Prison Diary: Play Us a Song, You're the Piano Man

Every week when David comes to the study he carries a huge folder of paper. It's about an inch thick.

It's full of piano music.

There is a piano in the prison chapel. It's only used for Sunday worship services. An inmate would never be allowed to visit the chapel to play the piano all alone, playing whatever music he wanted.

But sometimes David gets a chance to have the piano all to himself.

During the hours of our study the prison does their evening "count." Counts happen at regular intervals throughout the day. No one can move during count. You stay right where you are--our guys are obviously in the chapel--and the prison takes a census, accounting for every inmate in the entire facility.

Sometimes the count doesn't "clear." The numbers don't match up. So you keep counting and locating the unaccounted for inmates until the numbers are right.

The count can take upwards to two hours if it's having trouble clearing. Which means that, if the count hasn't cleared by the time our study is over at 8:30, the men have to stay in the chapel until the count clears. They might have to wait a few minutes, or they might have to wait for over an hour.

And if that happens, David is stuck waiting in the chapel.

Which just so happens to have a piano in the corner.

That's why David religiously brings his music to the study.

For those precious few moments to sit down at a piano, to pull out his music, and play.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 4, The Mechanism and Means of Salvation

In the atonement debates theologians remind us that the New Testament writers don't give us a theory of atonement, and by that they mean a theory about the mechanism of atonement. That we are saved by Jesus' death on the cross is the crucial point. How we are saved by his death is a fuzzy matter.

I agree with that assessment. I don't think we get a clear picture in the NT about how atonement "works."

That said, I actually do think we are told about the mechanism of salvation in the NT, Paul especially.

How are we saved? We're saved by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the means and mechanism of salvation.

Rather than tour through all of Paul's letters, let's focus in on Romans 8 to see this illustrated.

According to Paul, the human predicament is that we are all slaves to Sin, death and the devil. We are dead, incapacitated and weak. Cut off from God's power, separated from God's life.

We are saved, liberated and rescued from our bondage by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are reconnected to God's life through the Holy Spirit.

Again, how are we saved? Answer: By receiving Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the mechanism, the means of salvation.

Here's how Paul describes it at the start of Romans 8:
Romans 8.1-6
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The Spirit sets us frees from bondage ("Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." 2 Cor. 3.17). The Spirit gives us the capacity to please God by walking in righteousness. The Spirit gives power and life to our mortal bodies.

In short, if we were to ask Paul our questions--How are we set free? How are we given new life? How are we made into a new creation? How are we given the ability to walk in righteousness? How? How? How?--Paul's answer would be simple.

The Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 3, Salvation and Spirit in the Gospels and Acts

Let's take a couple posts to note how salvation is equated with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The basic thesis for this post is easily stated: In the gospels and Acts salvation is equated with receiving the Holy Spirit.

That might seem to be an obvious point, but let it sink in. Salvation in the gospels and Acts isn't associated with the atonement. Salvation is associated with being given the Holy Spirit.

In the gospels this association is most clearly seen in John:
John 3.5-8
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Being saved is being "born again" in a mystical, spiritual, metaphysical sense. Simply: "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In John 6.63 Jesus says, "It is the Spirit that gives life."

Salvation is life, and the Spirit is what gives us life.

The Synoptic gospels are less mystical when it comes to the Spirit, but they agree with John that the coming of the kingdom is associated with the advance of the Spirit.

John the Baptist declares, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Jesus' ministry of exorcism is viewed in the Synoptics as the Holy Spirit reclaiming enemy-held territory:
Matthew 12.22-28
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.

And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
In Acts 1 and 2 the church--the community of the saved--is established at Pentecost by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10 the mission to the Gentiles is inaugurated when the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household.

In fact, the entire book of Acts is simply the story of how the Spirit that filled Jesus now fills and guides the church. The Spirit is the hero of the book of Acts. How a person stands in relation to the Spirit in the book of Acts tells us how they stand in relation to salvation, the church, and the advancing kingdom of God.

So the main point: in the gospels and the book of Acts salvation is described as receiving the Holy Spirit

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 2, Divine Radiation in the Superhero Movie of Salvation

The key insight we need to understand salvation is that salvation is ontological.

We tend to think that salvation is relational and moral. Specifically, to be saved is to have our relationship with God restored. Once, we stood condemned before God, now we stand justified. Salvation is a change in relationship.

And standing now justified, we also think of salvation as a moral status. Once, I was dirty and unclean, now I am washed and pure.

No doubt, salvation is both of these things. But what tends to get missed when we understand salvation in relational and moral terms is the ontological aspect of salvation. Salvation changes our being, the substance of our very selves and existences. We are, quite literally, a "new creation." Once, we were one type of being, and now we are a new type of being. A new creature. A qualitatively different type of human being.

It takes a lot of work to even imagine this, how salvation isn't just about a change in relationship or moral status, how salvation changes the very substance of your being.

To recount a lesson from Theology 101, Western visions of salvation have tended to be forensic in nature, focusing on legal status. Saved vs. Lost. This status highlights the relational and moral aspects of salvation, our legal situation before the Judgment Seat of God. By contrast, the Eastern vision of salvation is ontological. Salvation is union and participation in the Divine Nature. Salvation is theosis, ontologically becoming God. The saints are literally becoming divine.

To make the contrast clear, the saints are not being declared divine (holy, justified, righteous) by a judge in a forensic, legal sense. The saints are becoming divine, at the atomic level, if I can use those words. Metaphysically, mystically, and supernaturally the physical components of your being--the atoms and molecules, muscles and tendons, organs and blood--are being modified and changed, becoming something different. You are becoming, quite literally, a new kind of creature.

This is may be a crude way to describe it, but imagine every atom of your being being changed by exposure to Divine radiation. Sort of like what happens in a superhero movie, like how Peter Parker is changed into Spider Man.

Becoming like a superhero, a new type of human being, a new creature. That is the Eastern vision of salvation. That's what it means to say salvation is ontological.

