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.

How (Transgressive) Beauty Will Save the World

At the HOST conference it was my pleasure to get to meet Brian Zahnd for the first time. Brian’s HOST presentation was on “How Beauty Will Save the World,” a quote from Dostoevsky that is also the title of Brian’s book How Beauty Will Save the World.

Brain’s main point is that Christian apologetics works best when we use an aesthetical approach, an appeal to beauty. And when the standard of beauty is Jesus, well, what can be more beautiful than that?

I’m totally with Brain on this point. I’ve been writing about beauty as an apologetics for many years. I’ve found the approach particularly helpful with my doubting college students. When belief is hard, beauty is often a gateway into faith. I think artists are our most effective evangelists.

That said, during the Q&A with Brain after his talk I raised the issue of transgressive art.

Regular readers of this blog and my books (i.e., the “Piss Christ” chapter in Unclean, and the chapter about “The Thomas Kinkade Effect” in The Authenticity of Faith) know I’ve been thinking about art, ugliness and theology for quite sometime.

Specifically, if Jesus is “beautiful” his “beauty” was first experienced in the gospels as ugly, transgressive and monstrous. Yes, we thrill to the beauty of Jesus embracing the unclean. But the visceral disgust and shock experienced by those watching Jesus would never have led them to call his actions “beautiful.”

And this I why, as I argued in Brian's Q&A, so few Christians actually behave like Jesus today. We actually don’t find Jesus very beautiful.

Just like in the gospels, we’re still scandalized by the trangressive nature of what cruciform beauty looks like.

Beauty will save the world, but it often will be experienced as a transgressive beauty.

The Book of Jonah and the Scandal of Enemy Love

I had another wonderful experience last week with Business Connect who curates the HOST gathering on Jersey island. HOST is an amazing conversation between theologians, activists, artists, pastors, teachers, and business leaders.

A highlight of HOST for me was participating in an evening of art and theological reflection with musician and theologian David Benjamin Blower, who also co-hosts the NOMAD podcast with Tim Nash.

During the evening David performed his album The Book of Jonah, a musical about the book of Jonah. (Between songs on the album N.T. Wright narrates the story and Alastair McIntosh is the voice of Jonah.)

The Book of Jonah is amazing—by turns funny and profound—and it has a companion book written by David. Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy Love is a challenging reappraisal of the book of Jonah, seeing the story as a scandalous meditation on the call to enemy-love. A taste of the book:
The grace of God is awful to us because the proper response to evil is to fear it and desire its destruction, not to love it and desire its redemption…

While the book of Jonah makes a brilliant children’s story, it is not a children’s story, nor is it a story about a whale, but about an empire. It is a tract about radical enemy love and radical non-violence. The word radical is not used lightly, since in all history no enemy has seemed less human and more evil than the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The call to loving compassion for such monsters would be distasteful to the extreme, and I repeat, it is miraculous that the book survived at all let alone was canonized as holy writ by anyone.
If you're interested in the fusion of art and theology, stream/purchase the Book of Jonah and buy the book Sympathy for Jonah.

Prison Diary: Real Money

Like I've said, I'm fascinated by the prison economy.

Many men have money deposited by friends and family into their commissary account, which allows them to buy food and other items, from shoes to fans.

Without actual money, a make-shift economy emerges in the prison and main currency of this economy are stamps.

Forever stamps cost 49¢, and I've inquired about their actual purchasing power in the prison. Are stamps affected by inflation or deflation? Do they purchase 49¢ of goods from the commissary, or less? I feel there's a doctoral dissertation out there waiting to be written about prison stamp currency.  

But here's the interesting thing about the prison economy. While stamps are the currency, when the inmates talk about "real money" they aren't talking about dollar bills or stamps.

"Real money" in the prison is food.

Food is "real money," the most valuable thing you can trade in the prison economy.

Satan, the Psalms and Violence

In the Psalms there are three dramatis personae--the psalmist, God and the enemy.

You can't read the Psalms without reading about the enemy over and over. Enemies taunt, kill, jeer, rob, betray and oppress all through the Psalms.

