Traces of Polytheism in 2 Kings

Preparing for my bible study out at the prison I was reading through 2 Kings and came upon this really curious passage in 2 Kings 3. There seems to be the shadow of another god in the biblical text.

In the story the Israelites are attacking their perennial enemies, the Moabites. And the Israelites get the upper hand:
2 Kings 3.24-27 (NRSV)
But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and attacked the Moabites, who fled before them; as they entered Moab they continued the attack. The cities they overturned, and on every good piece of land everyone threw a stone, until it was covered; every spring of water they stopped up, and every good tree they felled. Only at Kir-hareseth did the stone walls remain, until the slingers surrounded and attacked it.
Facing defeat the Moabite king does something desperate. He offers a child sacrifice--To whom?--and that sacrifice saves Moab. After the sacrifice the NRSV reads "and a great wrath came upon Israel" causing them to retreat:
When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.
Where did this wrath come from? The text doesn't really say. Some translations leave in the ambiguity while others tilt toward a human origin:
ESV:
And there came great wrath against Israel

KJV:
And there was great indignation against Israel

ASV:
And there was great wrath against Israel

NIV:
The fury against Israel was great
The ASV, NRSV, and the ESV keep the source of the wrath vague. The KJV and the NIV seem to suggest that the wrath comes from the onlooking Moabites. That is, seeing their king sacrifice his son fills the Moabites with "fury" and "indignation" which rekindles their fighting spirit to throw back the Israelite advance.

But the text doesn't actually say that. It doesn't say that the Moabites got angry or that they rose up against the Israelites in anger. It simply says that in response to the child sacrifice a "wrath came up against Israel" and that "Israel withdrew."

Basically, if you read between the lines the god of Moab--Chemosh (Num. 21.29; Jer. 48.7, 13, 46)--seems to be implicated. First, a child sacrifice is made by the king of Moab. This wouldn't have been to YHWH but to Chemosh. And after the sacrifice to Chemosh a "great wrath" comes upon the Israelites, causing them to withdraw. It seems reasonable to assume that Chemosh found the sacrifice acceptable and moved against Israel.

Of course, Chemosh isn't directly mentioned. One wonders if a direct mention of the Moabite god was removed from the original story in light of the developing monotheism of Israel.

If this story contains a trace of Chemosh it is one of the few stories, and the only one I'm aware of as I consult my memory, where a god other than YHWH has a causal impact on human events in the Old Testament.

Eclectic Theology

I approach theology as a psychologist. Which means that I approach theology eclectically. Theology, as I see it, is a tool. My main criterion for picking up a bit of theology is utilitarian and pragmatic in nature. The question I ask of theology is this: Will it do the job?

And this approach to theology is, I've discovered, a bit unique.

Theoretically, psychology is a diverse discipline. You have Freud and all the thinkers from the psychodynamic tradition, people like Jung and Adler. You also have humanistic approaches like Carl Rogers. Or existential orientations like Victor Frankl. To say nothing of the behaviorists. Or the cognitive approaches pioneered by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.

There are so many theories in psychology that classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are devoted to surveying and investigating all these theories.

So when it comes to practice, then, counseling and clinical psychologists have to make some choices. Which theory--we call it a "therapeutic orientation"--will guide how you approach therapy? Because these various theories have very different thoughts about what ails us and what might be done about it. A psychodynamically orientated therapist will be very, very different from a behavioral therapist.

Some psychologists pick a particular orientation and get really good at that approach. But most psychologists describe themselves as eclectic in therapeutic orientation. Eclectic psychologists pick and choose among the various theories and techniques depending upon the presenting problem of the client. They might pick cognitive-behavioral techniques if the presenting issue is depression or opt for a psychodynamic approach it the issue is rooted in family dynamics or past trauma.

And even among those psychologists who specialize in a particular approach an eclectic and utilitarian sensibility reigns. Few psychologists are purists. Techniques are routinely borrowed from other orientations. You grab anything that might help a client. And given that clients are human beings and not machines you often have to experiment with techniques to see what works.

In short, as a psychologist I was trained to see theories as tools. I was trained to pick up theory, use it, drop it, and pick up another one. Psychologists don't get overly attached to theories. We treat theories the way a surgeon looks at a table of scalpels and surgical implements. You reach for the one you need at the moment. You reach for the tool that does the job.

As best I can tell, theological education is a bit different in this regard. Theological education appears to be more polemical, an identification with a school of thought which involves noting the various failures or problems of alternative or rival theological approaches. Standard putdowns of various theological thinkers or positions are practiced and repeated.

In contrast to psychological clinical training, theologians do not seem to be encouraged to pick up  and drop theories--that is, the writings of a church father or theologian--in an eclectic, disinterested and utilitarian fashion, mixing and matching them to solve a problem. I've rarely seen, for example, Aquinas or Augustine or a church father picked up or, most diagnostically, dropped from a discussion in this way.

I'm generalizing of course. For example, graduate schools in psychology do lean toward certain approaches. And practicum supervisors may have a very distinctive approach. Still, in the course of your graduate education in psychology you'll get exposed to, trained in and experiment with a variety of therapeutic approaches. Which is why most practicing psychologists describe themselves as eclectic rather than as subscribing to a particular school of thought.

All this has affected how I approach theology. Theology, as I see it, is a collection of theories and I've been trained to handle theories in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner. I have a what'll-do-the-job approach. Theology is a tool. So if one theological approach isn't particularly good at something I set it down and reach for something that seems to work better.

For example, there are things that, say, a Tillich can do better than, say, a Hauerwas. And there are things a Hauerwas can do that Tillich cannot. For some things I think Augustine is a great tool. For other things I think liberal theology is a better tool. Sometimes I think Niebuhr is more helpful than Yoder while at other times I think the reverse. I'll reach for Barth if I need him but I'll also grab death of God theology. Sometimes I'll reach for a high Christology. Sometimes a low one. Today I might preach the doctrine of Original Sin. Tomorrow I might denounce it.

I'll use anything that'll do the job. Just like an eclectic psychologist will reach for any technique or approach that they think will be helpful.

All this explains why I can be so breathtakingly quick to dismiss certain theologians or theological systems that others deem sacrosanct. Let's say, for example, your theology is rooted in Thomas Aquinas and you love theologians like Herbert McCabe. Well, I'll be quick to drop McCabe and Aquinas when I don't find them useful in the same way I'm quick to drop Sigmund Freud. For lots and lots of things I think Freud and Aquinas are useful and helpful. But Freud and Aquinas are tools.