This is why the Spirit is salvation, because it's the Spirit that is creating and re-creating your being, fusing your DNA with the divine in the process of theosis. The Spirit is the Divine radiation in the superhero movie of salvation. The Spirit is the means of new creation. Without the Spirit new creation cannot happen. And outside of new creation there is no salvation.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 1, The Missing Piece

My book The Slavery of Death is my deepest reflection on the subject of salvation. Mainly from a psychological perspective, the emotional contours of what it means to be set free from the slavery of death.

But I've come to think that there's a big missing piece in The Slavery of Death. Theologically, what's missing is an account of Holy Spirit's work in effecting our liberation from Sin, death and the devil. This is a particularly important issue given how much The Slavery of Death leans on Orthodox theology.

That said, my discussions about "ecstatic" and "eccentric" identity in The Slavery of Death easily lend themselves to a pneumatological treatment. An ecstatic and eccentric identity is simply the psychological experience of a Spirit-filled and a Spirit-led life.

Still, I wish I had included a more explicit discussion of the Holy Spirit in the book.

And the reason for that is that, more and more, I'm coming to see how in all our debates about salvation and atonement the big missing piece in all of these discussions is the Holy Spirit. We focus so much on the forgiveness of sins that we miss seeing how salvation is receiving the Holy Spirit.

Especially from a Christus Victor perspective, what liberates us from the powers of Sin, Death and Satan? The Holy Spirit.

What moves us--ontologically--from Death to Life? The Holy Spirit.

What vitally reconnects us with and allows us to participate in God's being and life? The Holy Spirit.

What is the ontological glue that binds the church together across time and space? The Holy Spirit.

What is the power that gives us the moral capacity to obey the Law of Love to advance in holiness and spiritual perfection? The Holy Spirit.

Simply put, the Spirit is Salvation. And I'd like to devote some posts to that idea.

Prison Diary: Set Free From the Power of the Devil

On Monday out at the prison we were in John 12 and spent most of our time talking about these verses:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
We talked about how Christians die before death, making us immune to the fear of death. And emancipated from the fear of death we become immune to the power of the devil (Hebrews 2.14-15).

As the church father John Chrysostom has said, "he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil."

As regular readers know, all this is worked out in my book The Slavery of Death. It was nice on Monday to lean into that material. 

Because if there ever was a display case for death being the power of the devil, it's inside a maximum security prison. Here's how I described it to the men on Monday.

The devil is a puppet master. We are the puppets. And the strings the devil pulls is our fear of death. That is how the devil enslaves, controls, and bullies us.

But in baptism, in dying before death, the strings are cut, setting us free from fear and the power of the devil.

And in that moment, raised up from the waters of death, a new human being is born, a new creature, a new creation. A liberated, fearless person who is totally free.

Last Call: Reviving Old Scratch Just $2.99

Last reminder that the ebook of Reviving Old Scratch is on sale for just $2.99. The deal ends on September 15 when Fortress Press wraps up its massive summer ebook sale.

For potential readers wondering if a book about the devil in the modern age would be of value to your church or ministry, Reviving Old Scratch was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.

Again, the sale ends in two days. The full listings of books on sale is here.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 3, Forcing Your Way Into the Kingdom

If Matthew 11.12 isn't the most puzzling passage in the gospels then that prize is likely to go to Jesus' response to the the Syrophoenician woman:
Matthew 15.21-28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
We're familiar with the controversy here. Jesus calls the woman a dog. More, Jesus appears to have a very parochial view of his vocation and mission, privileging Israel over the nations. But the woman persists and forces her way into the kingdom.

In contrast to this story in Mark, the story in Matthew highlights the force of the woman, her refusal to be denied. That force wins the day.

I think this story in Matthew is illustrating what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11.12, how forceful people forcefully seize the kingdom. I think Matthew is using this story to draw a contrast between the forceful faith of this pagan woman and the apathy Jesus was receiving in the towns of Israel.

Let me illustrate the connection:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." (Matthew 11.20-21)

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (Matthew 15.21-222)
What Jesus had predicted Matthew shows us as coming true. In contrast to the apathy the kingdom was being met with in Israel the pagans in Tyre and Sidon were forcefully seizing the kingdom. The woman would not be denied. She forced her way into the kingdom.

Yes, Jesus does throw up barriers in Matthew 15. But I think Jesus does this to make a point. Look, Jesus is saying, how in the face of the kingdom these people refuse to be denied. This is the forceful response I'm looking for but can't find in Israel.

The kingdom is forcefully coming and the forceful, like this woman, forcefully seize it.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 2, "The Kingdom Has Been Forcefully Coming, and the Forceful Seize It"

I think the key to the interpretation of Matthew 11.12 lies in the context of Jesus' speech.

Again, all major translations translate Matthew 11.12 as a saying about the kingdom of God being attacked by forceful or violent persons. But that interpretation is the exact opposite of what Jesus is describing in the context of Matthew 11. According to Jesus in Matthew 11, the kingdom isn't being attacked. The kingdom is being rejected.

I don't want to quote the entire text of Matthew 11.1-24, but it might be good for you to read it. But here are the highlights.

The passage begins with John questioning from prison if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Jesus responds:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Note the final line, "Blessed in anyone who does not stumble on account of me." John seems to be having doubts, and Jesus offers both evidence and a warning. In short, the context of Matthew 11 is one of doubt and warning.

Jesus then turns to the crowd and begins to tell them about John. Jesus says John is a prophet, in fact John is Elijah, the long-awaited herald of the Messiah. So the issue before the crowd is if they will accept this fact:
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. 
The trouble is, the people aren't willing to accept John or Jesus. The people have rejected both John and Jesus. So Jesus offers up a stinging rebuke:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” 
I hope all this illustrates the point I made above. The context of Matthew 11 isn't one of violent people attacking the kingdom. From the start, with John's doubts and Jesus' warning to John, to the end, with Jesus' judgment upon the lack of faith he was encountering, the context is about the rejection of the kingdom, the frame is doubt and a lack of faith.