So it's not surprising that a thread of vengeance is woven through the Psalms. And sometimes this thirst for vengeance can look for all the world like a call for jihad. 
Psalm 149.6-9
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

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

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

to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword be in their hands to inflict vengeance upon the nations. This is glory of God's faithful people.

This psalm governed the imagination of the zealots. And when we speak of the Jews during Jesus' day expecting a military Messiah we know where this expectation comes from, it comes from places like Psalm 149.

So how did Jesus read psalms like Psalm 149?

Again, as I argue in Reviving Old Scratch, Jesus used what we can call a Christus Victor hermeneutic to read the Psalms.

Yes, there is an Enemy to be defeated, an Enemy that is ruling the nations. That Enemy is Satan.

I think one of the problems liberal and progressive Christians have with psalms like Psalm 149 is that, because they tend not to believe in the devil, they struggle to locate "the enemy" in the psalms. Liberal and progressive Christians lack Jesus' imagination.

Without Satan as the enemy the only enemy left are human beings, the wicked oppressors, which tempts liberal and progressive Christians into the imagination of the zealots.

The Rainbow as Theodicy

You can have read the Bible your whole life and still you get surprised by something, surprised by something staring at you right in the face but something you've never seen before.

For example, think of all the theodicy questions we ask about Hitler and genocide. Why does God allow things like murder, rape, abuse, slavery, torture, exploitation and sex trafficking?

The answer you tend to hear is free will. But that's not the answer the Bible gives. The theodicy the Bible gives is Noah:
Genesis 6.5-8; 8.18-21; 9.12-17
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord...

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done..."

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
Isn't Noah a theodicy?

I've never read Noah as a theodicy, never before see this obvious thing staring me in the face. The Noah story is all about why God allows evil in the world. God allows evil because God made a promise not to punish human evil with violence.

That doesn't mean God ignores evil. The story continues with God's call to Abraham.

To be clear, I'm not saying that God's pledge to Noah is a satisfactory theodicy. What I'm saying is that in all the theodicy conversations I've ever had I've never once heard anyone mention Noah.
Question: Why does God allow evil?

Answer: The rainbow.
I've never heard anyone answer like that.

The Church Needs Her Martyrs

Yesterday I wrote about visiting St. Albans Abbey here in the UK. Today I'd like to comment on something else I enjoyed at the abbey, the martyr nave screen.

The nave screen in St. Albans Abbey displays seven martyrs of the church. From the Abbey website, the seven are:
Amphibalus is the priest whom Alban sheltered and helped to escape, but who was later martyred at Redbourn, and his relics brought to St Albans. His shrine, currently in the North Ambulatory, will be restored as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. It was his influence that brought Alban to Christ. He encourages us to share our faith with those around us, both by our words and by our deeds, even when it may bring us into trouble.

George Tankerfield is a Protestant martyr who was burned under Queen Mary on Romeland, opposite the Cathedral’s west front. He is another example of a man who stood up for his beliefs whatever the cost – and his story reminds us that as well as being the oppressed, religious people have just as often been the oppressors.

Alban Roe is a Catholic priest and martyr, arrested under the Commonwealth and imprisoned in the Abbey gatehouse until his execution in London. Together with George Tankerfield he reminds us that the Reformation disputes inspired both great heroism and great cruelty. They are an example and warning to us to seek reconciliation in our own time between all faiths and denominations, and never to let our differences descend into hatred and violence.

St Elisabeth Romanova was a member of the Russian Royal Family and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who in her widowhood became a nun and Abbess. She was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, because they feared that the people, who admired her holiness and acts of charity, might try to re-establish the monarchy through her. She is an example of a saint who was willing to give up wealth and power to serve Christ in the poor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his opposition to the Nazis and executed in 1945. He had had the chance to escape to America, but chose to stay in Germany to fight the Nazis and stand up for genuine Christianity, at a time when the majority of the Church there had chosen to follow Hitler. He is a reminder that sometimes we are called to fight directly against evil, and to be rejected by our own community for the sake of the truth.

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass at the chapel of the hospital where he lived, because of his outspoken defence of the poor and his condemnation of the totalitarian regime in his country. Though by instinct a quiet, scholarly and conservative man, he was driven by conscience to speak out against injustice, and he challenges us to do the same. 