To be sure, treating someone like Aquinas as a tool will be shocking for some theologians. But that's how we treat the giants in my discipline. What I'm trying to describe here is that my quickness to drop someone like Aquinas (or any church father or theologian) isn't due to arrogance but is, rather, a disciplinary habit inculcated by my training in psychology where theories are picked up and dropped for pragmatic reasons with startling speed and regularity. I bring those social science habits to the work of theology.

Of course, I could be wrong about how I've characterized theological training. I'm an outsider looking in. Theologians may be trained to be as eclectic and utilitarian as psychologists. To be sure, in theological education budding theologians are exposed to theological history and the various theological systems. But I don't know if they are trained to mix and match theories in their work as indiscriminately as psychologists are trained to do.

Basically, I don't tend to think about a theological position as being "right or wrong." My focus is on usefulness. Every theological position has strengths and weaknesses, and noting the weaknesses doesn't mean the theological position is "wrong." It just means that it's useful for some things and not for others.

Which is right, penal substitutionary atonement or Rene Girard? Liberal theology or Barth? Yoder or Neibuhr? Thomas Aquinas or death of God theology?

Goodness gracious. I don't know.

But I find them all very useful. 

Joy

I was freezing. Sitting in a cold metal folding chair. My feet on a carpet soaked with icy water. By all accounts I should have been miserable.

It had been freezing in Abilene for the last two weeks. And for some reason the heating system in the prison chapel had been turned off. In fact, the system seemed to be blowing cold air. And it was below freezing outside.

To make matters worse leaks had sprung up all over the ceiling. Buckets everywhere catching ice cold water dripping from the ceiling. Huge portions of the carpet soaked with water, almost forming puddles. My chair was in the middle of one of these heavily soaked areas.

And those folding metal chairs aren't too cozy in cold damp conditions.

Such was the state of the chapel out at the prison for our Monday night bible study.

And we couldn't have been happier.

Because of staffing shortages and the weather our study hadn't met in a few weeks. So this night, all back together again, felt like a reunion. Hugs, smiles and laughter all around. It was good to be together again.

To sing together. Pray together. Talk about Jesus together.

We were in a freezing cold, soaking wet room inside a maximum security prison. You could hear the drip, drip, drip of buckets collecting icy droplets. And guess what we talked about?

We talked about joy.

A Lenten Reflection: On Sin and Self-Deception

In thinking about Lenten observance, this season of self-examination, revisited my review of Gregg Ten Elshof's book I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life.

We don't talk about self-deception much but the bible does warn about it in many places:
Jeremiah 17.9
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Obadiah 1.3
The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, 'Who can bring me down to the ground?'

Galatians 6.3
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
In the past warnings regarding self-deception were common. However, in his book Ten Elshof argues that self-deception has faded from our view, particularly in Christian communities. Christians worry about a great many vices but we rarely warn against self-deception.

Which is odd because we know self-deception is everywhere. Ten Elshof cites studies that show how 94% of us think we do a "better than average job" in our places of work or how 100% of us think that we are "better than average" in getting along well with others. Clearly there is some self-deception at work in all this. Think about the people you will encounter today at work. All of these people think they are "better than average" in getting along with their coworkers! Obviously, some of these people are seriously deluded. But I, of course, actually do get along really well with others...

So self-deception is everywhere and it affects our ability to be honest with ourselves. But we have trouble following the advice of the ancients. We have trouble admitting we might be self-deceived. Why is that?

Ten Elshof argues that when vices get promoted in severity we have a more difficult time admitting that we engage in such practices. The more severe the vice the greater the social and emotional cost to recognize its effect upon us. Ten Elshof has us consider the case of racism:
Now a remarkable thing happens when a vice gets a promotion, when it is perceived as having greater negative moral weight than it once had. Consider racism. Many of us, myself included, have a hard time these days admitting that we correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his or her skin. This hasn't always been so. There have been times and places--in fact, there are places now--where people would have no trouble at all recognizing they correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his of her skin. They may or may not use the word, but they have no trouble with the idea that they are, themselves, racist.

In the recent history of developed western society, though, racism earned a well-deserved promotion in the ordering of vices. This is all to the good. But with that promotion came an increased emotional cost in the recognition, "I am a racist." If racism is worse than we thought, then it's harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you're a racist. And it is at this point that life offers us the self-deception deal. You can experience the satisfaction that rightly belongs to the person who steers clear of the vice of racism if you can but convince yourself that you're not a racist. Unsurprisingly, a great many people take the deal.
To illustrate this, Ten Elshof has us consider a fictional (but all too real) example:
Consider a person with racist beliefs. Lucille is a dear Christian woman in her eighties. Suppose Lucille is answering a series of True/False questions and comes upon the following:

True or false: People of all ethnicities are equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected.

Lucille would circle "true" without hesitation. It would strike her as a truism--something you'd have to be a moral wretch to disagree with. Of course she believes this! Were you to seriously raise this question in conversation, she might well be offended by the mere suggestion that it should be treated as an open question. But you need spend only half a day with Lucille to see that she believes no such thing. Her language and behavior exhibit a clear and habitual disdain for African-Americans in her context. She does not believe them to be equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected. It's not quite that she's being hypocritical or dishonest. She sincerely thinks that she believes this. But she doesn't.
These observations are, I think, extraordinarily important. Especially during Lent. Self-deception of this sort is rampant within the Christian community. And it's not that people are being hypocritical (although many are). People really do believe they aren't afflicted by a variety of vices, racism included.

But, as we have noted, it is very hard to admit these things about ourselves. Why? It goes back to the promotion of vices. The more severe the vice the greater the cost in its recognition.

Interestingly, Ten Elshof goes on to suggest that self-deception itself has increased in severity in a way similar to racism. This makes it doubly hard to see through the lies we tell ourselves. Before we can admit we have racist attitudes we also have to confront the ways we've deceived ourselves about having racists attitudes. Being doubly convicted in this way--admitting you're self-deceived and racist--is a hard hill to climb.

How did self-deception itself get promoted as a vice?

