Journal Week 38: The Local Church

I do a lot of speaking on the weekends. I'm not a huge fan of traveling, and it can wear. But for the most part, I find my speaking engagements deeply life-giving.

It's mainly because I spend most of my time speaking to local churches, from all sorts of denominations. I've seen just about every church there is, from small struggling churches to huge mega churches. I've been with traditional, establishment churches and with experimenting church plants.

I love spending time with local churches. I love staying in homes, conversations about God over meals, and sharing in worship.

Conferences, books, blogs, and podcasts are all wonderful things. But the heartbeat of the kingdom of God is the local church. A specific address where a collection of disciples--sinners and misfits all--are trying to live into the ways of Jesus.

To all those churches who have invited me into your lives over the years, Thank You. You have blessed me beyond words. May God continue to bless you with peace, strength, courage, joy, hope, mercy, endurance, and love. And may our paths cross again soon.

The Enchanted/Disenchanted Divide in Our Churches

I've mentioned this to many audiences, but I think the enchanted vs. disenchanted divide is one of the biggest, yet least talked about, divisions in our churches.

In most of the faith communities I've spent time with over the years, there are two churches in the same building, two congregations sitting in the same pews.

One church is the enchanted church, the church that believes in miracles, petitionary prayer, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and spiritual warfare.

The other church is the disenchanted church, that church that doubts miracles, God answering prayer, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the reality of Satan and demons.

Wherever you go to church, odds are you worshiping with two congregations, the enchanted and the disenchanted. And in my experience, these groups hardly talk to each other because they find the other group strange and weird.

We Have Got Used to Death

We have got used to death, at least to the death of other creatures and other people. And to get used to death is the beginning of freezing into lifelessness oneself. So the essential thing is to affirm life -- the life of other creatures -- the life of other people -- our own lives. If we do not, there will be no rebirth and no restoration of the life that is threatened. But anyone who really says 'yes' to life says 'no' to war. Anyone who really loves life says 'no' to poverty. So the people who truly affirm and love life take up the struggle against violence and injustice. They refuse to get used to it. They do not conform. They resist.

--Jürgen Moltmann, from The Spirit of Life

Jesus, Satan and the Psalms

The more I read the Psalms, the more I appreciate how Jesus shifted the violence in those songs away from human beings.

If you're not familiar with the Psalms, there's some pretty chilling stuff in there. For example: 
Psalm 149.6-9
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,

to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,

to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
How could Jesus not read this psalm as being about the Romans? That would have been the most obvious reading of the text given the Roman occupation.

Yet somehow, Jesus directs the violence of this psalm away from the Romans. "But I say to you," Jesus preaches, "to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

As I recount in Reviving Old Scratch, I think Jesus was able to accomplish this feat because he saw the Adversary as his real opponent, rather than the Romans. And I think a proper vision of spiritual warfare helps us accomplish the same thing.

Journal Week 37: Starting the Day With Prayer

Prayer doesn't come naturally to me. The thing that has saved my prayer life is structured prayer and prayer beads. I've written about all that before.

After reading Tish Warren Harrison's Liturgy of the Ordinary I've felt the need to start my days with prayer. Harrison makes the point that when we reach for our smartphone the very first thing in the morning to scroll through email or social media we "imprint" our day. Our day begins with this act of worship, telling our brains what to care about and what to think about. No wonder Donald Trump looms large in many hearts and minds. He's the very first thing you think about in the morning. 

So Harrison recommends a different liturgy. Prayer before reaching for the smartphone. Start the day with a different sort of "imprint." Don't make Donald Trump the very first thing you think about today.

So for the last few weeks I've been getting up and not reaching for my phone or laptop. Instead, I grab my Bible, a book of meditations, and a prayer journal. I start the coffee and sit at the kitchen table to pray.

I can't say I have solid data on how much this new habit has affected me. I can't tell you I'm 10% more peaceful having started my days off with prayer. And I don't like talking much about prayer as it can often demoralize others, one more thing you're not doing well in your spiritual life. I just share this because I think it's important in a crazy world to be intentional about practicing peace, gratitude, and joy.

Social media doesn't care about your soul, so you're going to have to.

Karl Barth on the Wisdom of Naivety

Karl Barth, reflecting on the childhood Bible songs he sang as a child:

Was it all rather naive? Indeed it was very naive, but perhaps the deepest wisdom, with its fullest force, lies in naivety, and this kind of wisdom, once gained, can carry a man over whole oceans of historicism, and anti-historicism, mysticism and rationalism, orthodoxy, liberalism and existentialism. He certainly will not be spared trial and temptation, but in the end he will be brought back relatively unscathed to firm ground.

Human Beings Before the Kingdom

I was reading Herman Waetjen's book A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Marks Gospel, and was struck by a point he made.

