Two Brothers and Texas Rangers

As I've written about before, I like to visit cemeteries. I love the spirituality of cemeteries where I'm reminded of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 7.2
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.
The other day I was riding my bike to work from Downtown Abilene rather than from my house. This route led me by a different part of the Abilene Municipal Cemetery. I pass this cemetery everyday on the way to work but the cemetery is bisected by North 10th street. Daily I pedal by the part of the cemetery that is north of 10th. But this day I was pedaling by the part of the cemetery which is south of 10th.

The part of the Abilene Municipal Cemetery which is south of North 10th is, I believe, the oldest cemetery in Abilene. The town was settled in 1881 and that's the date of the oldest burial in the cemetery. Many of the city founders are buried here.

I turned my bike into the cemetery and was looking around. And as I looked I came across a unique arrangement. Two matching obelisks with two matching crosses with a small iron fence in front. It's pictured above.

I got off the bike and approached. Looking at the crosses this is what I saw:

Buried here were two Texas Rangers.

I examined the obelisk on the left and read this:

In fond remembrance of our darling brother
Aged 28 years
Jan. 8, 1884

On the side of Walter's obelisk were the words of this short poem:
Dear Walter, sweet brother
How we miss thee now
save God can tell.
Walter was, I believe, a younger brother who was buried and mourned by his older brother.

A brother who was also a Texas Ranger.

Why do I think that? Well, when I turned to look at the obelisk on the right I read this inscription:

In loving memory of my precious husband 
Aged 32 years 
Mar. 14, 1884 

Walter Collins and Joel Collins. Two brothers. Two Texas Rangers. Buried side by side. In January of 1884 it looks like Joel buried his younger brother Walter. And then, three months later, another tragedy struck the Collins family with the death of Joel. Joel left behind a family. A wife and children.

On the side of Joel's obelisk I read this poem:
Husband dear take thy rest,
The summer flowers will bloom.
While you my dearest and my best,
Doth wither in the tomb.
Fast my tears are falling,
O'er thy memory sweet,
While I catch the echo,
Of thy passing feet.
But thro' summer starlight,
And thro' wintry rain,
Never oh, my babies,
Will he come again.

Hell On Earth: The Church as the Baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit

In the New Testament the metaphor of fire is often associated with judgment and "coming wrath."

In this regard John the Baptist says that Jesus will bring this fiery, hellish judgment to earth:
Luke 3.7-17
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
According to John Jesus will come to baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." And this fire is associated with hell/judgment imagery:
"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"

"The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 

"His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Later in the gospel of Luke the disciples tip their hand about how they see this judgment happening, this "baptism of fire." But Jesus seems to disagree:
Luke 9.51-55
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 
The text suggests that Jesus has something different in mind for his "baptism by fire." And perhaps something different from what John the Baptist had in mind.

So how does Jesus see this fire from heaven? Later in Luke Jesus describes it:
Luke 12.49-53
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Here again we see fire and baptism discussed. Jesus says that he has "come to bring fire on the earth." And this fire is disruptive. The fire creates social tension and conflict. There is a division taking place, the winnowing prophesied by John

But let's pay close attention to a few different things.

Notice that Jesus connects baptism to the fire coming to earth. An despite his earlier baptism in the Jordan this is a baptism that Jesus has yet to undergo. I take Jesus to be referring to his crucifixion.

Also note that the fire Jesus is bringing is kindled "on earth." This isn't an otherworldly hell, but a fire that is experienced--as a disruption--in intimate social relations.

And that's the last thing to note. The vision of judgment prophesied by John the Baptist--where Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand--is shifted by Jesus away from the notion of throwing bad people into the pit of hell (the vision the disciples seem to be working with in Luke 9, a notion that Jesus rebukes) and toward people being divided up and sorted--wheat winnowed from chaff--in their social relations.

Summarizing, Jesus's crucifixion brings a fire of judgment to earth--a baptism that winnows, separates and sorts--causing social tension and conflict.

But the puzzle remains. After his death when do we see Jesus "baptize by fire and the Holy Spirit" as prophesied by John? When do we see Jesus's fire kindled on earth, a fire that winnows and disrupts social relations?

We see it happen at Pentecost:
Acts 2.1-4
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
On Pentecost we finally see the baptism prophesied by John, Jesus's baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the fire of judgment falls from heaven and is kindled on earth.

But what is strange here is that the fire doesn't fall on the bad people.

John's hellish "unquenchable fire" of judgment falls upon the church

The church becomes hell on earth.

And we see in this the winnowing that John and Jesus predicted, how the fire begins to interrupt and disrupt social relations. After hearing Peter's sermon on Pentecost the people cry out "What shall we do?"

And in response Peter offers them hell. Step into the fire now kindled upon the earth. Step into the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. Throw yourself into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the church and save yourselves.
Acts 2.38-41
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The people are saved from the "corrupt generation" when they throw themselves into the flames, into the church, into the Pentecostal baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. There is a winnowing here, a sorting, an invitation to step away from a corrupt social order and into the Kingdom of God where social relations are characterized by the cruciform life of Jesus Christ:
Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. 
"Those who were being saved." This is what salvation looks like. This is the winnowing. This is the fire of heaven now kindled on earth. This is the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit.

Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Step into into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the fire Jesus kindled upon on earth.

The coming wrath prophesied by John has come, the flames of heaven are upon us.

Search Term Friday: Cycling Morning

Recently, the search terms "cycling morning" brought someone to the blog.

Those search terms linked to some autobiographical reflections of mine from 2011 about the psychological, communal and spiritual benefits I've experienced being a bike commuter:

Ten years ago Aidan was born. Brenden was three at the time. We only had one car and we lived four miles from ACU.

I was struggling about what to do about getting to work. On the one hand, if I took the car to work Jana would be homebound for the day with a baby and toddler. Not a good recipe for her emotional and social well-being. But on the other hand, if Jana took me to work to keep the car she, the baby and the toddler would have to get up, load into the car and get me to school before my eight o'clock classes. And that was a losing idea as well. Sleep is precious for a new mother. I wanted Jana to sleep in.

So how to get to work?

Well, there was a bus stop at the end of my street so I began to experiment with that. It was okay but I had to make a transfer and the timing wasn't reliable. To make sure I made the transfer and guarantee that I'd make it to class on time I had to get out on the corner an hour earlier. But I'm not a morning person so I didn't relish standing on the corner every day at 5:30 in the morning.

So, how to get to work?

Eventually, I hit on the idea of bike commuting. My mom was visiting at the time (I've discovered that new babies are a draw for grandparents) and she was perennially worried about my lack of exercise. So she spotted the opportunity to buy me a nice mountain bike.

I started with a backpack on my back to carry my stuff but quickly had to come up with a different solution. I didn't like the weight on my back, particularly if I was carrying a lot of books. Plus, the backpack made my back hot and sweaty. Remember, I live in Texas.

So I went back to the bike shop and got a rack and a pannier. That worked great and I've been using a rack and pannier ever since.

I was a bike commuter.

Soon, the speed bug hit me. This happens a lot to new bikers. You start surfing websites, getting a subscription to Bicycling magazine, waiting all year for the Tour de France. You start wanting to go fast.