And in the middle of this conversation about doubt and a lack of faith is the puzzling passage Matthew 11.12. How does that passage fits with the context?

It might be helpful to render Matthew 11.12 more neutrally. In the passage Jesus uses the root verb biazó "to force" twice, and the root verb harpazó "to take/seize with force" once. So the idea of "force" flows through the whole passage. So some neutral rendering of the passage would be:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful seize it.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful forcefully take it.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful grab it.
Rendered here more neutrally I think we see the point of the saying. From John to Jesus the kingdom of heaven had been forcefully advancing. And yet, the kingdom was being met with doubt and questioning. Even John was starting to waver. So Jesus declares that the kingdom is advancing. The army is on the move, so now is the time to forcefully seize this opportunity. But sadly, the people were meeting the kingdom with doubt and a lukewarm reception. The people lacked urgency or interest. Instead of forcefully seizing the kingdom there was apathy.

I think this is the correct interpretation of Matthew 11.12. Matthew 11.12 is offered not as a description of what was happening to the kingdom--violent people attacking it--because that is exactly what was not happening. The kingdom was, rather, being dismissed and ignored. Matthew 11.12 is a rebuke, a call to action, a challenge to doubting and questioning audiences to forcefully seize the kingdom.

In the final post in this series I'd like to support this interpretation by using Matthew 11.12 to illuminate another puzzling saying of Jesus.

A puzzle to solve a puzzle.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 1, What Does Matthew 11:12 Mean?

I'd like to devote a few posts to interpreting Matthew 11:12.

Matthew 11:12 is one of the most perplexing sayings of Jesus in the gospels. Here it is:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (NIV)
Obviously, the juxtaposition of the kingdom and violence is provocative, making any possible interpretation a bit of a minefield.

What makes the interpretation of the passage difficult is that the verb for violence--biazetai, from the root biazó "to force"--in the phrase "the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence" (NIV), can be in the middle or passive voice. That is, the kingdom of God can be subject to force or the agent of force.

Our knee jerk response to those options is that the kingdom of God wouldn't be the agent of force. Thus, most translations, like the NIV above, interpret the verb in the passive voice: the kingdom is subject to or suffers violence:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (KJV)

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (ESV)

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (NRSV) 
This interpretation seems to fit well with the rest of the saying that "the violent take [the kingdom of God] by force" (NRSV). In short, the meaning of the passage suggests that the kingdom of God is under siege and being attacked.

As a first pass that seems to make sense, but upon deeper reflection it raises some questions. The kingdom of God can't be taken by force, can it? If the "gates of hell" can't prevail against the kingdom (Matt. 16.18) how could the kingdom ever be "taken by force"?

So maybe an alternative translation is in order, making the kingdom the agent of force. Few translations go this direction, but the NLT does:
And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it.
Unlike the other translations, here the kingdom is the agent of force: "the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing." But the NLT keeps the main idea of the other translations, that the kingdom is being attacked by violent people.

So who are these violent people who are attacking the kingdom?

Well, some see a hint in the context of the passage. The saying in Matthew 11:12 occurs in a larger conversation where Jesus is discussing the witness of John the Baptist. The conversation takes place because John, who was in prison at the time, sends emissaries to ask of Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The mention of John being in prison in 11:2 is taken by some to be the clue to interpreting 11:12. Maybe Herod is the violent person who, in his persecution of John, is attacking the kingdom of God, trying to take it by force. Maybe the opposition both John and Jesus are facing are the violent people who are attacking the kingdom?

I don't find these plausible interpretations. The verb harpazousin doesn't mean "attack." It means "to seize, to take by force." Sure, that might imply an "attack," but it's an attack not to destroy but to take. Neither Herod or those opposed to John or Jesus seem to be trying to forcefully seize the kingdom.

So we are back to our original question.

What does Matthew 11:12 mean?

Prison Diary: Gambling Season

The NFL season started last night, and you know what that means out at the prison?

It's gambling season.

Last week one of the inmates got busted by the guards as he entered our study. The men are routinely patted down before they are released into the chapel, checked for contraband. As you might expect, this pat down can be variously perfunctory or thorough.

Last week the pat down was thorough, and one guy got caught carrying a gambling ticket.

It's football season, so gambling is booming right now in the prison. It's against the rules, so the inmate with the gambling card was written up.

I'm not totally informed about the gambling operations at work in the prison. As you might expect, the Men in White don't talk a whole lot about this. But there are multiple gambling operations running in each house. "XXX" or "Big House." You can take bets out with these groups. Each one issues tickets, typed up on a white piece of paper. The operation name across the top with the betting details below. This was what the inmate was caught with last week.

Again, like with my earlier diary entries about the prison economy, the gambling operations boggle the mind, a small window on this whole other world that exists behind prison walls.

The Obligations of Grace: Part 4, Beyond Feeling Saved

One more post talking about John Barclay's analysis in his book Paul and the Gift, focusing on how grace obligates us to cross social boundaries to participate in the transgressive covenantal community where we have duties in the kingdom's economy of love.

Our "gift-obligations" in the economy of love cannot be decoupled from faith, as they are in the tired "faith vs. works" debate. The point of the Christ-gift--what we call grace--is to create this very community, what Jesus called "the kingdom of God." Grace without this kingdom, without the covenantal economy of love, is no grace at all.

Relatedly, if you spurn your "gift-obligations," if you refuse to participate in the covenantal economy of love, you "fall" from grace: you make yourself unavailable to the economy of love where Christ is present and performing his saving work.

I think this perspective on grace is so imporant because one of the great problems with American Christianity is emotionalism.

Let me illustrate. Recently, one Sunday at my church during the closing prayer the person leading the prayer prayed, "And God, I pray that everyone here in this room leaves this place with a feeling of having been close to you, with a feeling of your love."

