That Man Is the Whole Human Race

This is a great truth, that he ascended above all the heavens, yet is near to those on earth.

Who is this stranger and neighbor if not the one who became our neighbor out of compassion?

The man lying on the road, left half-dead by robbers, the man treated with contempt by the priest and the levite who passed by, the man approached by the passing Samaritan to take care of him and help him, that man is the whole human race.

When the immortal one, the holy one, was far removed from us because we were mortal and sinners, he came down to us, so that he, the stranger, might become our neighbor.

--St. Augustine

Sabbath as Means or End?

We often hear calls for Sabbath as a means to sustain and support our work in the world, especially our work for the kingdom.

That call often sounds like this:

We're all so busy and over-committed. Consequently, we're stressed and exhausted. Often because we're doing good things for the kingdom, yes, but we're burning out. The pace of our lives, even doing good things, is unsustainable.

So we need Sabbath. We need to rest so that we can recharge the batteries. Sabbath slows us down so that we can keep the work going but at a more humane pace.

This call to Sabbath in the midst of soul-killing busyness is very common. You've heard it before and likely feel the need to rest yourself. We are all very tired.

But let me make the provocative claim that this call to Sabbath is the very worst way of thinking about Sabbath.

Here's my argument: We're ruining Sabbath because we're treating Sabbath as a means rather than an end.

Let me say it a different way. We are missing the point of Sabbath because we are instrumentalizing Sabbath, turning Sabbath into a technique and a tool.

Notice how the call to Sabbath tends to work. We're busy. That's unsustainable. So we need to rest. Why? So that we can keep working.

Sabbath in this view is a technique to sustain work. Sabbath isn't the end, it's a means to an end, the sustaining of work.

In short, we've turned Sabbath into a self-help technique. Sabbath is a recommendation for busy people to keep them from getting stressed out.

And by and large, that's how many Christians think about Sabbath, as a call to rest and relaxation, as a self-help technique to help them manage stress and busyness.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath isn't a means to work, Sabbath is the end of work. Sabbath isn't to sustain work. Sabbath is the enjoyment that comes at the end of our labors.

This is a subtle but important distinction as it defines what we take to be our default condition. When Sabbath is a tool to sustain work then labor is our default condition, Sabbath is always spitting us back into the world of stress and busyness. We celebrate Sabbath in order to work.

But if Sabbath is the end and not the means then Sabbath rest, abiding with and enjoying each other, is our default condition. Work is the means to create and sustain that space.

I think the main reason we've missed the boat on Sabbath is that in the West our vision of Sabbath is too individualistic. When we think of rest we think of "recharging our batteries." Rest is all about me regaining energy to fuel more work.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath was social, relational and communal. Sabbath was being with others, the cessation of work to create space for community and fellowship. Sabbath was not created to "recharge our batteries," but to create space where we could abide with each other.

Sabbath, in short, is the kingdom of heaven on earth. Love and community. Resting into each other.

Sabbath isn't a self-help recommendation for busy people.

Sabbath is intimacy and relationship.

Sabbath is not a tool to sustain more work, but the goal and end of life itself.

Prison Diary: Prison Pamphlets

I was raised on church pamphlets and tracts. Do you know about these?

In the congregations of my youth in the church foyer there would be a rack filled with small little booklets and tracts on all sorts of biblical topics. Most of the pamphlets had an evangelistic thrust, tackling questions associated with heaven, hell, and what we called "the steps to salvation."

Church pamphlets were a memory of my youth. I had not run into a church pamphlet in years.

And then I went out to the prison.

Churches send in all sorts of literature to prisons, much of it in the form of church pamphlets. 

At our unit, the chaplains put these pamphlets in racks in the hallway leading into the chapel. Each week as I wait for the men to arrive I get to peruse this literature.

Most of this literature is very fundamentalist. The better stuff is evangelical. By far the most popular pamphlet is Our Daily Bread. The inmates snap these up like candy, often sending them to their families. The daily meditation format of Our Daily Bread helps forge a spiritual connection between the inmate and loved one as they read through the daily meditations together.

