Will You Become a Neighbor?

We all know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is triggered by a lawyer who asks the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus then tells the very familiar story. But at the end of the story Jesus flips the question around:
"Which of these three do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” 
The question the man asks at the start is: "Who is my neighbor?"

The question Jesus asks is: "Who was the neighbor?"

I love this subtle change Jesus makes.

It's not about Them, it's about You.

The issue isn't "Who is my neighbor?" but "Are you a neighbor?"

Journal Week 3: Losing Interest in Progressive Christianity

So, how has Flannery O'Connor made me stranger?

Specifically, how has Flannery O'Connor interrupted my progressive Christianity?

Many liberal and progressive Christians struggle with doubts. The forces of secular disenchantment strongly affect liberal and progressive Christians.

Consequently, there is this impulse within progressive Christianity to make faith lighter, to believe less and less, to dilute faith.

As a progressive Christian, over the years I've contributed my fair share to this impulse, doing my best to sing the praises of doubt. But a few years ago, I began to grow concerned about this trajectory if left unchecked. I began to worry about my spiritual health, as well as the health of many other progressive Christians.

I am not the only one who has grown worried. After years of praising doubt and deconstruction, many progressive Christians have begun to speak about the need for a turn, a movement back toward reconstruction and a second naïveté.

To be clear, because the label "progressive Christianity" is messy and vague, I'm not speaking of progressive viewpoints, theologically or politically, but about the deconstructing, disenchanting, Enlightenment-driven impulse that runs through much of progressive Christianity. The impulse that keeps diluting faith, where you are believing less and less.

Reading Flannery O'Connor finally brought all these worries to a crisis point for me. I think it was Hazel Motes' preaching about the "Church of Christ Without Christ" in Wise Blood that did it. "The Church of Christ Without Christ" sounded a lot like what I saw going on within progressive Christian circles, a Christianity that gets so watered down and diluted you don't, in the end, believe anything at all.

The trouble with the incessant deconstruction at work within progressive Christianity is that, left unchecked, all it tends to produce are agnostic Democrats.

This realization hasn't made me conservative. My voting hasn't changed. Especially with Trump in office.

The effect hasn't been political. It's metaphysical. I'm simply tired and bored by a progressive Christianity that doesn't believe in anything, at least anything beyond Jesus being a model exemplar of liberal humanism. I'm not angry or disgusted, I'm not rejecting progressive Christianity. Plus, everyone is at a different developmental stage. You might be just starting out on a necessary and vital season of deconstruction, especially from toxic forms of Christianity. You can't be expected to be where I am right now. So for you, friends, I hope what I've written about doubts and deconstruction is a blessing to you as you start your journey.

All that to say, I remain very sympathetic to progressive Christianity.

But a Christianity that doesn't believe in anything--a Christianity that dilutes and dilutes and dilutes until you have a "Church of Christ Without Christ"--that Christianity just doesn't interest me anymore.

I've made a long and hard journey carrying my doubts, and now I'm just bored by them.

Living Reminders of God's Divine Presence

Marriage is not a lifelong attraction of two individuals to each other, but a call for two people to witness together to God's love.... [The] intimacy of marriage itself is an intimacy that is based on the common participation in a love greater than the love two people can offer each other. The real mystery of marriage is not that husband and wife love each other so much that they can find God in each other's lives, but that God loves them so much that they can discover each other more and more as living reminders of God's divine presence. They are brought together, indeed, as two prayerful hands extended toward God and forming in this way a home for God in this world.

The same is true for friendship. Deep and mature friendship does not mean that we keep looking each other in the eyes and are constantly impressed or enraptured by each other's beauty, talents, and gifts, but it means that together we look at him who calls us to his service.
--Henri Nouwen, from Clowning in Rome

Jana shared this Nouwen quote a few months back on Facebook. We very much liked the perspective on marriage, how our marriage works best when we become living reminders of God's divine presence for each other.

But we also loved the connection to friendship, and I think it's a great vision of what church should be: a broken and diverse group of people who come together to do the hard relational work of becoming living reminders of God's love for us.

Let Us Die, Then, And Enter Into the Darkness

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages.

A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulcher, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.

For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul...

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardor of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God...

Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough.

--St. Bonaventure

On Sacrifice: Effort, Investment and Excellence

In The Slavery of Death I talk about how idolatry manifests as service to the principalities and powers. Mixing Ernest Becker with William Stringfellow, I talk about how we achieve self-esteem by service to an institution or organization. Success within the "hero system" of the institution--generally your employer--becomes your route to meaning and significance.

