Journal Week 29: Nursing and Love

If you've read Unclean you know that I'd think nursing a person through illness is, perhaps, the quintessential expression of love. Parents understand this, given how much of their time is spent nursing sick children. But we've all had to, at some point, nurse another person.

The focus on Unclean is how nursing brings us into radical contact with another person's body when that body isn't at it's most lovely and attractive, to put it nicely. Things about bodies that we'd typically lean away from, in a neutral setting, are ignored or not even noticed in order to move close to take care of the person we are nursing.

But nursing isn't just about overcoming body-related sensory triggers. Nursing is the quintessential expression of love in that it makes you radically available to the other person. By definition, nursing can't be selfish. Your focus is wholly upon the needs of the person you are caring for. It's this radical availability and other-orientedness that makes nursing such an example of self-giving, sacrificial love.

So, what's the reason for why I'm writing about nursing?

I get to be a nurse for the next few weeks!

Jana had some surgery this week (nothing life-threatening) that requires me to be a pretty attentive and devoted nurse for the next two weeks. Since the surgery was planned, I knew this season was coming, and I've been looking forward to embracing it. Beyond Jana's health and happiness, my biggest focus has been on meeting the challenge of being a good nurse.

So please say a prayer for both of us.

Getting Stuck On Loving God

I want to connect two points, one I make in Reviving Old Scratch and one I make in Stranger God.

These observations are about the relationship between the two Greatest Commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor.

In Reviving Old Scratch I raise the issue about if the Greatest Commandments are referring to two separate loves--a love toward God and a second love toward our neighbor--or a single, united love. I make the argument for a "one love" interpretation, that loving our neighbors is how we are to love God. This interpretation, I argue, prevents conflict between the Greatest Commandments, situations where our love of God is used against our love of neighbors.

In Stranger God I make the point that most of our spiritual formation efforts are aimed at better loving God. Few spiritual disciplines are directly aimed at better loving our neighbor. Prayer, Sabbath, fasting, Bible study, and silence, for example, are all aimed at loving God rather than loving our neighbor.

Now here's the common objection you hear about what I just said. When we come to love God more and more, it is argued, this will naturally flow over into loving our neighbors more and more.

Theoretically, I agree with that. But far too often in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, I see Christians getting stuck on loving God without that translating into loving their neighbors.

All that to say, I just don't buy the notion that spiritual disciplines aimed at loving God have this automatic, trickle-down effect into loving neighbors.

I think the norm is people getting stuck on loving God and never getting around to loving their neighbors.

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 2, How Jesus is Lord in a World Come of Age

I don't want to suggest that I'm offering anything new in this post as a way to think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity." It's mainly a way to think about and discriminate between rival interpretations and misinterpretations of religionless Christianity, about what it is and what it is not.

Again, if you're not very familiar with all the issues here, let me suggest you read my series "Letters from Cell 92."  There you can read the relevant passages from Bonhoeffer's letters and learn about the phrases "religionless Christianity," "the world come of age," "the arcane discipline," etsi deus non daretur (living "as if there were no god"), and "non-religious interpretation."

So, assuming some familiarity with the presenting issues, let me get right to the point.

There has been a tradition of interpretation regarding religionless Christianity that has used Bonhoeffer as a resource for doubt and deconstruction. For example, religionless Christianity was an inspiration for the death of god theologies that proliferated in the 50s and 60s. In this stream of interpretation, religionless Christianity is about belief and metaphysics. In this view, religionless Christianity is a Christianity that eschews metaphysics, a Christianity that discards or marginalizes creedal orthodoxy and privileges doubt, agnosticism, and even atheism. This is a "Christianity" that focuses less on belief than upon praxis.

This take on Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity is still popular. For example, this is how Peter Rollins uses Bonhoeffer for this project of pyrotheology.

The criticism of this line of interpretation, as a reading of Letters and Papers from Prison makes clear, is that Bonhoeffer didn't give up on Christian metaphysics, the creeds, and the gathered assembly of worship and prayer.

To be sure, Bonhoeffer was radically thinking through the relationship between the church and the secular world ("the world come of age"). More on that in a bit. But what seems clear, from Bonhoeffer's own faith, is that religionless Christianity and living in the world etsi deus non daretur isn't about doubt, agnosticism, and atheism, even if presented in Christian guise.

But if it's not that, then what is religionless Christianity all about?

Here's my take, stated concisely: Religionless Christianity isn't about belief, religionless Christianity is about lordship.

Specifically, it's a mistake to think that Bonhoeffer was using religionless Christianity to deconstruct Christian belief regarding the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord in a secular world come of age.

This observation should be obvious when we read the very first letter from prison where Bonhoeffer begins his inquiry into these issues. The question that motivated religionless Christianity was Christology, specifically how Jesus is Lord of a secular, non-confessing, non-religious world. Here's that very first letter, where Bonhoeffer sets out his questions, the relevant passage are highlighted and underlined:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethage:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by "religious."

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the "religious a priori" of mankind. "Christianity" has always been a form--perhaps the true form--of "religion." But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any "religious" reaction?)--what does that mean for "Christianity"? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our "Christianity," and that there remain only a few "last survivors of the age of chivalry," or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is a religionless Christianity?

...The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about God? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? 
Bonhoeffer is obviously wrestling with faith in a post-Christian context, a secular "world come of age." Many quibble with Bonhoeffer on that point, about if his diagnosis of a "world come of age" was accurate or justified. Regardless, we can see the issue Bonhoeffer was struggling with: How is Jesus "the Lord of the world" when most of the world aren't confessing Christians? Bonhoeffer states the issue quite clearly:
How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?
Again, to restate my point, the issue about religionless Christianity isn't belief, but lordship. How is Jesus "the Lord of the world," even "the Lord of the religionless"?

In short, religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the faithless, non-believing, non-confessing, religionless, secular world.

Now, the historical, traditional route to establishing Christ's lordship over the world was through power and coercion, the Constantinian, theocratic approach. Bonhoeffer sees the era of establishing that sort of lordship via a "Christian nation" as a part of Western history that is not coming back. Maybe so, maybe not. Regardless, the deeper problem here isn't a "world come of age" after the Enlightenment. The deeper problem with the coercive approach to lordship is that it builds its vision of lordship upon a flawed Christology. That's the key issue that preoccupies Bonhoeffer.