Ten Elshof argues that we moderns have become increasingly concerned with issues of authenticity or "being real." This shift, he argues, was largely due the rise of existentialism. We have traded in being good for being authentic. And with that shift the sin of self-deception got a promotion. In a culture of authenticity being self-deluded or self-deceived is now one of the greatest sins we can commit. Thus, we just can't admit to ourselves that we might be self-deceived. Ten Elshof on this point:
...beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists (including Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) elevated authenticity to a place of primary importance in their understanding of the virtues. Due to the writings of the existentialists and other cultural trends, the "Good Person" was increasingly understood to be the "Authentic Person." Being true to oneself became a--or, in some cases, the--chief good. Self-deception, then, was given a promotion in the ranking of vices. What was once a derivative vice--one whose primary importance was found in its ability to facilitate other, more serious, vices--became itself the most egregious of all sins.
And in the face of this pressure to be "authentic" and "real" we simply cannot admit we are self-deceived and self-deluded. Despite massive and catastrophic evidence to the contrary.

Consequently, if Lent is to be a season of self-examination and repentance then Lent must be increasingly involved in the work of penetrating our self-deception.

Lent must be the hard work of exposing the lies we tell ourselves.

Unpublished: Being Church of Christ

I believe in the locally autonomous congregation, where the gathered believers bind and loose in their own unique contexts.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers.

I believe that preachers are not pastors but evangelists and that being an evangelist doesn't automatically make you a pastor.

Theologically, I believe that a capella congregational singing is the purest form of worship there is.

I believe the reason we gather on the Lord's Day is to partake of the Lord's Supper.

I believe that the proper response to the gospel proclamation is to be buried with Christ in baptism by immersion.

I don't confess any creed but the Bible alone and that we must daily search the Scriptures reasoning together in our local congregations.

I believe we should try to pattern our common lives together after the example of the church as revealed in the book of Acts and the Epistles.

I believe in the unity of the body of Christ, that we should claim to be Christians only but not the only Christians.

--from a draft of an unpublished list I was working with trying to articulate why I am affiliated with the Churches of Christ

You

It goes without saying that Psalm 23 is the most famous psalm. Perhaps the most famous text in the whole of the bible.

What is the source of its appeal?

No doubt it is due to the imagery of the loving shepherd caring for the sheep. But there is also a subtle shift in the poem that enhances its emotional intimacy and potency. But it's a subtle shift. Can you see it?
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.
The poet begins by addressing a human audience and referring to God in the third person:
The Lord...
He makes me...
He leads me...
He restores my soul.
The imagery is powerful and rich but it's held at a distance. Describing another time and place and a person who is not present.

And then, suddenly but subtly, so subtly that you don't really notice it, the focus shifts away from a human audience to address God directly. "He" shifts to "you."
You are with me...
Your rod...
Your staff...
You prepare...
You anoint...
It's a shift--the change from "he" to "you"--that we hardly consciously register. But the emotional effect is one of deepening intimacy. The poem starts with God held at a distance and then, almost imperceptibility, it becomes a very personal, intimate, direct and face-to-face engagement.

You.

I Don't Believe in Universalism

Calm down, let me explain.

I would like to explain why I don't believe in universalism.

Actually, the reason is pretty simple.

I don't like -isms.

I don't believe in -isms.

-Isms are ideological systems and I struggle with those. Especially metaphysical systems.

In the case of "universalism" I struggle with the metaphysical specificity you have to articulate about how God--given all the things that have to get juggled, from human sin, free will, evil, God's justice, God's holiness, hell, the biblical text, the atonement, time, sanctification vs. justification and on and on and on--will reconcile all things in Christ. If believing in universal reconciliation means believing in a specific theological vision--an -ism--that explains how all this stuff is going to get worked out then, well, I'm out. I don't believe in that.

To be clear, I love thinking about and creating those theological systems, how this or that issue or tension or biblical text "fits together" in a vision of universal reconciliation. I think such system building and system testing is a part of what it means to say that that faith is seeking understanding. It also helps us compare and contrast the reasonableness and coherence of different systems.

In short, I think creating these systems, these theological -isms, is both valuable and important. But I don't believe in these systems. The systems are tools and hypotheses. That is all.

Consider universalism. There isn't a single view--universalism. There are all kinds of views. There are universalisms. I don't believe in universalism because I can't tell you which of all these different views is the right view. I have my opinions of course, but I'm not particularly interested in determining in any final way which system is the "correct" system. I don't know how you could even determine such a thing.

So what do I believe in?

I believe God is love. That is what I believe. "God is love" is axiomatic to my thinking. A theological non-negotiable.

And what I've noticed is that when you are truly non-negotiable on this point and when you try to express God's love eschatologically what you end up articulating is something that earns the label "universalism."

If someone asks me about specifics about how this or that is going to work out or fit together in the end I'll start talking about theories, ideas and systems showing how all those things might be reconciled. For example, I have a system about how to reconcile God's wrath and eternal punishment with my axiomatic conviction that God is love. That system would earn the label "universalism." But I'm not sure my system is right. God might work it out some other way. In fact, I'm pretty sure God will work it out in some other way.

So I don't believe in the -ism. I believe that God is love and I refuse to negotiate on that point. That's about it. And while there are lots of theories about how God's love is expressed eschatologically I can't tell you which of those is right or wrong. So I hold the -isms very, very lightly.

Like I said, I don't believe in universalism.

But I do I believe that all things will be reconciled to God in Christ.

I believe that God is love.

Bonhoeffer and the Negro Spiritual

The most influential contribution made by the Negro to American Christianity lies in the "Negro Spirituals," in which the distress and delivery of the people of Israel ("Go down, Moses . . ."), the misery and consolation of the human heart ("Nobody knows the trouble I've seen"), and the love of the Redeemer and longing for the kingdom of heaven ("Swing low, sweet chariot . . .") find moving expression. Every white American knows, sings and loves these songs. It is barely understandable that great Negro singers can sing these songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination.

One may also say that nowhere is revival preaching still so vigorous and so widespread as among the Negroes, that here the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the savior of the sinner, is really preached and accepted with great welcome and visible emotion.

--Dietrich  Bonhoeffer

///

I still believe that the spiritual songs of the southern Negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America.

--Dietrich  Bonhoeffer

///

During the year he lived in the United States (1930) Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was there at Abyssinian Baptist where Bonhoeffer encountered the gospel and spiritual songs of African-American tradition. Before leaving the US Bonhoeffer bought a crate of albums of African-American spirituals.