You're surrounded by martyrs when you tour through old churches in the UK, but the inclusion of modern martyrs at St Albans--like Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two heroes of mine--really brought home to me a point I've raised before on this blog. From my 2014 post entitled "Blood Trumps Everything":
Human life is the most sacred thing. Blood trumps everything.

To be sure, many would rush to say that God is the most sacred thing. That God trumps everything.

But in point of fact, that's not true. Empirically speaking, we behave as if--as well we should--that human life is the most sacred thing.

And this is what makes patriotism and the flag the most sacred thing. This is why the nation is the most sacred thing. Because human life was sacrificed--blood was spilt--for these things. The blood of the solider consecrates and baptizes the flag and the nation. And because blood trumps everything, because there is no holier and more sacred thing than human life, the flag and the nation is the most sacred thing in the world.

I experience this viscerally whenever I'm asked to stand at an athletic event for the national anthem. All around me there are grey haired men, many wearing ball caps telling about their military service. Veterans. Theologically, I chaff at displays of national allegiance. And yet, I feel awkward standing around these grey haired gentlemen during "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't want my theological beliefs to be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. These men gave their blood, their lives for that flag. That they survived doesn't diminish this. For in their memories, as they sing the national anthem, they see the faces of friends who made, as we say, the ultimate sacrifice.

And again, blood trumps everything.

My point in all this is that debates about things like nationalism or pacifism aren't simply abstract theological discussions. These debates need to, but often fail to, take into consideration the sacred element of human blood. These debates need to reckon with the fact that blood is the most sacred thing we know, more sacred, even, than God. Emotionally, where this argument will be won or lost, blood will trump theology. Always.

And this is why the church needs her martyrs.

Phrased another way, an issue like pacifism cannot be adjudicated theologically. It can only be adjudicated ecclesiologically. Pacifism isn't about ideas. It's about blood. And without blood the academic defense of pacifism will never prevail in the pews. Because blood trumps everything. Which is why the church needs her martyrs.

Is it any surprise that the Protestant tradition most associated with pacifism and anti-nationalism--the Anabaptists--is the Protestant tradition with the most robust commemoration of her martyrs?

In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

Because that flag, given how much blood it represents, is very, very sacred.

And blood trumps everything.

The Prayer of St. Alban

Last week, Jana and I were in St. Albans in the UK with our dear friends, Hannah, David and Gil Bywaters. I was there speaking at Ashley Church, a beautiful, Christ-filled community.

While in St. Albans we got to visit St. Alban's Abbey, dedicated to the memory of Saint Alban.

St. Alban is venerated as Britain's first Christian martyr. For centuries, the shrine of St. Alban in the abbey has been a destination for pilgrimages, and remains so today.

Alban was martyred in the 3rd or 4th century. At the time, St. Albans was the Roman city Verulamium.

According to the story found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, it was a time of persecution of Christians, and Alban was a Roman solider stationed in Verulamium. One day, a priest fleeing persecution sought shelter at Alban's house. Alban took the priest in. During the priest's stay Alban became so impressed with the priest's courage and devotion that the Roman solider converted to Christianity.

Eventually, the priest's location was discovered. To save the priest, Alban placed his Roman cloak upon the holy man and dressed himself in the priest's garb. When the Roman soldiers arrived they arrested Alban and allowed the priest, disguised as a Roman solider, to escape.

The leaders of the persecution were outraged at Alban's subterfuge, demanding an answer as to why he had allowed the priest to escape. Alban confessed that he had converted to Christianity. To test his conversion, Alban was told he would endure all the punishments that were to be inflicted upon the priest unless he renounced his faith and participated in Roman pagan worship.

Alban refused and declared, "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things."

Upon hearing this, Alban was sentenced to beheading.

And to this day, Alban's prayer is used in St Alban's Abbey.

"I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things."

Prison Diary: From the Revivalistic to the Ethical

What's the biggest challenge of prison ministry?

In my experience, the biggest challenge is shifting from the revivalistic to the ethical.