Waetjen makes the observation in relation to Jesus' baptism that the New Human Being (the "Son of Man") comes before the establishment of the kingdom. Jesus, as the "Human One," comes first, and he begins the work of establishing his kingdom. A work, as we keep praying "May your kingdom come," that still seems ongoing.

I find this ordering important. First, new human beings, and then the kingdom. Because, can you create and establish the kingdom without new human beings? I don't think so. We'd reject or hate the kingdom. Thus the need for repentance as a prerequisite for the kingdom. "Repent," Jesus says, "the kingdom of God is at hand."   

I'm intrigued by all this because it suggests that the most vital and necessary political work that we can be doing right now is becoming human beings. But given the political chaos in our country we keep trying to bring the kingdom first. And we're failing miserably. Could it be that we've gotten the order wrong? Could it be that you can't bring a new kingdom unless you have the new human beings in place to create and welcome it?

Maybe ignoring Washington to focus on becoming a human being is the most subversive and necessary political work we can be doing right now.

Journal Week 36: High School Chapel Speaker

My son Aidan is a senior at Abilene Christian School. Jana also teaches at ACS, as the high school drama teacher.

Because of our family connections with ACS, every semester I'm invited a few times to be their chapel speaker.

Let me tell you this, I've spoken to thousands and thousands of people, but the most terrifying audience I ever speak to is teenagers.

It's not because they are rowdy and not paying attention. The ACS students are wonderful and a very respectful audience. My problem is that I put a lot of pressure on myself to say something meaningful to any audience I stand in front of, and I struggle to know what, exactly, to say to high school students.

To be clear, I have a long list of things I'd like to say. But most of that list would come across as finger wagging. For example, I wish teenagers would spend less time looking at their phones. But do they really need another adult chastising them about spending too much time on social media? Perhaps they do, but that's not the way I want to spend my chapel time. My son is in the audience, after all, and I don't want an eye roll. I want him, and all his friends, to be surprised and intrigued by what I'm saying.

That said, I do spend a lot of time encouraging the students to be kind. I don't care what age you are, I'll deliver that message to you, over and over. Still, after you've said that a few times, you need some new chapel material.

This week I was again the ACS chapel speaker. And I went through my normal ruminations. I've already told them to be kind, so what do teenagers need to hear? And how can I say it in a way that grabs their attention and captivates their imaginations?

Plus, you only have ten minutes...

I eventually settled on the story of Jacob's dream in Genesis 28. After a dream where he sees angels and hears the voice of God, Jacob wakes up and says, "Surely God is in this place. This is the gate of heaven."

Jacob was in the middle of nowhere, and there he found a gateway to heaven. The gate of heaven is everywhere, I said to the ACS students, if we could train ourselves to see it. The gate of heaven might be in 6th period, or it might be in the cafeteria. It might be a home, or it might be at volleyball practice.

So how do you train yourself to see God in your life?

Follow these feelings, I said: wonder, grace, gratitude and joy. Notice where in your day when you feel wonder and awe. Pay attention to how you feel when you receive mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and a second chance. Notice where you feel grateful and thankful, for a friend, a gifted teacher, a loving parent, a chance to do something you love. And lastly, pay attention to joy.

The God in whom we live, move, and have our being is close to you in all of those moments, I told the students.

Wonder, grace, gratitude and joy. These are the gateways to heaven.

On Social Media and Mental Health

Yesterday I talked about how mental illness is often implicated in faith crises. Our problems aren't really with God or church, we're just struggling with anxiety, depression, addiction, or a life crisis, and that's casting a pall over everything in life. In these instances, getting well is the priority.

The other thing that came to mind here is social media.

One of the problems with social media is that we can't gauge the mental health of our interlocutors. The working assumption is that everyone on social media is well. But we know that's not the case. I'm convinced that a lot of the trolling and nastiness we see on social media isn't because people are wicked. It's because people aren't well. They are depressed, anxious, angry, or socially alienated. Social media pulls a lot of this pathology out into the open. The darkness on social media is less about total depravity than it is about emotional brokenness.

I'm sure you've experienced this on social media. You're having a back and forth with someone and it's not going well, and you start to suspect, "I don't think this person is in a very good place." Face to face you can suss this out pretty quickly, observing the various signs of agitation, rage or dysphoria. But you can't do this all on social media. Not that you'd avoid conversation, but you'd adjust your approach given what you're dealing with.

It's hard to talk dispassionately about God, faith and church when you're not in a good place. And social media never lets you know who is or is not in a good place. It's all just words on screens. So it's a bit of a minefield.

On Faith and Church Problems: The Role of Mental Health

Because of who I am and the things I've written, people often come or write to me about all sorts of faith problems and church problems. People are having trouble believing in God. People are having trouble finding a good church. Can I help?

