The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 1, Holy Ghost Conga Lines

As regular readers know, I worship at a church, Freedom Fellowship, that reaches out to the poor and homeless.

Freedom is a church plant of the Highland Church of Christ. And while Churches of Christ have tended to be pretty unemotional and undemonstrative, due to our historically impoverished theology of the Holy Spirit, worship and life at Freedom are distinctively charismatic.

Worship at Freedom is full-bodied. Hands are raised and people sway and dance in the aisles. Once, a sort of Holy Ghost conga line broke out as worshipers formed a line and danced around the sanctuary. (I stayed in my seat and just gave people high fives as they passed me.) At Freedom we lay hands on in prayer. We anoint with oil. Praise veils are waved. We pray to cast out demons. We relish in personal testimonies of God's work amongst us. At Freedom we expect miracles.

Things happen at Freedom that are just hard to describe. Darrell, one of the elders at Freedom, and I have a joke about how when stuff happens at Freedom we just have no words to describe it to those back at Highland. We say to each other, "How could we possibly describe this to people at Highland?" Because there is no describing it. Or if you did describe it it would sound crazy or incomprehensible. You just have to be there. I never want to miss Freedom as I'm afraid I'll miss something.

At Freedom we are not Pentecostal, we don't speak in tongues, but we are very charismatic.

Needless to say, this has been a huge culture shock for me. Born and raised in the Churches of Christ the spirituality of Freedom was foreign and at the beginning I often felt uncomfortable. Theologically, I didn't know how to process what was going on. Holy Ghost conga lines left me a bit flummoxed.

And to be honest, I still struggle with my inhibitions at Freedom. I still feel self-conscious to the point where I've never raised my hands in worship. I sway. I clap. But I don't raise my hands. Not sure why. Some of it is how I've been raised. Some of it is embarrassment. Some of it is my excessive rationality. Some of it is my fear of losing a critical distance where I can "discern the spirits." Someone needs to keep their wits about them, right? If everyone is drunk on the Spirit don't we need someone to be the designated driver? And some of it, I'm sure, is my sin, my holding something back, my wanting to keep or control something and to not let it go.

And yet, I've never been more spiritually alive than when I'm at Freedom. Spiritually speaking, outside of my bible study at the prison, Freedom has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. Though I'm still inhibited and doubt-filled, I love the charismatic worship and spirituality at Freedom. Freedom has filled me with the Holy Spirit. I'd even say that Freedom has saved my faith.

And so I've been trying, over the last few years, to make theological connections between my "liberal" and existentially-oriented faith with the charismatic genius of Freedom. There is a charism--a spiritual gift, a location of grace--in the spirituality and worship at Freedom that I want to welcome into my life, faith and theology.

Well, it has already affected me and I'm trying make sense of it all.

If you're regular blog reader you've already seen the effects of this theological collision--a progressive, doubting Christian worshipping with charismatics. It came out in my "On Warfare and Weakness" series (see the sidebar) when I tried to make connections between spiritual warfare and progressive theology which generally eschews belief in literal angels and demons and finds the whole "spiritual warfare" notion to be spooky and superstitious. Who would have ever attempted such a ridiculous project? Well, someone like me. Someone who struggles believing in literal demons but who worships with people who do and who pray over others asking God to cast out demons. I'm trying to reconcile and make sense of these things in my own life. I'm not a professional theologian. I don't write about theology to publish in academic journals or go to academic theology conferences. This blog isn't an academic outlet. This blog (and the three books that flowed out of the blog) is my spiritual memoir, the theological pebbles I've collected along the way as I try to make sense of my own life and faith.

So, how do I make sense of my life with Freedom?

Well, to help me with all this I finally read James Smith's book Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. In this book James (I think his friends call him Jamie) describes what he calls a "pentecostal worldview." James then goes on to unpack the features of this worldview, describing the logic and genius of Pentecostal and charismatic worship and practice. According to James, Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality and worship provide a way of knowing and living in the world, a way of knowing and living that functions as a critique to a lot within Christianity and in the secular world.

I've found James' analysis to be very helpful in helping me make sense of my experiences at Freedom. And while I'm more theologically "liberal" than James, his philosophical analysis of Pentecostal spirituality and worship has helped me uncover and articulate what I've found to be so profound and life-giving in my life with Freedom.

And so, in the next six posts I'd like to share from Thinking in Tongues, making connections between James' analysis and my life as a progressive, inhibited and skeptical Christian sharing life with charismatic brothers and sisters, and how these brothers and sisters--with their Holy Ghost conga lines--have become my teachers and mentors in the faith.

Sunrise Easter Service at Freedom Fellowship

It is dark
but not for long
not for long
the waiting is almost over.
See behind you
the sun is searching for us
her fingertips reaching through
the open church door.
The vigil passes, ages.
The weary labor nears the end
to rest
as low tired candles sway finishing
their quiet hopeful work
reminding us that even in the dead
among the dead
in the dead of night
there is a flicker
a whisper
and a portent of grace.
Dear brothers and sisters
I see you now
for the first time.
For the dawn is upon us
and the Light is washing us clean.
I can see.
I can see
you dancing
newborn and alive.
And this is how I always will see you.
This is how I will always see you.
Children in the Easter light.

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53

In my Monday night bible study out at the prison we've been working through the book of Isaiah. We got to the famous Chapter 53, the suffering servant text:
Isaiah 53.3-6
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Today is Good Friday and we all know that the church has used this text to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah 53 has come to be an important text for atonement theology, especially substitution theories of atonement. "By his wounds we have been healed." And later in Verse 12: "For he bore the sins of many."

These associations--Jesus bore our sins on the cross and by his wounds we have been healed--are automatic for most Christians. But in our study out at the prison I wanted to go back and address the question about who the Suffering Servant was during the time of Isaiah. Who was Isaiah (or the particular writer or writers of Isaiah 53) speaking about in his time and place?

Who is this servant who is crushed for our iniquities?

There's been a lot of scholarly debate about who the servant might be in Isaiah 53. The theory I'm most drawn to, and the one I shared out at the prison, is that the servant is the faithful remnant in Israel.

Roughly, Isaiah is broken up into two historical sections. Chapters 1-39 come mostly before the Babylonian exile. So these chapters are mainly portents and warnings about Israel's unfaithfulness. (Though there are some bright spots like good King Hezekiah and the failure of the Assyrian invasion.)

Chapters 40-66 come after the Babylonian exile as the Jews start heading back home.

Sprinkled throughout Isaiah are oracles that before, during and after the exile there will be a faithful remnant. Though Israel has turned her back on God and gone over into idolatry there are a few, sprinkled amongst the wicked masses, who remain faithful to YHWH. God sees this faithful remnant and promises to rebuild Israel upon them. The remnant are a seed that God will plant to re-grow the people of God.
Isaiah 6.13
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land

Isaiah 10.2-23
In that day the remnant of Israel,
the survivors of Jacob,
will no longer rely on him
who struck them down
but will truly rely on the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel.
A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob
will return to the Mighty God.
Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel,
only a remnant will return.
Destruction has been decreed,
overwhelming and righteous.
The Lord, the Lord Almighty, will carry out
the destruction decreed upon the whole land.
As you can see in both these texts, YHWH sees the remnant but the punishment of exile is still going to happen. Even upon the remnant. And that's the key. Exile falls upon the innocent as well as the wicked.

However, after the punishment/exile is over the faithful remnant "will return" and become a "holy seed" so that Israel can experience a new birth in the land.

In short, when God punishes Israel God knows that the faithful, innocent remnant is also being punished along with the wicked, idolatrous masses. The remnant is, thus, "bearing the sins" of others. The remnant, though innocent, is also "stricken by God" just like everyone else being sent into exile.
Isaiah 53.8-9
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
And yet, if the remnant bears the exile faithfully--"He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."--the remnant will be the eventual salvation of Israel. The wounds inflicted upon the patiently enduring remnant will be how Israel gets saved and restored. In the end, by suffering faithfully alongside the wicked, the faithfulness of the remnant will be rewarded:
Isaiah 53.11-12
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
How this vision connects with Jesus, then, is straightforward. Especially if you've read a lot of N.T. Wright.