After the prayer was over, I lifted my head and looked at Jana: "A feeling? We are praying that we have feelings?"

Of course we were. The entire goal of contemporary praise and worship music in America is to create feelings. Worship is successful if it moves us emotionally.

Feelings are also the goal when it comes to spiritual formation. Prayer and devotional time with God are successful if they create feelings of closeness, connection and intimacy with God. Spiritual problems are diagnosed by feelings as well, feeling spiritually "dead" or "dry."

Christianity is swamped with feelings. What is missing is any notion that Christianity, as Jesus taught it, is behavioral. "By their fruits," Jesus said, "you will know them."

By our fruits, not our feelings.

The reason Christianity has become so emotional is a bad theology of grace. When the perfection of non-circularity was perfected in church history, grace became a one-sided affair, with the initiative all on God's side. Humans, in this scheme, are not called into a covenantal partnership, but stand as passive recipients. All that is left to do in this scheme is to cultivate a feeling of gratitude for the gift of grace. Being a Christian, therefore, is working, over and over and over again, to generate this feeling of gratitude. Through praise bands and prayer and sermons that kick us in the gut. Feelings are how we respond to grace.

But again, as Barclay argues it, Paul didn't perfect the non-circularity of grace. Grace obligates us as covenantal, kingdom-of-God partners. Grace is not a one-sided transaction, grace is a social revolution: the creation of transgressive, boundary-crossing communities who live into the kingdom's economy of love. There's more to being a Christian than feeling grateful over and over again for a gift you've been given. To be clear, all our actions have to flow out of gratitude and joy, otherwise you have different sorts of problems: shame, legalism, guilt, scrupulosity, pride. But being in a covenantal relationship with God's family involves more than feelings. The kingdom's economy of love, given its relational and transgressive nature, requires is discipline, accountability, sanctification, mission, maturation, and holiness.

But due to our distorted theology of grace, we never get around to the covenantal obligations of grace. We remain stuck on the emotional and therapeutic aspects of salvation. In this theology of grace feelings become severed from sanctification, our deeper participation in the economy of love. Salvation becomes a feeling rather than a new way of living and loving.

And this bad theology of grace--grace divorced from covenantal obligations to God and each other--produces one of the great theological Frankensteins of American Christianity:

People who are mean, selfish and prejudiced who walk around feeling saved.

The Obligations of Grace: Part 3, Falling From Grace

In my last post we noted how John Barclay's analysis in his book Paul and the Gift helps us get pass the tired "faith vs. works" debate.

Barclay's analysis also helps us get past another tired debate.

Can you fall from grace?

As we've noted, Paul (according to Barclay) doesn't perfect the non-circularity of grace. For Paul, grace creates covenantal obligations.

And what that means is that if we fail to honor those covenantal obligations we can fall from grace.

As Barclay writes (p. 440): “Since these warnings [in Paul's letters] are directed to the believing community, it is clearly possible to lose all the benefits of the Christ-gift. A community that fails to live in accord with the gift has lost contact with its saving power.”

That we can fall from grace should be a non-controversial point. Falling from grace is illustrated (e.g, Ananias and Sapphira, churches of Sardis and Laodicea in Revelation), mentioned (e.g., Hebrews 6.4-6) and generally assumed throughout the New Testament.

For example, why is perseverance in the faith encouraged if there wasn't the real risk of not persevering? Why encourage Christians to not be conformed to the world if there wasn't a risk of conforming?

Of course you can fall from grace. So why is there any debate about this?

Well, it goes back to the same debates that created the distortion of grace we observed in the faith vs. work debate.

The debates between Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius didn't just perfect the non-circularity of grace. As Barclay points out, these debates also perfected the efficacy of grace: Grace accomplishes everything it sets out to accomplish.

The efficacy of grace was perfected in these debates for the same reason non-circularity was perfected: To remove any trace of human effort. God's grace has to save us so completely and thoroughly that there's nothing left for us to do. Ever. We can't even fall away from grace.

But again, Paul didn't perfect non-circularity or efficacy. God's election does create an unmerited covenantal relationship, but that doesn't mean we can't spurn the covenant. The Exodus was grace, but the people rebelled in the desert. And that rebellion remains a live possibility.

Grace is our exodus. Obedience in the desert on the way to the Promised Land is our covenantal responsibility.    

The Obligations of Grace: Part 2, Faith and Works

John Barclay argues in Paul and the Gift that Paul perfected the incongruity of grace (grace is given to the unworthy), but that Paul did not perfect the non-circularity of grace. Grace, according to Paul (according to Barclay), creates bonds of obligation and reciprocity.

Barclay (p. 446): “[T]he grace of God in Christ is 'unconditioned' (without prior considerations of worth) but not non-circular or 'unconditional,' if that means without expectation of return.”

True, God's election, as an act of grace, was 100% God's work and initiative. And it was unconditioned, ignoring human categories of worth. But having become recipients of that grace there are some definite strings attached.

This language of obligation is everywhere in Paul. Some examples from Romans:
Romans 6.1-2. 12-13
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

Romans 8.1, 12-13
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 12.1-2
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind
Such are the obligations of grace: Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, do not offer yourself as an instrument of wickedness, put to death the misdeeds of the body, live according to the Spirit, do not conform to the pattern of the world, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

It all seems fairly obvious, the obligations of grace. None of this makes us deserve or merit God's gift. But covenantal fidelity to God, as our ongoing response to God's grace, demands lifelong work and effort.

So salvation demands both faith and works. Faith in God's gift, and the ongoing work of being in a covenantal relationship with God.

So, is this the solution to the tired old debate about faith versus works?

I think so. As Barclay points out, the friction between faith and works didn't come from Paul, it came from theological debates between people like Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius. The fires of these debates focused upon, distilled and intensified teaching regarding the non-circularity of grace in ways which distorted Paul's message of grace. As children of these debates, we've inherited the distortions, along with the debate, pitting faith and works against each other in ways that don't jibe with Paul's covenantal imagination.