Some of the literature send to prison is also very self-indulgent. The general rule seems to be, if no one will read your unique theological contribution to the world, print it up as a pamphlet and send it to a prison. They're a captive audience.

It all makes me wonder, why aren't liberal and progressive churches sending better literature to our prisons? This question is associated with an issue I've raised before on the blog, about why so few progressive/liberal Christians are involved in prison ministry.

As I stand in the chapel hallway looking at the pamphlet racks, I ask these questions every week.

Mercy

I think we too are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy.

I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.

--Pope Francis, Homily (March 17, 2013)

Calming the Storm and the End of Exile

I've never really been able to get my head around Jesus' miracle of calming the storm, one of his nature miracles.

I've tended to see Jesus' miracles as signs pointing to the end of Israel's exile, new Exodus themes. The new wine beginning to flow (the miracle of Cana), the forgiveness of sins (the healing miracles), captives being set free (the exorcisms).

But how does the calming of the sea fit into this scheme?

The other day I was reading Psalm 107, and I think I found my answer.

Psalm 107 is an ode to the various forms of God's deliverance. The end of exile and Exodus themes start the Psalm:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.
From there the Psalm sings about the various ways God has delivered his people, a list that reads like an inventory of Jesus' miracles and ministry. Feeding. Setting captives free. Healing. Vineyards producing again. Lifting up the needy.

And also this:
Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.

They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
All that to say, I think you can use Psalm 107 to connect the calming of the storm to end of exile and new Exodus themes.

Fall in Love

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

--Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

God is Love. Full Stop.

Over the summer I've re-read two of George MacDonald's novels. I haven't read a George MacDonald novel since college when they had such a transformative effect upon me.

I know a lot of George MacDonald fans, but not many of them express my degree of enthusiasm for his novels. Most MacDonald fans love Unspoken Sermons, his fairy stories or his children's stories. There aren't very many people who adore MacDonald's novels. Admittedly, they aren't all that good. But I love them, and they had a huge impact upon me.

Why?

During High School I had reached the conviction that the deepest confession I could make about God is that God is love. Simple enough, but at that time I still lacked the courage to make that confession unconditional. I lacked the courage to confess that "God is love" full stop.

Everything I had been exposed to within Christianity pushed me to qualify the confession. "God is love, but..." God is love, but most of humanity would suffer eternal conscious torment. God is love, but God demands a blood sacrifice to be appeased. God is love, but it really is okay to kill your enemies.

Yes, God is love...but.

George MacDonald was the person who gave me the courage to drop the qualifications. God is love, full stop. No ifs, ands, or buts.

And it really does take a bit of courage to unconditionally confess that God is love. So few Christians actually believe this. The vast majority of Christians qualify any confession that God is love. God is love, but what about God's holiness, justice, violence, and wrath? Consequently, to confess God's love unconditionally makes you feel like a bit of a crazy person. That's the way I felt as a young adult when I tried to share my convictions. And it's what a lot of people feel when the share the same convictions in their own congregations. 

All this came to mind recently thinking about The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference this November in Santa Fe.

What makes the conference unique is that every speaker--keynote and breakout--is dedicated to a non-violent and non-sacrificial vision of God and Christianity. I can't imagine a more important and timely subject for American Christianity given what is happening to our politics and our faith, on both the right and the left.

Many of the speakers at The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference will be working from a Girardian perspective, explicating how a sacrificial vision of God is at work in the scapegoating dynamics we see on both the Right and the Left, religiously and politically. For my part, I'll be elucidating the purity psychologies at work among conservatives and progressives, and how that psychology functions to mask the scapegoating mechanisms, allowing it to keep rolling on. Emotions--fear, contempt, disgust--continue to fuel the myth of redemptive violence, how violence is okay if we, the righteous ones, use it for good, kingdom of God purposes.

If you don't know the work of Rene Girard, the conference will be a great education. But while Girard is really helpful and insightful, I think the core issue facing Christianity is very simply stated.

Is God love?