I try to help, but it's hard. Our histories, personalities, and circumstances are so different. There's a particular chemistry that happens with one person that can't be replicated in another. The ingredients are just different, leading to a different chemical reaction.

But here's something I've noticed over the years, something that is rarely talked about.

Basically, a lot of faith and church problems are really mental health problems.

For example, someone is sharing their story with me about drifting away from God and/or the church. And as the person describes their life--thought processes, behaviors, mood, etc.--a realization comes to me: This person is describing a faith crisis, but what I'm hearing is depression. Another person describes having troubling finding a church, but what I'm hearing are symptoms of social anxiety.

I also know so many people who report having a "faith crisis" but who actually have a drinking problem. Or they are going through a divorce, or some other huge life crisis. 

My point in bringing this up isn't to blame the person. I'm just trying to point out that a lot of our faith problems aren't really faith problems, so working the problem at that level isn't going to change anything. We're just psychologically in a really bad place, and that affects how we see and feel about everything. God and church included. If you're depressed, for example, even a warm, healthy church is going to leave you cold.

Often, the best thing you can do for your relationship with God and the church is to spend some time getting well.

Sin as Wound and Sickness

I believe I've mentioned this before on the blog, but I've been increasingly taken with the metaphors of woundedness, injury, and sickness for sin.

Most Protestants tend to view sin as moral performance errors. Sin is morally "missing the mark."

The trouble with this metaphor, though I'm not denying its legitimacy, is that it frames sin in moralistic terms. With every choice we are either being "good" or "bad," obedient or wicked. The frame here is one of guilt and forgiveness. Salvation is "wiping the slate clean."

But more and more I've come to think of sin in biological and medical metaphors. Sin is a sickness, a disease, a fever. Sin is a wound and an injury. Generally, a self-inflicted wound and injury.

What I've liked about these metaphors is that they are less moralistic and tend to marginalize the framework of guilt. Sin doesn't produce a guilty verdict from a judge. Sin is, rather, a state of weakness and incapacity that I need rescuing from.

I don't need forgiveness in these metaphors, I need healing.

Journal Week 35: Sunday School Teacher

I grew up going to Sunday School. In the Churches of Christ there is a strong tradition of having an hour-long Bible class along with the worship service on Sunday mornings. For all age groups, from the children to the adults.

I know a lot of faith traditions don't have Sunday School, and that Sunday School is fading in many churches that once had it. But Sunday School remains a vital part of the Church of Christ experience on a Sunday morning.

I'm a Sunday School teacher at my church, leading an adult class called Sojourners. Currently, my co-teacher is Vic McCracken, who is a faculty member in our College of Biblical Studies at ACU.

The thing I love about being a Sunday School teacher is how it forces you to study the Bible. Without the demand to prepare for classes on Sunday, I don't know if I'd have the discipline to study the Bible, at least not like I do now. Fundamentally, I'm a lazy person. I need external structure to be productive. It's one of the reasons I've yet, and likely will never, take a sabbatical at work. If I had huge swaths of unstructured time in front of me I'd fritter away the weeks taking naps, reading books, and watching Netflix.

So I love having Sunday School in my life. And more than the Bible study, sharing life together in that room, year in and year out, is what I think it means to be church. Our class is well named. Through grief and loss, good times and celebration, burials and diagnoses, we sojourn together.

Yet More On Moral Hallowing

Following up on my post clarifying and deepening the argument that everyone engages in what I've described as "moral hallowing," I want to make one more comment.

To recap, the argument I've made is that ethics and morality are grounded in presuppositions that have to be assumed as given. In math these givens are called axioms. In physics they are called first principles. In philosophy they are called a priori propositions.

And in legal theory, thanks to Drew's comment on my last post, I've discovered that these givens are called "basic norms." The notion of a basic norm comes from Hans Kelsen's celebrated theory of legal normativity. The basic idea is that every legal and ethical "ought" flows out of a higher, authorizing "ought." This can't go on forever, however, so eventually you get back to a foundational "ought," the basic norm. The basic norm is an authorizing norm that is not authorized by any other (higher) norm. Consequently, the normative authority of the basic norm (i.e., why we must obey it) has to be presupposed as valid and authoritative. That's the only way to stop an infinite regress.

Kelsen's theory is similar to the point I've been making: since you can't get an "ought" from an "is" at some point in the chain the "ought" has to be presupposed. That is, the only way to prevent ethics and morality from slipping into emotivism is to presuppose an authorizing "ought," a basic norm. This basic norm is metaphysical in that, as a presupposition, it stands above/outside the system it is authorizing and regulating.

Again, ethics requires moral hallowing.