This service to institutions often becomes a form of slavery when the institution demands greater and greater loyalty, commitment and sacrifice, often couched in calls for "excellence."

The point I make in The Slavery of Death is that these calls for excellence are often euphemisms for the word sacrifice. Specifically, we are finite creatures with limited time, energy and resources. We can't keep getting more and more excellent without a significant reallocation of time, energy and resources. Something has to be sacrificed. More time at work, for example, means less time with family, friends or church.

And yet, since success within the institution is how we achieve self-esteem, we are tempted to make these sacrifices. This is the cycle--self-esteem fueled sacrifice--that creates our idolatrous relationship with the Powers.

That said, I occasionally get push back about how we should think about excellence. Shouldn't we strive to be excellent? Isn't it a display of good Christian stewardship to do and give our very best?

To help get this sorted out, let's dig down into what is involved in a call for "excellence."

Let me suggest that excellence is comprised of two ingredients, effort and investment. Simply:
Effort + Investment = Excellence
Sometimes the call to excellence is simply a call for effort. For example, people at work might not be giving it 100% effort. They might be doing shoddy work to spend time surfing the Internet while at the office. A call to excellence, when it's aimed at effort, is aimed at laziness, goofing off, and mailing it in.

So in this sense--an appeal to do your job and do it well--the call to excellence isn't really about idolatry. "Excellence," in this view, is something we should all aspire to. We should give and do our best, whatever the task or job might be. We should work, as the Bible says, as for the Lord.

But let's say you are giving maximal effort. In that instance the call to excellence shifts from effort to investment. If you're working to the max the call to excellence means that you have to invest more. Usually by putting in more hours. It's this aspect of the equation that I'm calling out when I say "excellence is a euphemism for sacrifice."

To be clear, sometimes sacrifice--increasing investment--is good and necessary. Maybe you're covering for a sick co-worker. Maybe it's a busy season at the office. And maybe it's what you have to do to keep your job. I wouldn't call any of these increases in investment forms of idolatry. They are sacrifices, to be sure, but they aren't idolatry.

But there are times when these calls for greater investment, and our desire to respond to them, do qualify as idolatry, as sacrifices we make on the altar of significance and self-esteem.

These ego-driven sacrifices--in Henri Nouwen's phrasing, the desire to be relevant, powerful and spectacular--are the ones I'm calling out in The Slavery of Death.

Journal Week 2: Burned Clean By Flannery

Regular and perceptive readers will have noticed that I changed the Thomas Merton quote in my blog header to two quotes, one from Flannery O'Connor and one from Johnny Cash.

All of us, I'm guessing, can tell a story of the significant theological influences upon us. George MacDonald was the big influence upon me during my college years. Since MacDonald, there was William Stringfellow, Arthur McGill, Dorothy Day, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

And now Flannery O'Connor.

I have to confess, Flannery O'Connor has wrecked me. Over the last two years, I've read all her short stories and have read her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, twice. And I don't read fiction.

Reading Flannery O'Connor has been a profound and destabilizing experience that I'm only just starting to reckon with. I'm still exploring the contours and jagged edges of the changes O'Connor has wrought within me. What have I rejected and turned my back on? What have I changed my mind about? How have my theological biases and prejudices been altered?

Am I still the same person, theologically and spiritually speaking, or have I changed in some significant way? Has my spiritual pilgrimage been enriched, or knocked off course?

I think I'll use some of these Friday journal entries to try to figure some of this out.

I guess the first thing I'd say is that Flannery O'Connor beat the liberal Christianity clean out of me. To speak as Flannery speaks, it might be more appropriate to say that Flannery burned the liberal Christianity clean out of me.

The acid bath, if you're interested in undergoing it, was mainly a mixture of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and the story "The Lame Shall Enter First." Speaking only for myself, the liberal, enlightened humanism that informs and guides much within liberal Christianity just withered in these stories. I saw way too much of progressive Christianity in Hazel Motes' "Church of Christ Without Christ" (Wise Blood), and in the enlightened humanism of the characters Rayber (The Violent Bear It Away) and Sheppard ("The Lame Shall Enter First").

Because of Flannery O'Connor, I struggle to think of myself as a liberal, progressive Christian anymore. No doubt, I'll continue to use that label to describe myself when it's helpful to draw quick, rough contrasts between my views and conservative, evangelical views. I haven't shifted toward conservatism in the religious, culture and political wars.

The only way I can describe what's happened is this.

I'm not liberal or conservative, progressive or evangelical.