As the gospels open Israel is back in her homeland, back from Babylonian exile. However, there is still this sense that the full restoration has yet to occur. There was a sense, in the face of things like Roman occupation, that the exile had not fully ended. God had not yet returned in person to Zion and to the Temple (Spoiler alert: Triumphal Entry).

God, it seemed, was still punishing Israel.

So what was needed was a truly faithful and truly innocent remnant to become the "holy seed" out of which a restored People of God would grow. But according to Isaiah 53, that faithful seed would experience the punishment and pain of exile alongside his brothers and sisters. But if this holy seed were, perhaps, fully blameless and fully sinless and fully innocent then perhaps his death would bring about the full and complete liberation of Israel. The Gordian knot of the Deuteronomic Covenant--where Israel willingly agreed to experience exile if she was unfaithful--would have been fully and finally cut. The cloud of the Deuteronomic Curses, which had hung over Israel for generations and generations and generations, would finally be lifted. And with that cloud lifted, the Kingdom and Rule of God promised to come to the nations through Israel could finally break out into the world (Spoiler Alert: the Great Commission and the Book of Acts).

So, Jesus becomes this faithful seed as the truly Innocent One who bears the Deuteronomic Curse alongside his wicked brothers and sisters so that their exile may finally come to an end.

[Drop mic and walk out.]

But a question might be raised at this point...

[Come back and pick up mic.]

Is what I'm describing the calculus of penal substitutionary atonement, with its vision of a wrathful God?

Sort of, but not quite. There is a penal vision at work here, but it's the penal framework agreed to by YHWH and Israel when they got "married"--formed a covenant--in Deuteronomy. Any legal frame goes back to that moment. Basically, this isn't really about you or I going to hell. To be sure, all this affects you and I, but the penal issues, the judgment and wrath of God, are historical and covenantal in nature.

Basically, when the bible speaks about "the forgiveness of sins" it is referring to the forgiveness of Israel's sins. 

More precisely, the "forgiveness of sins" is the end of Israel's exile in Jesus Christ. Which was needed for the Kingdom of God to expand out from Israel and into the whole world. Thus, the forgiveness of sins--the end of Israel's exile--leads to salvation reaching you and I in the gospel proclamation that the Kingdom of God has spilled out into the nations, that "Jesus is Lord of all."

In short, any "penal substitution" is covenantal and historical in nature. Consequently, rather than penal substitutionary atonement I've suggested that we speak of covenantal substitutionary atonement

That's the logic at work in Isaiah 53, for both the faithful remnant during the Babylonian exile and in the Christian understanding of what took place on the cross.

Podcast with On Pop Theology

Just a note to alert you to the podcast I did with Ben Howard over at On Pop Theology. Many thanks to Ben for the opportunity.

In the podcast Ben and I talk about my fit within the Churches of Christ (Note: there are now two streams within the Churches of Christ, the ecumenical stream and the sectarian stream), how psychology influences my theology, why I'm not on Twitter, why I blog at and about some of the topics from my book The Slavery of Death.

You also learn what was my last Google search at the time of the podcast.

It was...this: "effect sizes for small N designs."

For better or worse, I am a social scientist.

Noah, the Nephilim and the Descendants of Seth

My son Brenden and I both saw the movie Noah separately. So when we finally got to talk about the movie we spent a lot of time talking about the Watchers and the Nephilim. We also talked a lot about the tensions in the movie between the descendants of Seth and Cain.

A lot of conservative Christians have been offended by Noah, thinking that the movie takes too many liberties with the biblical story.

But the biblical story is really weird, and a lot of the plotlines in the movie are true to various streams of interpretation.

For example, the movie made Brenden and I revisit a post I wrote about the Nephilim and the descendants of Seth:
Genesis 6.1-4 (NIV)
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. 
Who were the Nephilim?

Genesis 6 say that the Nephilim were the offspring of "the sons of God" and the "daughters of men." Children who go on to become "the heroes of old, men of renown." Along these lines, some think the Nephilim were giants as the only other appearance of the word Nephilim occurs in Numbers in the description the spies bring back about the people in the land of Canaan:
Numbers 13.32-33
And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
As to the etymology of the word Nephilim the consensus seems to be that it comes from the root npl (נָפַל) "to fall" suggesting that Nephilim means "the fallen" or "the fallen ones."

There are many curious things about the Nephilim in Genesis 6, but perhaps the most curious thing has to do with their origins. What's going on with all this business about "sons of God" having sex with "daughters of men"?

There have been two schools of thought about this: the fallen angel theory and the descendants of Seth theory.

I think most are familiar with the fallen angel theory. In this view the "sons of God" refer to angelic beings who lust after human women and have sex with them. The children of these unions are the Nephilim who seem to be like demigods. This view gains some support from various noncanonical sources like the book of Enoch where we also read about the Watchers.

The second theory has to do with marriage between the descendants of Seth and the descendants of Cain.

In Genesis 5 we begin to transition out of material related to the first family and into the story of Noah and the flood. To mark this transition there are some genealogies given in Genesis 5. One of the things you notice in these genealogies is that it seems that Seth is contrasted with Cain, with Seth being good and Cain being bad. The descendants of Seth are the good bloodline and the descendants of Cain are the bad bloodline.

One sign you get of this has to do with the 7th descendent in each line. The 7th descendant on Seth's side is Enoch who we are told "walked with God" and who did not die but was "taken away by God."

By contrast, the 7th descendant on Cain's side is Lamech who comes across as a general badass, a sort of super-duper Cain as I've written about before.

All fine and dandy, but why would human descendants of Seth be called "sons of God"?

The idea goes back to how Seth seems to be the "image bearer" of God as his father Adam was:
Genesis 5.1-3
This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. 
The argument here is that the "image of God" is carried through the line of Seth.

So the problem in Genesis 6 is that these "sons of God"--the descendants of Seth--"fall" when they begin to intermarry with the descendants of Cain ("the daughters of men").

In Noah we don't see this intermarrying, but in the movie we do see the worry emerge in Noah's resistance to find wives for his sons from among the daughters of Cain.

The Slavery of Death: Q&A

Some readers have asked for a Q&A regarding my recent book The Slavery of Death. So lets do this thing!

In The Slavery of Death I try to use psychology to describe what Hebrews 2.14-15 means when it says we have been "enslaved, all our lives, to the fear of death" and why this slavery to the fear of death is described as "the power of the devil." And in describing all this I lean upon the notion from Orthodox theology that death, rather than sin, is the primary human predicament.

In the final part of the book I then move to describe how we might become emancipated from our fear of death to create the capacity for love. For love, according to 1 John, is how we know that we have "moved from death to life." Love is the experience of resurrection here and now, the life of Jesus manifest in our own lives. 

As I describe it, our emancipation from our slavery to the fear of death is achieved, first of all, by a prior experience of death. We overcome death by dying. We take up our cross to deny ourselves and die "in Christ." I call this a martyrological identity. In the book I describe this martyrological identity, this meeting death with death, as fundamentally the renunciation of the cultural hero-system, the cultural self-esteem project. By renouncing the idolatrous ways our culture defines worth and significance we extract ourselves from the power of death and the devil as these idolatrous pursuits are, deep down, enslaved to the fear of death.

From there, after the dying involved in renouncing all the death-driven and idolatrous ways we've constructed our identities, we then receive our identities as an experience of grace. I call this, borrowing a term from David Kelsey, an eccentric identity, an identity that isn't owned as a possession but is always and continually received as a gift. This experience of gift lessens our anxious grip on life, on our very selves. In sum, the degree to which this experience of grace and gift saturates our lives is the degree to which "perfect love has cast out fear."