And if God is love--full stop--what does that mean for how we read the Bible, think about the atonement, eschatology, political action, social activism, and the church?

At The Gospel of Peace and the Peace of the Gospel conference I'm looking forward to being with people who have the courage George MacDonald gave me many years ago.

Christians who confess that our God is love.

Full stop.

Prison Diary: The Eye Glass Hustle

I'm on a family vacation, so I haven't been at the prison for a few weeks. I'm blessed Herb is back home keeping the class going. As I've said before, you really need a team to keep a prison ministry going.

Since I don't have an update from the class this week, let me tell you more about prison hustles.

I recently shared about clothing hustles, how they are used to bleach and double-stitch the prison uniforms. But here is my favorite hustle.

One inmate I know has a lens grinding hustle for glasses. Prison-issue glass frames are huge, black frames. Very nerdy. (Come to think of it, prison glass frames--big, black and nerdy--are pretty fashionable now in the free world. Strange times.)

A lot of inmates, however, walk around with nicer, more fashionable frames. Where do these glasses come from? They come from this one inmate who grinds lenses for the entire prison. How he does it is all very hush, hush. Trade secrets he keeps to himself as this hustle is very in demand and valuable.

Basically, it all starts when a inmate gets his prison-issue prescription glasses with those big, ugly frames. His loved one then comes to visit, wearing the frames he'd like to have. He take those glasses at the visit, wearing them as he leaves. He then pops the prison-issued lenses from his prison glasses and gives those along with the new frames to the inmate with the hustle. He then grinds the prison lenses down to fit the new frames.

Most of the glasses in the prison are contraband eye-wear. Though a few guys do wear the prison-issued frames. And I must say, I like those frames.

Prison-frames are all the rage now.

Burning Love is the Outcry of the Heart

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer...

Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases...

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

--St. Augustine

We Are Saved By Feelings Alone

The problem with many Christians is that salvation is understood to be fundamentally about feelings.

Our predicament--sin and the judgment of a righteous God--starts with an invisible problem in an invisible space with an invisible person.

And the solution--accepting Jesus into our hearts as our Lord and Savior--is an invisible act that triggers an invisible transaction in an invisible space with the invisible person.

The entire thing, problem and solution, is totally invisible.

Salvation, commonly understood, has no material aspect, no political, social, economic, ecological, behavioral or moral signifiers. Salvation is wholly invisible.

Consequently, salvation can only be tracked through feelings. Feelings are your spiritual GPS. You track where you are in the invisible space by monitoring your psychology.

This is one of the reasons Christian worship has gravitated toward creating a "worship high." Given that Christianity has been reduced to feelings, worship and preaching is judged by its effectiveness in creating powerful feelings.

To be clear, I don't want to dismiss the importance of emotions in spirituality. Joy, peace, wonder, and gratitude are all hugely important. But love, generosity, hospitality, kindness and peace-making are behaviors. My concern here is the feeling/action divorce which allows many Christians to feel loved but who aren't very loving.

A Christian who doesn't love isn't much of a Christian, but far too many Christians don't seem to care, so long as they feel loved by God. If they have the feelings, they count themselves a Christian.

If the great dichotomy used to be Faith vs. Works I think it's now been supplanted by Feelings vs. Actions.

Instead of sola fide, the mantra for modern Christianity has become sola affectio.

We are saved by feelings alone.

The Great Irony of Spiritual Warfare

My recent book Reviving Old Scratch grew out of a series I did in 2013 entitled "On Weakness and Warfare." Those posts were aimed at progressive Christians but Reviving Old Scratch was written with a wider audience in view. Consequently, the central point of those 2013 posts wasn't featured in the book.

What was that central point?

The central point was that spiritual warfare is the natural language of progressive Christianity.

That's a bit of a shocking assessment given that progressive Christians tend to be the most skeptical about the existence of the devil and the most worried about invoking "spiritual warfare." These are the "doubting and disenchanted" Christians from the subtitle of Reviving Old Scratch. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are much more comfortable with the devil and spiritual warfare.