For Paul, it was never Faith versus Works. It's Faith and Works.

The Obligations of Grace: Part 1, The Reciprocity of Grace

I've blogged quite a few times about John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift. I've generally focused upon the social implications of grace as described by Barclay. Today I want to focus on something different.

To recap, Barclay argues that grace has been "perfected" in various ways. If God is the perfect Giver then God gives perfect gifts.

But what does a perfect gift look like?

Barclay suggests that, throughout Christian history, grace has been perfected in six different ways:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
Barclay's argument is that Paul's message of grace was primarily about the incongruity of grace. Grace is grace because it is a gift given to the unworthy. That seems banal to us, but Barclay points out that this was, in Paul's time and place, a radical notion. In the Roman first century context perfect gifts were gifts given to worthy recipients. Paul's gospel blew that idea out of the water and forever changed how we think of grace. Today it's a truism that grace is given to people who don't deserve it. That's what makes grace grace.

The part of Barclay's analysis that I've mostly focused upon is how Paul uses the incongruity of grace to dismantle cultures of honor and shame. Grace destroys cultural and human standards of worth and value. Grace was a social revolution that allowed honored and shamed to form new, socially transgressive communities.

But the point I'd like to talk about today is the perfection of non-circularity.

Non-circularity is the idea that grace cannot be repaid, that grace escapes the obligations of reciprocity. Grace is grace because we cannot pay it back. And if we could pay it back, it would no longer be grace, no longer be a gift.

Like the perfection of incongruity, this perfection of grace was foreign to Paul's world. Gifts were given in the ancient world precisely to create bonds of reciprocity and obligation. These bonds of obligation were what made the ancient gift economies work. True, elaborate cultural rituals were in place to obscure this fact--it would be crude and improper to try to repay the gift immediately and directly--but bonds of obligation were created by ancient patronage. Favors were cashed in.

So the notion that grace escapes repayment is new and strange. And yet, that's an assumption we have about grace. Where did it come from?

As Barclay recaps the story, the perfection of non-circularity emerged from the fires of theological debate in church history. Augustine vs. Pelagius. Luther vs. Erasmus. Calvin vs. Arminius.

At the heart of these debates was the amount of human participation required in salvation. As the debates were waged, the Augustinian, Lutheran and Calvinistic camps perfected the non-circularity of grace. Grace was 100% the work and initiative of God. Humans cannot repay grace. They shouldn't even try. If we tried to repay grace we'd destroy it. We'd be trying to earn grace, trapping ourselves in a works-based righteousness.

And so the assumption took hold. Grace escapes repayment.

And yet, if you read Paul, that conclusion seems off. And that's the point that Barclay makes. Paul didn't perfect non-circularity. Theologians did, and we do, but Paul didn't.

According to Barclay, Paul most definitely felt that grace should be repaid, that grace created bonds of obligation.

Writes Barclay (p. 569): "The incongruity of grace does not imply, for Paul, ... its non-circularity (since the gift carries expectations for obedience)."

Barclay calls this Paul's theology of "gift-obligation" (p. 498):
[T]he notion of a gift "with no strings attached" was practically unimaginable in antiquity...None of Paul's hearers would have been surprised to learn that as recipients of the divine gift they were placed under obligation to God.
For Paul, grace creates a covenantal bond, and covenantal bonds were most definitely circular and reciprocal. Think of the relationship between YHWH and Israel. Think about how Paul, after describing the gift of grace in the first part of his letters, turns to the big THEREFORE in the second half, the part where Paul shifts to behavioral imperatives. Grace obligates you.

So is this works-based righteousness?

Yes and no.

No, in the sense that grace--God's election--is what establishes the covenantal bond. God's election poured out upon the unworthy is 100% God's work and initiative. Truly, we didn't deserve it and we were incapable of making contact with God.

But yes in that, once we have been welcomed into the covenantal family and given the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we have ongoing obligations to fulfill, to both God and each other. Grace obliges you to love.

And if you don't fulfill those obligations, if you spurn grace and grieve the Holy Spirit, you drop out of the family. You "fall from grace." 

Barclay notes that, because of the church historical debates we've inherited about "faith vs. works", we find this mixture in Paul to be paradoxical. But as Barclay noted in the quote above, the incongruity of grace does not imply its non-circularity.

Barclay summarizes (p. 500):
Paul thus combines two features that appear paradoxical only to us. On the one hand, he perfects the incongruity of the gift, its donation to those unfitting to be its recipients; on the other, he presumes its strongly obligating character...Here it is crucial to remind ourselves that a perfection of gift in one dimension does not entail a perfection in every other: Paul perfects the incongruity of the gift (given to the unworthy) but he does not perfect its non-circularity (expecting nothing in return). The divine gift in Christ was unconditioned (based on no prior conditions) but it is not unconditional (carrying no subsequent demands).
Grace is unconditioned, but not unconditional.

Let that sink in.

The Crucifixion of God: On Tribes and Self-Criticism

Last post this week reflecting on tribes and self-criticism.

If we're looking for a resource for self-criticism to speak into a tribe's darkest impulses I don't think the cross can be surpassed.
The cross was the moment when we looked God in the face and saw the devil.

The cross was the moment when we looked at the light and called it darkness.

The cross was the moment when we looked at innocence and called it criminal.

The cross was the moment when we cursed and tortured love. 
That happened. We did that. Our moral confusion was so profound North became South and West became East.

And if that happened, how could we trust our tribe ever again?

With the cross in the midst of us, can we ever be trusted when we say we see the devil in the faces of others?

Ever be trusted to execute the criminal or torture the enemy?

Can we ever be trusted with killing again?

The cross stands in the middle of our tribe and answers with an eternal verdict:


The Book of Jonah: On Tribalism and Self-Criticism

Keeping with the week's theme of tribalism and self-criticism, we have to pause to take note of the book of Jonah.