Now in the comments of my original post a couple of confused readers made the following observation, in different sorts of ways. Specifically, doesn't Christian ethics face the exact same problem? Aren't God's commands hanging in the sky as an "ought" that can't be justified without descending into circular reasoning? Isn't that the problem with "divine command theory"? That something is good because God wills it, and if God wills it then has to be good?

In short, isn't the ethical reasoning of Christians doing the same thing as the atheists?

And the answer is: Yes!

That was the point of the original post!

The original post wasn't trying to prove God's existence. Nor was the post arguing that the ethical reasoning of Christians was different or superior to that of atheists. The point of the post was that everyone engages in moral hallowing. The point of the post was to show how both Christians and atheists ground in their ethics in metaphysics, in presupposed "oughts," basic norms taken as givens.

All that to say, when confused readers asked and belligerent atheists blustered "But don't you Christians do the exact same thing!?" I have to wonder if they were paying attention to what I had wrote.

Because the answer is, "Yes."

Everyone engages in moral hallowing.

Testify to One or the Other

"Believe Jesus or the devil!" he cried. "Testify to one or the other!"

    --from Flannery O'Connor's short story "The River"

I've written about how Flannery O'Connor has affected my Christianity. People have asked me to try to explain the influence. But it's art, you know, so it's hard to explain.

An example, though, is this line from the "The River." Believe Jesus or the devil, testify to one or the other. For a progressive Christian like me, lines like that just interrupt you in Flannery O'Connor.

In the stories and novels of Flannery O'Connor crazed, wild-eyed, back woods prophets rage at you, but you cannot dismiss them because in O'Connor's world these prophets are telling you the truth.

Once More On Moral Hallowing

My post last week on moral hallowing kicked up some conversation with atheists who took issue with my claim that everyone, even atheists, engage in moral hallowing.

Feel free, if you're curious, to wade into those exchanges in the comments of that post. It's not very illuminating. As you might expect, the atheists I was engaging with and I generally failed to communicate and talked past each other.

And yet, the many back and forths made me want to clarify some of the confusions I noted and to clarify the argument I was making.

There was a lot of confusion about what I meant by "moral hallowing." I admit, that language is idiosyncratic. But the post did define what I meant by "moral hallowing," specifically that ethics requires some "metaphysical grounding."

But that phrase also seemed to cause confusion. Here I became confused, as I felt I defined what metaphysical grounding meant in the post (and repeatedly in the comments). Also, I don't feel that the point I was making was all that complicated. I think most readers saw what I was getting at. But maybe it's a hard idea to grasp.

I think some of the confusion came from the atheists assuming that "metaphysical" means "supernatural." But that's not what philosophers mean by metaphysical. Yes, to posit a supernatural realm implies metaphysics, but metaphysics doesn't imply the supernatural.

So, what is metaphysics?

Metaphysics involves many things, but the thing I was focusing on is how metaphysics involves any analysis and definitions of first-order concepts, rules, and presuppositions. Metaphysics is going "meta" in your analysis, stepping back to observe and specify the foundational definitions at work, the rules in play, and the unspoken presuppositions regulating in the background.

I often describe metaphysics as positing the "axioms" at work in a system, but that also seemed to cause confusion. What did I mean that ethics requires "axioms"? To describe axioms I use the word "given" a lot, but one could also say "definitional" or "assumed." Some philosophers use the words "simples" or "atoms." Basically, axiomatic means the definitions and rules that have to be posited and taken for granted to get the logical or analytical ball rolling. Ethical and moral judgments, in the case of my post.

The biggest axioms in moral hallowing are concepts like "good," "evil," "should," "wrong," or "ought." In the comments of my post I repeatedly tried to get the atheists to give me a definition of "good" that wasn't non-circular to illustrate the axiomatic, metaphysical nature of their ethical reasoning.

For example, when I asked the atheists why something is "wrong" they mainly answered by saying something like: "Something is wrong when it causes harm or suffering." To which I'd ask them, but why is causing harm or suffering wrong? Why couldn't it be right? Or a matter of indifference? Suffering is, after all, just a brute fact that the cosmos doesn't care about. The responses I got tended to be something like, "Causing pain and suffering is wrong because it harms and hurts people (or some other synonym of pain/hurt/harm/suffering)" In one fascinating exchange a lot of time was spent on the ethics of torturing kittens.

Anywho, it all boiled down to a lot of circular reasoning: Causing harm and suffering is wrong because it hurts people.

That circular reasoning, this definitional spinning of the wheels, is a sign that we've just bumped into an axiom, that we've just engaged in metaphysics and moral hallowing. That is what I was trying to illustrate. Most of us, I assume, espouse an ethical axiom along the lines that causing pain and suffering is wrong. This is a metaphysical judgment in that it's an evaluation imposed upon an indifferent cosmos. Stated simply, wrong is different from pain. Pain is just a brute fact. Wrong is a judgment about something being out of kilter with the Gestalt.