The theology and spirituality of my prison is revivalistic. By that I mean there's a lot of discussion about grace and forgiveness--Jesus died for your sins--and a lot of testimonies about God's provision or the Spirit moving. And by and large, I'm fine with this emphasis. Given the weight of guilt the men carry, a message heavy on grace is a good thing. And testimonies about God's faithfulness and the Spirit's presence lessen feelings of alienation and abandonment.

But my classes, exhortations, and preaching struggle when I move off of these revivalistic themes to the ethical. Talking about violence is a good example. Or asking the men to view their Christian brotherhood as deeper and more foundational than the gangs (largely defined by race and ethnicity) they run with.

Basically, my biggest struggle is the same struggle most churches have with spiritual formation, how to shift the focus away from justification to sanctification. By and large, prison ministry is focused on revival and evangelism. It struggles to do anything with spiritual formation.

N.T. Wright and the Atonement: Part 2, Christus Victor and the Forgiveness of Sins

In yesterday's post I pointed how N.T. Wright in his book The Day the Revolution Began makes the argument that the gospels do present us with an atonement theology.

Specifically, the death of Jesus is associated with Passover in the gospels, rather than the Day of Atonement. According to the gospels, then, the death of Jesus is a liberating and emancipating event. This is Christus Victor imagery. According to the gospels, Jesus' death liberates us from dark, enslaving forces in the same way the Passover saved Israel from bondage, Pharaoh and the Angel of Death.

And yet, Day of Atonement imagery also runs through the gospels, most notably with the repeated references to "the forgiveness of sins." Jesus goes about performing exorcisms, good Christus Victor stuff, but he also goes about forgiving sins, Day of Atonement imagery.

Wright's book is helpful in showing how these two festivals--Passover (Christus Victor) and the Day of Atonement (forgiveness of sins)--go together in the gospels.

This is important because in our modern atonement debates Passover (Christus Victor) and the Day of Atonement (forgiveness of sins) often get pitted against each other, forcing you to choose between the two. But in the gospels they work together.

According to Wright, here's how these two festivals get fused.

In the gospels the Jews felt themselves to be in a time of exile, in bondage of foreign powers. Despite the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding the temple as recounted in Ezra and Nehemiah, this exile was an extension of the Babylonian exile. This season of exile was felt to be similar to the captivity in Egypt. So the Jews were looking for a Messiah who would lead a Second Exodus, a Messiah who would be the awaited Second Moses.

This parallel between the Babylonian exile and the captivity in Egypt sets up the Passover imagery in the gospels. But there's a crucial difference between the two. As Wright points out, the captivity in Egypt was a result of historical circumstance. By contrast, the Babylonian exile was punishment for Israel's sins.

This twist linked Passover expectations with the Day of Atonement. Because the exile was associated with the punishment of sin, the forgiveness of sins would be the sign that Israel's exile was coming to an end, that the long awaited Passover event was at hand.

In short, when Jesus is going about forgiving sins he's proclaiming the end of Israel's exile. Jesus is fulling Israel's hope that with the forgiveness of her sins her liberation and emancipation--her Passover--could now commence:
Isaiah 40.1-5
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In short, there's no need to pit Christus Victor against the forgiveness of sins. In the life of Israel, these were a part of the same story.

And Jesus' death accomplishes both.

N.T. Wright and the Atonement: Part 1, Atonement as Passover

There are many great insights in N.T. Wright's book on the atonement The Day the Revolution Began. I'd like to use this post an the next to bring attention to two insights I found very helpful (in addition to an insight I shared before).

The first insight has to do with the gospels. As Wright points out, scholars have often claimed that the gospels lack an atonement theology. What that gospels give us, it is claimed, is simply a dramatic narrative of Jesus' arrest, trial, passion, death and resurrection. A story without a lot of theological commentary.

Wright counters that the gospels do, in fact, have an atonement theology. The gospels present Jesus as taking great pains to make his stand in Jerusalem at the Passover feast. This is significant because Jesus could have made his stand in Jerusalem at a different feast, the Day of Atonement.