I am something stranger.

Figuring out just how strange, and it what ways, is now the adventure that I'm on.

Michael, the Devil and the Body of Moses

As I've written about before, in the Bible the archangel Michael is described as God's main weapon in fighting the devil. Because of this, in the Catholic tradition prayers to St. Michael are believed to be particularly effective in gaining protection from evil.

The struggle between Michael and Satan is mostly rooted in Revelation 12:
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Evidence of this fight is also found in Daniel 10, where Michael is described as fighting against the spirit prince of Persia (Babylon). As the angel says to Daniel:
But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
But the strangest and most enigmatic place we find Michael and Satan squaring off in is Jude 9:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!"
Huh? What's going on in this text?

The writer of Jude assumes knowledge of a story about the assumption of Moses into heaven. From what we can surmise, Satan was preventing or objecting to Moses entering heaven. Most likely bringing some sort of accusation against Moses, like his murder of the Egyptian or his disobedience at Meribah. Michael rebukes Satan, presumably making the way clear for Moses to enter heaven.

The source for this story about Michael and Satan fighting over the body of Moses is unclear. It could be a story from the Jewish apocryphal book The Testament of Moses.

Or it could be a story that the writer of Jude (and/or others) pieced together from threads found in the book of Enoch and a story we find in Zechariah 3, where an unnamed angel rebukes Satan with the exact same words from Jude 9 when Satan brings accusations against the High Priest.

Regardless, Jude 9 is another place where we see Michael and the devil squaring off.

Paul's Mission to the Gentiles and the Noahide Laws

In Judaism there is a teaching regarding what are called the Noahide Laws. These seven laws were believed to be binding upon all of humanity, a minimal and universal moral ethic for Jew and Gentile alike. Where the Jews, given their unique vocation, were to obey the entirety of the Torah, Gentiles were only obligated to keep the minimal, Noahide requirements. A Gentile who kept the Noahide Laws was considered to be a "righteous Gentile" and would be given a place in the world to come.

What are the Noahide laws? They are:

  1. Do not deny God. 
  2. Do not blaspheme God. 
  3. Do not murder. 
  4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. 
  5. Do not steal. 
  6. Do not eat from a live animal. 
  7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws. 
When we encounter righteous Gentiles in the gospels we can assume they are identified as such not because they are Torah-observant but because they are keeping the Noahide Laws.

When in the book of Acts Paul starts taking the gospel message to the Gentiles the issue of morality and law-keeping becomes an issue. Are the Gentile supposed to convert to Judaism and become Torah-observant? Or can the Gentiles stick to the Noahide code? Some have argued that this is the question being debated in Acts 15 and that the outcome of that debate seems to be that the Gentiles just need to keep the Noahide laws.

Here's the letter the Jerusalem Council sends to the Gentile churches (Acts 15.23-29):
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.

If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Some see the Noahide Laws at work in this letter. (Some scholars don't.)

First, while not every Noahide Law is given here, it seems to be a safe bet that the authors of the letter assumed that the unlisted Noahide Laws were understood as givens: Do not murder, do not steal, do not deny God, do not blaspheme. The seventh law listed above--the creation of laws--wouldn't have been applicable to individuals.

The rules that are given in the letter, it is argued, seem to flow out of the Noahide Laws and are listed here by the Jerusalem church because these laws might not have been known by a Gentile convert: abstaining from blood (which flowed out of Law 6 above) and sexual immorality (Law 4 above). The exhortation about not eating meat sacrificed to idols can also be understood as a clarification about what it meant to not deny God (Law 1 above) and to not blaspheme God (Law 2 above).

The point that's made here is that an understanding of the Jewish Noahide Laws helps the letter in Acts 15 seems less random in its moral recommendations.

That may be helpful, but the other pushback here is that Paul in his love ethic (see 1 Cor. 13) pushes his churches toward a moral vision far surpassing the Noahide Laws.

Perhaps the Jerusalem Counsel had ethical minimums in mind, but Paul certainly did not.

My Advice to Churches: Part 5, Go Bilingual

We lament the rise of tribalism among our churches, how an Us vs. Them dynamic fuels xenophobia, racism and nationalism. And yet, we do very little by way of spiritual formation to help our churches in this regard.

If we are what we love, and liturgies shape our loves, what sorts of liturgical practices might help combat xenophobia, racism and nationalism?

Here's my advice for the church: Go bilingual. 

There are 52.6 million Spanish speakers in the US. There are more Spanish speakers in the US than there are in Spain.