Again, as I've argued this week, it's impossible to step away from tribes, but we avoid tribalism if our tribe can be self-critical, if our tribe can prophetically speak into its own darkest impulses. On Monday I cited Amos 9.7 as evidence of Israel's self-criticism.

The book of Jonah is another example.

Consider the scandal of Jonah: a prophet of Israel sent to save her enemy, the Assyrian empire.

Israel had every moral right to wish for the destruction of Assyria. Let those deplorables rot in hell!

Instead, the book of Jonah ends with God's great question: "Should I not pity Nineveh?"

The book of Jonah is an amazing example of a tribe cultivating resources for self-criticism. The book of Jonah is a moral scandal. It's so transgressive! As David Benjamin Blower points out in his book Sympathy for Jonah, the companion book to his album The Book of Jonah, it's a miracle that Jonah was allowed into the canon and that its author was not burnt at the stake.

But there Jonah sits, a standing indictment of the darkest tribal impulses that haunted Israel's soul.

Tribes may be inevitable, but you better make sure your tribe has a book of Jonah.

On Tribes, Tribalism and Self-Criticism

As I said in yesterday's post, I don't know if human beings can ever escape wanting to be a part of a tribe. For example, read Sebastian Junger's recent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. We are at our happiest when we are a part of a tribe.

And yet, the evils of tribalism are too obvious and horrific to ignore.

So how do you thread the needle?

First, and I want to speak especially to my liberal and progressive tribe, you have to be brutally honest here. There is a conceit among many liberals and progressives that we don't have tribes, that we are treating all of humanity as one, big tribe.

And yet, many of these liberal and progressive people are the very ones who take to Twitter to say they don't want to send relief to flood victims in Texas because Texas is a red state.

My point isn't to debate the moral logic here, as there is a moral logic at work. More on this below. My point is simply that many of the people who think they don't have or need a tribe are often the most tribal people on the block.

To be clear, the ultimate vision of the kingdom of God is embracing all of humanity as one, big tribe. Just look at the worship scenes in Revelation:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
So my point isn't to reject a universal ethic. The Golden Rule is about as anti-tribal as you can get.

My point is, rather, that generic calls on social media to "love everyone" are often made by people who actually don't love everyone to people who don't love everyone. There's a stunning amount of moral self-deception on display on social media.

Partly, I think, because our tribes now tend to be moral, ideological, and political in nature, tribes of Good vs. Evil and Right vs. Wrong. And moral tribes, as psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have pointed out, are almost impossible to overcome.

Why? Because the very act of overcoming moral tribalism is, by definition, an immoral act, as it's showing sympathy and support for oppressors. It's giving aid to deplorables, and fuck those people.

In short, the Golden Rule might be a universal, anti-tribal ethic--an ethic beloved by liberals and progressives on social media--but the Golden Rule looks a whole lot more transgressive and immoral when it's unpacked by Jesus as "love your enemies" (Matt. 5.44) and "do not resist an evil person" (Matt. 5.39).

So are moral tribes wrong? What about the fight for justice? What about creating an "on all sides" false equivalency between these moral tribes?

My argument here isn't to create false equivalencies.

My argument isn't about morality. It's about social psychology. And my point is simply this: You are tribal, so stop with the "I love all of humanity" bullshit. Loving all of humanity isn't so easy to pull off. Nobody loves all of humanity.

Which brings me back to the point I made yesterday. I don't think we can avoid being a part of a tribe. As Junger points out in his book, tribes give us a sense of belonging and home. Also, I don't think we can avoid joining moral tribes. And these are good things--finding community and standing up for what we think is right.

And yet, these tribes also bring a suite of temptations.

So the solution, again, isn't to convince yourself that you have no tribe. You have a tribe, and in and of itself that's a good thing. The solution is to be a part of a self-critical tribe, a tribe that questions and pushes back on its darkest impulses.

Because when a tribe loses that capacity, the capacity for self-criticism, there is nothing that stands between that tribe and the devil himself.

Amos 9.7: On Tribalism and Self-Criticism

I don't know if humans can ever escape creating tribal affiliations and identities. Wanting to be a part of a tribe seems hard-wired into the human psyche.

A tribe gives us a home, a place of community and belonging. And yet, tribes are also the source of much evil. Prejudice, scapegoating, war.

The best we can hope for, I think, is being a part of a tribe that has resources for self-criticism.

In the Old Testament one of those resources for self-criticism is found in Amos 9.7.

Some background. Amos is prophesying against Israel, who is very smug and spiritually prideful (among other things). Consequently, Amos works to rhetorically undermine Israel's view of her own "specialness" in the eyes of Yahweh. Amos is attempting to chasten and humble Israel.

We see this strategy in Amos 3.9, where Amos calls two enemies of Israel to come and sit in judgment of Israel's wickedness. This move is shocking and destabilizing. We tend to see our enemies as "evil." Yet here is Amos calling the "evil ones" to sit in judgment of Israel. This ploy suggests that Israel is so morally confused that her notions of good and evil no longer correspond to reality.

But in Amos 9.7 the prophet makes his most daring move. Here is the text. God is speaking to Israel:
"Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?"
The passage is oriented around two rhetorical questions. The first question is: "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?" Israel clearly wants to answer "No!" to the question: We are not the same as the Ethiopians! We are better!

But we can see how Amos is pushing for a "Yes!" answer to the first question. Such an answer undermines Israel's sense of specialness and uniqueness in relation to the nations and in the eyes of God.

The second part of the passage is another question. It has two parts. Here is the first part: "Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt?" The answer here is clearly "Yes!" But Amos goes on, linking the first part of the question with this part: "And the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?"

Notice the "and" linking the two parts of the question. Israel cannot answer "Yes!" to the first part and "No!" to the second part. Amos's rhetoric prevents that distinction.

What is Amos doing in this question? Well, the "specialness" and "uniqueness" of Israel is deeply rooted in her view of the Exodus. The Exodus is the defining moment in Israel's history. It is central to her identity. But Amos suggests that the Exodus is not special. Apparently, God has performed other Exodus events, and these for two of Israel's sworn enemies!