But I wasn't ready to get a road bike. I was, after all, carrying a lot of stuff back and forth. So I traded my Specialized mountain bike for a Trek hybrid. (A hybrid has the setup of a mountain bike but has the wheels of a road bike.) Obsessed with speed, I switched the treaded 35mm wheels of the hybrid for thinner 25mm slick wheels for a road bike. I added a speedometer and odometer. I added clips for the pedals. I got the bike as close as I could to a road bike but kept the rack and pannier to carry my stuff. I maximized my speed.

The trouble was that while I was going faster I started having clothing problems. I wasn't into spandex or anything, but on my bike I couldn't comfortably ride to work in long pants, dress shoes or a suit coat. So I biked to work in shorts during warm months and windsuits in cold months. Either way, I was coming to school in very casual attire. For the most part I got away with this, but it was an object of discussion on campus. My teaching in shorts and a t-shirt was a bit scandalous to some.

I tried, from time to time, particularly if I had an important meeting that day, to bring a change of clothing. On these days, beyond the books and papers I carried, I had to pack dress shoes, socks, slacks, belt, undershirt, and dress shirt. This was a real hassle, but I didn't have to do it everyday.

But then I became Chair of the Psychology Department. And in that role I had something "formal" happening just about everyday. Meeting with faculty. Meeting with Administration. Visiting with prospective students and their families.

All this meant that I had to pack a nice change of clothing every single day. It was getting to be a pain.

But as luck would have it my infatuation with speed was waning around this same time. I was wanting to go slower. To look up from the road to enjoy the morning air, the sky, and the sunrise.

So I switched bikes again. I got an Electra Amsterdam. It's a European-style city bike perfect for what I was needing. For example, it has a fully enclosed bike chain so I can wear long pants. It has also got a coat tail protector for the back wheel, fenders, and even a mud flap for the front tire. And it has a rack. And a light. And a bell. Ring, ring!

Basically, you could be wearing a suit and tie and ride this bike to work. (The Amsterdam is seen here to the right and it's the bike with me in the picture above.)

It was perfect. Now I just jump on my bike in the morning wearing whatever I'm going to wear for the day. Most of the time it's jeans and a shirt (as pictured above; that's how I look at work 98% of the time). Sometimes (though rarely) it's dress pants, a tie, and jacket. And no matter what I'm wearing I'm comfortable on the Amsterdam.

The key, obviously, is giving up speed. I go slow. But it's not just about about the clothing. Going slow is also about smelling the roses.

Apparently, I'm a part of a growing trend. Check out Slow Bike Movement: Not all cyclists in a hurry, a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Among the growing population of bicyclists are those who eschew speed and spandex in favor of sitting upright and slowly making their way through town in whatever they happen to be wearing that day. It's a trend that some are calling the Slow Bike Movement.

"When I think about the Slow Bike Movement, I think of bikes that allow people to sit upright, see your surroundings, be more visible to your environment that you're riding," says Public Bikes' Dan Nguyen-Tan.
And the article echos my own experience about clothing:
[A benefit of slow riding] carries over to when you're getting dressed in the morning. Slow riding means not arriving at work sweaty or worrying about wearing specific bike-riding shoes or any of the other wardrobe-related concerns that plague would-be commuters.
But the article also highlights the greatest benefit of slow riding, something I tried to capture awhile back in a poem:
Being a Slow Bike Rider...means getting to know more about the rest of your community.

"I actually like interacting with the people in my city," Logan says. "And when you're riding slowly, that tends to happen more often."

Both Logan and Colleen Stockmann, who works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, say it's easier to strike up a conversation with people on the street while biking. When you're not rushing past, head down, people tend to talk to you - ask for directions, comment on your bike or otherwise carry on a conversation. Sometimes that means talking to curious tourists, and sometimes it means striking up a conversation with another slow rider in the bike lane.

Sure, it's easier to talk to someone who isn't whizzing past, but the laid-back pace also encourages you to look around, Stockmann says. When you're riding casually, "you notice more," she says.

Abilene Roller Girls

This summer I wrote about Jana and I going to our first roller derby match and how much we liked it. We went to that match in Pennsylvania while we were visiting my family. The roller derby revival has been centered in Austin, TX so upon getting back to Texas Jana and I checked around to see where we might catch some roller derby action in our home state.

And we discovered, to our surprise, that our very own city, Abilene, TX, has a roller derby! The Abilene Sugarbombs.

I recently got to check out the Sugarbombs when they had a match with the Cowboy Capital Rollergirls. Saw one of my females students at the match. And I really enjoyed sitting by a Hispanic family, two parents watching their daughter compete along with her little boy.

It was pretty neat watching Mom skate over to her son at halftime. You could see in the face of that little boy how cool he thought his Mom was. Again, as I mentioned in my initial post, beyond my love of all things '50s and '60s, my theological interest in roller derby is in its cultural expression of feminism.

The Sugarbomb match being the second roller derby bout I've attended I enjoyed, this time, having more of a clue. Thinking about that, I thought I'd share a few observations for those of you who have never been to a roller derby match but would like some insight about what to watch for the first time you go. You'd like to be prepared from the very first whistle.

Let's start with those whistles. That's the first thing that throws you off. There is a lot of whistle blowing in a roller derby, and a lot of it is good whistling. Which is weird as most of the time when you here a whistle in a sporting event it's a bad thing. But not always so in roller derby.

To be clear, there are fouls in roller derby and those fouls are whistled. But unlike, say, in football or basketball a whistled foul doesn't stop the action. When a foul is whistled on a roller derby player the player has to exit the track and sit in a penalty box. But the action keeps going. Fouls can be whistled all over the place but nothing stops because of those whistles.

So you have to get used to that. All sorts of whistles blowing and nothing stopping.

And like I said, not all the whistles are bad. For example, when a jammer is the first to break through the pack an official will blow the whistle and point at her. The first time I saw this I thought a foul had been called. In any other sport when a whistle blows and the official points at you a foul has just been called on you. But not in this case. When you're pointed and whistled at as a jammer upon breaking through the pack this isn't a bad thing. It's a very good thing. You've just been declared the lead jammer.

Which brings us to roller derby strategy and tactics.

To enjoy a sport it helps to know a bit about strategy and tactics. Otherwise you can't appreciate what you're watching. So, a bit about strategy and tactics before you go to your first bout.

A half of roller derby consists of many "jams." Each jam can last no more that two minutes. But more often than not jams are much shorter, called off by the lead jammer. And that ability, to call off a jam, is at the heart of roller derby strategy.

Each team in roller derby has a designated jammer. They will have star on their helmets. At the start of a jam the two jammers have to fight through the pack. Your team in the pack is trying to block the other team's jammer, preventing her from getting through or passing you.

The first jammer to fight through the pack is whistled and pointed at, declaring her as the lead jammer. That lead jammer now has the power to call off the jam (prior to the maximum time of two minutes) at any point. The lead jammer does this by moving her hands up and down, toward and away from her hips. This hip-chopping movement is sort of like making a T sign with your hands to call a timeout in football or basketball.

That ability, calling off the jam at any point, sits at the heart of roller derby strategy.

Here's how it works. Once the jammers fight through the pack they score points for their team by racing around the track, re-approaching the pack and trying to fight back through it again. Everyone the jammer passes on the opposite team gets the jammer's team a point. Basically, the jammer is trying to "lap" everyone on the other team as much as possible. So, for example, given that each team has four blockers if the jammer gets through the pack a second time that would get the team four points. But if the jammer only passes one blocker from the opposing team before the jam is called off that would get the team only one point. And if you pass no one you get zero points on that jam.