According to Bonhoeffer's Christology, on the cross Jesus is revealed to be "the man for others." Jesus establishes his lordship over the world through the weakness of the cross. As Bonhoeffer writes later on in his prison correspondence: 
July 16, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [translation: "as if there were no God"]. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Jesus establishes his lordship over the religionless world by weakness, as the self-giving "man for others." Jesus doesn't rule from the top down in a coercive way. Rather, Jesus allows himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross.

Notice a few things here.

First, and this really is a bold move, notice how Bonhoeffer's theology of weakness, his theologia crucis, creates and gives rise to the secular! The secular "world come of age" is created by Christ's lordship! That is truly a radical idea. My head spins. Since Christ rules via weakness, the world becomes religionless. The world is "secular" and "godless" because Christ rules from the cross.

In short, we live in a "godless" situation in the secular age not because of disbelief, but because of Christ's lordship being expressed in weakness. Christ is Lord of the entire world, even the religionless world, because Christ allows himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.

And that, of course, changes how the church should relate to the world. If the godless, secular world is tightly intertwined with Christ's ruling from the cross, then it is inappropriate for the church to try to establish Christ's lordship over the religionless via power or propaganda. Bonhoeffer talks a lot about this in his letters. As "the man for others" Christ isn't Lord of the world by making the world serve him in a "religious" manner. Consequently, the church establishes Christ's lordship over the world by conforming the pattern of the cross: following the "man for others" the Christian community becomes "the church for others." As Bonhoeffer writes:
The church is the church only when it exists for others...The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.
There is much more to say, but I've set the basic idea before you.

Religionless Christianity isn't about deconstructing religious belief, doubting or denying the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about lordship, about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the Lord of the religionless, secular, post-Christian world.

Phrased differently, religionless Christianity isn't about doubt, it's about the cross.

And there's some radical stuff here, how a theologia crucis--God ruling the world in weakness--creates a "godless," secular world. Still, the godless situation, living in the world without God as the deus ex machina, isn't about God's non-existence, but about the shape of God's power in the world. Again, the issue isn't doubt, but the cross.

Jesus is Lord of the entire world, of the religion-filled and religionless, because Christ rules from the cross. Jesus is Lord as "the man for others," a lordship established in loving self-donation.

And the church that confesses "Jesus is Lord" follows her Lord. This church exists for others. This church does not dominate the world, but helps and serves the world.

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 1, The Issue of Consistency

I'm back home now. We had a great month in Germany as I was leading a study abroad experience for our ACU students.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was reading Eberhard Bethge's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during our time in Germany. I was reading the biography because I was kicking around an idea I had about Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity."

Before I get to religionless Christianity, I want to say what a profound spiritual experience it was reading Bonhoeffer's story while following in his footsteps in Germany. As I wrote about recently, I visited Zion Church on my birthday, the church where Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class. We visited Humboldt University (then University of Berlin) where Bonhoeffer studied and taught. We visited the Topography of Terror where the Gestapo headquarters once stood and where Bonhoeffer was interrogated and imprisoned after the failed plot on Hitler's life. We stood in the basement of the building in Buchenwald concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was held the weeks before his death. Even when we were in Leipzig, where the ACU villa is located, we were close to Bonhoeffer as his brother taught in Leipzig during the war years.

It all had a deep spiritual impact on me. I'm still processing how I've been affected and changed.

Having shared that, let me turn to the theological issue I was pondering during those days walking in the steps of Bonhoeffer. The issue has to do with the perceived consistency or inconsistency between the "early" and "late" Bonhoeffer, between the Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship and the Bonhoeffer who wrote Letters and Papers from Prison.

If you're not familiar with Bonhoeffer and these works let me try to summarize the issue. The early Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship appears "conservative" in how he pits the church strongly against the world. By contrast, in Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer appears "liberal" in how he embraces the secular world. In Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer rejects a church that is pitted against the world.

This switcharoo poses problems for interpreters of Bonhoeffer. The inconsistency seems to be so great that many simply reject the Bonhoeffer they don't like. Conservatives like The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer and tend to dismiss the Letters and Papers from Prison as too fragmentary and experimental. Plus, Bonhoeffer was in prison and under great psychological strain. Consequently, the provisional thought-balloons of Letters and Papers and Prison can't be taken too seriously. Karl Barth, for one, took this view.

Liberals, by contrast, see the theology of Letters and Papers of Prison as expressions of Bonhoeffer's mature theological thought. In this view, the conservatism of The Cost of Discipleship was simply a phase and season that Bonhoeffer grew out of and left behind.

And so, there are two Bonhoeffer's. Pick the one you like.

There are others, however, who make the argument for continuity between the early and late Bonhoeffer's. Conservatives tend to miss, it is argued, the liberal impulses in Bonhoeffer's early writings, lines of theological inquiry that the church struggle interrupted. Liberals, by contrast, tend to miss Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the "arcane discipline" in Letters and Papers from Prison, focusing too narrowly on, and thereby distorting, "religionless Christianity."

Eberhard Bethge, the man who knew Bonhoeffer best, makes the argument for consistency in his biography of Bonhoeffer. If you'd like a summary of this argument read my six-part series on Bonhoeffer "Letters from Cell 92."

All that to say, this was the issue I was pondering last month in Germany. Is it possible to reconcile the early and later Bonhoeffer? More specifically, what did Bonhoeffer mean by "religionless Christianity"?

I'll share the idea I was kicking around in the next post.

Journal Week 28: Peeing on Flies

One of the funny things for me about being in Europe are the fly etchings in men's urinals.

You don't see this much in the United States, but in the UK and Europe a lot men's urinals have flies etched in them. The picture here, one I took, is an example.

(Yes, I snapped pictures of urinals in Europe. The collection of images in my camera roll is pretty odd. Virgin martyrs. Flies in urinals. I have an unusual eye.)

The logic of the fly etching is that it grabs your attention and makes you pee toward or on the fly, thereby reducing the messes made in men's bathrooms by a lack of focus on the business at hand.