But there's even more metaphysics involved than this evaluation of wrongness. For example, I repeatedly tried to get the atheists to make a distinction between preferences and morality. There's a difference, most of us admit, between saying "I don't like people causing harm and suffering" versus "It is wrong to cause harm and suffering."  When we say something is "wrong" most of us mean something more than "I don't like that."

I admit, I badgered the atheists about this distinction. The reason I did was twofold. First, it's important to nail down that we do, in fact, make a distinction between "That is wrong" versus "I don't like that." Because there is a theory of ethics, it's called emotivism, that argues that all ethical language really is just an expression of preferences. According to emotivism, when I say "That is wrong" all I'm really saying is "I don't like that."

The reason I needed to get clarity on this point is because emotivism doesn't involve metaphysics. In emotivism moral language like "right" vs. "wrong" or "good" vs. "evil" really is just an expression of preferences and emotions. Hitler is horrifying, according to emotivism, but he isn't evil.

Most of us aren't emotivists. I asked the atheists, and they weren't either. To a person they agreed that there is a difference between preferences and morality. We all agreed that "wrong" means something more than "I don't like that."

But how, I asked repeatedly, do we move from preferences to morality? What's happening when we say something is "wrong" that isn't happening when we say "I don't like that" or "I don't approve"?

One big distinction is that when we say something is wrong there is an expectation of compliance. People shouldn't do wrong things, and if they are doing wrong things they should stop. Beyond evaluation, when we say causing harm and suffering is wrong we are also saying that people should stop causing harm and suffering.

When I describe this aspect of moral language I often talk about our moral axioms being "binding" and how we can't "opt out." What I'm talking about is how moral hallowing creates the words "should," "ought" or "must." You should not, ought not, must not cause harm and suffering.

My point in drawing attention to this aspect of moral judgement is that this "should" and "ought" is, once again, a metaphysical move. An imperative shows up on the scene, a command that doesn't exist in the cosmos until we create and impose it upon matter. Again, suffering and pain is just a brute fact. As David Hume pointed out long ago, there's nothing in the raw empirical picture that creates an "ought." You can't get an ought from an is. You need metaphysics for that.

Now, an occasional response here is to leverage the data of the social sciences to create an "ought," to squeeze values from facts. We examine all the personal, social, and political factors that promote human flourishing. Then, in light of all that empirical data, something is "right" if it contributes to flourishing and "wrong" if it doesn't contributing to flourishing. The notion here is that the trajectory of human flourishing creates a telos, a goal that we should be working toward. "Right" and "wrong" are just words we use to describe people who are contributing to or undermining the flourishing project. "Should" and "ought" language is pragmatic in this view: if you want humans to flourish you "should" and "ought" to do x, y and z.

Now you might have noticed something a bit squirrelly in what I just said. Specifically, just because science gives us the levers of flourishing does that mean we must pull them? And that we must thwart those would are horrifically interfering with flourishing? Empirically speaking, sex traffickers are impeding flourishing. That's a fact. So, if we want to promote flourishing--if that is our preference--then we should stop them. But must we? Are we morally obligated to stop them? Or is this just a preference?       

We're back to the issue I kept posing to the atheists about preferences and morality. Is the promotion of human flourishing a preference, something we'd like for the world, or is the promotion of human flourishing something we must work toward? Are we morally obligated to stand in the way of sex traffickers?

We might debate that point, and I doubt we could get universal agreement that we are morally obligated to stop sex traffickers. But for my humble purposes, I don't need everyone to agree with me. All I need for the purposes of my post is to note that a lot of people, Christians and atheists, are very willing to say we should, must, and ought to stop sex trafficking, to say nothing of rape, pedophilia, and genocide. (And by stop I don't mean kill, I mean stop. We can be non-violent in trying to stop evil if non-violence is an ethical axiom you assume, something you morally hallow.)

And if this is granted, and I don't know how you can't grant the point that most people think we're morally obligated to stop evil, we're back to another example of metaphysical grounding and moral hallowing. The rule "if you're harming people you must stop" isn't an empirical fact. It's a rule we impose upon the cosmos. It's an axiom we take as a given, a background assumption of the system. And to my point, most people, even atheists, do, in fact, assume it.

Now before closing, let me also say this. There's a lot of work in ethics trying to create, for lack of a better description, a "naturalistic ethics," an ethics that is rooted wholly in empirical data. Sam Harris comes to mind. The attraction of this project for atheists is obvious. And as a social scientist I find a lot of this work, which is focused on human flourishing, very interesting.