With that in mind here's the power and strategy of the lead jammer.

A jammer fights her way quickly through the blockers and is declared the lead jammer. If things go well, this lead jammer will have a good head start on the other jammer who might be, perhaps, caught up in the pack and still trying to fight through. Having broken free the lead jammer races around to fight back through the pack, this time passing opposing blockers to score points. Meanwhile, the other jammer gets through and sets off in pursuit.

This is where strategy, tactics and decision-making come into play.

If the lead jammer has a big enough lead she can reach the pack before the other jammer and begin passing people, begin scoring points. The lead jammer might, in fact, have such a big lead that she can get through the pack (scoring four points) before the other jammer has even broken through for the first time. That's the ideal situation, a "shut out" situation. The lead jammer breaks free, with a big head start, races around, fights through the pack and then, before the following jammer even gets to the pack, calls off the jam. In that instance, the lead jammer's team gets four points (for lapping the other team) while the following jammer's team gets zero points because the lead jammer called off the jam (by making that hip-chopping motion) before the other jammer had a chance to pass anyone in the pack to score.

That's the power of the lead jammer, the ability to score first and then call off the jam to limit or prevent the other team from scoring.

Of course, things don't always go so well. You need a good sized head start to do what I described above. Often, the two jammers break into the open very close together. In that instance the lead jammer won't be able to get back to the pack before the other jammer. Because of this you'll often see the jam called off, ending just a few seconds after it started. Without a strategic advantage--a good head start on the other jammer--the lead jammer calls off the jam to see if a head start can be created in the next jam.

The situations are endless here. Lead jammers have to make decisions about when to call off the jam to give themselves the chance to score points while keeping an eye on the following jammer to limit her opportunities. And given all the chaos involved that can be hard to do. That lead jammer might come around to the pack with a good head start to slam into a wall of blockers. And before the lead jammer knows it the following jammer has caught up and flown through the pack, passing people and scoring points. And as you might expect, it can be quite hard to notice when this is happening and to gather yourself to make the hip-chopping motion to call off the jam when you've just been body-blocked to the ground.

So this is a bit of a guide for your first roller derby match. First, there will be lots of whistles. Don't get distracted by those. Second, watch for the lead jammer to emerge in each jam (she'll get whistled at--a good whistle!--and pointed at) and then watch when she decides to call of the jam in relation to the following jammer. The lead jammer's general strategy will be to score points--lap the pack--and then call off the jam to limit or prevent the other jammer from scoring points. That often means that jams can start and end quickly. So when you see that don't get confused, that the jam started and then stopped suddenly. It just means that the lead jammer saw no advantage (no head start) on the other jammer and quickly called the jam off. The jam will reset and the action will start back up. Over and over until the half ends.

Enjoy your first roller derby!

Abilene Sugarbomb Bout at the Abilene Civic Center

Barbara, Stanley and Andrea: Thoughts on Love, Training and Social Psychology at ACU's Summit

ACU's Summit conference continues today. On Monday we had Barbara Brown Taylor on campus. Yesterday, Stanley Hauerwas was with us.

And important to me, and the thrust of this post, on Monday my former graduate student Andrea was also visiting. Andrea and I got to go together to Barbara Brown Taylor's sessions and afterward I reflected a bit about how Stanley Hauerwas, due up, would have responded to her presentations. I also sketched out with Andrea how I fuse and use these two very different Christian thinkers--Barbara and Stanley--in my own faith journey.

And the bridge between these two--Barbara and Stanley--is Andrea.

Well, not Andrea exactly, but what Andrea will represent in this conversation: social psychology.

Specifically, during our time together on campus Andrea was catching me up on her doctorate research. Right now Andrea is planning to look at attributions of hypersexuality to out-group members. Throughout history, stigmatized out-group members have been viewed as excessively sexual. For example, historically Whites have viewed Black males as hypersexualized and, thus, have been fearful of Black men sexually preying upon White women.

In another example, the gay population has often been stigmatized as hypersexualized. I recall a conversation I had many years ago with a colleague who was a sociologist. He asked me point blank, "You're a psychologist, so maybe you can tell me. Isn't gay sex just about the sex?" You can see the assumption behind his question: gays are non-relational and hypersexualized, interested in "just the sex."

(Incidentally, if you want to know how I answered my colleague's question, I cocked my head and said, "Well, I actually think most heterosexual sex is just about the sex.")

Why are out-group members often stigmatized as hypersexualized? Andrea has been looking into the dehumanization literature. One hypothesis is that out-group members are often dehumanized, viewed as less-than-human, subhuman, and therefore more bestial, atavistic and animalistic. If we go on to associate unrestrained or undisciplined sex with animals then, in the process of dehumanization, we'll be prone to attribute hypersexuality to out-group members.

I bring up Andrea's research on out-group stigmatization and dehumanization to illustrate the links I see between Barbara Brown Taylor and Stanley Hauerwas.

As theologians, Barbara and Stanley are very, very different. Consequently, they created a sort of theological whiplash by presenting on back to back days.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a wonderful spokesperson for progressive and liberal Christianity. In her sermon on Monday she gave us a beautiful and breath-taking vision of religious pluralism, how God blesses us through religious strangers. As Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest of "the God Most High," blesses Abraham, God comes to us in the words and actions of Muslims, Buddhists and atheists.

And in her afternoon session Barbara spoke approvingly of the longings of those who are "spiritual but not religious," stating that those who have rejected organized religion are prophets, seekers who have left the deadness of organized religion to find a "more authentic experience of God."

Basically, what we heard from Barbara Brown Taylor is what you'd expect to hear from progressive and liberal Christians: a pluralistic and inclusive vision of the love of God.

And I loved it. Barbara Brown Taylor described, with her soaring poetry, a vision of Christianity that took my breath away.

So that was Barbara.

Then came Stanley.

Goodness, Stanley's vision couldn't have been more different than Barbara's. Where Barbara described a pluralistic vision--people of all sort of faiths and unfaiths welcoming and loving each other--Stanley embraced the adjectives "exclusivist" and "sectarian."

Why? Because becoming a Christian, according to Stanley, takes discipline and training in a counter-cultural lifestyle. Where Barbara embraced the "spiritual but not religious" crowd Stanley was dismissive, considering that impulse to be both "sentimental" and a capitulation to the very worst impulses of American consumerism and liberalism. I like how Stanley framed the issue in a morning session. He said, "It's interesting to note, when you ask Christian parents about how they are raising their children, how they will state that they are raising their kids with the goal that when they get older they can 'make up their own minds' about if they want to be a Christian."

"But it never occurs to these Christian parents," Stanley continued, "to raise their children so that when they grow up they can make up their minds about if they want to be an American. Because that--being an American--is never questioned. It's a given."

Basically, if we're going to resist Empire in its late-modern liberal and capitalistic manifestations then, well, we're going to need a Christianity with a bit more backbone.

And just like I did with Barbara, I cheered Stanley. I agree with him.

But how could that be? How can I agree with both Barbara and Stanley given the enormous theological differences between them?

Enter Andrea and social psychology.

When it comes to the big vision stuff, I go with Barbara Brown Taylor. I embrace the big-hearted, inclusive vision of Christian love, welcome and hospitality. I believe that God is love and that the one who loves, in the words of 1 John, knows God. Love is how you know God. Full stop. That's what I believe and that makes me sort of liberal.