And yet, it's my belief that spiritual warfare is a more natural fit for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians.

Why?

It has to do with how we believe God's power works in the world. By and large, progressive Christians claim that God's power in the world is love, the weakness of the cross.

But if that is true, we have to face the fact that love is always contestable. Because love will not force the issue or seek to dominate love is always prone to challenge and rejection.

Again, the key point: Love is always contestable.

In short, love, being love, implies struggle. One has to fight for love. In Reviving Old Scratch I quote singer Pat Benatar: "Love is a battlefield."

In short, because of the way progressives think about God's power in the world spiritual warfare--"love is a battlefield"--is the natural language of progressive Christianity.

By contrast, many conservatives believe in God's providential and meticulous control of the world. God controls the outcome of every event.

But if that's the case spiritual warfare is immediately ruled out. In such a view there is no space for oppositional forces to operate.

Thus the great theological irony of spiritual warfare.

Conservative Christians embrace spiritual warfare but fail to see how it's inconsistent with a theology of God's meticulous control over the cosmos.

By contrast, progressive Christians are skeptical about spiritual warfare and yet their theology implies that very struggle.

Prison Diary: Prison Hooch

The one item the prison commissary doesn't sell is sugar.

Question: Why not?

Answer: Hooch.

The making of illegal alcohol in prison is big business. To create fermentation you need two things, sugar and yeast. So sugar is often banned from being sold in prisons.

If you can't steal sugar from the kitchen, the main source of sugar for prison hooch is fruit or fruit juice. If you can't get fruit or juice, sugar can be obtained from lots of places, from frosting to candy to ketchup.

So where does the yeast come from?

Bread.

Hooch is usually fermented in plastic bags, and even toilets, by mixing water, bread and fruit and letting it sit for a week.

Sounds delicious!

Summer Reading

If you're looking for some summer reading let me make two suggestions if you are interested in what's happening on the streets of America.

The first book is Dreamland by Sam Quinones.

Dreamland is the best book out there about America's opioid addiction epidemic, a national health crisis that has become our generation's AIDS.

Seriously, if you're a church and you're not tracking with the opioid epidemic you're massively out of touch with what's happening in your city.

The second book is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

This is the best book about poverty in America that I've ever read. Many people have pointed to Hillbilly Elegy as the best recent book about Rust Belt America, but I think Evicted is way, way the better read. Evicted is focused on both whites and blacks and gets you more into the nuts and bolts of how the system affects poor people, their housing especially.

If your church is interested in poverty, housing and homelessness then you need to read Evicted.

That's Not God You Are Feeling, It's Called Vacation

Last week I spent a lovely time with my family on the shores of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We've been going to Hilton Head since I was in high school. So it's a special place to me.

I expect like many of you, I find the ocean spiritually refreshing. My favorite thing to do is linger at the end of the day. Around dinner time all the beach goers head back to their houses and you get to have the expanse of sand, water and sky all to yourself. On our last day at Hilton Head I took this picture. A George MacDonald book in my hand.

But here's the strange theological reflection I'd like to share with you. While I really do get spiritually filled at the ocean, I resist the "finding God in beautiful places" impulse. People say things like this all the time: "I feeling closest to God at the ocean" or "I feel closest to God when I'm in the mountains". Just think of that beautiful place in your own life and memories and how it made you feel closer to God.

Once a friend shared this sentiment with me. She said, "I really feel close to God by the ocean." And I joked, "That's not God you are feeling. It's called vacation."

But I was only half-joking. Because I do think there is something problematic about seeking out a beautiful place to feel close to God.

A few years ago I made a similar point in my post "I Love My Ugly Town," contrasting my not very pretty hometown of Abilene, TX with Malibu, CA. I made the point that if you have to go to Malibu to feel close to God we've got a spiritual problem on our hands. We need to learn to find God in the boring and ugly places of everyday life.

For three reasons.

First, there is a socioeconomic issue.