So, why is this of interest to me?

Well, as a psychologist, it's just a brilliant bit of design psychology. Bravo!

But the real reason I'm amused and taking pictures of urinals is that, as long time readers know, I once used these fly etchings in urinals as a sermon illustration (about the importance of paying attention).

It was, simultaneously, perhaps the most infamous and memorable sermon illustration ever used from the pulpit of our church. Infamous because I was banned from preaching for a season after that sermon. (Apparently, some people don't enjoy urination illustrations in their sermons.) And memorable because people still remember that sermon and illustration. Over fifteen years later, people from my church take pictures of these urinals when traveling abroad to show me when they get back home.

Respecting the Infant of Prague

Good news, no more virgin martyr posts from our visit to Prague!

But before leaving Prague, I did want to share about our visit to the Infant of Prague.

In the Catholic tradition, various images, statues, and locations become objects of devotion, veneration, intercession, and pilgrimage. There's a sort of feedback loop that makes this happen. There might be, for example, thousands and thousands of statues and images of Mary, let's say. But one particular statue of Mary in a particular church becomes associated with an answered prayer or a vision. This attracts attention and visitors who also pray. If another prayer is answered, the stories continue to spread, drawing in more pilgrims. More stories then accumulate, and the statue gets a worldwide reputation.

The Infant of Prague is one of those objects of veneration and pilgrimage. The Infant is a small, 19-inch, 500-year old, wax-coated wooden statue of the infant Jesus that has been associated with many miracles and answered prayers. The Infant is tended and cared for by the Carmelite sisters at the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. Specifically, the sisters dress the Infant in fine, jewel-studded royal regalia, along with a small, jeweled crown. In the Church of Our Lady Victorious there's an exhibit of many of the robes and crowns that have been given to the Infant from around the world. Pope Benedict brought the Infant a crown in 2009.

Regarding veneration and devotion, the Infant of Prague is one of the most famous Divine Infant and Infant King statues in Catholicism. There are others, like the Santo Niño de Cebú. When we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious there were many people fervently praying in the church. And while Protestants might find such prayers strange and perplexing, I was deeply moved watching those who were praying. You knew each person with a bowed head and rosaries in hand was carrying some worry or heartache. So our visit seemed less like a tourist stop, and more like standing on holy ground.

To be sure, again, Protestants will find veneration and devotion to the Infant of Prague strange and bewildering. But one of the things I like about the Infant of Prague, and devotions like it within the Catholic tradition, is the materiality of the devotion.

This struck me as I was looking at all the clothing and crowns that the Carmelite sisters use to dress the Infant. The Infant of Prague may be the most lavishly dressed doll in the world. But the spiritual genius at work in dressing the Infant is how it forces you to express your love and devotion to God materially, through physical objects and actions. This is an example of the sacramental ontology at work in Catholicism, how the spiritual is expressed in and mediated through the material.

There's always a Gnostic temptation at work in Protestantism, the conceit that spirit can connect directly to spirit leaving the body behind, ignored and superfluous, perhaps even dangerous. In the Catholic imagination, by contrast, we connect with the Spirit through the material world. The body is essential, inescapable. God comes to us through the material world, and we connect with God through the material world.

True, that imagination makes Catholicism vulnerable to superstition and magical thinking. If Protestants are tempted by Gnosticism, Catholics are tempted by paganism. Regardless, if you understand the role of materiality in Catholicism in mediating the spiritual, the Infant of Prague makes more sense. The clothing and the dressing of the Infant are material expressions of spiritual devotion, materially mediating our love for Jesus toward Jesus. Properly understood, the Infant of Prague isn't an object of devotion, it's a means of devotion, a material object that focuses and directs our affections toward the spiritual source of our love.

Still, if visiting and praying to the Infant of Prague seems a bit much for you, fine. And yet, as I've argued for years on this blog, we need something like this devotion in our lives. We need to fill our spaces with material objects--from candles, to icons, to prayer beads--to re-enchant lives that have been stripped of material reminders of spiritual realities.

Look at your living room, office, and bedside table. Is there anything there that points you toward God? Is your life filled with material reminders of your truest, deepest love?

If not, then I wouldn't scoff in the Church of Our Lady Victorious.

I'd suggest you show the Infant of Prague a little respect.

Saint Wilgefortis

Yes, it's virgin martyr week here on the blog. I like to keep the content eclectic.

While in the Loreto in Prague, Brenden and I came across a third unusual sight.

After spending time in the church, where we encountered St. Apollonia and St. Agatha, Brenden and I investigated all the little chapels off the Loreto cloister. In one of these chapels we found Jesus upon a cross.

But Jesus was wearing a dress.

Obviously, that confused us. But a bit a research revealed our mistake. We weren't looking at Jesus upon a cross, we were looking at a woman upon a cross. St. Wilgefortis.

So, why did we initially think St. Wilgefortis was Jesus? Because St. Wilgefortis has a beard.

Her story goes like this, per the Wikipedia entry:
According to the narrative of the legend, sometimes set in Portugal and Gailcia, a teen-aged noblewoman named Wilgefortis had been promised in marriage by her father to a Muslim king. To thwart the unwanted wedding, she had taken a vow of virginity, and prayed that she would be made repulsive. In answer to her prayers she sprouted a beard, which ended the engagement. In anger, Wilgefortis's father had her crucified. 
So what Brenden and I saw wasn't Jesus in a dress, but a bearded woman.

It was another virgin martyr in the Loreto, St. Wilgefortis. St. Wilgefortis has been venerated by those seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated from abusive husbands.

Saint Agatha

Continuing my post from yesterday about my visit to the Loreta in Prague...

While I was puzzling over the cherub holding the pulled tooth aloft to the left of the altar, my son Brenden was puzzling about a cherub to the right of the altar.

After having drawn Brenden's attention to the pulled tooth Brenden said, "I think I got you beat. Look what's on that platter the angel is holding over there."

Opposite the cherub holding St. Apollonia's pulled tooth, there was a cherub holding a platter. I inspected what the platter was holding.

"Are those two breasts?" I asked.

They were.