Abstractly, these are the processes, the pincer movements of the martyrological (death) and eccentric (resurrection) identities, that create the capacity to love others fully and sacrificially. Regarding concrete practices that pull us deeper into these identities I describe, for the eccentric identity, the practices of doxological gratitude (again borrowing from David Kelsey). And for the cultivation of the martyrological identity I talk about the small, daily acts of asceticism of the "little way" of Thérèse of Lisieux. It is the assessment of Arthur McGill that "the way of Jesus is the way of self-expenditure." That's a scary prospect, but the little way helps ease us into a life lived for others.

Okay, that's a snapshot of the book. Parts 1 and 2 articulate our fundamental human predicament, our slavery to the fear of death. And Part 3 articulates an answer to that predicament, how perfect love can come to cast out fear so that we might move from death to life.

Time for Q&A. If you've read the book and have any questions you'd like to ask me please post them in the comments. If you've not read the book something in my summary above might have sparked a question. Feel free to leave your questions as well.

I'll let these questions gather over the week and then respond in a post in a week or so. (I doubt I'll be inundated with questions, but if there are a lot I might have to be selective in responding.) 

Doubt and Cognitive Rumination

Many of us struggle with religious doubts. And these doubts are persistent rather than situational, chronic rather than acute.

Much of this, as I've written about before, has to do with how modernity has affected religious belief and practice. In a pluralistic and hyper-connected world religious belief is no longer a cultural given, something taken-for-granted, an inherited legacy from our forebears. Rather, in modernity faith is experienced as a choice among a suite of competing options. Between the denominations of Christianity. Between the world religions. Between faith and the varieties of unfaith (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism). And this is a choice--simply because it is a choice--that has to be routinely revisited. This makes faith feel fragile, tentative and provisional. Consequently, doubt is a consistent aspect of our religious experience. We doubt because we chose faith and because we chose faith we'll never escape doubt.

So doubt is ever-present. And yet, something seems to happen at this point that I'd like to comment on. The relationship between doubt and cognitive rumination.

Yes, doubt is ever-present but some of us seem to be able to accept this and move on, cognitively and emotionally. And by "moving on" I don't mean we turn our back on doubt and put it in the past. I'm talking about how our minds regularly revisit doubt (see above) but do not linger there long. We're always reminded of and coming back to doubt in the flow of the day or week, but we don't obsess, fixate or dwell upon the doubt. Our mind lands on the doubt, rests there, but then moves on. The doubt isn't ruminative.

Cognitive rumination is repetitive thinking about negative personal concerns and/or the implications, causes and meanings of those concerns. Of interest here is that cognitive rumination is often triggered by negative emotional states (such as depression or anxiety). But cognitive rumination also brings about and exacerbates negative emotional states. This creates a feedback loop between rumination and negative mood, each exacerbating the other in a downward spiral. Adding to this is the fact that people often engage in rumination because they think it will be helpful. The belief is that the intellectual activity involved in rumination will create new insight or understanding. Thus, rumination is self-perpetuating, despite its negative emotional consequences.

I'm bringing up cognitive rumination because I've talked to many, many people who struggle with religious doubt. And having talked to all sorts of doubters, a lot of the doubt out there might be better described as cognitive rumination. Especially when that doubt is accompanied by negative emotional states like depression and anxiety.

There is doubt and then there is ruminating doubt. There is the simple intellectual recognition that faith is provisional, and then there is the cognitive and emotional obsession over that fact. There is a doubt that doesn't bring about negative mood, and then there is the ruminative doubt that creates or exacerbates depression and anxiety. And the sad thing here is that the person engaging in ruminative doubt is doing so in the hope that rumination, if engaged in long enough, will "crack" the faith problem. But as we noted above, this isn't a problem that is going to be "cracked." Thus all that mental and emotional energy is being expended for no purpose. The wheels are spinning and spinning but no forward momentum is gained. All that is gained is increasing depression or anxiety. Which simply exacerbates the rumination.

My point in all this is simply to note that doubt isn't just an intellectual exercise. There is a also a mental health aspect to doubt that needs to be attended to. For there are times when intellectual discussion about faith is important. But there are other times when more discussion is just feeding and exacerbating the rumination. And in those cases, it's better to let the mind and the doubt come to rest.

Search Term Friday: Good Ol Charlie Brown How I Hate Him

I get a lot of Charlie Brown search terms bringing people to the blog. This is due to the series I wrote in 2008 The Theology of Peanuts.

Recently, this search term brought someone to the Theology of Peanuts series:

good ol charlie brown how i hate him

If you've read my Peanuts series you'll recall that this is the punch line of the very first Peanuts comic strip:

Charlie Brown is walking by and a boy and a girl are sitting watching him pass. And the boy, seeing Charlie Brown walk by, offers a running commentary:
"Well! Here comes Ol' Charlie Brown! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...Yes, Sir! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...(pause)...How I hate him!"
The punch line is a meanness and hostility that erupts from beneath the surface of polite social conversation. The strip exposes a darkness lurking beneath smiling civility. And that such darkness, cynicism and meanness comes from the mouths of cute little children makes it all the more incongruous, startling and, thus, funny.

Or is it just mean? That's the question I posed at the very start of the Theology of Peanuts series. Is Peanuts funny?

Well, of course Peanuts is funny. But the question helps remind us that the humor of Peanuts, particularly in its early years, was rooted in meanness and melancholia. The meanness is seen right away in the very first strip. And think of Lucy. Meanness is the way she operates.

And the melancholia? The sadness of Peanuts is rooted in the depressive protagonist Charlie Brown.

Where does this meanness come from? Umberto Eco, in his introductory essay to the first Peanuts book published in Italian, offered this analysis:
The children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: They are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of the modern industrial civilization...In [these children] we find everything: Freud, mass-cult, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. [Peanuts is an] encyclopedia of contemporary weakness.
Charles Schulz himself declared that "maybe I have the cruelest strip going." Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, agreed. No other comic strip, he felt, "presented a world so relentlessly cruel and heartless."

Love does not come easy in Peanuts. As David Michaelis, Schulz's biographer, has noted,
In [Schulz's] work, indifference would be the dominant response to love. When his characters attempt to love, they are met not just by rejection but by ongoing cold, even brutal, indifference, manifested either as insensitivity or as deeply fatalistic acceptance.
And beyond the meanness there is the melancholia. Peanuts is a prolonged meditation on the multifarious sources of human pain and suffering. As Chip Kidd notes in The Art of Peanuts:
[In Peanuts] all the loves are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.
Charlie Brown's signature gag-line in Peanuts is often just a sigh. Which is puzzling. How can a comic strip be funny if the gag-line is a sigh?

Mort Walker, the creator of the comic Beetle Baily, expressed this sentiment about that iconic gag line:
[Schulz] was doing something different, and it was hard to understand. I'd read Peanuts some days and at the end it was just 'Sigh.' I'd think, 'That's not a gag line. What's he doing?"
All that to say, a lot of young people, when they think of Peanuts, think of Snoopy doing silly things. But in the early years of Peanuts, when it was at its cultural peak, it was very dark and existential.  As Eco noted, Peanuts was a "version of the human condition." 

Peanuts is a great theological text because, in a very real sense, Peanuts often isn't funny. We often laugh with Peanuts because we identify with it. We encounter the shock of pain in Peanuts and recognize it. And that intimate familiarity with our deepest pains, longings and insecurities makes us smile. And even laugh. We have been understood. And this comforts us.

And yet, Peanuts isn't all gloom and tragedy. In Peanuts there is companionship, joy, endurance, and heroism.

The protagonist of Peanuts is Charlie Brown. Eco describes Charlie Brown as the "Jeremiah of the strip-Bible." Charlie Brown earns this recognition because we watch him endure pain, loneliness, rejection, meanness, humiliation, and failure of every kind.

And yet, in his Sisyphisian persistence Charlie Brown becomes noble and heroic. Somehow, despite his chronic existential angst, Charlie Brown never loses faith. As Michaelis writes,
Charlie Brown handles without self-pity insults that would push real children to the breaking point...Schulz's characters reminded people of the never-ceasing struggle to confront one's vulnerabilities with dignity. Humanity was created to be strong; yet, to be strong and still to fail is one of the universally identifying human experiences. Charlie Brown never quits...
And beyond Charlie Brown's humanity-in-vulnerability we also encounter in Peanuts the spirituality and kindness of Linus and the joy, enchantment and eros of Snoopy.