And yet, I agree wholeheartedly with Stanley Hauerwas that this liberal vision is prone to sentimentality, superficiality and self-absorption. For many liberals Christianity reduces to tolerance. And tolerance is a far, far cry from the sacrificial, kenotic self-donation that marks the Way of Jesus.

That sort of love involves training, discipline and sacrifice.

And why is that?

Because of Andrea's research.

The trouble with Barbara Brown Taylor's vision is that the beauty of her poetic preaching and writing can hide the ugly truths of social psychology, how, as Andrea's research highlights, we are chronically dehumanizing others. Liberals and conservatives alike. In face of all the social suspicion, hostility, ostracization and violence in the world--from ISIS to the streets of Ferguson--"spiritual but not religious" isn't going to cut it. The cruciform love of Jesus is extraordinarily difficult. It involves discipline, training and communal accountability.

Consider this as well. In her talk about her most recent book Learning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of the riches from the Christian contemplative tradition, from St. John of the Cross to Teresa of Ávila. And I expect most of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd in the audience ate up this contemplative, mystical material.

But here's the deal. The fruits of the Christian contemplative tradition come from the monastics. Let me repeat that: the monastics. These were people whose knees bled because of how long they knelt in prayer.

You know what we'd call that?

Discipline. Training.

The Christian contemplative tradition is a severe, monastic tradition. Too many progressive and liberal Christians read someone like St. John of the Cross or Thomas Merton as if he were Joel Olsteen. An undemanding and consumeristic contemplation that is inspirational, affirming and motivational. Go you! This is a contemplation for spiritual but not religious people too busy to kneel in prayer, let alone long enough to cause those knees to callous or bleed.

But you know what? While I agree with Stanley's call for a training in Christianity he didn't make my soul sing. He didn't give me a vision of Jesus. Stanley gave me a sense of what it would take to be like Jesus, the effort involved given the social psychological dynamics at work in my heart, but he didn't give me a vision of Jesus. Barbara gave me that.

And that's the source of my critique of Stanley Hauerwas: How the preeminent theologian of the Christian virtue tradition so rarely talks about love.

All told, then, this is how I made sense of the first two days of Summit. Barbara gave me that big-hearted loving vision of Jesus. And Stanley reminded me that this vision is prone to superficiality and sentimentality. Which is extraordinarily dangerous given the social psychological dynamics at work in how we instinctively dehumanize each other.

Love is no easy thing in light of the psychological obstacles at work in every human heart. Every human heart. Love takes discipline, training and community.

Basically, Barbara (liberalism) needs Stanley (training) because of Andrea (social psychology).

The Things That Make For Peace

What was the mission of Jesus?

As many scholars have pointed out, Jesus seemed acutely aware that his people were on a lethal collision course with Rome. If Israel did not repent, if Israel did not listen, she was going to revisit the catastrophe when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. It was all going to happen again, Jesus prophesied. History was repeating itself.

Only this time it would be Rome dropping the hammer.

Jesus saw it coming. And he tried to stop it. But he had failed. And it brought him to tears.

Luke 19.41-44
And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus's lament over Jerusalem helps us unpack how Jesus saw his mission, what he meant when he proclaimed "the kingdom of God."

Specifically, why did Jesus weep over Jerusalem? It was because Jerusalem had failed to learn "the things that make for peace." And because Jerusalem had failed to respond to Jesus's kingdom proclamation, failed to learn the things that make for peace, that the kingdom of God was "in their midst" if they had the eyes to see it, Jerusalem had set herself on a path of destruction.

What I find important in these observations is how Jesus's teachings regarding salvation and judgment are rooted in the concrete and historical conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. Jesus's kingdom proclamation wasn't about a heaven in the clouds. The kingdom was about learning "the things that make for peace" in this world. Learning that the kingdom of God is, right now, "in our midst." The kingdom is here, but it's the treasure hidden in the field. It's the seed being sown.

Will that seed--the kingdom proclamation--find good soil in our hearts? Will we learn the things that make for peace?

Moreover, let's note that the judgment Jesus spoke of--that place of weeping and the gnashing of teeth--wasn't hell. This was the judgment that Jesus wept over: violent death in this world. The "coming judgment" was a personal and communal annihilation because a people had failed to learn "the things that make for peace."

And it seems to me that Jesus's message--his proclamation of the kingdom and judgment--is extraordinarily relevant to this day. Perhaps even more so.

With Jesus we continue to weep over a world that refuses to learn "the things that make for peace." Interpersonally, socially, economically, politically, ecologically.

We continue to proclaim Jesus's message, that the kingdom of God is in our midst, so that the world might be saved from self-destruction.

Gerald's Gift

When I pulled up to Kristi's assisted living facility Gerald was standing on the curb holding the invitation. It was an invitation to our monthly meal and worship service at Freedom Fellowship.

Gerald had wanted to go and had, he thought, made arrangements for the van to come pick him up. But the van had not yet come and Gerald was getting worried and agitated that the van wasn't coming. It was a bit late for the van and in talking with Gerald I couldn't tell, either because of his cognitive disabilities or his tendency to mumble, how confident he was that he'd actually made arrangements with the van. Maybe he'd failed to make those arrangements and the van wasn't coming. (Later I learned that the van was just running late.)

But no matter. I was there to pick up Kristi for the meal and praise service. Gerald could come with us. We went in to inform the nursing staff that Gerald would be coming with me for the night. Gerald then helped me push Kristi to the car and get her wheelchair loaded into the trunk. And then we were off.

Being in an unfamiliar place Gerald wanted me close. So I sat with him during the meal. He wanted to talk about his plans for his birthday party, three months away, and asked if I would come. I said I would. "I'm going to have pizza and fried chicken," Gerald grandly stated.

Afterwards Gerald wanted to sit with Kristi and I for the praise service. We sat on the back row where Kristi likes to sit, further back from the speakers.

During the service Gerald was alternately engaged and discomfited by everything we were doing. He wanted to participate but seemed, at times, scared and unsure of himself. During a time of prayer he asked me to pray for him. I laid hands on him and prayed over him. And then I asked if Gerald would pray for me. He followed my example and laid hands on me and mumbled words of a prayer. I couldn't make out what he was saying. But when he finished he looked up at me with moist eyes, on the edge of tears. Whatever he had said he'd meant it and had been moved by it.

But during communion Gerald seemed scared and hesitant. He didn't want to go down front and take it. Toward the end of the communion time Mary and Deb brought the bread and juice back to us, Kristi being in a wheelchair. Kristi and I took communion but Gerald still seemed unsure of himself and refused.

And then the prayer for the offering came. And Gerald's agitation grew. He knew what was coming--the passing of collection baskets--and he knew he wanted to give but didn't have any money. Gerald leaned over to tell me this with some concern. I reminded Gerald that he didn't have to give any money. As Calvin mentioned in his words and prayer before the offering, even if our pockets our empty we can give of ourselves to God. Don't worry about not putting in any money.

But that exhortation didn't seem to pacify Gerald. So I asked if I could share some of my money with him. No, that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to have something of his own to give.

The baskets passed in front of Gerald and I. He seemed sad and distraught about what to do. The attendants moved past our row.

And then I saw Gerald clam. A peace seemed to fall over him.