We were looking at iconography associated with St. Agatha. And her story is very horrific.

Agatha was an early Christian martyr, dying in 251 AD.

Agatha had dedicated her life to Christ at the young age of 15. But Quintianus, a Roman official, fell in love with Agatha, and he tried to force her to marry him. Refusing to break her vows of chastity, Agatha said no.

Infuriated, Quintianus had Agatha imprisoned in a brothel where she suffered sexual assault and rape.

After a month of this, Quintianus brought Agatha back, confident that her month in the brothel would have destroyed any aspirations to sexual purity she might have harbored. Quintianus again demanded that Agatha marry him. Agatha again refused.

So Quintianus had Agatha tortured. She was stretched on the rack, torn with hooks, whipped, and burned with torches. And she had her breasts cut off.

Agatha became one of the most venerated saints in the Christian tradition, and a part of her iconography is a platter that holds her two breasts.

Movingly, Saint Agatha has become the patron saint of breast cancer survivors, rape victims, and torture victims.

Saint Apollonia

During our time in Germany our family took a weekend trip to Prague. Being Becks, we visited churches. One of the churches Brenden and I visited was the Loreta. The Loreta is a famous pilgrimage site.

While Brenden and I were sitting in the Loreta sanctuary looking at the altar I noticed a cherub to the left, holding something aloft.

I peered at the object. Is that what I think it is?

It was.

A pulled tooth.

And the little angel was holding some tongs as well.

What, I wondered, was an angel doing with tongs and holding a pulled tooth aloft?

A little Internet research when we got back to the hotel gave us our answer. The angel was in front of a picture of St. Apollonia.

According to tradition, St. Apollonia was a third-century virgin martyr. Prior to being killed, St. Apollonia was tortured, and a part of her torture involved having her teeth pulled out.

Consequently, iconography of St. Apollonia often has her with tongs holding one of her teeth. As in the picture above.

Journal Week 27: Puppets in Prague

While here in Germany our family went to Prague for the weekend.

I love Prague. Next week I'll share some about the churches we visited.

Today, just a note about devil puppets.

Czechia, or the Czech Republic, is known for its tradition of puppetry and marionettes. One of the things I love about visiting Prague is looking through the marionette shops. There's just nothing like them in the United States.

Anyway, guess who features in a lot of Czech folk stories, and is, consequently, one of the characters hanging in marionette shops?

You guessed it, Old Scratch.

Seriously, there are puppets of Old Scratch in these shops, with the name literally reading on the tag "Old Scratch." In most of the folk stories, Old Scratch appears mostly as a trickster, so the puppets are more whimsical than diabolical.

Obviously, I had to have one. It's the purchase I've been most excited about this trip.

My puppet of Old Scratch.

Enchantment and Belief

"The World I Live In" by Mary Oliver

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
    reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
    what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
    tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
    ever, possibly, see one.

It's Not the Bible: Conscience as Authority in Protestantism

In talking to my students about Martin Luther while in Wittenberg this month, we also talked about the Bible, conscience, and authority in Protestantism.

It's hard to overstate the importance of what happened in 1521 during the Diet of Worms. In the face of the Catholic church's demand that he recant all his writings, Luther uttered these words:
I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. 
The published account of Luther's remarks also added the famous line, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Until that moment, the Catholic church had a monopoly on the truth. After Luther, the individual's conscience became its own magisterium: You, as an individual, can decide what is true.

The point I made for my students is that it's a Protestant conceit that the Bible is our authority. Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone, right? And to be sure, Luther felt his conscience was submitting to the Word of God as he read it.

But that's the key point: As he read it.

Because you might read it differently. The Catholic church certainly did. And plenty of others have had huge disagreements with Luther.

In short, in 1521 the monopoly on truth was busted up. The individual conscience--your conscience--was now able to decide and declare truth for itself. And while this has been a very good thing in many ways, it also comes with some consequences. Specifically, Protestants live with a perpetual crisis of authority. Yes, we have a Bible, but there is no way to adjudicate between two Protestants when they disagree about the Bible.

As Protestants, they both can pull a Martin Luther at any moment:

Here I stand, I can do no other.

Luther's Song About the Devil

During our time in Germany we spent a day in Wittenberg seeing all the Martin Luther sites.

During our time talking about Luther, we discussed the songs he wrote that became such a huge part of the Protestant Reformation, the most famous hymn being "A Mighty Fortress."

I love "A Mighty Fortress." But my students didn't know the song, so I sang through the first verse of the song for them.

And singing through the song, having written a book about Old Scratch, I realized just how much the song is about the devil, especially the first and third verses:
A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,—
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure,—
One little word shall fell him.
If you know anything about the spiritual life of Martin Luther, you know these are fitting lyrics for his life. Luther routinely wrestled with the devil, once famously throwing an ink pot at him.

"A Mighty Fortress" is a great Christus Victor hymn, it's an anthem of spiritual warfare.

Kim Fabricius, Rest in Peace

Kim Fabricius, who has been such a huge part of this blog community, has unexpectedly passed away. Please take the time to read Ben Myers' post about Kim at the Faith and Theology blog where Kim wrote.

Many of us here at Experimental Theology have been blessed by Kim's participating in the comments section. He encouraged, educated, challenged, and provoked us. This blog will be the poorer without Kim.

I am grateful that Kim once endorsed one of my books, and that I got to return the favor for Kim's book of hymns, Paddling By the Shore.

Dear brother, for everyone here at Experimental Theology, you will be missed.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

--The Book of Common Prayer

Journal Week 26: Jonathan Storment

Our church is losing our pastor. Many of you know Jonathan Storment from his blog at Patheos, from his guest posting on Scot McKnight's blog Jesus Creed, or from his appearances on Luke Norsworthy's podcast.

Jonathan is leaving our church in Abilene to serve a church in Arkansas, and he's leaving for good, beautiful, and holy reasons.

I'm going to miss Jonathan terribly. Over the last eight years we've become dear friends, a friendship built around our shared passion for the kingdom of God and the local church.

When we get back to the states, Jonathan and his family will have already moved back to Arkansas, so we've said our goodbyes early. But it makes me sad to think about coming home and to church and not having my friend in the pulpit on Sunday.