Eros? Snoopy, we should note, is the only one who kisses in Peanuts.

And he loves to kiss, of all people, Lucy.

Such are the theological themes and tensions explored in the world Peanuts.

This Is To Have Succeeded

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sitting in the Pews of Ebeneser Baptist Church

Two weeks ago I was a participant in a racial reconciliation gathering associated with my tradition, the Churches of Christ. I was a part of a two part presentation. The first part was a presentation by Dr. Lawrence Murray, a psychologist from Oklahoma Christian University, about "Black Rage." I added to the conversation, as a psychologist from Abilene Christian University (both ACU and OCU are Church of Christ schools), with a presentation on "White Fear."

The gathering was in Atlanta, so before heading home I visited the King Center. I'd been there before, as a part of my "Civil Rights Family Vacation" (see the sidebar), but when I was last there Ebeneser Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr's church, was under renovation. So this was the first chance I had to go inside and visit the church.

It was Sunday so I had the place pretty much to myself. The picture here is one I took. Sermons of Dr. King were being played over the loudspeaker. So you could sit in the pews, close your eyes and just listen.

I imagined the congregation swaying under the rhythmic, prophetic preaching of Dr. King.

I found the experience to be quite moving. So I pulled out a pen and wrote a poem.
Sitting in the Pews of Ebeneser Baptist Church

Is this my church?
Or shall I ever be
a perpetual visitor here?
Light, White
my complexion
and the complicit history
that I carry
and the privilege
unearned and transparent.
I linger here
in this house of God--
of prayer and worship and pain--
wanting the brotherhood
found in that praying One
colored in stained glass
high above
the pulpit where you stood.
Am I here to repent,
to stand--
representative of my race--
to say I am--
that we are--
Or am I here to gain the strength
to carry the guilt
a little farther in,
farther on,
down the road?
Do not lay that precious burden
too quickly.
Such things are not so easily mended.
but no final absolution.
Not yet.
Too many tears.
Not yet.
I sit
as the aged wooden pew
creaks beneath me.
I sit here
listening to your voice.
I am listening to you.
Though you are long dead.

All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation

I've written over the last few weeks some posts struggling with the notion of kenosis from the location of abuse and oppression.

The first post suggested that what is "emptied out" in kenosis is the toxicity of the cultural hero system, the ways in which we violently secure significance and meaning. For those on "top" of the hero system this violence is perpetrated against others, psychically (e.g., rivalry, competition, feelings of pride and superiority), systemically (e.g., privilege) or physically (e.g., abuse, oppression). In these instances the "emptying out" of kenosis is experienced as a lowering, a renunciation of pride, privilege, and oppression to stand with and among "the least of these."

Kenosis from the "bottom" looks different. In this social location the hero system has been internalized to produce a violence against the self. At the bottom the hero system declares you to be "garbage" and "waste." Kenosis in this location is emptying out these toxic and internalized messages from the hero system. This emptying is psychically experienced as a "rising up," an elevation of the self to a location of worth and dignity.

In both cases, I argued, the hero system, the violent and toxic ways we secure significance and meaning, is what is being kenotically emptied out. Emptied out to experience our identities as "hidden in Christ." This being "hidden in Christ" creates a psychic buffer of protection, allowing us to become indifferent to the ways the hero systems of the world attempt to shame us or fill us with pride.

In a follow-up post I addressed the issue of kenosis and suffering. Specifically, one misapplication of kenosis occurs when we try to "convert" the victim, telling the victim that he or she must endure the abuse or oppression to "be like Jesus." What this misses is Jesus's pronouncement of blessing upon those who are abused and oppressed. This pronouncement of blessing is a "lifting up" and an "elevation." This movement parallels the Kenosis Hymn in Philippians 2. The crucified one--the victim--is lifted up, exalted and elevated to God's right hand. And in this all "crucified ones" are lifted up and elevated.

In short, the "good news" for victims isn't a sermon asking for additional suffering and additional crucifixion. Rather, the "good news" for victims is the pronouncement of blessing, lifting up and elevation. In this the cross is a bivalent symbol: a prophetic indictment against abusers and oppressors and the pronouncement of blessing and divine favor upon those being abused and oppressed.

All of the above represents my own personal reflections on this subject. I've not had much interaction with the feminist theological literature on kenosis. So I've felt the need to do more reading in this area.

Toward that end, in this post I'd like to summarize Sarah Coakley's analysis from her book Powers and Submissions, particularly Chapter One "Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of 'Vulnerability' in Christian Feminist Writing."

What is interesting and provocative in Coakley's treatment is how she is critical of feminist treatments of kenosis as well as those treatments of kenosis from male theologians who use kenosis to describe the "weakness" of the "Crucified God." What is provocative in this dual critique is the general assumption that a vision of the "weakness" of God is an effective way to address the problems of patriarchal bullying in conceptions of God's "power." That is, it is generally assumed that one way to deal with the problem of God's "power" in the face of feminist critique is to reconceptualize God's power as "weakness." This is the move that I've generally embraced. But Coakley pronounces a pox on both houses. Both on the feminist critique of kenosis and upon the attempt to address that critique by reconceptualizing divine power as "weakness."

To get into this let's begin again with the feminist critique of kenosis, the problem I've been struggling with. Specifically, if kenosis is "letting go" of power and privilege--a descent into powerlessness and weakness--then kenosis is focused mainly upon patriarchy (and other forms of hierarchical power) and has little to say to the populations of concern to feminists, those being oppressed and abused by these power structures. In fact, to preach kenosis to the abused and oppressed leads to toxic outcomes, the valorization of victimhood which keeps the victims in their place.

One of Coakley's criticisms of this feminist critique is how it has implicitly adopted the patriarchal categories it is trying to subvert. Specifically, in this framing power is equated with masculinity and vulnerability is equated with femininity. But that framing simply doubles down on and reinforces the gendered stereotypes of power. What is needed, according to Coakley, is a vision of power and vulnerability that transcends these gendered notions, where both power and vulnerability are expected in equal measure from all.

This transcendence also has important ethical implications as it chastens the "will to power" Coakley discerns in some feminist critique. Framed another way, if victims are motivated by a "will to power" what prevents them from becoming the new abusers and oppressors when they finally do gain power? Social life in this instance reduces to various groups trying to wrest power from others. Everyone is buying into the hierarchical power arrangement seeking to knock someone off to become the new King of the Mountain.

This goes to one of Coakley's main points, the implicit rejection of vulnerability in feminist critiques of kenosis. According to Coakley, for both power and vulnerability to be redemptive what is needed is power in vulnerability. We need both. Both genders need both. But it's hard to get to that place when gendered visions of power and vulnerability are pitted against each other with "male power" set against "female vulnerability."

This brings us to Coakley's criticism of theologians who have used kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness."

On the surface these systems seem to be a positive and helpful response to the feminist criticisms of kenosis. If we worry that God's "power" makes God an oppressive bully then we can envision kenosis as Christ "emptying" God of patriarchy. God's "power" is found in the loving weakness, vulnerability and self-donation of the cross. And again, these are notions I've greatly resonated with.

Coakley's concern with all this is when we start sliding from the ontological (God's being) to the ethical (our being like God). Specifically, while the motives behind using kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness" are well-intentioned, problems come when we try to unpack this vision ethically. If God is "weakness" what does it mean for us to "become like God" or "be like Jesus"? Answer: we are to become "weak" like Jesus.

But suddenly the feminist criticism snaps back into view. If "being like God" is stepping into "weakness" that seems to be a perfectly fine message for oppressors and abusers. But preaching "weakness" to the abused and oppressed, it is argued, is intrinsically abusive. What the abused and oppressed need is empowerment, not sermons about "the weakness of God."

I think this is a powerful point. What Coakley is saying is that all our conversation about "the Crucified God" and the "weakness of God" isn't as helpful as we think it might be in thinking about God's power and vulnerability. The motives behind these efforts have been praiseworthy and they work well when the conversation stays at the level of abstract theology. But these visions struggle, ironically, when they are imported into locations of abuse and oppression.