This collection became one of Bonhoeffer's most prized possessions and featured prominently in his pastoral ministry. Bonhoeffer played this music to poor working-class German children in his confirmation class, to his youth group in London, to his college students in Berlin and to the seminarians at Finkenwalde.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
(picture above of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem)

Unpublished: Addicted to Stories

In my limited experience in writing books and speaking and in my much greater experience in reading best-selling Christian books and listening to popular Christian speakers I've noticed something.

Stories sell.

If you are, say, a pastor or a church planter and you want to write a best-selling book or be a popular speaker you need to have a lot of good stories. Funny stories of your mishaps. Stories where you learn something important in an unexpected way or from an unlikely teacher. Stories that move people emotionally.

And maybe a person doesn't set out to be an author or a speaker. But something huge happens to them. Suddenly, they have this huge, dramatic story to tell. So a book deal comes along with the associated speaking tour.

None of this is bad, but our addiction to stories can be problematic. Emotionally and intellectually.

Emotionally, a captivating story can move you deeply. How many of us have listened to a speaker who just ripped our guts out with a powerful story? The seduction here is that by evoking strong emotions a story can make us feel, temporarily, like we've been changed. But we haven't. We've felt something deeply, but our habits haven't changed. Odds are, 48 hours after hearing that gut wrenching story, we are back to our old self.

Intellectually, stories can make you feel like you've learned something when you haven't. You might read, say, a church growth book. In the book you'll hear all sorts of stories about how this church went from ten members to ten-thousand. It's all very inspirational and motivational, all those stories, but when you put the book down can those stories be replicated in your own experience? Same goes for business and parenting books. Lots of stories of successes and failures, but little of it adds up to something concrete you can use in your own life. You're a different sort of person in different circumstances. Those stories can't be or won't be your stories. So after reading all those stories you're still standing at Square One.

In short, because stories give us an emotional or intellectual buzz I think we can become addicted to stories. Addicted to the buzz we find ourselves moving from story to story looking for the next mind-blowing or tear-inducing tale. And the Christian publishing and speaking industries are geared to keep these stories coming, to keep us buying and consuming more and more stories.

But in the face of all this consumption the question presents itself: How do we move from story consumption to spiritual formation, behavioral change and habit formation?

--from an unpublished post ruminating on how feeling moved and inspired by a good story so rarely translates into the hard sacrificial drudgery of Christian discipleship

Expanding the Moral Circle

A couple of years ago it was my pleasure to spend time with North Point Community Church, recording some material about the psychology of hospitality for use in their training of group leaders. North Point recently put some of this material online at their blog supporting their group leaders.

If you've heard me speak on this subject before you'll remember me talking about the expansion of the moral circle, using an example I share with my students about how we treat servers in restaurants.

And let me give a shout out to all my friends at North Point. It was great spending time with you. I remember the gummy worm and dirt cupcakes quite fondly! (When you speak about the psychology of disgust this is the sort of snack that shows up.)


Richard Beck: The Moral Circle from NPM GroupLeaders on Vimeo.

Litany of Penitence

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ.
We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Newsworthy with Norsworthy: The Haircut Episode (and a Bit of Ash Wednesday)

To get ready for Ash Wednesday tomorrow join me over at Luke Norsworthy's site for another podcast on Newsworthy with Norworthy where we discuss, in Luke's words, "the C21 conference, gratitude. singing in a maximum security prison, Dieter Zander, crying more, turning upon celebrities, hero worship, Ash Wednesday, stacking time, the Laundromat post and why he cut his hair."

"A Bid For the Attention of Strangers": Self-Esteem Through Shaming

If you get a chance go read Jon Ronson's NYT article (H/T Daniel Jonce Evans) "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life." I was particularly struck by some of the final lines of the article regarding the source of social media shaming:

"Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval...a bid for the attention of strangers."

Our self-concept is rooted in a desire for approval, an approval we often get by shaming the right people with the right people. In shaming others we stand with the crowd and, thus, gain the approval of the crowd.

As I've written about before, because self-esteem is inherently an act of social evaluation we achieve our sense of self-worth through acts of violence. We build up our self-worth by tearing down the worth of others.

This is one of the things I've learned from writers like James Alison and Rene Girard, how rivalry is intimately associated with our self-concept. Our sense of self-worth is created and supported by some contrast and opposition to others, generally a moral contrast. I feel good about myself because I am better than others. More virtuous. More righteous. More authentic. More humane. Less hoodwinked. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.

From sunrise to sunset every thought I have about myself is implicated in acts of comparison, judgement, and evaluation of others, allowing me to create a sense of self via contrast/opposition with others and then filling that self with feelings of significance and worthiness. 

And the toxicity of social media is that it harnesses and fuels these tendencies to shame others in a bid for the attention and approval of strangers.

Self-esteem is a violent flame waiting to burn others. Social media is the accelerant, an incendiary device where shame is thrown like a bomb at the right people and with the right people.

A New Apologetics

When I sent my publisher a book summary for the back cover of The Authenticity of Faith I characterized the book as providing a "new apologetics."

My publisher wondered if that description was too bold or audacious. Was I really providing a "new" apologetics?

I said it was. The Authenticity of Faith really was a new sort of apologetics. Nothing like this book had ever been published.

Sigmund Freud (along with many others before and since) claimed that religious faith was the result of wishful thinking, a craving for consolation and solace. That assessment has proved to be very potent. Especially as honest people know there is evidence backing up the claim.

As we say, there are no atheists in foxholes. And isn't life just one big foxhole?

But what can theologians, philosophers or biblical scholars--specialists in what I call "classical apologetics"--say about any of this?

Nothing really. Freud's claim isn't biblical, historical, theological or philosophical. It's an empirical claim about human psychology, about the motivations behind religious belief.

Which means that if you want to assess or evaluate Freud's claim you can't do it from the theologian's armchair or the philosopher's lectern. To get directly at the question you're going to have put Freud's claim to the test, to assess it empirically.

Is religious belief motivated by wishful thinking? Empirically speaking, either it is or it isn't.

Given that the issue regards human motivation, this seems to be a question only psychologists can address.

And if you haven't read the book, what is the take home point?

Based upon some of my own research, I conclude that Freud wasn't wholly wrong. Religious persons have to take Freud seriously. The motivations Freud describes do exist. Faith is often motivated by a need for existential consolation, and this motivational configuration has a lot of pernicious outcomes. So beware. And be aware.

That's a lesson I share with my students. "I know you want to blow Freud off, but you can't. He's making an important observation, an observation a thoughtful religious person will take seriously."