He'd decided on something.

As the baskets passed behind us he turned and solemnly took off his baseball hat.

And then he placed his hat in the collection basket.

The baskets were taken up. The collection was finished. Gerald turned to me, beaming.

"I gave my hat," he said with a huge smile.

I beamed back, with tears in my eyes. "I saw, Gerald, I saw."

He leaned over for a hug.

We hugged. And rejoiced in his gift.

Search Term Friday: Which Version of the Lord's Prayer?

Recently someone came to this blog after searching the question "Which version of the Lord's Prayer?"

I don't know exactly what that question was looking for, but I've always been bothered by how some people say "debts" while others say "trespasses" when publicly reciting the Lord's Prayer.

So in 2012 I set out to find the origins of this difference, which is why search terms like those above bring people to the blog:

Like I said, have you ever noticed when praying the Lord's Prayer aloud everybody does good until you get to the line "forgive us our..."? Have you noticed how at that point in the prayer cacophony breaks out as some people say "debts" and others say "trespasses"?

I got curious about this difference so I went in search of the translations that render this differently, to try to track down the origins of the problem.

I started with the NIV:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors...
Okay, so the NIV has "debts." So I went on to look at other translations. And guess what? There is almost universal agreement among the major translations, all having "debts" like the NIV:
our debts...our debtors.
To be sure, some more modern, dynamic and contemporary translations have "sins" or "wrongs." But none of these, along with the more established translations, have "trespasses."

So that left me scratching my head. Where in the world did "trespasses" come from?

Given that I use the Book of Common Prayer I knew it had "trespasses." So my hunch was that "forgive us our trespasses" came from the BCP rather than from the bible translations. I'm using the 1979 BCP. But just to make sure I went back to the 1549 edition, the very first BCP. And sure enough, "forgive us our trespasses" is there:
Book of Common Prayer (1549):
OURE father, whiche arte in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kyngdom come. Thy wyll be done in earth as it is in heaven. Geve us this daye oure dayly bread. And forgeve us oure trespasses, as we forgeve them that trespasse agaynst us. And leade us not into temptacion. But deliver us from evell. Amen. 
But that raises another question. Where did the 1549 BCP come up with this translation? Recall, the Authorized (King James) Version didn't appear until 1611.

After some sleuthing I learned that the 1549 edition of the BCP used the Tyndale Bible (1526). And checking the Tyndale Bible I think we find the origin of "forgive us our trespasses":
Tyndale Bible (1526):
And forgeve vs oure treaspases eve as we forgeve oure trespacers.
In short, from the KJV onward the translation of Matthew 6.12 had gone with "debts." But the 1526 Tyndale Bible had it as "trespasses." This translation was used in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and has been preserved in the BCP to the present day.

It's a Tyndale Bible/Book of Common Prayer vs. King James Version thing.

And thus the cacophony in our churches.

The Impurity of Love

My book Unclean is a meditation on the tensions between purity and love, mercy and sacrifice, holiness and hospitality, exclusion and embrace.

The paradox that we all wrestle with is how love has to get "dirty" to be love, how Jesus's vision of holiness involves embracing tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes.

And yet, there's this impulse in some sectors of Christianity to keep our love "pure." We see this impulse at work in the mantra "hate the sin but love the sinner." The idea here is that we can, with surgical precision, make a cut between our affections toward human persons and how we feel about their behaviors. But as I argue in Unclean, such surgical precision is psychologically untenable. And we know this. It is incredibility hard to not let a person's behaviors affect how we feel about him or her.

So when we come to embrace human beings our strong feelings about their behavior do get marginalized. And to those looking on that embrace looks like we are getting "soft on sin." And here's the provocative claim of Unclean: That's true. When you embrace sinners there is a sense in which you are pushing their sin to the background. That is, when you love sinners there is a sense where you are looking at the person first. Sin has been removed as the perceptual filter, as the central focal point. And that perceptual shift, moving the human being into the foreground and the sin to the background, has a psychological feel, an emotional tone that could be labeled "going soft on sin." Sin has been perceptually de-centered--so that the human person can stand in front of you--and has become less emotionally charged. A perceptual and emotional rearrangement has occurred.

My point in all this is that it's really hard to keep love pure. When you love sinners--and I mean really love them, as in affectionately and not just verbally and theologically--a sort of contamination is involved. Things get a bit blurry and messy in your heart. That's why we say things like "love has to get dirty."

I was recently reminded of all this reading a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Ethics:

Just as God's love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in an infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of "pure" love purged of worldly "impurities" is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God's becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world.

My Love Of What I Own May Be Killing Somebody Somewhere

Therefore, if I don't pretend, like other people, to understand the war, I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant. I am scared, sometimes, to own anything, even a name, let alone coin, or share in the oil, the munitions, the airplane factories. I am scared to take a proprietary interest in anything, for fear that my love of what I own may be killing somebody somewhere.

--Thomas Merton, from a diary entry during WWII reflecting upon the connections between possessions and complicity in violence worldwide

Wiping the Blood Away

I was taking Kristi to the grocery store as I do from time to time.

For new readers, Kristi is blind and in a wheelchair and she suffers from some cognitive disabilities. Kristi is a friend from church who I visit at her assisted living facility, often talking her shopping when she needs something.

Usually, shopping with Kristi is fun and relaxing.

But this time things got stressful.

I'd just helped Kristi get out of the car and seated in her wheelchair. Kristi grabbed the car door and tried to shut it but pinched her finger in the door. She showed her finger to me and I saw her finger was bleeding pretty good.

I didn't have any tissues on me or in the car, so I pushed Kristi inside the grocery store to the bathroom. There I wet some paper towels to clean up the wound and stop the bleeding. By the time I got back to Kristi the blood was pretty significant, running in a rivulet down her hand and onto her pants.

I started to clean up the cut. I was relieved to find that it wasn't all that bad. A small cut, but it was a bleeder. I cleaned up the blood that had run and then took a dry paper towel and wrapped it around Kristi's finger. I took Kristi's other hand and had her wrap it around the paper towel, putting pressure on the cut to stop the bleeding. Given that the cut was small I figured Kristi could hold the paper towel on her finger while we quickly picked up the things she needed and then get the cut properly bandaged by the nurses back at her home.

But for some reason Kristi wouldn't keep pressure on her finger. I couldn't tell if this was because she was blind and couldn't see the blood or if it was a cognitive disability thing. Regardless, Kristi kept letting go of the cut, causing it to bleed again. I was pushing her through the store and she was getting blood all over her hands and clothes. I wasn't overly worried about the blood, as it wasn't much, but it was noticeable, but I worried how the bleeding finger would affect the other shoppers in the store. People don't like the sight of blood.

But I couldn't get Kristi to keep the wound covered and pressured. And so the blood flowed.

Finally we got checked out and I took Kristi back to the bathroom to clean her up again. Smeared blood was on both hands. I got some more wet paper towels and began to gently wipe each hand clean, one at a time.

As I was doing this I was struck by how intimate it all was. Wiping the blood of another human being. Holding and cleaning her hands.

I'm sure it's a feeling nurses know very, very well. But I had not done anything like this since I had done it for my children when they had been hurt and bleeding.

I felt honored to be that close, close enough as a friend to be a nurse. Close enough to hold her hands and wipe them clean.

And I wished, in that moment, that church could be more like this.