That said, at the end of the day this project really boils down to what might best be described as moral technology or social engineering, what we should do from a pragmatic point of view to promote human flourishing without any obligation to do so. Because, at the end of the day, the cosmos doesn't care about Hitler or pedophilia.

But even then--even then!--this project is going to require some metaphysical guardrails. Take the example of eugenics. Even if science can give us the end of the project--more human flourishing--it can't always help us with the means. Some non-negotiable, axiomatic rules need to get laid down, as some ends don't justify the means. Once again, we're back to metaphysics, rules that have to be assumed before we can get the ball rolling.

All that to say, after a lot of discussion with the atheists I'm even more confident that ethics requires metaphysics.

Everyone, even atheists, engages in moral hallowing.


Post-Script:
To be fair, not everyone engages in moral hallowing. But most of us do. Even atheists.

Journal Week 34: A New Season

School starts up on Monday at ACU. Back to the classroom!

I'm entering into a new season of teaching. For the last ten years or so I've taught the largest class at ACU, 300 students in a large auditorium for PSYC 120 Introduction to Psychology. With a second section in the Spring semester of the same size, that has meant that about half of the ACU student body, at some point, has been in my class.

PSYC 120 isn't a required class. It's a social science offering in a menu of other classes, from history to sociology to political science. Consequently, PSYC 120 represents the only chance a non-major would have to take a psychology class in their college career. So we throw the doors wide open to let anyone who wants to take psychology take it. And the class gets big.

There have been advantages and disadvantages to this. From a teaching perspective, I would never hold PSYC 120 up as a model of cutting edge pedagogy. It's a big lecture class. But PSYC 120 gives our department a lot of exposure on campus that has created interest in our major.

The biggest downside for me personally has been being unable to get to know 300 students a semester. The class is fun and has a lot of energy because of its size, but it feels anonymous to me. And it creates a strange asymmetry of intimacy when I walk across campus. Hundreds and hundreds of students know me, but I don't know them.

So it's been a weird season, being the most recognized teacher on campus. It many ways it has been fun. For years my colleagues have teased me about the popularity, calling me a "rock star." That's embarrassing, but deep down who doesn't want to be popular?

But over the last 2-3 years, I've been getting tired of the big class and big stage. I want smaller classrooms with less visibility on campus. This feeling is probably a season of life thing.

And due to some faculty retirements in our department, that new season has come. For the first time in over a decade I won't be on the stage in PSYC 120. I've handed the class off to a charismatic young female faculty member and have picked up a required course in our major.

I'm really looking forward to the change. Instead of speaking to anonymous masses I'll be able to develop personal relationships with my psychology majors.

I won't be a rock star, but I'll get to be a mentor and friend.

Scorning Shame

Studying the book of Hebrews I was once again struck by this famous passage in Hebrews 12:
Hebrews 12.2
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 
Due to the amazing work of Brene Brown, there's been an increasing interest on the power of shame in our lives. Shame is such a crippling emotion.

So I'm struck again about the shame resiliency of Jesus. Jesus, in the translation of the NIV, scorned the shame of the cross. Most of us are bullied, pushed around, and bossed about by shame. Jesus scorned the shame. That's a bit more than shame resiliency!

And I love the connection with joy. Jesus scorned the shame for the joy. He wasn't angry or grim. The joy made him immune to shame's bullying.

Scorning shame for the joy. I think Ground Zero of mental health and the abundant life is found right there.  

Angels in the Book of Hebrews

The books of Hebrews starts off this way:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
In the past God had communicated with humanity in a variety of ways, but now God has spoken through his Son, who is "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being."

After this declaration, Hebrews then goes on a tour, showing how Jesus is far superior to, in order, angels, Moses, the High Priest, and the Levitical sacrifices of "bulls and goats." These examples represent the "various ways" God spoke to humanity in the past, and with each one the author of Hebrews describes how Jesus is far superior. Jesus is superior to the angels. Jesus is superior to Moses. Jesus is superior to the High Priest. And the blood of Jesus is superior to the blood of bulls and goats.

The inclusion of the angels in this list might seem odd. It's clear when we look at Moses, the Levitical priesthood and the Levitical sacrifices that each are intermediaries, something that stood between God and humanity. Moses stood between God and Israel. The High Priest stood between God and Israel. And the the blood of bulls and goats stood between God and Israel.

But in what way did angels stand between God and Israel? And why does the discussion of angels come first in the book of Hebrews?

The answer is that, during the Second Temple period, it was believed that Moses received the Law on Sinai not from God directly but through an angelic mediator. This belief comes from Deuteronomy 33.2, which speaks about God appearing on Sinai accompanied by a host of holy companions, translated by the Septuagint as a host of angels:
And he said, The Lord has come from Sinai,
and has appeared from Seir to us,
and has shone forth from Mount Paran,
with the ten thousands of Kadesh;
on His right hand were His angels with Him.
Outside of Hebrews, the notion that the Law was given to Moses by an angel is found in the New Testament in two places, Acts 7 and Galatians 3:
Acts 7.37-38
“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us."