But Freud's mistake, I go on to say, was his "one size fits all" approach, his insistence on cramming the whole of religious experience into this narrow motivational box. Consequently, a better approach in describing religious motivation is the one used by William James: there are varieties of religious experiences and motivations.

And if that's the case, if there are religious varieties, how could you tell the difference?

This, it seems to me, is the crucial, diagnostic question. For individual believers and for faith communities.

And the book, which I hope you'd read, tries describe a way to answer that question.

Eucharistic Identity

In my book The Slavery of Death I discuss, borrowing from Arthur McGill and David Kelsey, how an eccentric identity can emancipate us from our slavery to the fear of death, a fear which functions as the power of the devil in our lives (Hebrews 2.14-15).

The key idea behind an eccentric identity is coming to receive your life (and the things in your life) as gift. The experience of gift, cultivated through the practices of doxological gratitude, reduces both our basic and neurotic experiences of anxiety and scarcity, our worries about having enough (basic anxiety) and being enough (neurotic anxiety).

So gratitude sits at the heart of the eccentric identity.

And as I've pondered the central role of gratitude in our Christian identity I've wondered, post-publication, if I shouldn't have chosen another word to describe this sort of identity.

Specifically, while I really like the label "eccentric identity" I'm more and more taken with describing all this as being a "Eucharistic identity."

Eucharist, we know, comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία (eucharistia) which means "thanksgiving."

Which, it seems to me, makes Eucharistic a wonderful word to describe an identity that is to be founded upon gratitude and gift.

As Christians we are to cultivate a Eucharistic identity.

"Let My People Go!": On Worship, Work and Laziness

I was reading the book of Exodus and came to the first confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

And I was surprised by something.

I was expecting, because we all know this story, to find Moses walking up to Pharaoh and saying "Let my people go!"

But that's not quite what you find in the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh as recounted in Exodus 5. What you get is this:
Exodus 5.1
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Yes, we get the demand "Let my people go." But it's not a demand to leave Egypt. It's a demand for liberation and freedom to worship.

The demand is this: "Let my people go worship."

Pharaoh, we know, refuses and makes the Israelites work harder. They have to continue making bricks and make the same quotas but they have to gather their own straw.

All overworked people know the refrain.

More bricks, less straw.

And what's interesting to note in Pharaoh's reaction is that he assumes that a request for worship is symptomatic of laziness:
Exodus 5.8, 17-18
[Pharaoh said to the Israelite overseers:] "Require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’"

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
What I find interesting in all this is how the worship of God is perceived to interrupt the work and quotas demanded by Pharaoh. The tension, at least here in the beginning of Exodus, isn't the clash between slavery and liberation but the clash between worship and work.

I don't know about you, but that conflict seems extraordinarily relevant to our time and place.

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for more and more work?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for greater and greater productivity?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the quotas demanded by the Pharaohs of capitalism?

And will not the worship of God in our time and place be ultimately perceived as laziness?

"Don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy. That is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'"

Instead of a Coffee Shop How About a Laundromat?

Many years ago my church was pondering how to create a "third space" in our neighborhood. A third space is a place where people can mix on a regular basis, a place that is relaxed and non-threatening. A lot of people feel intimidated walking into a church. A third space, it was hoped, would be a non-religious place where relationships with neighbors could be formed.

A lot of churches have created third spaces by starting up a coffee shop. That's a great idea, but coffee shops tend to be a part of affluent White culture. The working poor don't hang out in coffee shops with their Mac laptops. Nor can they afford $4 specialty drinks.

So a coffee shop isn't going to be frequented by the working poor--White, Black or Hispanic--in our neighborhood. To be sure, a cool coffee shop would attract White hipsters, but that's not the demographic of our church neighborhood. 

So what would be a good third space for a poor neighborhood like the one surrounding our church? A place that would serve the neighborhood but could also be a place where people would spend time talking and forming relationships?

My idea has always been for our church to run laundromat.

The poor and working poor don't have washing and drying machines. Consequently, it's a real, real hassle to get clothing washed. What middle and upper class people seriously take for granted is taking a few steps to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine.

Can you imagine the hassle and the disruption to your day if you had to drive--or, more likely, walk or take a bus--to a laundromat? To say nothing of the lost time standing around attending your clothing as it washes and dries?

And then there's the money to run the machines, money you might need for dinner...

But here's the third space upside. Do you know what people do as they sit around waiting for their clothing to wash and dry?

They talk. As neighbors.

The laundromat is a local, neighborhood third space.

The acute need in my town for well-run, attended and inexpensive laundromats was highlighted this weekend for my wife. Wanting to catch up on the laundry--mostly huge stacks from two teenage boys--Jana loaded up the car and drove a few blocks to a laundromat in our neighborhood (which is very close to our church).

And what Jana experienced at that laundromat profoundly affected and disturbed her.

Jana saw refugee families bring in wet clothes that had been washed in the bathtub. Why? Because they could only afford to dry them.

Jana saw people break down in tears after, having walked many, many blocks with their loads of laundry, they found all the washing machines full. Of the twenty washing machines in the laundromat only nine of them worked. Of the twenty dryers only seven worked.

People began to cry when they found out that the change machine didn't have any quarters.

Jana watched Hispanic patrons grow frustrated and confused because they couldn't read the English instructions on the washing machines.

The place was filthy and disgusting. Jana called the house and we brought her some supplies. A broom to sweep the floors. Windex and paper towels to clean out the washing and drying machines. As many quarters as we could find so that she could make change for customers.

While Jana cleaned up the place the patrons of the laundromat--White, Black and Hispanic--shared that this laundromat was actually one of the better laundromats in town! Many people arrived at the laundromat after having visited one or two others in town in much worse condition.

Our town, if the reports of these customers were accurate, lacks well-run and clean laundromats. The working poor in our town are basically screwed if they want to wash their clothes.

All this, as Jana recounted her experience to me, reminded me about our church wanting to create a neighborhood third space. Listen, I love coffee shops, by what about churches running laundromats in their towns?

Laundromats are local, neighborhood third spaces, places where relationships can be formed. Plus, laundromats meet a need in a way a Carmel Macchiato cannot.

To say nothing of the blessing it would be to hand out free quarters or provide an attendant so that errands could be run while clothing was being cleaned or dried. Perfect ministry opportunities for church members wanting to serve and get to know neighbors.