I love you, my friend, and I'll miss you. My prayer for you as you start a new chapter in your life are these words from St. Paul (Romans 15.13):
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Resistance is the Only Human Way to Live

A temptation you face as a teacher when you talk about the stories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the White Rose is that their stories can come across to students as legends of moral heroism, which can seem divorced from their quotidian lives. So I spend a lot of time talking about resistance as non-conformity.

I'm taking a cue here from William Stringfellow. In his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Stringfellow describes visiting with members of the various Nazi resistance movements after WW2. What Stringfellow discovered in their stories is how members of the resistance took enormous risks to do very small things, things that, realistically speaking, weren't going to do all that much to stop Hitler. Still, they took the risk. Here's Stringfellow describing this risk/reward imbalance:
[T]he Resistance, undertaken and sustained through the long years of the Nazi ascendancy in which most of Western Europe was conquered and occupied, consisted, day after day, of small efforts. Each one of these, if regarded in itself, seems far too weak, too temporary, too symbolic, too haphazard, too meek, too trivial to be efficacious against the oppressive, monolithic, pervasive presence which Nazism was, both physically and psychically, in the nations which had been defeated and seized. Realistically speaking, those who resisted Nazism did so in an atmosphere in which hope, in its ordinary connotations, had been annihilated. To calculate their actions--abetting escapes, circulating mimeographed news, hiding fugitives, obtaining money or needed documents, engaging in various forms of noncooperation with the occupying authorities or the quisling bureaucrats, wearing armbands, disrupting official communications--in terms of odds against the Nazi efficiency and power and violence and vindictiveness would seem to render their witness ridiculous. The risks for them of persecution, arrest, torture, confinement, death were so disproportionate to any concrete results that could practically be expected that most human beings would have despaired--and, one recalls, most did. Yet these persons persevered in their audacious, extemporaneous, fragile, puny, foolish Resistance.
So, why did they do it, given that the risks were so high and the possibility of success so small?  Here's Stringfellow's answer:
The answer to such questions is, I believe, that the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience. In the circumstances of the Nazi tyranny, resistance became the only human way to live. 
Resistance became the only human way to live. That's the message I'm preaching to my students.

In the imagination of the Bible, the world is ruled by the devil, who is described as the "god" and "prince" of this world (John 12.21; 2 Cor. 4.4). All around us, we see this force of dehumanization constantly at work.

Resistance, therefore, is refusing to be conformed to the dehumanizing pattern of this world (Rom. 12.2).

Resistance is non-conformity, rehumanization in the face of dehumanization.

Resistance is living in this world as a human being.

The White Rose

As my students and I have talked about the Holocaust during our month here in Germany, we've spent a lot of time talking about resistance.

Beyond Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it's been a thrill getting to introduce my students to the White Rose.

The White Rose are featured predominately in my book Reviving Old Scratch, leading off "Satan Interrupted," my chapter about resistance.

The White Rose were a WW2 resistance group. The core of the White Rose were Munich college students, most of them devout Christians. Noteworthy among them were a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl.

From the Wikipedia introduction of the White Rose:
The White Rose was a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, consisting of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The group became known for an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign, lasting from June 1942 until February 1943, that called for active opposition to dictator Adolf Hitler's regime.

The six most recognized members of the German resistance group were arrested by the Gestapo, tried for treason and beheaded in 1943. The text of their sixth leaflet was smuggled by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke out of Germany through Scandinavia to the United Kingdom, and in July, 1943, copies of it were dropped over Germany by Allied planes, retitled "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich."

Another member, Hans Conrad Leipelt, who helped distribute Leaflet 6 in Hamburg, was executed on January 29, 1945, for his participation.

Today, the members of the White Rose are honoured in Germany amongst its greatest heroes, since they opposed the Third Reich in the face of almost certain death.
My first chance to talk about the White Rose with my students was in Berlin at the Topography of Terror, where a special exhibit featured the White Rose.

I took the students off to a shady spot, told them about the White Rose and then read to them from their famous Leaflet No. 4:
Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking maw of hell and his might is fundamentally reprobate. To be sure, one must wage the battle against National Socialism using rational means. But whoever still does not believe in the actual existence of demonic powers has not comprehended by far the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the tangible, behind that which can be perceived by the senses, behind all factual, logical considerations stands The Irrational, that is the battle against the demon, against the messengers of the Anti-Christ. Everywhere and at all times, the demons have waited in darkness for the hour in which mankind is weak; in which he voluntarily abandons the position in the world order that is based on freedom and comes from God; in which he yields to the force of the Evil One, disengaging himself from the powers of a higher order. Once he has taken the first step of his own free will, he is driven to take the second and then the third and even more with furiously increasing speed. Everywhere and at every time of greatest danger, people have risen up – prophets, saints – who are aware of their freedom, who have pointed to the One God and with His aid have exhorted the people to turn in repentance. Mankind is surely free, but he is defenseless against the Evil One without the true God. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler...

We will not keep silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!
On February 8, 1943, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were spotted by a janitor distributing Leaflet No. 6 on the University of Munich campus. Brother and sister, along with their friend and fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst, were arrested. Within a day the three were tried and sentenced to death by beheading.

Standing before the Nazi court, Sophie Scholl said, "Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did."

In her cell, a few hours before her beheading, on the back of her criminal indictment for distributing leaflets Sophie Scholl wrote the word "Freiheit."


Freedom.

Talking About God at Buchenwald

Last week here in Germany, I took my class to Buchenwald concentration camp.

After touring the grounds and going through the crematorium, where we viewed the ovens used to burn the corpses, I walked the group over to a shady spot, the zoo built for the entertainment of the SS officers.

And there I tried to talk about God.

In my spiritual biography, the Holocaust is what prompted my greatest faith struggles in High School and college. And it's the same for many of my students. If not the Holocaust, then some aspect of the problem of horrific suffering.

So, what do you say about God at Buchenwald?

Not much, but I did say this.

God was tortured. God was murdered. On the cross, God stood in divine solidarity with every victim.

Where is God at Buchenwald?

God is in the ovens. God is in the pile of corpses. God is in the black ash floating on the winter air.