This is a deeply destabilizing notion. Amos applies the most revered verb in Israel's religious history, the Exodus verb ("to bring up"), to Israel's "evil" enemies. This suggests that God has been engaged in salvific acts that fall outside the scope of our religious narratives. God's saving history cannot be reduced to our saving history.

Amos 9.7 is but one example in the Old Testament where the tribalism of Israel is undermined. And I think it's an example of the self-criticism all tribes require if they are to remain open to strangers.

Reviving Old Scratch $2.99: Fortress Press Summer eBook Sale

Another weekend reminder that the ebook of Reviving Old Scratch is now on sale for just $2.99 as a part of the Fortress Press summer ebook sale. Reviving Old Scratch was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.

The sale ends September 15. Check out books by Walter Brueggeman, N.T. Wright, and Jürgen Moltmann. The full listings of books on sale is here.

And if you've already read Reviving Old Scratch and think others might benefit from it, put out a Tweet or Facebook post to let your people know about the big sale.

Prison Diary: Harmony

As regular readers know, every Monday night I lead an old-fashioned hymn sing out at the prison. I've also mentioned our singing in The Slavery of Death and Reviving Old Scratch.

At the middle of the study I have the men pull old songbooks off the shelves, they start calling out numbers, and we sing. Often for 30 or 40 minutes. We have our favorites, but I also try to teach them new songs. Recently I introduced them to "I'm Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger," and they love it.

But here's the newest development.


For years, we've never had much harmony in the songs. We all, fifty men, just sang the melody. But about a year ago "I Come to the Garden Alone" began to be regularly requested. And for some reason, then men started harmonizing with that song.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other, has ever, known.
They had found the notes that made us sound like a barbershop quartet, especially on "as we tarry there." And over time, the harmonizing on this song has helped the men develop an ear for harmony. More and more, they've been taking risks and experimenting with harmonies on the songs we sing. And this Monday I was blown away at good we were sounding.

I'm such a broken record about how much I love singing out at the prison. It's the spiritual highlight of my week.

And now, harmonies!

"You Never Stopped Calling Me Señora"

Back when I was the rector of the Collegio Massimo of Jesuits and a parish priest in Argentina, I remember a mother with young children whose husband had left her. She did not have a steady job and only managed to find temporary jobs a couple of months out of the year.

When there was no work she had to prostitute herself to provide her children with food. She was humble. She came to the parish church and we tried to help her with our Caritas (charity).

I remember one day---it was during the Christmas holidays---she came with her children to the College and asked for me. They called me and I went to greet her. I thought it was for the package of food from Caritas that we had sent her. I asked her, "Did you receive it?"

"Yes, yes, thank you for that too. But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora."

--Pope Francis, from The Name of God is Mercy

On the Streets of LA After Hours

Two weeks ago, at 2:00 am in the morning, I was on the streets of South Central Los Angeles looking for prostitutes.

I was the guest of Julia Speck, shadowing the After Hours team who were doing their Friday night outreach to the women working as prostitutes on the streets of South Central LA.

Our evening started at 11:00 with the After Hours team gathering for a time of community and prayer, team members updating and sharing about their own lives. After prayer the team was briefed about the women who have been befriended by the ministry, along with requests to keep an eye out this night for women known to the team who were in difficult situations. We prayed that we'd see these women on the streets if they needed our help.

Sent out, we were divided up into three teams, each team given a particular part of the South Central "track" where the Johns drive and the women stand on corners.

I went with Julia's team, shadowing Bryan Cullison, the After Hours men's outreach leader.

As we drove the track, from midnight to 2:30 am, we looked for women working a corner, the Johns driving up to them from the side streets, stopping, and rolling down their windows to solicit.

The team would greet the women with a gift bag, the female team members taking the lead. The male team members (Bryan and I) would hang back, watching over the female team members so they could have their conversations without worrying about threats on the street.

After handing out the gift bag, the team would visit with the women, eventually asking if they would like prayer. Common prayer requests are "for protection" and "getting out." When the women seemed comfortable with men, Julia would wave Bryan and I over to join the conversation.

In each gift bag was a card with the After Hours phone number along with the invitation for the women to call if they needed help and wanted to reach out.

During the night I shared with After Hours we talked with about fifteen women working the streets, they were mostly in pairs but sometimes they stood there all alone.

It was a heart-breaking, tragic, beautiful and holy night.

And I was profoundly moved by the After Hours team, their fidelity to the women, being there on the streets with them, for over ten years. And for their vulnerability and courage as they wade into great darkness, evil, sorrow, and pain. After Hours is a ministry that calls you into suffering. You cannot easily move past what you bear witness to on the track.

At 2:30 the three teams came back together to share how the evening went, along with any updates about women they had relationships with: Did anyone see her? Was she okay?

At 3:00 am our evening ended with a prayer for the streets of LA.

For the Johns and the pimps.

But mostly for the women. Still out there on the streets.

May they be safe.

May they call if they need help.

--for more information about After Hours and how you can support their work, you can visit their website

The Cross of Caravaca

Another interesting thing I discovered at Mission San Juan Capistrano was the Cross of Caravaca.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was refounded by Junípero Serra in 1776, after an initial group left the city in 1775. Serra is called "the Father of California" because he planted missions up and down the California coast, naming many of the cities we know today. Serra was recently canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.

St. Serra wore and carried with him a distinctive crucifix from Mexico, the Cross of Caravaca. Legend has it that the Cross of Caravaca was the first Christian cross brought to Mexico. And the Cross of Caravaca was the one carried by Junípero Serra when he traveled from Mexico up through California.

Because of this, the cross is now a major element in Mexican and Mexican-American Catholic culture, the cross possessing special spiritual properties to grant prayers.

The Cross of Caravaca is a Patriarchal cross.