If God is "weakness" how is an abused and oppressed person supposed to "be like God" in their situation? Remain "weak"?

What is going on here, according to Coakley, is the exact opposite of what is going on with the feminist critiques of kenosis. Where feminists are squeamish about vulnerability the "weakness of God" theologians are squeamish about power, divine power in particular. Power, for these theologians, is a dirty word. And that creates a problem when empowerment is what victims need the most.

Again, for Coakley what is needed is both power and vulnerability.

So, how do we get to that place?

In what I think is a fascinating move, Coakley finds answers in the patristic debates about the dual nature of Christ. Specifically, a great deal of patristic debate was how Christ could be both fully divine and fully human. How did those two "natures" get along in the same psyche?

One way some of the Church fathers dealt with this question was to argue that kenosis referred to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature "emptied" itself of divine attributes like omnipotence and omniscience. And yet, while Christ's human nature had experienced kenosis, Christ's divine nature fully remained.

Now, how all that worked out psychologically for Jesus is a bit of a mystery and a puzzle. (As a psychologist it puzzles me greatly.) But Coakley finds wisdom in this approach in light her criticisms of the "weakness of God" theologians. Specifically, the problem with the "weakness of God" approach, according to Coakley, is how it pushes into the divine nature. Kenotic weakness is taken to be a divine attribute, God is emptied of all forms of power. And while this might seem to be a good move (I've always liked it), it raises the specter of the feminist critique regarding the need to empower victims. For some people power is a good thing.

In contrast to the "weakness of God" theologians, the patristic thinkers didn't allow kenosis to seep into the divine nature. Kenosis was restricted to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature became "weak" but his divine nature remained "strong."

And that, for Coakley, is the key and fundamental point.

Specifically, according to Coakley the problems we are having with kenosis in these discussions is that we think that the vulnerability of kenosis is a vulnerability before human power. That's the problem when kenosis is preached to victims, that kenosis is encouraging us to submit to more human abuse. To keep taking slaps to the face.

But for Coakley kenosis isn't about vulnerability before human power--opening yourself up to get another smack in the face--but a vulnerability before divine power.

Kenosis is the human emptying to become vulnerable before God.

The key practice in this regard, for Coakley, is contemplative prayer. In contemplation the human ego is unraveled and deconstructed before the divine allowing us to let go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up, both oppressed and oppressors alike.

Let me repeat that: kenosis is letting go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up.

In contemplation all our twisted human visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine to reveal all the ways we've used power coercively or seek it out vengefully. All the ways we've neurotically twisted vulnerability into co-dependency, passivity, enablement, and the Stockholm syndrome.

In contemplation all our twisted gendered visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed so that power is no longer "male" and "good" and vulnerability is no longer "female" and "bad," where empowerment and loving self-giving are allowed to find their proper union and balance.

In contemplation all our twisted human visions of justice and mercy are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine so that justice is seasoned with forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy is seasoned with truth, justice and prophetic resistance.

In short, all human conceptions of power and vulnerability have to be "emptied out" before God so that "the will to power" is chastened with love and the call to vulnerability does not valorize victimhood and self-abasement.

In kenostic contemplation before the divine human visions of power and vulnerability--all the twisted and sick ways power and victimhood have screwed us up--are undone and remade in the image of God.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

I'd seen her before, but I hadn't really seen her.

She's everywhere in my city. Looking down on us, blessing us. But I was unaware. Blind and uncomprehending.

She prays for us, surrounded by a sun burst, stars overhead. Flowers at her feet. Her hand folded in blessing.

She is the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

My epiphany regarding the Lady of Guadalupe came in Chapter Eleven of Sara Miles' new book City of God. In this chapter Sara describes the Hispanic, Latino, and Mexican devotion of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe is, perhaps, the central object of devotion in Latin American Christianity, Mexico in particular. In the Mission District of San Francisco where Sara lives images and devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe are ubiquitous.

And the same goes for my town here in Abilene, TX. The Hispanic population is the second largest ethnic demographic in Abilene. For example, our Hispanic population is almost 20% and our African-American population is about 9%. And that's not counting undocumented Mexican citizens living in town.

And because one in five Abilenians (if not more) are Hispanic Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in town.

I've seen her image in our Mexican restaurants, in the paleterias, in stores, on jewelery, and on the candles I pass by in the supermarket.

Like I said, I've seen her. But I hadn't seen her. And now I see her everywhere.

If you don't know it, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a peasant, was passing Tepeyac Hill outside of Mexico City. Around dawn he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary who appeared in the form of a young Mexican peasant girl. The vision of Mary asked Juan Diego to go to the Bishop in Mexico City requesting that a church to her be built upon this spot.

Juan Diego took this message and the story of his vision to the Bishop. But the Bishop was skeptical and requested more proof, a sign of the vision's authenticity.

Juan Diego was delayed in returning to Tepeyac Hill because he had to care for his uncle Juan Bernardino who had come down with a severe illness.

But a few days later, on December 12, as Juan Diego was passing by Tepeyac Hill to seek help for his uncle, he again encountered the Lady who asked him why he had not been successful in granting her request. Juan Diego reported that the Bishop had been skeptical and demanded a sign.

Hearing this, the Lady told Juan Diego to climb to the top of the hill where he would find many flowers blooming. This was difficult to believe because it was December, no flowers were blooming at that time of year. Plus, no flowers grew on the stony summit of the hill. But upon climbing to the top the hill Juan Diego, miraculously, found flowers in bloom. He gathered the flowers in his peasant tilma (a cloak) and rushed to the Bishop.

Upon finding the Bishop Juan Diego repeated the request of the Lady. The Bishop again expressed his need for a sign. Upon hearing this Juan Diego opened his tilma and let the flowers cascade to the ground. This in itself was miraculous given that it was December and blooming flowers were nowhere to be found. But when Juan Diego opened his tilma to drop the flowers there appeared upon the fabric of Juan Diego's cloak a marvelously wrought, exquisitely colored portrait of the Lady, just as Juan Diego had previously seen her.

The Bishop was overcome with these signs and immediately set to work building a church at the site of Tepeyac Hill where Juan Diego had encountered the Lady.

This church is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just outside of Mexico City. Inside the Basilica is the tilma of Juan Diego with the image of the Lady upon it. The tilma with its image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most venerated relics in Catholicism, visited by millions of people each year.

Because of all this it is no exaggeration to say that Our Lady of Guadalupe sits at the heart of Mexican, Hispanic and Latino Catholic spirituality.

And discovering all this has had a profound affect upon me. And again, I have Sara Miles to thank for this.

Specifically, I've lived for years in Abilene among Hispanic neighbors and I'd never seen Our Lady of Guadalupe. Well, again, I had seen her, because she's everywhere. But I really hadn't seen her.

And finding this out both shook and startled me.

It shook and startled me as here was something so very important to my neighbors, something at the very heart of their Christian experience, about which I had absolutely no clue. How could that be? How could something so important to my neighbors be a complete mystery to me?

Well, of course we all know the answers to that question. Cultural insularity. White indifference to minority cultures. A lack of diverse friendships.

But now I see Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere in my town. It is like I was blind and now I see. I'd been swimming in a vast sea of Christian spirituality and hadn't even noticed it. But now I see it all around me.

And in coming to see Our Lady of Guadalupe I've come to realize just how very far apart are the White and Hispanic Christians in my town. Two groups of passionate and devout Christians living and dying side by side with little to no contact between them. Great chasms of incomprehension separating us.

Six months ago I couldn't have told you a thing about Our Lady of Guadalupe, this, the most important Christian symbol to my Hispanic neighbors.

I hope to change this.

This last month I was teaching classes at Freedom Fellowship, the church I worship with that reaches out to the poor and homeless in our town. Many of the people who go to Freedom are Hispanic.

I was teaching a class on the saints. And in one of the classes I was teaching about Mary.