Here in Texas, 38% of our citizens speak Spanish. Contemplate that. Over a third of Texans speak Spanish.

Every church in Texas should become bilingual. Or at least give a nod to Spanish-speakers.

For example, how hard would it to be to have Spanish translations on all the PowerPoint slides for praise songs, scripture readings and announcements? Change nothing in your service, just add the Spanish on the PowerPoint slides. How hard is that?

A small change, but a quantum leap in spiritual formation in pushing against xenophobia, racism and nationalism.

To say nothing of being more hospitable to 52.6 million people.

My Advice to Churches: Part 4, Providing Employment

A third bit of advice to churches was to shift from benevolence toward employment. Not employment training, but employment. Giving people actual jobs.

My imagination for this was formed by Fr. Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart, his starting of Homeboy Industries. As the Homeboys like to say, nothing stops a bullet like a job.

In my context, I've been increasingly concerned about the plight of men and women who have been released from prison. It is extraordinarily difficult for people with felony convictions and significant jail time to secure jobs and a steady paycheck. This contributes to a high recidivism rate.

And parolees aren't the only ones in need of jobs. Many people walking the long road to recovery also struggle to find and keep jobs. Most homeless people are not chronically homeless. They have just had a bad patch and just need a job to get back on their feet.

There are plenty of benevolence and job training programs around, many run by churches, but what most people need is simply a job.

To ask businesses to step into this gap is too much to ask. Businesses have to make a profit. They can't risk giving jobs to high risk and potentially unreliable workers. Not in any significant quantity.

But a church with a variety of non-profit businesses could fill this gap.

I think churches should starts up businesses. A pizza shop. A coffee shop. A laundromat. A landscaping business. A cleaning business. Employees can work in these businesses for 6, 9 or 12 months. Max. The goal is to provide a steady paycheck, skills, and a record of consistent work performance. Just what a business needs to see to give you a shot. These church-run businesses would be a proving and training ground, a territory of rehabilitation, before entry into the for-profit job market.

So that's my advice, for churches to shift away from benevolence and job training to providing employment in church-run businesses.

Journal Week 1: A Very, Very White Christmas

I've struggled to figure out what to do with Fridays this year. I could just blog regularly on Fridays, and drop the year-long themed posts. But you have to produce a lot of material if you're blogging Monday through Friday every week. So it's nice to have something at the end of the week that is short and that you don't have to think a ton about to produce.

Lacking any brilliant or original idea, I'm just going to make Fridays a diary/journal entry. Sort of like what I did last year with "Prison Diary," but without that narrow scope. I'm going to use Fridays to share life, musings, reflections, and random stuff that is more personal and idiosyncratic. And I hope to continue to share updates from the prison.

So let's start.

I hope you're having a very blessed and merry Christmas. I say "having" rather than "had" because we all know it's still Christmas, right? There are Twelve Days of Christmas. That means real Christians still have their Christmas trees up. The Beck Christmas trees won't come down until after Epiphany. Liturgically, we're pretty hardcore about Christmas.

This year the Becks had a very, very white Christmas.

We always make the drive up to see my family in Erie, Pennsylvania. I start daily checking my weather app after Thanksgiving to track Erie weather, monitoring our chances of getting a white Christmas. Living in Texas I miss seeing snow.

Well, this year we got a white Christmas in the form of record snowfall. Thirty-four inches of snow fell on Christmas day. From Christmas Eve until the day we left, over 65 inches of snow had fallen. It was crazy!

And it came with a wonderful side benefit. The snow kept us inside. Instead of running around shopping or going to movies, the snow kept us in the house. Christmas this year was filled with slow, sleepy days simply being with family.

I read a biography of Thomas Aquinas and helped Dad shovel snow.

And on Christmas morning, with our two teenage boys sleeping in, I pulled out my guitar and Jana and I sang Christmas carols and gospel hymns for Mom and Dad.

My Advice to Churches: Part 3, Spiritual Formation and Direction

It is a truism that spiritual growth and maturation requires spiritual formation. You can't be formed into the image of Christ without training.

So this was my third bit of advice for churches, posed as a question: So how many spiritual directors does your church have on staff?

Let's say someone in your church wants to learn how to pray. Does you church employ people who can do this work?

Probably not. No church in my tradition, that I'm aware of, employs spiritual directors with whom congregants can set up appointments for spiritual direction.

A lot of churches have therapists on staff for mental illness and relationship dysfunction, but there are no spiritual directors on staff to help with spiritual formation. All our resources are devoted to putting out fires rather than moving people into the abundant life.