Knowing this--knowing that God is always in the faces of those were are hurting--is the only power in the world that can keep the darkness at bay.

Without the cross, the divine sign of contradiction, there is nothing between us and the abyss.

America's Holocaust

One of the things that strikes you walking through the city of Berlin is the collective national reckoning with the Holocaust.

Wherever you turn, there is a Holocaust memorial. The Stumbling Stones. The Topography of Terror. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. The Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism. The Memorial to the Victims of National Socialist 'Euthanasia' Killings. And on and on.

After days of visiting and reflecting on these memorials, one of my students, who is African-American, asked me this question.

"The Germans seem to be trying to deal with their history with the Holocaust, " he observed. "Why doesn't America want to face up to it's history of slavery?"

His question reminded me of this post from 2016, slightly edited:

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to lead our Study Abroad experience in Germany. During that time in Germany I was impressed with how the German people had and were continuing to reckon with their great national shame: the Holocaust.

Displaying the Nazi flag and giving the "Heil Hitler" salute are illegal in Germany.

I thought of the German ban of the Nazi flag recently when a truck in a car show here in town was proudly flying the Confederate flag as it drove past.

No one blinked or winced. People cheered and applauded.

And the question came to me, "Why don't Americans see the Confederate flag the same way the Germans view the Nazi flag?"

The answer that came to me was this: America has never reckoned with its Holocaust.

Ponder this. In the middle of Berlin there is a massive memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Where in Washington DC is a memorial to the lives lost in the Middle Passage?

When do Americans, collectively and culturally, reckon with their guilt in the slave trade?

What happened on those slave ships and on American soil was as horrific as what happened in the Nazi concentration camps. But has the US reckoned with that legacy the same way Germany has reckoned with its Holocaust?

For example, have you ever seen or visited a Holocaust memorial in the US? Many of us have. There are numerous Holocaust memorials in the US. Almost every major US city has one.

By comparison, have you ever seen or visited a memorial to the Transatlantic slave trade?

We Americans do better mourning Nazi sins than we do facing and grieving our own.

In 2015 the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was unveiled on the grounds of the United Nations. That such a memorial was just erected in 2015 is stunning. That the memorial was erected by the United Nations and not the United States goes to my point.

True, you can see exhibits about the slave trade in our civil rights museums and you can experience slavery themed tours at historical sites like Monticello. But such experiences only go to reinforce the fact that America has not morally reckoned with the slave trade the way Germany has reckoned with the Holocaust.

In our museums the ugly legacy of slavery is routinely connected to exhibits of civil rights progress, from the Middle Passage to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such a narrative is morally consoling. These dark evil things are in the past. We've made progress. Let's move forward.

For example, in the national mall in Washington there is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights hero. We want pride rather than guilt. We memorialize racial struggle with a heroic symbol of progress. In moral contrast to Germany, there is no memorial in our national mall remembering the lives lost during the slave trade and during America's years of slavery.

America has a Holocaust. And truth be told, America has two Holocausts: Slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans.

And yet, America has never morally reckoned with either slavery or the genocide of Native Americas as Holocausts. The Confederate flag is not moralized in America the way Germans see the swastika.

And this, I would argue, is the single biggest reason America has not been able to adequately address the racial problems plaguing our nation. Because there has never been a formal and culturally sustained moral reckoning with the American Holocausts we are always starting the conversation about race from two different moral locations. African Americans and Native Americans begin with the experience of Holocaust and expect us to engage this conversation with the moral, spiritual, political, and economic seriousness a Holocaust deserves.

The rest of us? We are the Holocaust deniers.

And from those two moral locations we cannot find our way back to each other. The moral chasm is too wide.

When that Confederate flag goes by in a parade, our African American friends and neighbors see that flag as the symbol of America's Holocaust. The hulls of slave ships were the American concentration camps, the Auschwitz and Buchenwald of the Middle Passage.

The rest of us cheer and applaud the Confederate flag as a symbol of "Southern pride."

That is what separates us, at the deepest level.

The Holocaust and its deniers.


[pictures from White nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2017]

Journal Week 25: Things I Miss About Home

I love visiting the UK and Europe. There is so much that I love and prefer about the UK and Europe in relation to the United States.

But there are some things I most definitely love about home. Here's a short list.
1. Air conditioning

2. Obligatory, free water at restaurants

3. Free refills for sodas at restaurants

4. Free public bathrooms

5. Dryers for your washed clothing
To be clear, I'm not saying I'm a good person for missing any of these things. I'm aware that dryers and air conditioning consume energy. I'm just saying I miss them.

You miss air conditioning coming back to a hot hostel after a long hot day walking a city. You miss a dryer when you need to quickly wash and dry clothing because you've packed lightly. You miss not paying a fortune for water and sodas every time you eat out with your family. And you get tired of looking for a spare euro every time you need to pee.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer Became a Christian

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren't particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen. 

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer's time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer's pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here's how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:
He now went regularly to church...Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it...He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer...More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror. He began taking a stand for Christian pacifism among his students and fellow-ministers...To his students his piety sometimes appeared too fervent, and was impressive only because it was accompanied by theological rigour and a broad cultural background. This reminiscence from a student dates from 1930:

'There, before there church struggle, he said to us near to Alexanderplaz, with the simplicity that was perhaps use by Tholuck in the old days, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a quite personal message of God's love for us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.'

The Cost

This was a poem I wrote sitting on a bench by Zion's Church on a Sunday morning reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 1932 confirmation class.

"The Cost"

When Christ calls,
he invites you
to come and die with him.
And resisting,
you died, dear brother,
a martyr's death.
That is what we remember,
you raging
against the marching stormclouds
that swept all
into blackness and horror.
But this resurrection morning,
as the saints gather
once again,
I remember the price
of kindness and care,
of a love poured out
upon the least of these.
The selfish climb
was there before you,
but here you were
among the children of the poor.
This is less and misremembered,
but there is a dying here.
This, too, a martyr's death:
the expenditure of tenderness
given and sacrificed.
Less a death, but a life
that counted and paid
the cost.