After having talked about Mary and how she is a model for all of us--the first one to say "Yes" to Jesus--I went on to talk about Our Lady of Guadalupe, the apparition of Mary so beloved by Latin Americans. Here was Mary appearing to them as one of their own, not as a white Caucasian but as a brown-skinned Mexican peasant girl.

I wanted our White members to come to see Our Lady of Guadalupe the way I had recently come to see her. And in seeing her to come to see our neighbors.

After the service was over, I had a line of people wanting to talk to me. All our Hispanic members. They were thrilled to see Our Lady of Guadalupe talked about in our church. In seeing Our Lady of Guadalupe our church had, in some important way, seen them. We had seen their culture, their pasts, their families, their stories and memories.

In bringing Our Lady of Guadalupe into our white, Protestant church we had somehow made them feel more welcome. Like our church, too, was their home.

A few days later Jana was shopping and found a wall hanging of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She bought it.

An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe now hangs in our Protestant church.

And if you look for her, like our Hispanic neighbors do, you will see her.

Search Term Friday: Thomas Kinkade

One of the most popular search terms bringing people to the blog is this:

thomas kinkade

And I have mixed feelings about that. 

The artist Thomas Kinkade passed away April 6, 2012. A huge commercial success, Kinkade's art is ubiquitous, particularly in Christian circles. It has been estimated that one out of every twenty homes has a Kinkade hanging on the wall.

But with that success came much criticism--artistic, theological, and psychotheological.

Chapter 10 of my book The Authenticity of Faith is entitled "The Thomas Kinkade Effect." As I describe it in the book, the Thomas Kinkade Effect is the impulse in Christian aesthetics to avoid the ugliness, brokenness and darkness of human existence. As Kinkade observed about his aesthetic vision, "I like to portray a world without the Fall."

But a world without the Fall isn't the world we live in. Consequently, many have chaffed at a lack of honesty in Kinkade's work. The beauty in Kinkade's idyllic paintings seems shallow and superficial. Pretty, but not honest.

My interest in Kinkade has been psychotheological. What does the appeal of Kinkade's work to Christians reveal about us, psychologically and theologically?

Chapter 10 of The Authenticity of Faith and posts on this blog have explored that question. And in those explorations the theological impulse behind Kinkade's art has taken a bit of a beating from me.

And yet, ever since his death, my mind has often thought of Thomas Kinkade. And while I stand by my analysis and naming of the Thomas Kinkade Effect I also wanted to publicly say this:

Thomas Kinkade, you brought beauty into the world. For that I am grateful.

May you Rest in Peace dear brother.

All Friendship is Sacramental

I wanted to follow up with a note of clarification about my recent post How Friendship Can Save the World: Sacramental Friendship and the Strength of Weak Ties.

Specifically, a problem with my post is that by creating a "special" friendship category--a sacramental friendship--we are still erecting a sort of filter between rich and poor. The goal should be friendship. Plain and simple. Not sacramental friendship, or any sort of qualified friendship, just friendship.

So a note of clarification about this.

My coining the phrase "sacramental friendship" isn't an attempt to create a new sort of "special" friendship, one that remains inherently distancing because it is "special." When I speak of "sacramental friendship" I'm speaking of just plain-old, regular friendship.

So why call it sacramental?

If you'll recall from the earlier post, I use the term to help churches move away from seeing the poor as a project, and therefore as an object, as a group of anonymous people who need help or need to be fixed. The adjective "sacramental" is being attached to the word "friendship" to signal how agendas of those sorts--"You are a project."--should be stripped away. Leaving just friendship.

In short, I'm using the word sacramental as a sort of scalpel to cut away the "you're a project" agendas a lot of people have when they approach the poor in a non-relational and programmatic way.

Additionally, the adjective sacramental helps tame the Messiah-complex, the social-justice-hero-complex, the ride-in-on-a-white-horse-complex. Sacramental is just trying to get us to focus on what William Stringfellow calls "the sacrament of mere presence." Or the sacrament of what Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, calls "accompaniment."

Which is to say, the sacrament of simply being a friend.

Basically, the word sacrament is being attached to the word friendship not to qualify friendship but to put a hedge of protection around friendship. To consecrate and hallow friendship in a way that says: Friendship is enough.

The word sacrament is attached to remind us that friendship is not utilitarian. Far too often, Christian "friendship" drifts toward the utilitarian. We use people to achieve our Christian agendas. Liberals use people for their social justice agendas and conservatives use people for their evangelism agendas. You're counting the number of people fed or the number of souls saved.

The word sacramental is used to remind us that true friendship rests in the simple "being with" others, for no other purpose than the "being with."

And that is why friendship is a sacrament, an experience of grace.

Anointing With Oil

Historically, my faith tradition the Churches of Christ has been pretty skeptical and wary of charismatic and pentecostal impulses. The Churches of Christ have been pretty rationalistic and unemotive. Emotion, we believed, can lead you astray.

In the 80s that changed for many of our churches. In the 80s the Churches of Christ discovered the Holy Spirit and our world became a little bit more enchanted, charismatic and pentecostal. We've slowly awakened to the affective, intuitive and embodied aspects of Christian life, spirituality and worship. We're a little bit more mystical, a little bit more open to being surprised by God and led by the winds of the Spirit.

But just a little bit more. We're still a pretty tame and inhibited group.

But not so much at our local church plant Freedom Fellowship. Though a church plant sponsored by the Highland Church of Christ, Freedom Fellowship is a lot more charismatic and pentecostal. Freedom doesn't feel anything like a Church of Christ.

Freedom has an indigenous spirituality unlike anything I've experienced in the Churches of Christ. I think this is due to the fact that a lot of the people Freedom attracts--the poor and homeless--have been shaped by charismatic and pentecostal traditions, and they have imported that spirituality into the congregation. And that the poor and disenfranchised in our town are more charismatic isn't too surprising given how charismatic traditions tend to flourish in these social locations worldwide.

One of the distinctive aspects of the spirituality that has emerged at Freedom is anointing with oil. I'm not sure how typical anointing with oil is among charismatic and pentecostal churches. I do know you see anointing with oil liturgically practiced in some mainline traditions. But at Freedom the practice is more spontaneous than liturgical. So I don't know how to norm what we do at Freedom against other traditions who anoint with oil.

At Freedom we anoint with oil very regularly. If someone prays over you, and this happens a lot, very often they will anoint your head with oil before they pray. Brothers and sisters at Freedom carry oil around with them so that, if anyone needs prayer, oil is always on hand for that purpose. When I go to Freedom I grab two things, my bible and a small bottle of anointing oil. You never know when you or someone else might need it.

The first time I was ever anointed with oil, as I've written about before, was then I was at church early having driven the van bringing people to the dinner we have before every service. I was coming down with a fever and I was shaking pretty badly. Mary came up to me to see if I was okay and I told her I was coming down with a fever. Mary prayed for me and before she did, as we do a lot at Freedom, she anointed my head with oil making the sign of the cross, "In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

I'd say I was pretty well hooked at that moment. Maybe it was the fever, but I became all in with the oil thing. And reading authors like Sara Miles has helped deepen my appreciation of the practice.

Listen, I can understand any reservations you might be having about this practice. I get it. It's all a little weird and strange. Especially if you're a cerebral, skeptical sort like I am. But I love the anointing with oil culture at Freedom. I'm not sure how common or strange our practices are, but what we do fits our culture and our people.

Why am I so taken with this practice?

I think we need rituals to signify holy ground. I think we need practices of consecration and hallowing. I think we need to feel a loving touch on our face. I think we need to pray with our hands. I think we need to be marked to remember who we are. I think we need to experience grace in the tingle on the skin and the smell of incense on our foreheads. I think we need liturgies where we stand before each other, eye to eye, because very rarely at church do we stand so close. Rarely have I anointed anyone without crying. And I think we need to look at each other and cry a little bit more at the beauty of it all.

You might not anoint with oil where you worship. And introducing the practice into your world might be a little too weird.

But there is a wisdom here. A way of seeing each other. A way of praying. A way of loving.

Explore it if you can.

