you're interested in me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

What Is the Gospel According to Johnny Cash?

To give you a peek into some of the themes of Trains, Jesus and Murder, I recently wrote some posts for the Tokens Show blog.

Part 1 of the series used the title of the book: "Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash."

If you want a hint about what "the gospel according to Johnny Cash" looks like, the post (using material from the book) is a good introduction. Here's a snippet:
The gospel is rooted in God’s solidarity with the marginalized...This was the gospel the Man in Black proclaimed when he stood on the stage of Folsom Prison and sang songs for “the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town." ...

The gospel also proclaims that grace comes to us in our failures and weaknesses. Cash’s struggle with drug addiction is well known, and the pain and damage he caused during those years haunted him, regrets that found artistic expression toward the end of his life in his cover of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt.” 
Read the whole post here on the Tokens Show blog. 

And again, Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5.

Also, as I'll share through the week, if you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.