Given how grossly negligent we have been in regards to spiritual formation in our churches, is it any wonder why our people struggle and fail to look any different form the surrounding culture?

My Advice to Churches: Part 2, Baptism and a Covenantal Imagination

My faith tradition practices believer's baptism by immersion. So my second bit of advice for our churches was to focus on baptism.

This should make sense. We need to center and invest in the two sacraments of the Protestant tradition. Baptism and the Lord's Supper, these lay the foundation.

When I say we should invest in baptism I mean we need to use baptism to cultivate a covenantal imagination. We need to narrate this connection, over and over. People have to hear it every single week. You have been baptized into this covenantal community. Our baptism was a marriage vow, a promise to be faithful to God and to each other. Baptism is not about your personal salvation. God is saving the church, His covenantal family. Baptism joined you to this family. Church is the place where we are being saved.

Cultivating this covenantal imagination--that in our baptism we have made promises to God and to each other--is the most vital and counter-cultural work now facing the church. This covenantal imagination is the antithesis of the consumeristic, therapeutic and individualistic identity held by most Americans, Christians included. And baptism, as our marital vows to God and the church, is the sacramental tool to combat it. If we narrate it--that we have made promises--over and over and over again.

My Advice for Churches: Part 1, Center the Table

I recently addressed a gathering of preachers and pastors from my faith tradition. I was asked to share what I thought we should do in our churches. Not all of this will apply to other churches and traditions, but some of it will. Tweak and modify as needed.

The greatest liturgical resource in my faith tradition is the Table, the Lord's Supper. In my tradition the reason we gather on Sunday is to take the Lord's Supper, to celebrate the Eucharist. We gather not to hear a sermon. Not to hear a praise band. We gather because Christ has welcomed us to his Table.

Historically, the Lord's Supper has been at the center of our worship. But that's changing. The sermons and the praise bands are starting to marginalize the Eucharist.

So this was my first bit of advice: Center the the Table.

By center I mean build the entire service around the Eucharist. Make the Table the central and visible symbol of the worship space. The band and the preacher move around the Table. They are not the reason we have gathered, the Table is. We are God's gathered family around it.

Attend to the aesthetics. Instead of metal trays filled with plastic cups, have a single, large earthenware chalice. Next to the cup, have a large loaf of bread. Break the bread upon blessing it. Images shape the imagination. Create the images.

Narrate the Table as a liturgy of welcome and hospitality. We've been welcomed by Christ. Let us welcome each other. Practice open communion. "This is the Lord's Table. All are welcome."

Hearts and imaginations are formed when we move our bodies. So move bodies during the liturgy. Get everyone up and coming forward. Let the ritual say: This is the most important part of your week.

Focus on the words spoken upon receiving the bread. "The body of Christ, broken for you." And the words of the cup. "The blood of Christ, shed for you."

In sum, I find it totally shocking, and bordering on pastoral malpractice, that pastors will sing the praises of James Smith's work in You Are What You Love, and fail to attend to the most potent liturgical tool at our disposal, either by refusing to celebrate the Lord's Supper each week or refusing to center our worship around it.

If it's true that we are what we love, and that liturgies shape our love, helping us desire the the Kingdom, then there is no more potent tool at our disposal than the Eucharist.

Practice it weekly. Center it. Narrate it's welcome. Move us toward it.

Alyosha's Prayer

At the end of a hard day when Alyosha, the main protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, has had to deal with the insanity and brokenness of his family and the world, he goes to bed one night offering up a simple and beautiful prayer. A prayer of grace for a confused, anxious and broken world:

“Have mercy upon them all, O Lord. Save them, the unhappy and the tormented. Guide them onto the path that is right for each one of them, according to Your wisdom. You are love. You will bring joy and happiness to all.”

Prison Diary: This Boring Thing We Call Grace

For the last few years I've done different sorts of things on Fridays. This year, every Friday I wrote about what happened each week out at the prison during the Monday night Bible study I lead from 6:30 to 8:30 for about fifty inmates, whom we affectionately call "the Men in White."

I did "Prison Diary" this year because a lot of people wanted to hear more about my experiences out at the prison. So for this, our final entry, let me return to the reflection with which I started the year.

Prison ministry isn't all that exciting. Maybe you noticed that as the year went on, getting bored to the point of skipping these Friday installments.

I get that. But there is magic in the boredom. As I said at the start of the year, prison ministry is about fidelity, showing up week after week, month after month, year after year. There is nothing particularly sexy or heroic about just showing up. Heart-wrenching and amazing stories aren't happening every Monday night.