Most of my friends at Freedom Fellowship (a mission church sharing life with the poor) aren't going to get a chance to go to a Hilton Head or a Malibu. So all this jabbering about finding God on the beach sort of sticks in my craw. Are my friends at Freedom doomed to never experience these spiritual heights because they can't afford a beach vacation?

The second problem is that if we only find God on vacation or at that beautiful destination then God is always somewhere else and never where you are right now.

And the final, related problem is that if we only experience closeness to God at that beautiful vacation spot we fail to develop the spiritual discernment required to experience intimacy and profound union with God in the midst of ordinary life and ordinary places. For thirty years Jesus lived in Nazareth. And from what I can tell, Nazareth was no Malibu or Hilton Head.

But there was beauty in Nazareth. Not vacation, resort beauty. But the everyday beauty of sunrises, starry skies, springtime flowers, and the wind in the trees. These sights, I'm quite sure, would have made Jesus's heart sing praises to his Father, the Creator of all things.

I am spiritually rejuvenated being at Hilton Head. Especially with a George MacDonald novel in hand. So I don't want to dismiss the healing effects of beautiful places and a well-deserved vacation.

But I'm much more interested in developing a Nazareth aesthetic, learning to find God in ordinary places and ugly towns.

Johnny Cash's "Belshazzar"

Yesterday I mentioned that Belshazzar's feast, with its famous indictment "You have been weighed and found wanting," used to have a prized place in our cultural consciousness.

As evidence of this, one of Johnny Cash's very first gospel songs, recorded in 1957, was "Belshazzar." It's one of my favorites. Prophetic and timely.

Well the Bible tells us about a man
who ruled Babylon and all its land
around the city he build a wall
and declared that Babylon would never fall

he had concubines and wives
he called his Babylon 'paradise'
on his throne, he drank and ate
but for Belshazzar it was getting late

for he was weighed in the balance and found wanting
his kingdom was divided, couldn't stand
he was weighed in the balance and found wanting
his houses were built upon the sand

well, the people feasted and drank their wine
and praised the false gods of his time
all holy things they scorned and mocked
but suddenly all their mocking stopped

for on the wall there appeared a hand
nothing else, there was no man
in blood the hand began to write
and Belshazzar couldn't hide his fright

for he was weighed in the balance and found wanting
his kingdom was divided, couldn't stand
he was weighed in the balance and found wanting
his houses were built upon the sand

well, no one around could understand
what was written by the mystic hand
Belshazzar tried but couldn't find
a man who could give him peace of mind

but Daniel, the prophet, a man of God
he saw the writing on the wall in blood
Belshazzar asked him what it said
and Daniel turned to the wall and read

"My friend you're weighed in the balance and found wanting
your kingdom is divided, it can't stand
you're weighed in the balance and found wanting
your houses are built upon the sand."

Belshazzar's Feast

When Jana and I were in London we went to the National Gallery. Among many of the paintings we took in was Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast:


The story of Belshazzar is found in Daniel 5. Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, has guests at a banquet drink from the gold goblets taken from Solomon's temple. Suddenly, a human hand appears and writes on the wall. None of the magi and astrologers of Babylon can interpret the words. So Belshazzar summons Daniel. Daniel correctly interprets the words as:
MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PERES
"Mene" was a monetary unit. The root of "tekel" means weighed. "Peres" sounds like the Aramaic for "Persia" and "divided." In Rembrandt's painting the four words are spelled vertically, starting in the top right and with PERES spelled in the last two columns.

The key to Daniel's interpretation is that he interprets the four nouns as verbs, declaring to Belshazzar:
This is the interpretation of the matter:

MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;

TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting;

PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
Belshazzar's Feast, with its famous saying "you have been weighed and found wanting," used to have a prized place in our cultural consciousness. Nowadays I expect few people could tell you where "weighed and found wanting" comes from.

Prison Diary: Fashion Statements, Part 2

Okay, so you're able to keep and control your clothing, paying someone who has a laundry hustle. 

Once you have your clothing, how can you make a fashion statement?

Again, whatever you do it has to be a subtle alteration, and it most definitely can't affect the color. So what can you do?