According to Wright, that the gospels present Jesus' death as occurring during Passover is, in fact, an atonement theology. The death of Jesus is understood by the gospels to be a Passover, rather than a Day of Atonement, event.

To be clear, Day of Atonement imagery and motifs are highlighted in the gospels (more on this in the next post), but Passover is the dominant, regulating story. In this the gospels are highlighting Christus Victor themes of slavery and emancipation.

According to the gospels, Jesus death liberates us from dark, enslaving forces in the same way the Passover saved Israel from bondage, Pharaoh and the Angel of Death.

How to See an Old Church

Yesterday I wrote about the Ascension being the climatic moment of the gospels, the enthronement of Jesus as "Lord of all."

Last week Jana and I got to take in an Ascension service with our dear friend Hannah. We're in the UK right now, doing some speaking, and found ourselves close to Sherborne Abbey on the Feast of the Ascension.  (Celebrated last Thursday by the Church of England. Catholics celebrated it on Sunday, the last Sunday before Pentecost.)

I love visiting old churches as a tourist. But nothing compares to visiting old churches as a participant in a worship service. Beyond the religious aspect, there's the simple point that during worship services they actually turn the lights on. The ceiling of the Sherborn Abbey when illuminated, pictured here, was stunning.

Two years ago when Jana and I were in Bath, I popped into the abbey. They were chasing out all the tourists for their evening prayer service. Which I was more than delighted to attend. I came back the next day to visit the abbey as a tourist, but that evening prayer service was my high point in Bath. Similarly, the Ascension service in Sherborne Abbey was delightful. And as Hannah had hoped, they even had a choir!

All that to say, if you want to visit an old church, show up for a worship service.

Missing the Climax of the Gospel Story

With the celebration of the Ascension just behind us, I wanted to draw attention to what I think is a very important point made by Matthew Bates in his recent book Saved By Allegiance Alone.

We generally tell the story of the gospel by telling about the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those events--birth, death and resurrection--are the Good News, the gospel.

But according to Bates, this telling of the gospel is leaving out the final, climatic moment in the story. It's like walking out of the final act of a play. Or reading all of the Harry Potter novels but skipping The Deathly Hallows. You never get to the climax and culmination of the story.

So what is the climax and high point of the gospel? It's the Ascension, Jesus being seated as Lord and King. The entire point of the gospel story--as the culmination of Israel's story--is Jesus being enthroned as Ruler of the world and cosmos.

If you never get to that point in the story, argues Bates, you fail to get to the defining Christian confession, that Jesus is "Lord of all." And if you miss that, you miss the heart of the Christian life and community, confessing and swearing fealty (i.e., faith) to the one, true king.

In short, the climax of the gospel is the Ascension. But how many churches and church members celebrated that event last week or this past Sunday?

Very few, I'm guessing, which is diagnostic of why there are so many enduring problems with American Christianity.

We haven't recognized, preached or celebrated the central point of the gospel,

Prison Diary: About Those Toliets

Last week I mentioned how the inmates keep cool during the hot summer months by using water from their toilets.

Like you, I also had a disgust reaction to this, so I did ask some questions.

"You use water from the toilets?"

Diego and Cody explained.

The small sinks in the room don't have strong faucets. They said faucets were more like water fountains. So it's difficult to soak or get a lot of water using the sinks. So you use the toilet in the cell.

Still, I wrinkled my nose.

"Well," Diego explained, "the toilets are stainless steel. And since we use the toilets for water we keep them sparkling clean. And it's the same water that goes to the sink."

I don't know if that explanation helps any.

But the explanation did remind me of and illustrate all the disgust and contamination psychology I discuss in Unclean.

If you've read Unclean you know what I'm talking about.

There Is Nothing For You To Do, But You Can Come Eat With Us

Regular readers know that on Wednesday nights I'm a Freedom Fellowship, eating a meal and worshiping with our friends and neighbors in a poor part of our town.

When I share stories about Freedom people often approach me saying they'd like to come over and help out. And my response is, "Well, there is nothing for you to do, but you can come eat with us."

When people hear about Freedom they envision something like a soup kitchen, where volunteers stand behind tables serving a line of needy people. There are people serving behind tables and there are people in a line to get food. But the people cooking, serving and cleaning up after the meals aren't outside volunteers. The Freedom community does all that.