Galatians 3.19b
The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator.
With this understanding in hand, we can see now how the angels fit into the argument of Hebrews and why the order goes as it does: Angels, Moses, High Priest, sacrifices.

An angel was the intermediary between God and Moses in the giving of the Law.

Moses then becomes the intermediary by bringing the Law to Israel.

The Law then establishes the High Priest to be the intermediary for the people in the tabernacle rituals.

And in the tabernacle rituals the sacrifices of bulls and goats stood between God and Israel.

The flow here is quite logical, from the top of Mount Sinai all the way down to the sacrifices in the tabernacle. 

Welcome to the United States of America

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

"Of The Empire" by Mary Oliver, from Devotions

Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 3, Moral Hallowing

Over the last two posts we've been talking about how many progressive Christians struggle with the language of eternal judgment and hell in the Bible. I've made two points.

First, prophetic speech is natural and ubiquitous among progressives. Consequently, I think progressive Christians are more at home in the moral universe of the Bible than they tend to imagine. 

Second, progressive Christians love Jesus, but Jesus spoke of judgment and hell all the time. Consequently, progressive Christians who want to pattern their life after Jesus need to wrestle with these aspects of his worldview.

Still, even if all these points are granted, I don't think progressives are lining up to hear hellfire and brimstone sermons.

So, how can progressives think about the language of judgment, damnation, and hell in the Bible?

First, I want to set aside biblical and metaphysical issues in this conversation. For example, to go back to Jesus, we can have a long conversation about what Jesus meant by "hell." I, personally, don't think Jesus was talking about eternal conscious torment. I think Jesus was mostly talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. We can debate issues like that.

For this post, I simply want to make a point about why language concerning judgment, damnation, and hell are helpful and necessary.

To state my thesis succinctly, I think the language of judgment, damnation, and hell are examples of what I'll call moral hallowing.

Hallowing, it will be recalled, is setting something apart, recognizing something as holy and sacred. Another way to say it is that hallowing creates an intersection, a point of contact, between Heaven and Earth.

Over the last few years, I've written a great deal about our need for hallowing to give life sacred texture and weight, and how everyone, even atheists, need to do this. Some places and events--births, deaths, marriages, tragedies--need to be set apart in ritualistic ways as sacred and special. Otherwise life becomes an undifferentiated series of meaningless events. Some things need hallowing.

The same thing goes for our moral lives as well. We need moral hallowing.

When we grab a word like "evil" we're engaged in moral hallowing, we're naming something so terrible that it's in a different class. That's a form of "setting apart," hallowing. The same goes when we praise acts of moral heroism and sacrifice. The language of "heroes" is an example of moral hallowing. Heroes are morally "set apart."

In short, whatever the language of judgment, damnation, and hell might be, it is laying a sacred, eternal perspective atop human moral actions. It is moral hallowing, viewing human moral actions sub specie aeternitatis, "from the perspective of the eternal."

Viewing human moral actions sub specie aeternitatis is simply to seek God's view, God's judgment, of human behavior, good or evil.

And here's my point: Everyone does this. Everyone, even atheists, engage in moral hallowing. Everyone evaluates human moral actions sub specie aeternitatis. Everyone cares about God's judgment.

True, we don't all agree on the metaphysics. And the language of Judgment Day and hell can seem antiquated and mythological to many, though even atheists say "God damn it!" and "You can go to hell!" But moral hallowing, if you look for it, is everywhere.

Everyone believes in judgment, damnation, and hell.

Journal Week 33: The Last First Day of School is Hard on the Heart

My university ACU is starting the year off with 40 days of prayer. As a part of this season, I was asked to select a text, share a devotional thought, and offer a prayer. The topic of my day was praying for parents sending their children off to college, specifically how hard and scary that can be.

Here was my reflection:
Today we pray for parents as they watch their students become independent adults that they may let go and entrust their children to God.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ ” – Luke 2:34-35

Devotional Thought
When the infant Jesus is presented at the temple, Simeon has a specific prophetic word for Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Being Jesus’s mother will bring fear, confusion and suffering into Mary’s life.

Every parent can identify with Mary. There is great joy in becoming a parent, but having children makes us vulnerable to heartache. The successes and victories of our children become our successes and victories. But their pain and sorrow also becomes our pain and sorrow. When our children hurt, a sword pierces our heart as well.

The burden of this vulnerability can overwhelm us with fear, especially during times of letting go when our children step away from the protective, caring space of home. Wildcat Week is a joyous time, but it’s also a time of great sadness and anxiety for the parents of our ACU students. Love has a cost, and it’s often paid with tears and sleepless nights.