The Cost of Discipleship: Bonhoeffer's Confirmation Class for Zionskirche Parish

In 1932 Bonhoeffer had ascended to the heights of German academic theology. He was a rising star. Already possessing a doctorate degree at the young age of 26, Bonhoeffer had already begun teaching theology at Berlin University, Ground Zero of the theological world.

But Bonhoeffer also had a passion for the church and was ordained in 1931. In fact, he was torn between the two worlds, an academic career versus serving as a pastor. All this was before the fateful year of 1933, when Hitler took power and pushed Bonhoeffer's life in a very different direction.

In 1932, as a requirement of his ordination, Bonhoeffer was asked to take on a confirmation class for the Zion Church parish in the poor Wedding district of Berlin. The group of fifty boys Bonhoeffer was to teach had been terrorizing their teacher, an aged minister who died a few weeks after he handed the class over to Bonhoeffer. According to Bonhoeffer, the boys so bullied the man he had "more or less literally been harassed to death."

As the minister and Bonhoeffer first climbed the stairs in the school where the classes were to be held, the boys, on the landings above, threw things down upon them. Once they arrived at the classroom, the minister informed the boys that a new teacher was taking over. His name was Bonhoeffer. Hearing this, the boys started screaming and chanting louder and louder "Bon! Bon! Bon!" The harried minister beat a hasty retreat, abandoning Bonhoeffer to the chaos.

Facing the storm, Bonhoeffer stood silently, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Minutes passed. The boys quieted some, and then Bonhoeffer began speaking.

He spoke in a quiet voice. Only the boys in the front row could hear him. Silence soon fell across the room.

Bonhoeffer told a story about this time in Harlem. The boys stayed quiet, listening intently.

When he finished, Bonhoeffer said that if they wanted to hear more stories he would tell more next time. Then he dismissed the class.

And that was the end of all the behavior problems.

Bonhoeffer took the class of boys all the way to confirmation, eventually moving out of his parent's house and taking a room in the Wedding neighborhood. He shifted his time away from lecturing at Berlin University to care for these boys. Once, when one of the boys needed him because of a medical operation, Bonhoeffer made his Berlin theology students wait in the lecture hall. All of Bonhoeffer's free evenings were devoted to his confirmation candidates, who had permission to drop by his apartment. Time talking systematic theology at Berlin University was exchanged for games of chess and camping trips with the Wedding confirmands. Academic theology was given up for being a youth pastor.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is one of my favorite parts of Bonhoeffer's life, his confirmation class for Zionskirche. Bonhoeffer was brilliant, and was a new and upcoming star at Berlin University. And what did he do? He put all that academic stuff on hold to pour himself into the children of the poor.

When talk about about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer we generally tell the heroic story of his resistance to Hitler and his martyrdom. But for me, do you know what I find heroic about the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

This: His confirmation class at Zionskirche.

When I think about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I think of this:

I think of brilliant, ambitious theology students waiting impatiently in a Berlin University lecture hall because their professor is by the bedside of one of his Wedding boys.

A Birthday at Zionskirche

As I've mentioned, I'm doing some reading and reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in Germany this month. So while we were in Berlin I wanted to visit Zionskirche (Zion Church).

If you don't know Bonhoeffer's biography very well, Zionskirche was where Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class for a group of boys in a poor part of the city. More on this tomorrow, but this is one of my favorite parts of Bonhoeffer's life and witness.

Anyway, with very full days devoted to the students I was struggling to find time for me to visit the church.

Sunday morning was my birthday, and we weren't heading out until 10:00. Zionskirche was about a mile away from the hostel, about a 25 minute walk.

So I got up early and headed out around 7:30. I found a cafe close to the church to get a cup of coffee and say my morning prayers and do my daily Bible reading. I took my time, stopping to take pictures of the "stones of stumbling" as I came across them.

Around 8:30 I got to the church. There's a plaque to the right of the door commemorating Bonhoeffer's time serving at the church. And to the west of the building there is an abstract sculpture memorializing his life and death.

The church was closed, so I took a walk to Oderberger Straße 61. During the year he taught the confirmation class, Bonhoeffer rented an apartment at this address. I was delighted to find that there's also a plague to Bonhoeffer on the Oderberger Straße apartment building stating that he'd once resided there.

I then walked back to the church, noting in my mind that this would have been the exact path Bonhoeffer would have walked from his apartment to the church. I pulled out my prayer beads and said a "Bonhoeffer prayer" from the Cost of Discipleship on each bead: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

By the time I got back to the church around 9:00 the musicians for the 10:00 service were gathering out front. They opened the church soon after.

So from 9:00 to 9:30 I got to sit in the pews listening to the violins and cello as the musicians practiced for the coming worship. The morning sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows. And I was very, very happy.

At 9:30 I had to leave to get back to the hostel by 10:00. I wish I could have stayed for church, but the students were waiting for me to start our very full and busy day.

Later, the students found out it was my birthday. They felt sad that it didn't seem like I'd had a chance to celebrate that day.

"Don't worry," I said. "I've had my birthday moment today. It was a very good day."

Journal Week 24: Stones of Stumbling

We were in Berlin last weekend, staying in a hostel close to the Jewish Quarter.

One of the poignant things about Berlin is the ways in which the city and nation have tried to reconcile with the Holocaust. An example of this are the stolpersteine, the "stones of stumbling".

A Stolperstein is a cobblestone-size brass plate that is placed outside the former home of a person who was deported and executed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Each plate starts with "Here lived..." and then gives their name, birth date, date of deportation, where they were deported, and the date of their death.

Walking through the Jewish Quarter of the city I came across 18 stumbling stones.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 4, "Go, And Do Not Discriminate."

In the story of the second, transgressive Pentecost recounted in Acts 10, Jack Levison makes a fascinating observation in his book Fresh Air.

Levison points out that the Greek word diakrinó is used twice, once in Acts 10.20 in the initial story of Peter going to Cornelius's house, and later in Acts 11.12 as Peter later recounts those events.

Here's how the NRSV translates the two verses, with diakrinó highlighted:
Acts 10.19-20
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

Acts 11.12
"The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house." 
As you can tell, diakrinó has a range of meanings: to discern, to distinguish between, to hesitate, to waver. As Levison describes it, and as the NRSV translates it, Pete's understanding of the Spirit's message changes from 10.20 to 11.12.