But the distinctive thing about the cross is that Jesus is nailed to the smaller, upper crossbar rather than the longer lower crossbar. Here's a bit about the history of the cross.

The Swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano

Two weeks ago, before my DMin class at Fuller started, I had a few hours to kill before my check-in time after landing in Los Angeles.

So I got in my rental car and drove south to visit Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Whenever I'm in the LA the area, I try to visit one of the historic Spanish missions. And to date, Mission San Juan Capistrano has been my favorite.


Well, how about the swallows?

Before my visit, I vaguely remembered an old song about "the swallows of Capistrano." Well, it turns out that those swallows are associated with the mission.

The legend goes like this.

Father John O'Sullivan was the pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1910-1933. One day, while walking through town, Father O'Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand, knocking down the mud, cone-shaped swallow nests under the eaves of his shop. The birds were flying about,  shrieking over the destruction of their nests.

"What are you doing?" the upset O'Sullivan asked.

"These dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!" the angry shopkeeper responded.

"But where shall they go?" asked O'Sullivan.

"I don't know and I don't care," replied the shopkeeper, slashing away the nests. "These birds have no business here!"

O'Sullivan paused and then said, "Come swallows, and I will give you shelter! Come to the Mission. There's room enough there for all."

The very next morning, Mission San Juan Capistrano awoke to find the swallows busy building their nests outside the church. And every spring thereafter, the migratory swallows would return to nest at the Mission.

O'Sullivan and the Mission began to celebrate the "miracle" of the annual return of the swallows on March 19,  St. Joseph's day, an event still celebrated at the Mission.

The song "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano", written by Leon René, was first recorded by the Ink Spots. Here are the lyrics:
When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That's the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, "Farewell", in Capistrano
Twas the day the swallows flew out to sea

All the mission bells will ring
The chapel choir will sing
The happiness you'll bring
Will live in my memory
When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That's the day I pray that you'll come back to me

All the mission bells will ring
The chapel choir will sing
The happiness you'll bring
Will live in my memory
When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That's the day I pray that you'll come back to me
You can listen to the Ink Spots sing the song here.

Fortress Press E-Boook Sale: Reviving Old Scratch Just $2.99

We'll be back to regular blogging this week. To start the week off, I'd like to make you aware that Fortress Press is having a massive e-book sale from now until September 15. You know Fortress as the publisher of many theological luminaries, from Walter Brueggeman to N.T. Wright to Jürgen Moltmann. Their books are on sale!

You can also pick up books a lot of us are talking about right now, like Greg Boyd's Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

The full listings of books on sale is here. The sale is a huge chance to build your theological and biblical studies library very cheaply.

And, of course, you can pick up the greatest book about the devil and spiritual warfare ever written--Reviving Old Scratch--for just $2.99.

More seriously, if you'd like to introduce a conversation about the devil and spiritual warfare in your church or community in an accessible way that challenges both progressive and conservative Christians, Reviving Old Scratch fills a unique niche in this literature and conversation.

Reviving Old Scratch was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.

If you've already read Reviving Old Scratch and think others might like it or benefit from it, put out a Tweet or Facebook post to let your people and church know about the big sale.

How The Church Summons Demons

How did the German church allow Adolf Hitler to come to power? How did Christians come to summon those demons?

The German intelligentsia knew Hitler was crazy and racist. Mein Kampf told you that. So why did the German church go along with Hitler?

The German church approached Hitler pragmatically. Hitler could be used for good purposes. Yes, the man himself was completely antithetical to Jesus Christ, but the agenda and policies he stood for, these were good things.

Separate the insanity and immorality of the man from the good he would do for the country.

You could disagree--vehemently, as a Christian--with the racist motives behind Hitler's "Germany first" agenda, but still agree--wholeheartedly--with his Germany First policies. Did that support, then, make you, yourself, a racist? Of course not. There were very good pragmatic reasons for supporting Hitler. Hitler was crazy and racist, but Hitler's policies were good for Germany.

Who cares if Hitler had racist views, so long he made Germany great again?

And so, the German church summoned the demons.

How did American Christians come to summon the demons to our shores, emboldening a new generation of Nazis to carry torches through the night chanting "blood and soil"?

For the same reasons the German Christians did. Trump was a pragmatic choice. Admittedly, Trump was a little crazy. And true, he was no model of morality and virtue. And yes, Trump flirted with and his campaign energized white nationalists and white supremacists.

But all that could be bracketed because many Christians found the policies Trump espoused to have merit. A conservative Supreme Court justice. A border wall. Tighter immigration standards. Vigorous enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books. An "American first" approach to trade.

These polices were not inherently racist or xenophobic. Though, of course, racists and xenophobes would wholeheartedly agree with such policies. But that was just a sad, unfortunate coincidence. Just like how most of the German Christians who supported Hitler were not Nazis.

And so it was that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. Evangelicals and many other Christians viewed Trump's mental instability and the enthusiasm white nationalists displayed for his campaign the same way the German church viewed Hitler.

Trump might not be a good person, even a bit crazy, but he would make America great again.

And so it was, that the church, once again, summoned the demons.

America's Holocaust

As we are aware, white nationalists, white supremacists, the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups descended upon Charlottesville because of the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (pictured here).

Last year I wrote a post entitled "America's Holocaust," the content of which I keep thinking about. I offer that post here again.

All the pictures in this post are from  Charlottesville.

This post will stay up the entire week. [Update: Today I posted "How the Church Summons Demons"]

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

Right in the middle of their capital city, Berlin, we spent powerful hours experiencing their Holocaust memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In that same city we also experienced the Topography of Terror museum. Outside of Weimar, German tour guides led us through the Buchenwald concentration camp.

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

Wherever we went in Germany we saw evidence that a national reckoning with the Holocaust had been and is being attempted.

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

No one blinked or winced. People cheered and applauded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of us? We are the Holocaust deniers.

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

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

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

That is what separates us, at the deepest level.

The Holocaust and its deniers.