So there's nothing for a volunteer to do. But you can come, get in line, get a plate of food and sit down and eat with us.

And yet, that prospect seems to throw a lot of people. They don't want relationships, they want a service project. It's profoundly disorienting to many Christians to be told that they are not needed. We'd much rather serve than be asked to share a table with others. It's fascinating to watch how new people wanting to help at Freedom will stand around looking for a job to do, something to make them feel useful, when all they need to do is grab a plate and sit down.

Stop trying to serve, I want to say.

Just sit down and eat with us.

When We Think of Ourselves We are Perturbed

From Saint Bernard concerning the stages of contemplation:
Let us take our stand on secure ground, leaning with all our strength on Christ, the most solid rock, according to the words: He set my feet on a rock and guided my steps. Thus firmly established, let us begin to contemplate, to see what he is saying to us and what reply we ought to make to his charges.

The first stage of contemplation, my dear brothers, is constantly to consider what God wants, what is pleasing to him, and what is acceptable in his eyes. We all offend in many things; our strength cannot match the rectitude of God’s will, being neither one with it nor wholly in accord with it; let us then humble ourselves under the powerful hand of the most high God and be concerned to show ourselves unworthy before his merciful gaze, saying: Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved. And again, Lord have mercy on me; heal my soul because I have sinned against you.

Once the eye of the soul has been purified by such considerations we no longer abide within our own spirit in a sense of sorrow, but abide rather in the Spirit of God with great delight. No longer do we consider what is the will of God for us, but rather what it is in itself. For our life is in his will. Thus we are convinced that what is according to his will is in every way more advantageous and fitting for us. And so, concerned as we are to preserve the life of our soul, we should be equally concerned, insofar as we can, not to deviate from his will.

Thus having made some progress in our spiritual exercise under the guidance of the Spirit who searches the deep things of God, let us reflect how sweet is the Lord and how good he is in himself; in the words of the prophet let us pray to see God’s will; no longer shall we frequent our own hearts but his temple. At the same time we shall say: My soul is humbled within me, therefore I shall be mindful of you.

The whole of the spiritual life consists of these two elements. When we think of ourselves, we are perturbed and filled with a salutary sadness. And when we think of the Lord, we are revived to find consolation in the joy of the Holy Spirit. From the first we derive fear and humility, from the second hope and love.

Suffering to Give Birth to a New World

Last summer our bible class at church was working through the book of Colossians. In one of the classes I was teaching we came to this puzzling text:
Colossians 1.24
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
What does Paul mean when he says that he is "filling up what is lacking" in Christ's afflictions? We tend to assume that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was sufficient, lacking in nothing.

So what's Paul talking about?

The scholarship I consulted argued that what Paul is referring to here has to do with the "Messianic woes," a belief held by many Second Temple Jews, Paul included.

The Messianic Woes goes back to the book of Daniel where many passages suggest that the coming reign of the the Son of Man will be ushered in with suffering, persecution and tribulation. The Kingdom of God doesn't come painlessly.

Crucial here is the Jewish view that there are two ages, "the present evil age" and the Messianic "age to come." Many Jews felt that these ages would happen serially, with the "present evil age" ending to be followed by the Messianic age. The Messianic woes, the painful birth pangs of the new age, happen at the transition point, the ending of one age to usher in the next

Paul, however, nuances this two age view, seeing the ages as overlapping. With Jesus the new age has been inaugurated alongside and within the present evil age. This is the classic "already, not yet" dynamic. The new age is breaking into the present evil age but the Kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. We await a final consummation.

But in the meantime, as the new age breaks into the present evil age, the transition between the ages--the birth pangs of the coming New Creation--are still characterized by the Messianic Woes, by trials, persecution and tribulation. As Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble." Also, "Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name's sake." Or James 1.2-3: "Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."

In short, participation in the Kingdom is accompanied by an expectation of suffering and trials. As pioneers of the new age Christians carry the burden of the Messianic woes.