Mainly two things.

First, you can have your clothing starched, pressed and bleached. To accomplish this, you'll still be working with someone doing a laundry hustle. Again, this is something you might not notice if you're not looking for it, but the men who have to use the community clothing have limp, dingy white pants and shirts. Other inmates, the ones who can afford it, have crisp, stiff, brilliant white clothing. Whenever you encounter an inmate whose clothing is limp and dingy, that inmate is poor and lower in the prison hierarchy. Starched, bleached white clothing is a status symbol.

The second way you can make a fashion statement is having your shirt and pants double-stitched. Clothing in the community clothing circulation is single-stitched. But if you send your clothing to someone working a garment factory hustle, where the clothing is made, inmates with access to the sewing machines can double stitch your shirt and pants. Again, it's a subtle thing, but walking around with double-stitched clothing is another fashion and status symbol. When I meet new inmates I'll often look for double-stitching to get a quick estimate about where they stand in the prison hierarchy.

The Infancy Canticles

One of the joys of praying with the Daily Office (the Catholic version of The Book of Common Prayer), is how every day you pray the three canticles from Luke's infancy narrative.

There are three canticles (songs) from the gospel of Luke associated with the birth of Jesus.

The first is the Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah) from Luke 1.68-79, Zechariah's praise to God for the birth of John the Baptist.

The second canticle is the Magnificat (Mary's Song), sung by Mary in Luke 1.46-55 to praise God for the birth of Jesus.

And the third canticle is Nunc dimittis (the Song of Simeon) from Luke 2.29-32, the song Simeon sings thanking God for the birth of Jesus.

Most of us only sing and read these songs during the Advent and Christmas seasons. But the Daily Office has you pray these canticles every single day.

For morning prayer you pray the Benedictus. For evening prayer you pray the Magnificat. And for Night prayer you pray the Nuc dimittis.

Beannacht by John O’Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

--Beannacht / Blessing by John O’Donohue

A Hard, Difficult, and Terrible Beauty

Recently I wrote a post about how (transgressive) beauty will save the world.

The point I made in that post, reacting to the work of Brian Zahnd's How Beauty Will Save the World, is that, yes, in hindsight we find Jesus' actions in the gospels to be beautiful.

But Jesus' contemporaries found his actions ugly and transgressive. This is the key insight that guides Unclean.

My point is that we continue to find Jesus transgressive and ugly. We don't, for example, rush toward the homeless, addicted and incarcerated. We don't rush to embrace our enemies.

How many conservative Christians are rushing to embrace the LGBT community? How many progressive Christians are rushing to embrace Donald Trump supporters?

Exactly.

Jesus' beauty is a hard, difficult, and terrible beauty. It's not easy, attractive or alluring.

So the issue becomes, what sort of spiritual formation must we undergo to find Jesus beautiful?

Prison Diary: Fashion Statements, Part 1

Fashion reigns out at the prison.

It's a testimony to the human spirit how, even in the midst of enforced uniformity and drabness, we crave style and individuality. My wife sees this every week with the way her students play on the edges of the school dress code and uniform. And it's the same out at the prison.

But it's a little harder in a prison. The men are given a smock-like top and pants with an elastic waistband. The material is all white, a thick cotton fabric, like denim. The uniform is pictured here.

So how do you create fashion out of that blandness?

The first thing you have to do is control you clothing.

Generally, you're supposed to exchange your dirty clothing each week for clothing laundered in laundry. It's all handed out by size, so you never keep the same shirt or pants. So the first thing you have to do to control your clothing is not hand it over during laundry collection.

So you keep your shirt and pants. You now control them, but you'll need to have them laundered and given back to you. This is where someone with a laundry hustle comes in.

To get your clothing laundered you pay a guy working in the laundry. You give him your clothing. He puts your clothing on when he goes to work. At work he washes your clothing, puts it back on, returns to the block, and gives it back to you. All clean.

The point of all this is to keep and control your shirt and pants. If you can't do this, any changes you make to the shirt and pants are lost in the laundry collection, turned in and handed out to someone else.