Trouble is, though, we get addicted to those heroic stories. And the Christian publishing and speaking industry keeps us addicted to these heroic stories.

But I'm not a hero. And the Men in White aren't heroes. And what we experience on a typical Monday night isn't going to show up in a story for a book or the speaking circuit.

We're just small, broken people looking for grace in a sad, lonely, and very mean world. And from time to time, we find it with each other. Mostly in the smiles and hugs we share when we are reunited again each week. Grace, I think, always feels like coming home.

That is the story I've tried to tell you each Friday. Nothing spectacular or heroic.

We simply show up, and make ourselves available to this boring thing we call grace.

The Guilt of Parents and Children

A lot of damage has been done in citing Proverbs 22.6 to parents:

"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

Parents whose kids don't turn out as hoped tend to blame themselves because of an uncritical use of Proverbs 22.6. There's something deterministic about the text, like dominoes falling and a clear chain of cause and effect. If we had trained up our child properly, we think, they would have turned out okay. So we must have done something wrong.

But the Bible is never so clear about such things. There are countervailing witnesses and testimonies. Against Proverbs 22.6, consider the witness of Ezekiel 18:20:
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
Your virtue is your own, says Ezekiel 18:20. Parents will not share in the guilt of their children. Nor will children share in the guilt of their parents.

All that to say, the Bible presents a complicated picture regarding the relationship between parenting and moral development. Yes, we do have the obligation to train up children in the way they should go. But at the end of the day, a righteous parent will not share in the guilt of an unrighteous child.

And from time to time, it's good to remind parents of that fact.

Salvation as Robbery: Christus Victor and Binding the Strong Man

One of the complaints about penal substitutionary atonement is how it makes the ministry of Jesus soteriologically irrelevant. Jesus was "born to die," so his life and ministry was just a prelude to the real action: dying on the cross for our sins. There is little connection in this view between Jesus' ministry and what he does on the cross.

But as I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, Christus Victor atonement sees the life and ministry of Jesus as an important and critical part of salvation. Again, in Christus Victor atonement Jesus sets us free from the power of the devil. And while this emancipation reaches its climax on the cross (Col. 2.15), freeing people from the power of the devil characterized the whole of Jesus' ministry. Jesus' confrontation with Satan is the narrative glue that holds the gospels together.

Here's how Jesus described what he was doing:
Matthew 12.22-29
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.

All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house."
Jesus describes his ministry as robbery.

For the legally minded, burglary is "breaking in" and stealing, but there is no victim involved. What Jesus describes is worse, it's not burglary but robbery, using force to steal from a person. Jesus breaks into the house of a "strong man," ties him up, and then robs him, carrying off his possessions. This is Christus Victor salvation.

People are held in bondage to Satan--human beings are "possessions" in the devil's house--and Jesus breaks in to tie him up and set his hostages free. This emancipation didn't wait for the cross but began at the very start of Jesus' ministry. As Peter concisely summarized in Acts 10:
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.

The Moralization of the Parables

Scholars of the gospels might shake their head about this, me missing a point that should have occurred to me sooner, but I've recently had a sort of breakthrough about how I read Jesus' parables.

I owe Gerhard Lohfink for this change, his book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was.

Because of years and years of Sunday School classes (as a child and adult) and decades of sermons, I've been trapped in and unable to shake a moralizing approach to the parables. Specifically, I would read a parable to find it's little moral lesson about how to live. Be like the good soil. Watch like the prepared virgins. Go to the banquet when you're invited. And so on.

I don't want to deny that any of these moral exhortations aren't in the parables, that the parables never offer guidance for virtue and holiness. I simply want to note that if you exclusively use this moralizing approach you'll find some of Jesus' parables disturbing and ill-fitting. Some of Jesus' parables end rather harshly. And some of the characters in Jesus' parables aren't very moral or nice. Some parables have no obvious moral lesson at all.

Consequently, lots and lots of Jesus' parables get ignored.

Plus, the Gospels often suggest that the parables were used to keep some people in the dark.

So how are we to read the parables?

As simple and as obvious as this is, the framework I'm now using is that Jesus' parables are just metaphors for the kingdom. Seems simple, but seeing a parable as a metaphor lifts it out of the moralizing frame. The metaphor might be shocking or strange, immoral or amoral, but it doesn't really matter. I'm not trying to squeeze virtue or moral advice out the parable. Jesus is trying to bring some aspect of the kingdom to my attention. And like any good story-teller, Jesus likes to violate our expectations, even our moral expectations, to bring a point home.