A place where we could love each other enough.

Enough to hold hands.

Enough to wipe the blood away when we are hurt.

Coming to England June 2015 and a Speaking Invitation

For all my readers in the UK I wanted to let you know that, finally, I'll be coming to England!

Plus, I'd like to extend an invitation to your church, university or organization if you'd like to host an event involving me during the month we'll be in the UK, June 2015.

My trip is being built around the weekend of June 12-14 where I'll be with the City Gate Church in Brighton, England. But City Gate is looking for partners to help with the cost of bringing Jana and I over. We plan to spend the month of June in the UK.

So if you are a part of a church, group or organization that would like to book me for any sort of speaking engagement please contact Hannah Bywaters ( who is coordinating things for City Gate. While any dates during the month of June outside of the 12-14th are open, I expect the weekends of June would be good times for engagements with churches (e.g., guest sermons on Sundays). Those weekends in June are: June 5-7, June 19-20, and June 26-27.

As far as speaking engagements go I've done weekend church retreats, academic lectures, guest sermons, and coffee house discussions.

It seems that the most common thing that I'm asked to do for churches is talk about the psychological dynamics of hospitality and welcome, equipping churches to open up their hearts to others. These discussions are built around my book Unclean. I've done equipping sessions on this topic for Andy Stanley's church in Atlanta (the second largest church in the US), have spoken about hospitality at multiple universities, have done whole weekend retreats with churches on this subject (I have one coming up in two weeks in East Texas), and have given guest sermons at churches on a "hospitality Sunday."

Of course, I also have two other books and have spoken a lot about them as well. I've given lectures, delivered sermons and taught classes about doubt and the experiences of Summer and Winter Christians working from my book The Authenticity of Faith. (Incidentally, Walter Brueggemann used a lot of material from The Authenticity of Faith in his recent book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. You might want to check that out.)

I've also spoken about the dynamics of anxiety and love from the material in The Slavery of Death last year at Fuller Theological Seminary's Integration Lectures and soon at the upcoming Streaming conference at Rochester College (where I'm co-headlining with Greg Boyd).

Finally, this year at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures I'm doing a class entitled "Angelic Troublemakers: Spiritual Warfare for Progressives and Doubters." This is material from my Weakness and Warfare series (see the sidebar) articulating a vision of "spiritual warfare" for progressive and liberal Christians. I'm trying out this material to see if it might be the next book I write.

I can speak about all of that, to say nothing about all the other things I've written about on this blog.

All that to say, there are lots of things I can talk about if I were to speak or spend time with your church or organization. So if you'd like to explore having me in June of 2015 please email Hannah to explore this. At this point these are just inquires, but final choices will be made depending which invitations firm up and confirm most quickly and those that can provide at least some honorarium to help City Gate defray some of the cost of bringing Jana and I over.

I hope to see all my UK readers this June!

Search Term Friday: Type 1 and Type 2 Errors and Deciding Who Is Going to Hell

I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that I don't teach theology. Nor do I teach any classes in our College of Biblical Studies.

I am an experimental psychologist. Which means that I mainly teach undergraduate and graduate statistics classes. And from time to time on this blog I've used statistics to illustrate various theological issues or ideas.

One such attempt was using what is called Type 1 and Type 2 errors to illustrate how we make decisions about who is or is not going to heaven or hell. Every week search terms about "type 1 and type 2 errors" link people to that playful but serious post:

As I said, a large part of my day job is teaching statistics. Still, I often let theological issues emerge in my statistical lectures. Worlds collide was it were. For example, consider how Type 1 and Type 2 errors can help us think about who is going to heaven or hell.

What are Type 1 and Type 2 errors? When researchers look at trends in data sets they have to make a decision about if the trend they are looking at is real or illusory. By "real" I mean that the trend is due to some underlying causal mechanism. However, trends can emerge in data by mere chance. Think of the constellations in the sky. We see patterns up there--the figures of the Zodiac--but the patterns are the product of random forces.

In short, given our knack for seeing order in randomness researchers need tools to determine if a given trend is real or illusory. In the social sciences this tool is called Null Hypothesis testing. The Null Hypothesis is the assumption that the trend you are seeing, despite appearances, is illusory. It is "due to chance." Generally, an Alternative Hypothesis is pitted against the Null Hypothesis. The Alternative Hypothesis is the assumption that the trend is real, due to some systematic relationship between the two variables.

In Null Hypothesis Testing you assess the viability of the Null (by using probabilities) to see if the Null or the Alternative Hypothesis is the best explanation for what you are seeing. Starting with the Null the researcher faces one of two choices: "Reject" or "Fail to Reject" the Null. If you reject the Null you think the Alternative hypothesis is the best explanation for the data: You think the trend you are seeing is real. If you Fail to Reject the Null you stick with the Null and conclude that the trend you are seeing is illusory, likely due to chance.

Now what is interesting about all this is that the whole process is error-prone. You could reject the Null (think the trend is real) when, in fact, the trend was illusory. Or, you could think the trend is illusory (fail to reject the null) when, in fact, the trend is real.

In short, there are two kinds of mistakes you can make. The first is called a Type 1 error when you reject the Null (consider the trend to be real) when the Null is true (the trend is actually illusory). The second is a Type 2 error when you fail to reject the Null (consider the trend illusory) when the Null is false (the trend is actually real).

Personally, I find this language confusing. An easier way to think of it is to note that Type 1 errors are "false positives": You make a positive claim but are wrong (i.e., you claim the trend is real but it is not). A Type 1 error is like crying wolf. You reject the Null and cry "Eureka!" But you are wrong. You didn't make the discovery you thought you made. Conversely, Type 2 error is a "false negative." Instead of crying wolf a Type 2 error is a Trojan Horse kind of mistake. You didn't raise the alarm, but you should have. You missed the threat (or that trend in the data set).

To illustrate all this I draw the following table on the board a couple of times a year:
Again, that table isn't very easy to understand so I use the following illustration to help my students get the logic of Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Imagine, I say, a guy who has just started dating a girl. He remembers that on their first date she mentioned that her birthday was coming up this week. But the guy can't remember the exact day. It might be today. Or maybe not. Embarrassed to admit to her that he didn't remember he decides to make a guess. He has two choices. When he sees her today he can say "Happy Birthday!" Or he can say nothing, hoping that today isn't her birthday. The reality behind the situation is pretty simple: Either today is her birthday or it isn't.

The four possible outcomes--guesses plotted against reality--are given below:
Saying "Happy Birthday!" when it is not her birthday is like a Type 1 error. It is a false positive: I'm saying it is your birthday when, in fact, it isn't.

Conversely, staying quiet when today is her birthday is like a Type 2 error. It is a false negative: Today is my birthday and you said nothing to me, you missed it.

Now at this point you are probably wondering, what does any of this have to do with theology? Well, the interesting thing in all this is that Type 1 and Type 2 errors are pretty much everywhere. And they often occur when you have to make decisions about people.

Think about hiring practices or college admissions. On the front end you have to make a choice: Will they thrive or fail? After the selection (the hire or admission) the reality unfolds. They either do a good job or they don't. They either graduate or they don't. In short, whenever we make decisions about people we often make Type 1 and Type 2 errors. We hire people who flake out on us. Or admit people who can't make the grade. These are Type 1 errors, "false positives." But we also pass on people who would have made great hires. Or we deny admission to students who would have graduated. These are Type 2 errors, the "false negatives."