So, that's my third space suggestion.

Churches, I like the coffee shops.

But how about a laundromat?

[Pictures taken by Jana at the laundromat 1.8 miles from our church.]

Thank You

Andrew Sullivan's The Dish has been my favorite blog. I read The Dish every day. I especially loved Sundays with The Dish when the content, much of it curated by Matthew Sitman, turned toward the religious.

So it was a sad day today when The Dish came to an end, Andrew and his team feeling it time to move on to other projects and endeavors. It felt like losing a dear friend. I'll miss The Dish. And I'll always cherish the fact that The Dish linked to a couple of my posts.

As I pondered my emotional connection with The Dish and Andrew Sullivan, someone I only know through his blog, I began to think about you, the readers of this blog. Over the years I've received so many emails, letters, comments and gifts from you sharing with me and thanking me about how much this blog has meant to you, how it has saved your faith, how it carried you through a dark place. I imagine that the connection you've felt with me is similar to the connection I felt for Andrew Sullivan.

So, similar to what Andrew did much of this week wrapping up The Dish, I want to take a moment to share with you how important you, as readers, have been to me. I might have saved many of you, but you have saved me as well.

When I started this blog back in 2006 I was in a pretty lonely place. Yes, I had friends but my thoughts and struggles and beliefs about Christianity were so unique and peculiar I never had found anyone who deeply understood where I was coming from. I felt alone.

But I also felt some of the things I was thinking and some of the conclusions I had reached about the faith could be of help to others in the church. But I had no outlets to see if that was the case. I was, and remain, a psychology professor who mostly taught statistics. Why would anyone give a book contract to a statistics teacher wanting to write about theology? Why would anyone invite a statistics teacher to preach or speak?

In my faith tradition the preachers were the ones with a voice. The preachers wrote the books. The preachers were the ones who were invited to speak to large audiences. Me? I had lots of thoughts about what the preachers were talking and writing about. But I spent my days in classrooms talking about the standard deviation and the correlation coefficient. No one cared about my theological musings. Why would they? I wasn't qualified to have a theological or biblical opinion.

And then I started a blog.

Suddenly, I didn't need to score a book contract. I didn't have to wait for the speaking invitation. I could talk to the church directly through the Internet. And amazing things happened.

Before the blog I would be awed when I saw preachers getting to speak in front of thousands. There was so much I wanted to say to the church, so much I wanted to share. But who was ever going to give me, an unknown statistics teacher, that chance? 

Thousands of people now read this blog every day. Many millions of people have visited this blog. I can't get my head around that. Millions. I don't need a pulpit or a publisher. I don't need a speaking invitation or a book contract. I have this blog. I have millions. I have you.

I'm sharing this not to share a success story of how a lonely, marginalized voice found its way around the gatekeepers that controlled and curated the conversation of a particular faith tradition. I'm sharing this story because when I found you and when you found me all my alienation and loneliness ended. Here on the Internet I had found my people. We were sprinkled across a hundred different faith traditions. We were lonely, minority voices from a thousand different churches.

And we found each other.

We struggled with the same questions and resonated with the same answers. Before we had been alone. We were the crazy heretic sitting in the back of the Sunday School class or stewing through the sermon. But here we felt known and understood. Here we felt normal.

So thank you. Thank you finding me. Thank you for reading. Thank you for encouraging me. You have saved me. Since 2006 I've felt normal. And known. And loved.

I hope I make you feel the same.

Bible Study

As someone who grew up in and is a member of the Churches of Christ I just love bible study. I love gathering a bunch of translations, stacking up some commentaries and consulting a concordance. Sure, a lot of this you can do online now. And I have my laptop open as well. But I'm still old school. I'm addicted to the feel of being buried under a stack of books.

The other day when Jana called me to dinner I was in our bedroom on our bed getting ready for a lesson out at the prison. After eating I came back to finish up and snapped this picture:


If a picture is worth a thousand words then this picture tells you a lot about me and my religious heritage. I love bible study.

Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils

In the estimation of many who attended C21 two weeks ago in Phoenix the presentation of Dieter Zander was the most profound and impactful. The gospel story in microcosm.

Dieter had been at the top of the Christian world, a popular pastor and music minister at Willow Creek who spoke and performed in front of thousands.

But a stroke crippled Dieter's right hand, ending his ability to play the piano, along with aphasia, ending his ability to speak and preach.

The stroke ended Dieter's life as a mega-church pastor.

Dieter now works as a janitor at Trader Joe's.

In its "downward" trajectory--from Christian celebrity to janitor--Dieter's story seems sad and tragic. But only if you tell the story from the outside using worldly standards of success.

Because inside the story Dieter been on a profound and revolutionary spiritual journey. It has been journey into service, love and joy. A journey into the very heart of God.

To help us get on the inside of this story, LaDonna Witmer put Dieter's words to verse as a part of Dieter's video "Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils." This video is, quite simply, one of the most spiritual things I have ever seen.

The Forgotten Work of Mercy

Two weeks ago Jana and I were deeply blessed to share breakfast with Danny and Abby Cortez. Many readers will need no introduction to Danny. Danny is the pastor of New Heart Community Church which made news last year when they announced that they would become a Third Way church regarding the acceptance of LGBT persons. The church experienced expulsion from the Southern Baptist Convention as a result.

But this wasn't simply a church drama. For years Danny had been on a theological journey, a journey he described in a sermon for his church viewed by many online. The very week Danny had, in his own heart and mind, reached an affirming position his son came out to him. It was as if God had been preparing Danny for that very moment.

So we talked a lot with Danny and Abby about the journey the Cortez family and the New Heart Community Church had been on. As you might expect, it has been a difficult journey at times but one filled with grace, love and beauty.

What really struck me during our conversation, and what I wanted to share with you, is something Danny described regarding where he gained (and still gains) spiritual strength during all the SBC fallout. Specifically, Danny had gotten involved in hospice care, working as a chaplain to visit the dying.

As a part of this ministry, Danny requests to be called when there is a homeless person in hospice care, a person alone in the world facing their final moments. These experiences are holy, sacred moments and they formed and sustained Danny while the controversies swirled around his church.

As I listened to Danny share stories of his hospice work I was deeply moved. And listening it struck me how visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As justice warriors we love the works of mercy described in Matthew 25 where we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, shelter the homeless and visit the prisoner. We like to thunder and rage about mass incarceration, homelessness, hunger and poverty. Around these issues the activism and hashtags proliferate.