At the start, Peter takes the message to be about hurrying up: Don't hesitate, go with the men who have come for you.

But then the transgressive Pentecost occurs, and Peter witnesses the Spirit fall upon the Gentiles. This event changes how Peter understands the Spirit's calling. The Spirit wasn't saying "hurry up." The Spirit was sending Peter out with the command, "Go, and do not discriminate."

That is the transgressive Spirit at work, sending us out into the world with the command, "Go, and do not discriminate."

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 3, The Transgressive Pentecost

The universal, transgressive vision of Joel 2--where the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh--becomes the rallying cry of the church in Acts 2. Peter describes the church in his Pentecost sermon as the place where the vision of Joel 2 will become a reality.

But the book of Acts describes this as a work in progress, with the Spirit nudging the church forward by falling, as in Numbers 11, in unauthorized locations.

In Acts 10 the Jewish followers of Jesus are still inhibited by their moral, religious, and ethnic prejudices against Gentiles. The universal vision of Joel 2 has stalled. So the Spirit takes decisive action, bringing visions to both Peter and Cornelius, orchestrating a meeting between them.

While preaching to Cornelius, a second, unexpected, transgressive Pentecost occurs:
Acts 10.44-48a
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. 
Once again, the Spirit falls in an unauthorized location. As Peter says, "Surely no one can stand in the way." Because without the Spirit falling in this unauthorized location people most surely would have stood in the way.

In fact, they did stand in the way.

The second, transgressive Pentecost created a crisis of authority for the early church. It comes to a head in Acts 15, with the convening of the First Apostolic Counsel. People within the Jerusalem church--circumcised, Torah-observant, Messianic Jews--objected to what happened at the second Pentecost, how the Spirit eradicated the boundary between Jew and Gentile, just as the vision of Joel 2 said would happen. By falling in an unauthorized zone and eradicating the boundary between Jew and Gentile, the Holy Spirit created a huge crisis of authority for the church. A crisis that effectively split the church, if Paul's testimony in the book of Galatians is to be believed.

By claiming Joel 2 as the mission statement for the kingdom of God, and by witnessing the Spirit fall in an unauthorized location, Peter and the church crossed a boundary previously unimaginable.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 2, I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

In Numbers 11, as we saw in the last post, Moses prays for a day when the Spirit will be poured out upon "all the Lord's people" making them  prophets. This prayer is echoed throughout the prophets who envision a day when God will pour out his Spirit upon Israel.

But in the prophet Joel this hope takes an unexpected, expansive and transgressive turn.

Instead of the Spirit being poured out upon "all the Lord's people" as Moses envisioned, Joel proclaims a day when the Spirit will be poured out upon "all flesh." This ourpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh will fall, as it did in Numbers 11, in an "unauthorized zone," upon groups excluded from power and authority--the young, women and slaves.
Joel 2.28-28
Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
The Spirit falling upon all flesh destroys the traditional lines of power and authority--age, gender, wealth--bringing "all flesh" into the company of the prophets.

Here's how Jack Levison describes Joel's audacious vision in his book Fresh Air:
First, Joel's dream horizontally stretches the story of Moses [in Numbers 11], in which the spirit is limited to all of the Lord's people--all Israel. Joel too believes that the spirit will engender prophesying, yet for Joel this experience will reach all flesh...It is not all Israel but all flesh who shall prophesy. The prophetic promise of the outpouring of the spirit breaks every conceivable boundary, every self-imposed border.

Second, in Joel's vision the spirit also reaches vertically through society, from its top to its bottom, from distinguished men to their undistinguished female slaves. The spirit is promised, not surprisingly, to old and young men, and to sons. But it is also promised, amazingly, to daughters and slaves, both male and female. Joel could comfortably have interpreted "all the LORD's people" in the story [of Numbers 11] to include only "all elders" or "all men" or "all landholders," or some such group of privileged people. Instead, in Joel's vision anyone, anyone at all, can receive the spirit and prophesy. The spirit is not parceled out to the pious or privileged--the spirit is outpoured indiscriminately. Joel will have nothing to do with artificial limitations. There is not one boundary, not a single social convention, not a class or gender distinction, that can prevent the spirit of God from creating a world populated by prophets. This is nothing short of a devastation of privilege, an obliteration of barriers and restrictions of economy, age, gender, or status in society. Joel imagines the utter democratization of the spirit, perhaps even inspired anarchy, a world without borders, disordered by everything except the splendid choreography of the spirit.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 1, Prophecy in an Unauthorized Zone

Our Bible class at church was doing a study on the Holy Spirit using Jack Levison's book Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. I wanted to devote a few posts to Chapter 4 in Fresh Air, as I found it really provocative and insightful.

In Numbers 11 Moses is struggling under the load of leadership. So God tells him to gather seventy elders to help him lead the people:
The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone." (Numbers 11.16-17)
Moses gathers the seventy elders around the tabernacle and the spirit of God falls upon them and they begin to prophesy:
So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied...(Numbers 11.24-25)
So far, so good. But something strange also happened. For some reason, two of the appointed seventy elders, Eldad and Medad, did not go with Moses to the tabernacle but remained behind in the camp. Still, the spirit of God fell upon them and they prophesied back in the camp:
However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” (Numbers 11.26-27)
This prophesying back in the camp bothers Joshua, Moses' right hand man. Apparently, Joshua thinks that Eldad and Medad's prophesying in the camp, apart from Moses' direct supervision and authorization, will constitute a crisis of authority for Moses:
Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake?" (Numbers 11. 28-29a)
Joshua seems to be concerned about prophecy occurring in an unauthorized zone, outside the command structure and chains of authority--renegade, unsupervised prophecy.

But Moses is unconcerned, his view of prophecy is wider, more generous and more liberal. Moses responds to Joshua's concerns:
But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11.29)
In the posts to come, we'll reflect more on Moses' wish that "all the Lord's people" would become prophets.

But for this post, we simply note how the Holy Spirit has this odd habit of showing up in unauthorized zones, causing crises of authority.