And here is where the theological application emerges. Christians often divide the world into two groups, the saints and the sinners. The saved and the lost. The elect and the unregenerate. The church and the world. Think of this as a kind of "admissions decision." Are you "accepted" into the "church" or not?

And these are not trivial considerations. How does the church define where its borders will be? Where does the right hand of fellowship begin and end? How inclusive or exclusive should we be? Who needs to be evangelized?

Who is going to heaven and who is going to hell?

Importantly, Type 1 and Type 2 errors will be involved in this process. For example, there might be people we fellowship who, in the eyes of God, stand under judgment. These would be Type 1 errors. These are the errors conservatives think liberals are making. Liberals are extending the label "Christian" to people who are actually damned. In the eyes of conservatives liberals falsely extend grace to people who stand under God's judgment.

By contrast, liberals condemn conservatives for making Type 2 errors, damning and excluding people God loves.

What makes these disagreements tense is that this side of heaven no one knows who is right or who is wrong. Which is frustrating for all parties.

But I think something more can be said about the matter.

Specifically, although we don't know in a given case if we are making a Type 1 or Type 2 error we can choose the kinds of errors we will generally make. And this raises a very interesting question: Knowing we are going to make errors, what kind of errors should we make?

What should be our theology of error?

Let me explain what this looks like.

As I said above, Christians, while looking at individuals and groups, make judgments regarding the status of other people. Are these other people "Christians" or not? Likely, these judgments are a mix of doctrinal and moral observations. What do these people believe and what do they do with their lives? Plot these judgments on a horizontal axis, from sinners to saints.

While we are making these judgments God is making God's own judgments. Plot God's judgments on a vertical axis, also going from sinners to saints.

With both axes plotted we have something like the following, with the red dots representing people or communities:
A couple of observations about this diagram. What I'm trying to show here is that, while there is some agreement between God and the judging person, there is also some discrepancy between human and divine judgments. That is, when humans see someone as virtuous or wicked God, for the most part, agrees. However, the association isn't perfect. We might see someone a very virtuous while God knows him to be hypocrite. Or, we might label someone a "sinner" where God sees this person as a saint. That is, generally vice is vice and virtue is virtue, in heaven and on earth. But there are locations of disagreement. Our perceptions of morality don't always align with God's perspective.

Now, in light of these judgments Christians have to make a choice, grouping people into the categories of Saved or Lost. In statistical language, the point at which this judgment is made is called the selection ratio:
You can think of the selection ratio as a kind of "cut off" score where a decision is made. Like a minimum SAT or ACT score for a college admission. Scores above the cut off are "selected," admitted to the college. Scores below the selection ratio are denied admission.

But the selection ratio isn't the only thing in play. In heaven God has God's own opinion about who is Lost or Saved. And God's decision is going to define the ultimate outcome. In statistical language God's decision is called the base rate. God's base rate is represented below:
With these ideas in hand we can now see how the church can make Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Specifically, using some sort of selection ratio the church carves up the world into the Saved and the Lost. The former are called "the church" and the latter are objects of judgment and evangelism. But behind all this is God's base rate, God's own judgment about who will be saved and who will not be saved. And given that human and divine opinions are not in 100% agreement (due to our human limitations) we have the possibility for error. That is, we might see someone as Lost who, in the end, God will Save. Or, we can see someone as Saved who, in the the end, God will damn. These errors can be seen when we plot the selection ratio and the base rate together:
These errors are just like the Type 1 and Type 2 errors encountered above:
Okay, we are nearing the theological payoff of these observations. Here's the important point: By adjusting the selection ratio we can affect the kinds of errors we will make. We have two choices here.

One thing we can do is adjust the selection ratio upward, moving it rightward. This is what we call "raising standards." As the selection ratio moves toward the right fewer and fewer people are selected because the standards are going up. Think again of college admissions. If we raise the SAT/ACT scores we move the selection ratio to the right. This reduces our overall admissions as we become more "selective."

The advantages and disadvantages of increasing the selection ratio are obvious. On the downside we are reducing quantity. But on the upside we are improving quality. And by improving quality we are reducing a kind of error. Specifically, we are reducing our Type 1 error rate. We are making fewer "false positives." By increasing quality standards we aren't admitting people who can't make the cut.

However, and this is the key insight, in decreasing our Type 1 errors we have increased our Type 2 errors. By becoming more selective we've reduced our false positives but have increased our false negatives. That is, we are turning away more and more students from the school when many of these students would have been successful if we had admitted them.

This is, I would argue, a model for how conservative churches are handling the judgments of Saved and Lost. Conservative churches have increased the selection ratio, they raise holiness and/or doctrinal standards. And they do this to be "conservative," to reduce false positives. They want to be sure to fellowship only the true Christians. They don't want to waste fellowship on the Lost. This strategy is shown below:
By increasing their standards of fellowship the conservative church has become more selective, judgmental and discriminating.

The trouble, as we see in the figure above, is that when you move the selection ratio rightward you are, indeed, decreasing false positives. However, while you are reducing false positives you are increasing your number of false negative (Type 2) errors. That is, by raising standards you are disfellowshiping people whom God loves. You think a lot of people on earth are going to hell when, in fact, they are going to be with you in heaven. In short, heaven is going to be a lot more crowded than your selection ratio led you to believe.

So what happens when you lower standards, becoming more inclusive as we see in many liberal churches? This is what happens when you move the selection ratio leftward:
As you can see, when you move the selection ratio to the left, fellowshiping more and more people, you systematically reduce your false negative errors. By casting such a broad net of fellowship you "catch" all the Saved. But your inclusiveness also catches a lot of the Lost. That is, in reducing your false negatives you've increased your false positives. Just the opposite situation we saw in the conservative church.

And here--finally!--we can get to the issue regarding our "theology of error." That is, although we can never know when and where we are making errors (i.e., we don't know God's base rate) we can, generally speaking, choose the kinds of errors we will make. Specifically, we can increase or decrease our selection ratio. We can become more exclusive or inclusive. More sectarian or more ecumenical.

So which direction should we go?

Well, one way to make that decision is to think theologically about the kinds of errors related to those decisions. If we become more exclusive we make Type 2--false negative--errors. That is, we begin disfellowshiping other Christians. We've become stingy with God's grace. Conversely, if we become more inclusive we make more Type 1--false positive--errors. We begin extending fellowship to sinners. We've become too profligate with God's grace.

My point here is that I think these patterns of errors can be evaluated on theological grounds. We can ask questions like, should we be a Type 1 error (inclusive) or Type 2 error (exclusive) church? We have some control over this.

Basically, given human fallibility and sin errors are inevitable. But you can pick your errors. So which error does God want us to make?

In my personal opinion, if errors are inevitable I think God wants me to lean toward making Type 1 errors. If errors are inevitable I should err on the side of grace. True, my "liberalism"--my tilt toward Type 1 error--in this regard will cause me to extend grace where, according to conservatives, I shouldn't.

I am not immune to that criticism, in being "liberal" I know I'm risking a higher Type 1 error rate. But I prefer this to the alternative of running a high Type 2 error rate, being judgmental of people among whom God is at work. And I make that choice for a host of theological reasons.

But of course, others might see this all differently. Regardless, I think this analysis highlights an important issue:

You are going to make errors about God's grace. You can't control that. So in light of that fact, what kinds of errors are you going to make?