How Friendship Saves the World: Sacramental Friendships and the Strength of Weak Ties

When you try to make friendships at the margins you can quickly become overwhelmed by the needs and brokenness of others.

As I've written about before, I don't know how I can solve the problems of many of my friends. The issues are daunting. Chronic poverty. Drug addiction. Mental illness. Physical disability. Cognitive disability.

I can't fix it or make it go away.

But I can be a sacrament. I can be sign of love, a sign of life. I can be a friend. In a cruel and inhumane world I can be a location of kindness.

Before various church audiences I've described this as "sacramental friendship," calling them to form friendships across the socioeconomic spectrum. The focus of this call is upon relationality--walking alongside others in friendship--rather than starting up "a program" to "address" poverty.

And to be clear, such programs are needed, but what I find lacking in many churches is friendship, a face-to-face, first-name-basis relationality between rich and poor. This is what is missing in many churches. Programs abound but there is too little friendship.

And in many ways this call for friendship is both harder and easier than starting up a poverty program at the church.

It's easier in that you don't have to save the world. You don't have to eradicate world poverty. You just have to be a friend.

To be sure, you'll be faced with issues regarding material want. But the needs of your friends will be expressed within a relational context. And because of the friendship you'll be able to discern the legitimacy of the requests and, given your knowledge of your friend, how best to respond. And most importantly, the situation will be reciprocal. Your friend will be giving to you as well. Perhaps not materially, but there will be life-giving exchanges flowing back and forth.

So in many ways, being a friend is much easier than trying to save the world. And yet, it's also much harder. Your life will get messier. You'll have to struggle with how best to help your friend and those decisions can be heart-breaking at times. Volunteering a few hours at the food pantry or sponsoring a child in Africa is a whole lot easier and cleaner than making friends and opening up your life to the needs, demands and sin of others. To say nothing of how your needs, wants and sins will affect them.

And yet, while friendship can be a really difficult thing, when I've made this call for sacramental friendship some have struggled with what sounds like resignation. You can't alleviate poverty but you can be friends with the poor. But doesn't that just leave the status quo intact? Should we not do more than be friends?

Yes. So let's not set up a false dichotomy. In speaking about sacramental friendships I'm not asking people to choose one thing over another. This isn't an either/or. We must do both.

And yet, and this gets us to the point I want to make, I do think sacramental friendships can lift people out of poverty. It might seem that you are "just being friends" but that friendship can, in many ways, be a ladder out of poverty.

And it has to do with the strength of weak ties.

There have been some recent studies about the factors associated with chronic poverty and one of the things that has come into view is that one of the biggest factors related to poverty is concentrated poverty. When people live in concentrated poverty, where the poor are living only amongst the poor, they have a much harder time escaping the poverty trap. 

Why is that?

Many things come to time. We might talk about the role of culture, norms, mentors and role models. A young person growing up in concentrated poverty may need to see a better world and come into contact with role models and mentors so that dreams and personal initiative can develop.

But another key part to this has to do with the erosion of social support. In generations past the community was your insurance policy should anything traumatic happen to you. From a family death to the loss of a crop to a barn burning down. People and family would rally around you, supporting you through a difficult time.

But these cultural supports have largely vanished. For both rich and poor. The only difference is that the rich can purchase a safety net. They can buy homes and insurance. They can have investments and savings accounts. They can move to another city and another job.

So to be clear, I don't want to lament a decline in cultural and family values and then put that decline solely on the poor. The decline cuts across socioeconomic status. It's just that the rich have been able to insulate themselves from the historic erosion of familial and social mutuality. The rich can be self-sufficient. Thus, the social decline in America has fallen hardest on the poor.

But it's not just that the poor have lost the "social safety net." The poor, especially in locations of concentrated poverty, also lack a diverse web of friendships that can support them and help lift them out of poverty. In areas of concentrated poverty the poor lack what has been called the strength of weak ties.

The strength of weak ties goes back to a seminal article written by Mark Granovetter in 1973 entitled "The Strength of Weak Ties".

One of the things Granovetter looked at in his article was how college graduates found jobs after graduation. What Granovetter noticed was that graduates did not find jobs through their close friendships (strong ties). Rather, jobs were located more through acquaintances or distant family relationships (weak ties). The reason for this, Granovetter noted, is that our close friendships (our strong ties) are often tightly connected bundles of sameness. Thus, trying to rely upon your close friends for help in finding a job is ineffective as close friends tend to already know all the same people. Strong ties don't help you break out of your social niche and location. To be sure strong ties are vital in getting through life. We all need a close group of friends to lean on. But close groups of friends can also be limiting in their insularity.

According to Granovetter, what helps us escape the insularity of the close friendship group is the weak tie, the acquaintance or distant relative. That's how people tended to find jobs. They had a friend whose brother worked at a certain place or in a certain city. Why don't you give him a call? To be sure, that call might not produce a job offer, but it might produce another job lead via the weak ties of the person you just called. The point being, these weak ties are weak but they help you escape your social world and cover a lot of social territory very, very quickly. Which is just what you need during a job search. You need lots of leads in lots of different places. Friends often can't help you with that, but their weak ties can. That is the strength of the weak tie.

I hope you can see how in areas of concentrated poverty there would be a scarcity of weak ties. Even if the poor in a neighborhood did rally to each other in times of need--and they do do this in ways the rich do not--they lack the rich and diverse social relationships--the weak ties--that can help each other escape poverty.

And this brings us back to sacramental friendships.

On the surface we might think that "just being friends" isn't doing anything to help lift a person out of poverty. But what we fail to notice, particularly in locations of concentrated poverty, is that the sacramental friendship is enriching the social web. The number of weak ties has been increased. And these weak ties may be the very resource the person most needs.

To be concrete about it, you bring more than yourself into the friendship. You bring everyone else you know. Bluntly, you might not be able to help this person in a particular situation but you might know someone else who can.

In sacramental friendships you are bringing the gift of your weak ties.

Let me give a concrete and personal example of this.

Jana and I have lots of friendships at the margins because of a church plant we worship with. And by and large these friendships are sacramental. We've not eradicated poverty or homelessness, but we walk alongside those who are homeless and poor. And while this has been an amazing and life-giving blessing, this situation can feel fairly static and futile at times.

But we have a friend who doesn't have any teeth. And this poses a suite of issues for our friend. Specifically, it can affect employment prospects.

Because of our friendship we've heard the prayers of this friend for some new teeth. Trouble is, Jana and I aren't dentists. And a set of new teeth is thousands and thousands of dollars.

But Jana has a weak tie with our dentist. Specifically, our dentist was a former high school student of Jana's many, many years ago. That's not a huge connection, but it's enough of a weak tie that at her next dental appointment Jana shared the plight of our friend. And our dentist responded, offering to do the work at cost, getting us down to hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

And so it is that we are getting our friend some new teeth. And it happened because of a weak tie. Our friend knew Jana who knew a dentist. Jana couldn't help directly, but Jana had a weak tie to a person who could.

Again, the gift you bring isn't yourself, the gift you bring is who you know.

The examples abound. Do you know people who can fix a car, help with a computer, or who can do basic electrical work? Do you know someone who works at a place that is hiring right now? Do you know, perhaps, a dentist?

These connections, weak as they may be, can be lifelines. Lifelines and connections that are lacking in locations of concentrated poverty. Lifelines and connections that are more important than ever given the erosion of our social and familial webs of support.

Which brings me back to sacramental friendship. On the surface it might not look like a sacramental friendship is doing much to change the situation of the person in poverty. But what that sacramental friendship is doing is enriching and diversifying the social connections of the person you are friends with. You are increasing their portfolio of weak ties. And that portfolio, should it become rich and diverse enough, can provide the social resources needed to lift a person out of concentrated poverty.

Your weak tie might lead to a dentist and some new teeth. And those new teeth might lead to a better job interview. And that better interview to a job. And so on.

We tend to think that it's our job to save the world. But maybe it's not you or I who saves the world but the people we know. Or the people those people know.