And the gain here is clear. Once you adopt this approach you stop avoiding the weird or uncomfortable parables and come to embrace them all. And when you do this, a bright clarity begins to illuminate the whole and Jesus' worldview begins to open up before you.  

For Unto Us a Child Is Born

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
upon them the light has dawned.

You have increased their joy and given them great gladness;
they rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest.
For you have shattered the yoke that burdened them;
the collar that lay heavy on their shoulders.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government will be upon his shoulders.
And his name will be called:

Wonderful Counselor;
the Mighty God;
the Everlasting Father;
the Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness.
From this time forth and for evermore;
the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

--Isaiah 9.2,3b,4a,6,7

Fourth Sunday of Advent


The smell of dung
and the hot close air,
heavy of animal heat
and sweaty straw.
The baby is slick with fluid and blood,
the father fumbling to cut the chord with a knife.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
will suckle naked at his mother's breast.
Her hand caressing his cheek.
And in the smallness of this night,
all that has been tangled,
will slowly begin
to be unwound.
And the fever of the world
will begin to break.

Prison Diary: It's Not a House

Say a prayer for the incarcerated this Christmas season.

I like to use this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen.
Something Joe said to me one Monday night haunts me. They call the various cellblocks on the unit "houses." We have guys in our study from "houses" 3, 4, 18, and 19.

So I asked Joe one night, "What house are you in?"

"It's not a house," Joe replied. "I never call it a house. It's a cell."

I'll be praying for those without houses this Christmas season.

Prayer of St. Raphael

I'm a low-church Protestant so I don't typically pray to angels. Especially not to St. Raphael, whose only mention is in the Apocrypha, a part of the Bible I didn't grow up with.

That said, I came across a prayer to St. Raphael which I found to be poetic and beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful guardian angel prayer I've come across.

Raphael is the angelic guide of Tobias in the Apocryphal book Tobit, found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles. Thus the petition for "happy meetings." In church tradition Raphael is also the angel associated with stirring the pool of Bethesda in John 5. Along with Michael and Gabriel, Raphael is also an archangel.

The prayer:
O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us. Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand towards those we are looking for. May all our movements, all their movements, be guided by your Light and transfigured by your Joy.

Angel Guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling to you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the Province of Joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.

Remember the weak, you who are strong--you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene, and bright with the resplendent glory of God. Amen.

Stranger God and Johnny Cash's "The Christmas Guest"

Regular readers know I'm a Johnny Cash fan. In fact, my next book with Fortress is tentatively titled The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.

But my most recently published book is Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise.

So here's a Christmas, Stranger God, Johnny Cash connection.

The big story of Stranger God is how God comes to us when we show hospitality to strangers. Jesus comes to us incognito and in disguise.

Jesus coming to us in disguise is a huge Christmas theme. Christmas tales and legends abound about Jesus coming to people in the guise of beggars and the needy during the Christmas season. A person shares a meal or a warm place to stay only to find that the person they welcomed was Jesus in disguise.

In 1980 Johnny Cash penned his own version of this story, a poem entitled "The Christmas Guest":
It happened one day at December's end,
Some neighbors called on an old time friend.
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with a thousand bows of green
And old Conrad was sitting with face a-shine
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine
And he said "My friends, at dawn today,
When the cock was crowing the night away
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said 'I'm coming your guest to be.'
So I've been busy with feet astir
Strewing my shop with branches of fir.
The table is spread and the kettle is shined.
And over the rafters the holly is twined.
Now I'll await for my Lord to appear
And listen closely so I will hear
His steps as He nears my humble place.
And I'll open the door and look on His face."

Then his friends went home and left Conrad alone
For this was the happiest day he had known,
For long since, his family had passed away
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.
But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest
This Christmas would be the dearest and best.

So he listened with only joy in his heart
And with every sound he would rise with a start
And look for the Lord to be at his door.
Like the vision that he had had a few hours before.

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound
But all he could see on the snow covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn.
But old Conrad was touched and he went to the door
And he said, "You know, your feet must be cold and sore.
I have some shoes in my shop for you
And a coat that will keep you warmer too."
So with grateful heart the man went away
But Conrad noticed the time of day
And wondered what made the dear Lord so late
And how much longer he'd have to wait.