All that to say, what Paul seems to be saying in Colossians 1.24 is that the corporate body of Christ, who is suffering to give birth to the kingdom in the present evil age, "fill up" the sufferings that must take place from now until the consummation of the kingdom. There is X amount of suffering that will take place to fully usher in the Messianic age. So as Christians suffer to inaugurate the new age we are "filling up" this quota of suffering.

In short, to be the people of God is to participate in the Messianic woes. We endure the suffering to make the new age a lived reality in this present evil age.

Christians share and participate in Christ's sufferings to "fill up" what is left of the Messianic woes until the kingdom comes in its fullness.

Material Koinonia

I've been researching the Greek word koinonia. This won't be news to many of you, but it's really a remarkable word.

The definition of koinonia is fellowship, participation, contribution and sharing.

We generally think of koinonia in the context of the fellowship enjoyed by the early church in Acts 2:
Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to koinonia, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Because of this text we tend to think of koinonia in relational terms. Koinonia, we think, is about emotional intimacy. But koinonia is also used to describe sharing in concrete, material and monetary terms.

Actual money, when it's shared, is koinonia:
Romans 15.26
For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a koinonia for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.
We see this in Acts 2. Being devoted to koinonia involves material acts of sharing. Koinonia shouldn't be reduced to emotional closeness and social intimacy.

Koinonia is sharing and fellowship that is concrete, material and sacrificial.

Prison Diary: How To Stay Cool

Summer is coming so it's starting to warm up in Texas.

Texas prisons are not air-conditioned, so the cell blocks will soon become ovens. Some buildings are air-conditioned, like the chapel where we have our study, but those spaces are just brief respites from the oppressive heat.

So this week I asked Cody, Diego and Joe about how they stay cool. "What's the Number #1 way to beat the heat during the summer months?" I asked.

Joe said a fan is absolutely essential. The inmates can purchase a fan for $20 from the commissary. Fans may be the most prized possession in the entire prison.

"It's a mental thing," was Diego's response, "You can't let the heat get to you, thinking all the time about how hot you are. That only makes it worse."

Cody had two pieces of advice.

First, he said, you have to shut and black out your windows. It keeps the heat out. Blacking out the windows is against the rules, but most officers let it slide. I asked Cody to estimate and he said about 85% of the cells black out their windows.

Cody's second trick to getting cool was this:

"You strip to your underwear. Then you throw water from the toilet onto the cement floor of the cell. You then get your towel wet. You lay down on the wet cement in your underwear and use the towel to keep yourself wet. Then put your fan so that it can blow over you as you lay there."

I looked at Joe and Diego to confirm that this is the best strategy to staying cool. They nodded yes, that's how you do it.

The Damage We Would Do To Each Other If We Had "The Explanation"

Imagine, if you will, that the Bible gave us an explanation for why there is so much pain and suffering in the world.

Imagine that the Bible gave us "The Explanation" in a specific text, something we could easily quote and share.

Imagine the Bible gave us the theodicy we all want, The Explanation we've all been asking for.

Then imagine how The Explanation would be used.

Imagine the thousands of sermons sharing The Explanation. The books devoted to The Explanation. Imagine how the Bible verse giving us The Explanation would be printed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers and home decor, just like we do with every other inspirational Bible verse.

But mostly imagine how we'd use The Explanation with each other in the face of pain.

Why did the Holocaust occur? Well, because The Explanation.

Why did my child die from cancer? Well, because The Explanation.

Why is there sex trafficking? Well, because The Explanation.

Wherever suffering is found we'd share The Explanation. We'd share The Explanation so often it would become automatic. Cliche, even.

And when you think about it, about what it would be like to have The Explanation, you're struck with just how much damage and violence we'd do to each other with The Explanation.

Everytime we encountered a victim or a suffering, hurting person, we'd throw The Explanation at them.

So it seems to me that the most loving thing God could do for us, in the face of suffering, is to refuse to give us The Explanation. Even if we cried out in the darkness for the Explanation. Because without The Explanation we're forced into silence and solidarity. Which is exactly where we need to be.

So maybe that is why we'll never have The Explanation.

We can't be trusted with it.

If we had it, we'd hurt each other.