But if you can control your clothing you can start thinking about fashion.

I'll get to that next week.

The Devil Expert

I'm starting to get into a groove being an expert on the devil.

Life's funny. Four years ago I never would have predicted I would get calls to talk about the devil. I'm not really an expert, but compared to most people I guess I am. After the publication of Reviving Old Scratch I'm increasingly called upon to lecture about the devil, demons and spiritual warfare.

My favorite gig is at my son's high school. The senior English class has a unit on C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. So for the last two years I've been invited at the start of the unit to give a lecture to the class about the devil.

I spend the talk lecturing through four names for Old Scratch: Satan, the Devil, Lucifer and Beelzebub. I use each name to highlight an aspect of the devil that tends to get missed in most conversations these teenagers have had about the devil. The names of Old Scratch allow me to talk about love, oppression, idolatry and grace. Like I do in Reviving Old Scratch, I use the devil as figure/ground illusion to paint a positive picture of what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like.

This summer I've turned that "Four Names of the Devil" lecture into a sermon, preaching it in Dallas once and twice in the UK. I use the War in Heaven text from Revelation 12. Most churches have never heard a whole sermon exclusively about the devil. And while the devil doesn't sound like a very edifying topic for a sermon, I think audiences have been pleasantly surprised by the sermon's challenge and message.

On Prayer

In the past
prayer was able
to bring down punishment,
rout armies,
withhold the blessing of rain.
Now, however,
the prayer of the just
turns aside the whole anger of God,
keeps vigil for its enemies,
pleads for persecutors.
Is it any wonder
that it can call down water from heaven
when it could obtain fire from heaven as well?

Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God.

But Christ has willed
that it should work no evil,
and has given it all power over good.
Its only art
is to call back the souls of the dead
from the very journey into death,
to give strength to the weak,
to heal the sick,
to exorcise the possessed,
to open prison cells,
to free the innocent from their chains.
Prayer cleanses from sin,
drives away temptations,
stamps out persecutions,
comforts the fainthearted,
gives new strength to the courageous,
brings travelers safely home,
calms the waves,
confounds robbers,
feeds the poor,
overrules the rich,
lifts up the fallen,
supports those who are falling,
sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray.
Every creature prays.
Cattle and wild beasts pray
and bend the knee.
As they come from their barns and caves
they look out to heaven and call out,
lifting up their spirit in their own fashion.
The birds too rise
and lift themselves up to heaven:
they open out their wings,
instead of hands,
in the form of a cross,
and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more need be said on the duty of prayer?

Even the Lord himself prayed.


--from the treatise On Prayer by Tertullian

Jay Stephen's Johnny Cash Cover of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

Jay Stephens, a singer in Abilene, is the son of our dear friend Mike Stephens. Jay's got a voice that sounds so much like Johnny Cash. Recently, Mike asked Jay to do a version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" if Johnny Cash had covered it. So Jay sat on his porch and recorded the song for his Dad.

Below is Jay's "Johnny Cash interpretation" of the song. I think it's haunting and beautiful. And it sounds like the ghost of Johnny came back to sing us a song...



Update: Jay has posted a better audio quality version of the song on Bandlab.

Prison Diary: The Hustle

Money isn’t the only part of prison economy, the other key player is “the hustle.”

In prison parlance “the hustle” is any sort of access or ability the prisoner can use to create income or use in a barter.

I have not made an inventory of all the prison hustles. Again, a doctoral dissertation could be written about the subject. But here are four common hustles.

More about this in a later post, but fashion continues to rule in the prison. Yes, all the inmates are given a pullover, smock-like shirt and some pants with an elastic waistband. All white. (Which is why we call them the “Men in White.”) But despite, or perhaps because of, the bland uniformity of prison dress, fashion reigns in the prison. Consequently, the inmates who work in the garment factory--where prison attire is made, repaired and cleaned--have the ability to create a fashion hustle. The hustle involves taking an order to clean or make changes to the clothing to met fashion standards, changes hard for most people to detect unless you know what you’re looking for.