Maybe what saves the world isn't lone rangers of social justice. Maybe what saves the world is relationships, rich webs of social connections.

Maybe friendship saves the world.

Messy, complicated sacramental friendships might not seem to be an anti-poverty program but it may be the most important thing the church can to do help lift people out of poverty.

Yes, we give the poor food and clothing as these are vital and necessary things. But what the poor may need most is our friendship.

Our friendship, and the friendship of our friends.

The Psalms as Liberation Theology

As a part of my prayer practice I've been praying through the psalms on a four-week cycle. And it has, to say the least, been very eye opening.

I'm biblically literate. So I felt I knew the psalms. And yet, I'd never read the psalms through in a consistent and concentrated way. And when you do that there is a message in the psalms that is revealed to you, a message I've never heard preached about or that I've read about.

Basically, the sum of the matter is this. The psalms are dangerous.

Let me put it this way. If you were an oppressor you would ban the reading of the psalms. You'd burn them. You wouldn't want an oppressed group to be reading the psalms.

The psalms are a crash course in liberation theology.

The rubric I have tended to apply to the psalms is praise/lament. On the one hand there are songs of praise and on the other hand there are songs of lament. And using this framework I've often encouraged "Summer Christian" churches to explore the material of the lament psalms, the poetry of the "Winter Christian" experience. (See my discussion in The Authenticity of Faith if you're unfamiliar with the Summer vs. Winter Christian distinction.)

I definitely think the praise/lament framework is a good way to get people to read more of the psalms, but I've come to think that the praise/lament framework is inadequate.

First, while the praise/lament framework does get people to read more of the psalms, it still leaves too much material unread. Second, the praise/lament framework can obscure the source and cause of the lament in the lament psalms. The lament psalms aren't just sad songs, "the blues" as it were. The "sadness" in the lament psalms is very often of a particular sort.

For example, Winter Christians often turn to the lament psalms during times of grief and mourning. And yet, if you look at them, most of the lament psalms aren't about loss and grief. Death isn't what the lament psalms are about. And yet, that's the way we tend to use the lament psalms, turning to them during times of mourning.

But here's what we tend to miss in the praise/lament framework, where we have happiness on one side and sadness on the other. We miss "the enemy," "the foe," and the "oppressor."

There are three main characters in the psalms. YHWH, the psalmist and the enemies.

The thing that strikes you about the psalms when you read them straight through is how oppressed and beleaguered is the psalmist. Enemies, hecklers, back-stabbers, two-faced friends, violent oppressors and economic exploiters abound. 

This goes to the source of lament in the psalms. Rarely is the lament about, say, the death of a loved one. The lament is generally about oppression, about the victory of the oppressor.

The lament is about the bad guys winning and the good guys being trampled underfoot.

Consider a classic lament psalm, Psalm 13. Here's how it starts off:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
That's good sad, depressing stuff. Love it! But where is the sorrow coming from? The very next line:
How long will my enemy triumph over me? 
See? The sorrow isn't about grief. The sorrow is about oppression.

Time and time again that's what you see in the lament psalms, that the source of the lament is due to violent oppression and economic exploitation.

Consider Psalm 55:
Psalm 55.1-3, 9-11, 20-23
Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamor of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its marketplace.

My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.

Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.
Again, the three characters: YHWH, the psalmist and "the enemy"--violence, oppression, fraud in the marketplace, a backstabbing friend, the bloodthirsty and treacherous. The Psalms is full of this stuff. Consider Psalm 35:
Psalm 35.1-10
Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.
Take up shield and armor;
arise and come to my aid.
Brandish spear and javelin
against those who pursue me.
Say to me,
“I am your salvation.”

May those who seek my life
be disgraced and put to shame;
may those who plot my ruin
be turned back in dismay.
May they be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them away;
may their path be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

Since they hid their net for me without cause
and without cause dug a pit for me,
may ruin overtake them by surprise—
may the net they hid entangle them,
may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.
My whole being will exclaim,
“Who is like you, Lord?
You rescue the poor from those too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
Notice the liberation theology themes. The psalmist sings: "My soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation." And what characterizes this "salvation"? This: "You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them."

And it's well known that in the face of violence and exploitation the psalms at times express murderous thoughts about oppressors. 

Historically, all this content makes sense. Many, if not most of the psalms, were written after the fall of Jerusalem and were sung during the time of exile. Once again, this highlights the liberation theology content of the psalms. These were the songs of an enslaved and exiled people. Oppression is the ecosystem of the psalms.

Which goes to my assessment at the start. The psalms are dangerous. If I were an oppressor I'd ban the psalms. No way I'd let people sing these songs.

The psalms are liberation theology.

Search Term Friday: Old Scratch

Recently, the search term

old scratch

brought someone to the blog.

Do you know who Old Scratch is?

I discovered and wrote about who Old Scratch was in 2012.

At our prison bible study Herb, my co-teacher, was leading a prayer. Herb is a Baby Boomer and a son of the South. I'm Gen X and a transplanted Northerner. So our idiomatic expressions are different.

So when Herb was leading the prayer he said, "And Lord, protect us from Old Scratch."

After the prayer was over I asked aloud, "Who is Old Scratch?"

Herb was incredulous. Didn't I know that Old Scratch was the Devil? I did not. Nor, it seemed, did any of the guys in the class.

Apparently, Old Scratch is a name for the Devil that was more widely known a generation or so ago. It apparently started in New England but eventually took hold in the South. Here's the entry from The Free Dictionary:
Old Scratch
n. Chiefly Southern U.S.
The Devil; Satan.

[Probably alteration of scrat, from Middle English, hermaphrodite goblin, from Old Norse skratte, wizard, goblin.]

Regional Note: Old Scratch, like Old Nick, is a nickname for the devil. In the last century it was widely used in the eastern United States, especially in New England...Now the term has been regionalized to the South. Old Scratch is attested in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 18th century onward in Great Britain as a colloquialism: "He'd have pitched me to Old Scratch" (Anthony Trollope, 1858). The source of the name is probably the Old Norse word skratte, meaning "a wizard, goblin, monster, or devil."
In literature Aunt Polly describes Tom Sawyer as being "full of the Old Scratch" because of his rebellious and mischievous ways. In A Christmas Carol during the visions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Scrooge overhears a conversation describing his death: "Old Scratch has got his own at last."

I find the name Old Scratch delightful. Herb and I now use it all the time. And here and there in our church we hear the name catching on. The name is just too quirky and fun to be allowed to slip away.

The Moral Compass of Modernity

Darren Fleet (Adbusters Magazine, October 2013):
Our present age is the final act of the modern obsession with the promise of more. The desire for increase was the impulse at the heart of Caesar Augustus, the Mongol conquest of Asia, the Bantu migration in Central Africa, the rise of the Aztec and Inca kingdoms in the Americas, the British Empire and the current American and Chinese century. At the end of every battle was the promise of pillage. Battle now, get paid later. This make empire financially possible. It is the identical philosophy of the "buy now, pay later" and "zero-percent-down" schemes so ubiquitous throughout the West. The relationship between empire and pillage has changed little, save for the fact that the ability to export nature has now outpaced humanity's ability to exploit one another (though it hasn't replaced it). Where there is a center, there must also be a frontier to feed the center. This translates into a new set of mutually dependent entities: where there is a shopping mall, there must be a factory; where there is energy, there must be ecocide; where there is health, there must be sickness; where there is consumption, there must be waste; where there is pristine, there must be polluted; where there is progress, there must be regression and desire. This material reality has a mental parallel. Within each of us there is also an insatiable thirst for increase and abundance. This is fueled by advertising, propaganda and, increasingly, self-delusion. This internalized graph of progress, one that points exponentially up, governs our relationships, our careers, our sex lives, our friendships, our families, our waist lines, our jobs, our purchasing, our houses, our cars, our travels...everything. According to this way of thinking, satisfaction is a sign of weakness. Poverty is a sign of laziness and ineptitude. Wealth is a sign of attraction and prowess. This new moral compass of modernity, the consciousness of our world today, is dependent on a single paradoxical truth: infinite growth.