But no one seems to talk about visiting the sick and the dying.

Visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As I shared with Danny, I've come to believe that we are called to practice all the works of mercy, that the works of mercy, practiced collectively, nurture a spirituality that cannot be cultivated if we practice the works of mercy selectively and piecemeal.

For example, crusades for justice are accompanied by a suite of temptations. Many of us get involved with justice work to cover up or compensate for deeply felt personal inadequacies. Fighting for justice helps us run from our own inner demons. Justice makes us feel important and like we matter. Justice allows us to become the hero of the story. We feel powerful and vital.

But visiting the sick and dying chastens the hero-complex. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you of your impotence and helplessness. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you that your heroic quest for justice is often just a way to repress your own fears of failure, loss and death.

When you visit the sick and dying there is nothing there that can be fixed. And for many justice warriors that is a deeply destabilizing realization. There is nothing here that you can fix. 

The only thing you can offer is your presence.

So you can see, perhaps, why I think it might be important to practice all the works of mercy, and not just the ones we associate with justice. If we selectively practice the works of mercy we might become spiritually malformed, caught up in temptations that would have been ameliorated if we had practiced all the works consistently.

We might have learned, for instance, that many things in the world cannot be fixed. That we are not a savior or a hero.

And as I see Danny holding the hands of the homeless facing death, I am reminded that in the final analysis what we really fear is being alone and that the simple sacraments of presence, touch, silence and prayer are the greatest gifts of all.

The Super Bowl Commercials Prove God Exists

We enjoyed watching the Super Bowl last night with some good friends from church. The big question of the night was if Katy Perry would keep her cloths on. She did.

Like many who watched the game we had fun watching and evaluating the commercials. Which are almost as big an event as the game itself.

At some point during the second half, after having watched many commercials, I declared, "The Super Bowl commercials prove God exists."

What I meant by that is how many of the commercials sought to connect their product with the transcendent. In many commercials the product is Messianic, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

For example, the Coke "Make It Happy" commercial:



McDonald's "Pay With Lovin'" and Jeep's "Beautiful Lands" are other examples, even Nationwide's controversial "Make Safe Happen." 

These are companies selling fries, cars, soda and insurance policies.

And what they appeal to to sell these products is God.

Unpublished: The Political Tragedy of America

Here's the political tragedy of America. Most of the poor people in America are White people. There are more poor rural Whites than there are poor urban Blacks. But those two groups are so separated by walls of suspicion and distrust that the greatest political force in America today--poor to middle class persons of all colors--remains divided and thus conquered by powerful monied and political interests.

America is built around two great ideas that sit in tension, democracy and capitalism. Tending to that fraught relationship is our Grand Experiment. It is, I would argue, the great question of our generation. Shall capitalism come to control democracy? Or shall democracy control capitalism? Over the last few decades capitalism has come to rule and dominate. The political and military machinery of America is increasingly being run by corporate and monied interests. America today is a corporate oligarchy.

--from an unpublished post pondering the divisions that separate poor and middle-class voters from becoming a powerful voting coalition

The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

Let me offer some final reflections regarding my last two posts (here and here) about the relationship between scarcity, shame and exhaustion.

As I've argued it, following Brene Brown, many of us are operating out of a mindset of scarcity. What Brene calls the "never enough" problem. Physically and psychologically we feel exhausted and depleted, which interferes with our ability to invest in authentic community and prophetic ministry.

What is causing this exhaustion?

Some of it is caused by what I've described as "the scarcity trap," the way neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety. Facing what Brene calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary" we push to be noticed, successful and significant. We work hard and over-commit because we want to matter. As I put it in yesterday's post, shame produces exhaustion.

Now, the solution to exhaustion, many will tell you, is the practice of Sabbath. And I agree. But that observation is missing something very important.

Specifically, we all want Sabbath. What stressed out and exhausted person isn't craving rest, margin and restoration?

So the issue isn't convincing us that we need Sabbath. We all know that. The issue is this: Why is Sabbath keeping so difficult? 

Why aren't we doing something we want to do? Something weird is going on. We want to rest. We crave it more than just about anything. But we can't, won't or don't rest.

What's going on? Why don't we practice Sabbath?

Here's why: Because to practice Sabbath means that you have to start saying "No" to create the margins you need to rest and rehabilitate. But with each "No" the shame increases. With each "No" you are backing away from something that would have made you important, noticed, successful, significant or more materially well-off. We don't practice Sabbath because when we stop the world starts rushing past us, making us feel like we're getting left behind, like we're losing, like we are missing something. Sabbath starts to feel like failure.

In short, we don't practice Sabbath because Sabbath is an assault upon our self-esteem. Sabbath shames us. Or, more precisely, Sabbath surfaces our shame.

So we need shame-resilience to practice Sabbath. That, in my estimation, is what has been missing in the ubiquitous calls to practice Sabbath. We all know we need Sabbath. We all want to rest. But our fears of failing and falling behind keep tempting us away from rest. Our culture shames us out of Sabbath.

Which is why I think Sabbath is a form of spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers. With the rise of capitalism our culture has been infected by what Alain de Botton has called "status anxiety." Which is to say, shame is the fuel of capitalism. Capitalism feeds off of this neurotic anxiety, using fear to create wealth and abundance but leaving us physically exhausted, psychologically broken and spiritually depleted. Which is why we call it the rat race.

Conservative Christians like to think that spiritual warfare is about the spiritual, psychological realm. Liberals like to think of spiritual warfare as being about the political realm. Both are missing the point.

Pay attention to what I'm saying here. The therapeutic is the political.

As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, Sabbath is resistance. Sabbath resists the spirituality of the principalities and powers--the capitalistic and consumeristic rat race--to nurture the physical and psychological resources to fuel further resistance, making us increasingly available for both community and prophetic ministry.

If shame is the fuel of capitalism then Sabbath is the fuel for the Kingdom of God.

But, and here's the big take home point, Sabbath-keeping requires shame-resilience. Sabbath requires relaxing into the "shame-based fear of being ordinary" as we allow the world to rush by as we settle into the humble, small and human rhythms of Sabbath. To practice Sabbath means to go quiet, to be less noticed, to rest into the ordinary. And it takes shame-resilience to do that.

The therapeutic is the political. 

Sabbath is spiritual warfare.