Then he heard a knock, he ran to the door
But it was only a stranger once more.
A bent old lady with a shawl of black
And a bundle of kindling piled on her back.
She asked for only a place to rest
A place that was reserved for Conrad's Great Guest.
But her voice seemed to plead "Don't send me away,
Let me rest for awhile, it's Christmas Day."
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup
And told her to sit at the table and sup.
But after she left he was filled with dismay
For he saw that the hours were slipping away
And the Lord had not come as he said he would.
Then Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.
When out of the stillness he heard a cry
"Please help me and tell me where am I?"
So again he opened his friendly door
And stood disappointed as twice before.
It was only a child who'd wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.
Again Conrad's heart was heavy and sad
But he knew he could make the little girl glad.
So he called her in and he wiped her tears
And quieted all her childish fears.
Then he led her back to her home once more
But as he entered his own darkened door
He knew the Lord was not coming today.
For the hours of Christmas had all passed away.

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray
And he said "Dear Lord, why did you delay?
What kept you from coming to call on me?
I wanted so much your face to see."
Then softly in the silence a voice he heard.
"Lift up your head, I have kept my word.
Three times my shadow crossed your floor
And three times I came to your lowly door.
I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet
I was the woman you gave something to eat.
I was the child on the homeless street.
Three times I knocked, three times I came in.
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.
Of all the gifts, love is the best.
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest."
You can hear Cash recite the poem here.

Defending Rudolph

There has been some Internet chatter this holiday season arguing that the Christmas TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is "problematic."

You hear this criticism of Rudolph a lot, and I think it's high time to put this criticism to rest.

The knock against Rudolph generally goes like this. Santa and all the others only accept Rudolph because he is useful to them, because his red nose can help cut through the fog. This, it is argued, undermines the message of tolerance that the story is trying to convey. Difference should be accepted no matter what, not just when it is useful to us.

Now, if that was the message in Rudolph I'd agree that the critics have a good point.

But that is not the message of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Perhaps the most popular blog post I've ever written is Everything I Learned About Christmas I Learned from TV, where I take a tour through three Christmas classics: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. So I know this material really well.

So here's the truth about Rudolph.

Santa, Rudolph's family, and the entire Christmastown community reconcile and come to accept Rudolph before Santa's realization that Rudolph's nose could help cut through the fog.

Santa doesn't accept Rudolph because he finds a use for him. Santa's discovery happens after the acceptance, as a happy accident of their reconciliation.

All that to say, the critics are simply wrong about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I know, because Everything I Learned About Christmas I Learned from TV.

Mary & Eve

As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.

Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed him who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, and trampled on his head, in accordance with God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall lie in wait for your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel...

The one lying in wait for the serpent’s head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the woman...

 --St. Irenaeus

Third Sunday of Advent


The sway of the camel's back
ebbs and flows like water
against the steady light-pricked sky.
And the grit of the sand
is in the spittle and hair.
Seers, starcharts, and prophecy
scrapped from scrolls and faded parchments.
These guide us
over the ripples of dunes.
We seek the hinge, the crack,
the abyss,
the apocalypse where this world ends
and a new one is being born.
Deep beneath blankets
we carry gifts.

Prison Diary: Christmas Sacks

Every year a few of the churches in town work together to put together and deliver "Christmas sacks" for every inmate in the French-Robertson facility.

The sacks contain things like food, socks and toiletries. Often the sacks are decorated by children. On a night a few weeks before Christmas, about 30 or so volunteers will go out to the unit to deliver the sacks. There's over 2,000 inmates, so there are a lot of sacks.

Escorted by guards and a group inmates who have been picked to help us, we cart the sacks from cell block to cell block. Each cell houses two inmates. You go cell to cell with sacks in hand. The guard opens the cell and you hand out the sacks with a hearty "Merry Christmas!" It's a very unique opportunity to play Santa's elf.

Brenden, my oldest son, got to come again with me this year. It's a great way for him to meet the guys in the Monday night Bible study.

Over the years, I've gotten less interested in handing out the sacks than visiting the guys in the study. There are plenty of volunteers to hand out the sacks. So when we get to a cell block I mainly look for my guys. From their cell they'll see me walk in and call out. I'll make the rounds, cell to cell, chatting through the bars while we wait for the door to open. It's the one chance I have to see where they live, and meet their cellmate who has been told all about me: "You're Dr. Beck!"

The visit makes them feel very special. That is unheard of, to have a friend visit your cell. The Christmas sacks make it happen.

And it warms a father's heart that Brenden gets to come along. A new Christmas tradition at the Beck house.

Acting Like Jesus While Living Like Everyone Else

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

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

--Dallas Willard, from The Spirit of the Disciplines