Because you do have some control over that.

Christians Should Give More Offense

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.

 --Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's Unconditional Love

About two years ago there was a discussion we had out at the prison bible study that has haunted me. I keep thinking about it.

Steve was the one who made the comment that has stayed with me.

Theologically, the men in the prison study tend toward legalism and orient around a works-based righteousness. Which is strange as you'd think that men in a prison would want to talk a lot about grace and forgiveness.

They do want to talk about grace, but they are also preoccupied with the theme from the epistle of James: Faith without works is dead.

The reason for this focus is because the men see a lot of hypocrisy around them. To survive in prison you have to be a chameleon, learning how to show different faces to different people. Accordingly, when the men come to our bible study they have their "Christian face" on. During the study the men are devout and pious, their discussions in the class full of biblical allusions and church-speak.

But we all know that the minute the study is over a change happens. They re-enter the prison world and the face they wear changes accordingly.

But not everyone's. There are a few in the class who work hard to remain overtly and consistently Christian throughout their day. For these men, the face-changing, code-shifting hypocrisy they witness in relation to the bible study drives them crazy. They see members of the study devoutly pontificate about their commitment to Jesus only to see these same men do something wicked thirty minutes later.

Consequently, our discussions in the class often come back to a works-based righteousness: You can say you love Jesus all you want, but you have to do this stuff. You have to walk the walk. You have to put this stuff into practice. Faith without works is dead. By your works you will be judged. And God is watching how you behave out on the unit.

In short, because many of the men are preoccupied with speaking into this hypocrisy their theological orientation tends toward a judgmental and works-based orientation. Consequently, if you speak too much about grace someone will push back with the worry that we're letting the hypocrites in the room--the men who pretend they are Christians for two hours but who are mainly there for the air-conditioning--too easily off the hook.

This is the backdrop for the conversation we had about God's unconditional love about two years ago. This is the conversation that haunts me because of a comment Steve made.

We were talking about God's love and someone said that God loves us unconditionally. That observation, as you know, is a banal platitude in Christian circles. But I doubt many Christians have seriously pondered the radical implications of that claim, that God loves us unconditionally. Because I don't think people actually believe it. Yes, people might say that God loves us unconditionally, but they don't, if you press them, actually believe it.

And true to form, some of the men in the study started pushing back upon this notion. Again, the idea that God loves us unconditionally might let the hypocrites in the room off the hook. God loves us, these men reminded us, but you have to do stuff. You have to be committed. You have to be holy. You have to put in the work.

And then Steve raised his hand.

"No," Steve said, "if God loves you unconditionally then he loves you unconditionally. If you add any condition to it, any at all, then it's not unconditional."

This observation was met with fierce outcrys of objection. All the men in the study who harp on works starting throwing proof texts at Steve. But Steve was adamant and fended them off with the simple logic of it all. Unconditional means unconditional. As in no conditions whatsoever. Add a condition, even if justified by those proof texts, and you can't say, logically, that God loves us unconditionally. It's not rocket science. It's simple logic.

Anyway, all this launched us for about an hour into the classic debates about faith vs. works and justification vs. sanctification. And, as you might have guessed, we made very little progress in getting all this sorted out.

And all through the discussion Steve kept coming back to his core contention. Unconditional means unconditional.

And as the discussion wore on Steve's comment began to work on me. Unconditional means unconditional. So simple. But so radical and destabilizing.

And then in dawned on me.

Christians don't believe in the unconditional love of God.

They really don't. The love of God as described in most Christian churches is entirely, explicitly and unapologetically conditional. This is a data point so clear and obvious that we don't even recognize it, even though it sits right in front of our noses. The love of God, as preached by most Christians, is a conditional love. God loves you...if.

If you are elect. If you have faith. If you repent. If you are holy. God loves you if.


And yet, if you ask Christians "Does God love us unconditionally?" I expect you'd get almost universal agreement that God does. And yet, as we've noted, few Christian actually believe this. Most Christians believe God's love is entirely conditional. God loves you if you are elect, if you have faith, if you are holy.


During the discussion, and since, my mind kept coming back to Steve's point, the point he made calmly, over and over. "If you add a condition to it then it's not unconditional anymore. I think God loves us unconditionally. No matter what we do."

And in that class, listening to Steve, I began to glimpse the true magnitude of the scandal of grace. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross saying, "Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing."

Forgive them. All of them.

No repentance. No election. No faith. Forgive them. Unconditionally.

Listening to Steve that night I think, for the first time, I began to glimpse the true shape of Christianity. I began to see the outlines and contours of a faith rooted in the conviction that God loves us. Unconditionally.

Sitting in the prison that night I felt I had crossed over some threshold.

I saw something that night so huge and bright and beautiful I knew I'd never be the same. I knew I would never be going back.

For a moment, I think I saw the world the way Jesus saw the world from the cross.

I think I finally saw what it might mean to be a Christian. 

This Morning Jesus Put On Dark Sunglasses

Last week one of our sisters at Freedom Fellowship gave her testimony to the church. It was story about years of domestic violence. The story was harrowing and heroic, chilling and inspiring.

I won't share here any details. The story is too intimate and personal for social media. I'm simply writing this to say how important such testimonies are for the church. These are difficult experiences to share and absorb but the silence has to be broken if women are to feel empowered to speak about and escape abusive and violent situations. And the hearts of men must also be sensitized and converted by these testimonies.

The church must repent for not centering, empowering and embracing the testimonies of our survivor sisters.

After being emotionally and spiritually shaken by this dear sister's testimony I am absolutely convicted that churches must, annually and regularly, turn their pulpits over to women who are survivors of domestic violence so that they may share their stories with the church.

The Crucified One is found among those who have been bruised, in body and soul.

This morning Jesus put on dark sunglasses.

Abolish the Death Penalty

Regular readers may have noticed a change on my blog header. I'm a member of and I've added a link to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

A reason why I'm a member of the TCADP seeking to abolish the death penalty in my state was illustrated last week. From Dahlia Lithwick's article in Slate:

The convictions of two mentally disabled half-brothers were vacated and the two men were ordered released by Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser in North Carolina on Tuesday. They were freed from prison Wednesday. Henry Lee McCollum, 50, had been on death row for 30 years, longer than anyone in North Carolina history. He and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, were convicted for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. DNA evidence implicated another man, a known sex offender the police had not investigated, despite the fact that he lived next to the crime scene. McCollum and Brown were 19 and 15 at the time local police were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie. Both confessed to the crime after lengthy police interrogations. They recanted shortly after—in fact McCollum has recanted 226 times—but were convicted, largely on the basis of the false confessions, even though no physical evidence connected them to the crime scene. Police also hid exculpatory evidence for years.

A cigarette found at the crime scene now implicates a man who lived a block away from the soybean field where the girl’s body was found. He is currently serving a life sentence for a rape and murder that happened less than a month after Buie’s rape and murder.

The two teenagers signed confessions after hours of coercive police interrogation, under the erroneous belief that they’d be allowed to go home afterward. Both have since always maintained their innocence, filing various appeals over the intervening decades. It wasn’t until 2010, when the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission came into the case, that the evidence was re-examined seriously. In July, the DNA on the cigarette butt found at the crime scene was revealed to match the DNA of the known sex offender. This led to Tuesday’s extraordinary release order.