Today’s Prayer
Our Father in Heaven, a sword also pierced your heart when you gave your Son to the world in love. We, however, are but dust. Our fears as parents can overwhelm us with worry. And the sorrows of our children can cripple us with grief. So today we pray for the parents of our students as they let go of their children during this season of life. We ask that you replace any fear and anxiety they may have with peace, courage, comfort, trust and joy. Give our ACU parents – give all of us – the power and courage to fearlessly carry the burden of love. Amen.
This reflection settled over me this week. Our youngest son Aidan's first day of school was this week. It's Aidan's senior year in High School. So this was Aidan's last first day of school.

As you can imagine, it's an emotional time for Jana and I. We remember all the feelings from Brenden's senior year, and we're about to do it again.

Love is a mystery, how if you love someone your heart becomes exposed to sadness and worry. And there's really no escaping it. Nor would you want to. Hurt goes with love. The only alternative is detachment and numbness. That might be safe, but it's not a human way to live.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons I'm a Christian, how the cross stands at the center of our faith.

The cross is an outpouring of love, and the cross is also very, very sad.

And to me, that is the truest thing in the entire world.

Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 2, The Jesus Problem

It's often said that if progressive Christians love one thing about Christianity it's Jesus.

Progressive Christians might not like the Old Testament, or Paul, or the organized church, but they tend to love Jesus.

The trouble is, Jesus was a pretty judgmental dude. As any superficial reading of the gospels will reveal to you, Jesus talked about damnation and hell all the time. Here's Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
All that to say, if progressives want to align themselves with Jesus they have to do the work to enter into Jesus's moral universe.

But again, as I pointed out in the last post, this shouldn't be too hard for progressives. Still, you see a lot of progressives struggle with this "Jesus problem."

I think this is mainly because progressives tend to cast Jesus as a Zen, non-dualistic thinking, hippie, flower child than as a prophet standing within the Hebrew prophetic tradition.

Yes, Jesus welcomed tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes, but his radical hospitality had a harsh, prophetic, and apocalyptic edge. Just ask the Pharisees.

In short, Jesus was a lover, but he was also an apocalyptic prophet of doom. And yes, it's hard to fit those pieces together. But if progressives want to lay claim to Jesus, they need to lay claim to the whole of him. 

Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 1, A Fondness for Hell

Progressive, liberal Christians like myself generally struggle with the language of hell and judgment in the Bible. For at least two reasons.

First, many progressive Christians espouse a hopeful, universalist eschatology, and many progressives find it hard to fit the harsh language of hell and judgment into that scheme.

Second, harsh language of hell and judgment is also, well, a wee bit judgmental, and that undermines the welcoming, hospitable, and tolerant posture most progressive, liberal Christians wish to embody in the world.

Then throw into the mix the fact that many progressive Christians are post-evangelicals, squeamish of any theology that smacks of religious conservatism and fundamentalism, and you're left with a lot of hand wringing in progressive circles about Judgment Day and hell.

And yet, the Bible is full of harsh, judgmental language with threats of hell. So what do you do with that? I'd like to share three thoughts over three posts.

For today, an obvious point.

Basically, it's a bit odd that progressive, liberal Christians are squeamish about the judgmental language in the Bible when they tend to be, almost to a person, a pretty judgmental group of people. And I'm looking in the mirror on this one. Did you notice how progressive Christians reacted to the election of Donald Trump, and how they have behaved since? Have you paid attention to progressive social justice warriors on social media? Harsh, judgmental language calling out moral evils isn't something progressives shy away from.

Plus, progressives tend to align themselves with the biblical prophets, and yet that speech is generally the speech of judgment, hell, and damnation.

My point in making this observation isn't to sacralize progressives who damn others. My point is just the simple observation that the moral sensibilities of progressive Christians, especially in how they embrace the biblical prophets, are actually quite at home in and fond of the moral universe of the Bible, even with the language of judgement, damnation, and hell.

Mark 5.1-5

This is a bleeding,
infected, festering madness,
a fevered, hot howling darkness.
A haunted, hollowed house
torn and swept through
by cold, murmuring winds.
Chattering broken voices echoing
down the empty alleyways of the mind.
This is lost,
and pain,
and hell.

And then a burnt moment,
sizzling ozone like lighting,
rivening with a crack.
But also something more tender, easy
and gentle:
the cooling of the rain,
the tendrils of dawn
caressing the sky,
the kiss of a flower brushing your cheek.

This is a power and force
that overwhelms in the tenderest
loving touch.
A calamity
of quietness and rest,
bringing a revelation:

This is found,
this is peace,
this is coming home.



Note:
I've always wanted to write a poem about Jesus' exorcisms. This is the attempt.