The Scarcity Trap

In yesterday's post I argued that scarcity is one of the if not the biggest obstacles facing ministry and spiritual formation efforts in our churches. Feeling depleted, run-down, tired, stressed and over-extended people find the way of Jesus too to exhausting to fit into their lives.

In that post I used the analysis of Brene Brown to describe this mindset of scarcity. In this post I want to describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap" by connecting some more things from Brown's book Daring Greatly with the analysis I give in The Slavery of Death.

What is the scarcity trap? Why are we so exhausted, tired and stressed out? Why can't we make room for ministry and spiritual formation in our lives?

The scarcity trap, as I'll describe it, is how our neurotic anxiety feeds into our basic anxiety.

Recall from The Slavery of Death that anxiety can manifest in one of two ways, basic and neurotic. Basic anxiety is fueled by worries about our physical and material well-being. Basic anxiety is triggered by feelings of scarcity--the feeling of "never enough"--in material or physical resources, like feeling tired or short of time or lacking in money to pay for important things.

As I've just described it, a lot of the scarcity problem in churches is associated with basic anxiety: feeling physically or materially depleted.

So a lot of our experience of scarcity is due to basic anxiety. And yet, one of the reasons we feel so over-extended and over-scheduled is due to our neurotic anxiety.

Neurotic anxiety is associated with our feelings of significance and self-worth. If basic anxiety is associated with materially or physically not having enough, neurotic anxiety is associated with the shame of not being enough. Neurotic anxiety is associated with what Brene Brown calls the "shame-based fear of being ordinary."

With these distinctions in mind we can describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap," how neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety.

So, back to the question: Why are we so busy and stressed out?

To be sure, a lot of our stress is due to real material scarcity. As we know, middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades. In the meantime life has gotten more expensive, especially health care and college education. Consequently, people are working harder and harder for less and less. The scarcity here is real and the resultant basic anxiety is both legitimate and crushing.

However, a lot of our work-related stress and busyness is self-inflicted.

We want to be successful, to get ahead. Success, however that looks in your life and profession, is what fuels our self-esteem and makes us feel important. These accomplishments help us combat the shame-based fear of being ordinary. We can be a winner rather than a loser.

Why are we over-committed and addicted to busyness? Because saying Yes to everything makes us feel wanted, needed, important and vital.

In short, in our thirst for self-esteem--our drive to be noticed, needed or successful--we become over-committed and over-worked. Which causes us, at the end of the day, to become depleted and exhausted. The drive for success and significance, or the flight from shame and failure, exhausts us and runs us into the ground. Neurotic anxiety produces basic anxiety.

That is the scarcity trap, how our neurotic fears of failure and insignificance cause us to push harder and harder which, in turn, exhausts us.

The scarcity trap is how the shame-based fear of being ordinary tempts us into work and busyness depleting us of time, energy and resources.

The scarcity trap is how shame produces exhaustion.

///

For a final reflection on this topic see my follow-up post to this follow-up post: The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

The Biggest Obstacle to Spiritual Formation

I've spoken at a quite a few churches over the last few years and have had even more conversations with ministers and pastors at churches. Most of these conversations have been about hospitality, about how we can create more welcoming and hospitable faith communities.

And over the years I've come to discern what I think is one of the biggest problems facing our churches when it comes to spiritual formation generally and hospitality specifically.

What is that problem?

Scarcity.

Here's how Brene Brown describes scarcity in her book Daring Greatly, a quote I've shared before:
We get scarcity because we live it…Scarcity is the “never enough” problem…Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.
Scarcity is the "never enough" problem. A mindset that is "hyperaware of lack." Brene goes on to share this assessment from Lynne Twist:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is "I didn’t get enough sleep." The next one is "I don't have enough time." Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life. 
One of the  biggest obstacles to spiritual formation is this "reverie of lack," especially a felt lack of time, energy and resources.

That's the mindset people are carrying into church where they will hear calls to be more missional or more hospitable or a more radical, committed and fired-up follower of Jesus.

But do you know what the person in the pew is feeling when they hear all this?

This: You're making me tired. All that sounds exhausting.

Jesus = Exhausting. That's the equation created by the mindset of scarcity. That's the battle churches are facing when it comes to mission, ministry and spiritual formation.

For example. People at a church might complain about not connecting at church and about being lonely. They express a craving for deeper, more authentic community. So the church hires a small group minister to invest in small group ministry. And then guess what? No one has time for small groups! That's a weekly commitment that people just don't have time for.

We crave deeper community. We just don't have the time or energy for it.

How many initiatives and ministries have been started up at churches--often at the request of members--only to have staff people standing around waiting for the members to show up?

That's the paradox in many churches. Members and churches feel that they are spiritually sick and dying but no one has the time or energy to commit to the remedies, even remedies that we've requested and know that we need.

In many ways, it's our exhaustion that has made us sick and it's our exhaustion that prevents us from getting better. So we cycle downward, deeper into a mindset of scarcity.

More and more that's what I'm hearing from ministers, pastors and church leaders. We can't, they report, get our people to invest in the church, in ministries, in mission or in spiritual formation because our people report being exhausted, tired, stressed out and over-burdened.

Governed by a mindset of scarcity the way of Jesus just sounds way too exhausting.

///

For follow-up reflections to this post see first The Scarcity Trap and then The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare.

Progressive Evangelism

Progressive Christians aren't known for being particularly evangelistic. But over the weekend I had a conversation which made me wonder about the shape of a progressive Christian evangelism.

Jana was trying on some clothing in a small consignment store. I was the only one in the store with the owner while Jana was in the back. And, as always, I had a book with me.

(I always bring a book when shopping with Jana. It's amazing how cheerful and patient you can be if you have a good book. Hours can pass in a clothing store and I'll hardly notice. It's a win/win. I love shopping/reading.)

Anyway, the owner saw me reading.

"What book are you reading?"

"The Executed God."

"Huh? The Executed God? What's that about?"

"It's a Christian book about mass incareration and captital punishment. The argument is that since Jesus was arrested and executed by the state we should look for Jesus among those being jailed and executed by the state."

"That's a huge problem in America, all the people we put in jail."

"I know. The point of the book is that if we want to find Jesus in the world we should look for him among those being oppressed by the state."

And what followed was a very interesting conversation. The owner had never thought about Jesus in quite this way before.

As Jana and I were leaving the store she called to me:

"I'm going to by that book!"