All that to say, if you work in the garment factory you can get a good hustle going, taking clothing orders for stamps or “real money.”

Another hustle is cleaning, mainly because of movement. An inmate with cleaning responsibilities will move from block to block doing their work. This allows the inmate to create a courier hustle, transporting messages or items from cell block to cell block. Cleaning jobs create mailman hustles.

Kitchen workers, obviously, have access to food. Food pilfered from the kitchen creates food hustles.

Finally, specialized skills can create hustles, from cooking to repair to electronics. Your special talent in making or repairing something can create your hustle.

All that to say, in the prison economy the hustle, if you can get one, is a key and vital part of your livelihood and position within the prison.

The Language Trap: Otherness and Reality

Jana and I love comparing language differences when we visit the UK.

In America we stand in a "line," in the UK it's a "queue." In America we "sleep in," in the UK you "lie in." American cars have a "trunk," UK cars have a "boot."

In the UK when things are "all set," "all done," or "all good" you say "sorted."

In the UK instead of "awesome," "great" or "wonderful," you mostly say "brilliant."

We've been "faffing about" and have needed to take a "jumper" along because it might be chilly. We ask directions about where the "loo" is. I requested "builder's tea" when I didn't want any fuss about the drink. We asked for "rubbing alcohol" and got blank stares until we asked for "surgical spirits."

And don't get me started on what "pants" mean in the UK.

All this is great fun, but at the HOST conference I was reminded about the power of language by Tim Nash's presentation and a comment made during a Q&A by Mark Sampson.

In Tim's presentation about language and Otherness he made two points. First, using Chinese versus English as his illustration, Tim made the point that language is a way of knowing, a gateway of perception. Second, only about 6% of the world's population speaks English.

Those two observations lead a profound point: English speakers don't know how most of the world thinks or sees the world.

Related to the relationship between language and perception, Mark's comment about language at HOST had to do with economics and reality.

Economists like to trump conversations by saying that the language of economics is simply describing "the real world," the world "as it is." This gives the language of economics epistemological power, as "reality" is the ultimate trump card. The person who describes "reality" is the one who is telling the truth

But Mark's comment was this: "Economic language isn't descriptive, it's performative. It doesn't describe the world, it creates the world."

This notion that language is performative won't be new to many readers, but I don't think many church going folk think about language in this way, that language creates as much as it describes reality. At least our perceptual reality.

All that to simply say this: Language can trap us.

Tim pointed out how language blocks us English-speakers from knowing and understanding how 94% of our fellow human beings see and think about the world.

And Mark's comment points how the language of late-modern capitalism blocks us from imagining a new, different and better world.

Picking Fights with Chaps: Leadersmithing, Virtue and Spiritual Disciplines

I was also honored to present with Eve Poole at HOST during a lunch gathering of the Jersey business community. Eve and I talked about spiritual formation in the corporate workplace.

Eve presented material from her new book Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. You can also check out Eve’s TEDx talk on leadersmithing.

For those familiar with the work of James Smith (Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love), you’ll note similarities with Eve’s concept of leadersmithing. Specifically, Eve argues that forming leaders must focus upon up our emotions—especially during times of stress—through intentional virtue-forming practices.

The example Eve used, and it’s also the example in her TEDx talk, was how she overcame her fear response when faced with aggressive, belligerent males in business settings. To confront, habituate, and acquire calmness in the face of male hostility Eve began to adopt a practice she called “picking fights with chaps,” intentionally disagreeing with and arguing with males in the workplace. Not in any hostile and mean way, but simply as a practice that allowed her to habituate to conflict and disagreement. Eve practiced her way into a different set of emotional responses in the face of severe disagreement and personal attack, and this formed her into being a better leader.

I followed up by connecting Eve’s work to spiritual formation and the acquisition of Christian virtue, the Fruit of the Spirit in particular.

Forming a Christ-like character (virtues), like forming a good leader, comes down to intentionality and practice aimed primarily at our rapid, often unconscious, emotional reactions to situations.