Archive for July, 2011


July 6, 2011

The voices didn’t start up until I was on my way out the door.  

What in the world do you think you’re doing?
I’d like to chalk that up to a superior faith or a deeper confidence in myself or in the Holy Spirit.  But when I’m honest, I think it’s best attributed to a lack of planning and a naive confidence in my ability to pull things out my backside at the last possible moment to avert disaster.

Are you insane?  
It’s a fair question on my most lucid of days.  And now, on 4th of July eve, as I’m headed out of my office and up to the county jail, it hardly seems out of place.  
These guys are never going to accept you, never going to be able to relate to you.  You’re wasting your time.
The most dangerous voices are the ones that whisper slight variations of the truth, derivatives of reality that are altered not in their essence so much as in their implications.  I may very well not be accepted.  And the gulf of experiences to be bridged is not inconsiderable.  I’m going to speak with men I’ve never met before, who have been incarcerated for any number of possible reasons.  It could easily be that nothing can come of my time with them.  There are any number of reasons to turn around, or to head south on the 101 instead of north.  
The voices are left behind on the ride to the freeway, just a few minutes from my comfortable office to the county jail.  After signing in I wait in the lobby for the guard to take me to South Tank.  In a shockingly few number of minutes, I am led through two locked doors and the bars to the cell are opened and I’m ushered inside, the door closing behind.  
There are 20-30 men in here with me, ranging in age from early 20’s to 50’s.  I pass a small room to the left where there are two tables and 12 built in steel stools.  But people are already sitting in there reading the paper.  There are a few guys who clearly were awaiting a pastoral call, and they lead me into the main cell area where the walls are lined with bunk beds.  Near the bars that separate the cell from the hallway are two other tables, one of which is hastily cleared.  Four or five men quickly welcome me, shaking hands firmly.  One of them has his own Bible.  
We sit down.  They want to know a little bit about me.  And then with the mention of ‘Lutheran’ we’re off on a Q&A session about what Lutherans are and how they relate to Catholics and any number of other groups.  It would seem that most of the guys sitting with me are in on drug-related charges.  There are a few scattered questions about the Bible.  I ask them about their ‘typical’ routine with pastoral visits, and there doesn’t seem to be anything specific.  There’s a man in his mid-twenties who indicated he had graduated from teen challenge a few years earlier.  His head is neatly shaved and his arms sport tattoos, including a newer one that is a stylized symbol that, when read one direction, says ‘Life’, and when read from the other direction, spells ‘Death’.  He likes to sing karaoke, and he breaks out in a few verses of several different songs.  They were playing “I Can Only Imagine” when they picked me up out of the gutter and took me to Teen Challenge.  That song makes me cry every time.  After a few moments he wanders off.
We move to a time of prayer.  One of them has his sentencing hearing on Thursday morning.  He’s facing nine years in prison on a charge he doesn’t explain.  He’s worried.  He hasn’t been able to make contact with his son.  He appears to be in his 50’s, gaunt and frail with deep, dark eyes that look as though they could burst into tears at any moment.   Another wants prayer for his 80+ year old father, and for the strength to make a fresh start when he himself is released from jail – perhaps in another six months if the plea bargain is accepted.   One man who might be in his early 30’s or late 20’s wants prayer for himself as well as his girlfriend and three children.  It will be months before he’s released, if all goes well.  In the meantime he’s struggling to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.  He seems gentle, oddly out of place in the midst of this cell.  Another inmate mounts the upper bunk next to us and looks down over us, watching, curious.
We hold hands as we pray, mine on the bottom, followed by the one I’m praying for, and the other guys gathered round to place their hands on top.  I don’t have a watch, but as we’re wrapping up our time of prayer, there are guards circulating outside the cell.  The men are reluctant to have me go, sharing as we walk back through the cell.  One of them goes to flag down a guard to let them know I’m ready to leave.  There is more prayer.
On my way out, the man whose father I prayed for thanks me for coming.  It was a real blessing for you to come and spend time with us.  Today was a bad day in the Tank.  But you coming made it better.
There are perhaps a lot of ways to think through a voice like that.  Many ways to discount it or deflect it.  I have a hard time sitting with that sort of a compliment, because really, it’s not me, it’s the One who sent me.  So I’ll keep wrestling with how to handle that sort of naked gratitude.  In the meantime, I think I’ve figured out a way to respond to the voices that assaulted me on my way out of the office.
Go back to hell.

Back in the Saddle

July 1, 2011

Or at least trying to get there.  Towards that end, this essay makes an important distinction in how Christians ought to be thinking of their country (regardless of what country that is, though this article is aimed at Americans).  I suspect that the misplaced nationalism this article laments is not restricted to the United States – an issue the author doesn’t deal with.  

Is it part of our sinful human nature to assume that our particular culture and society and nation is the best?  Or is this a theme that is played up and exploited specifically for some of the benefits the author mentions?  If we didn’t feel our country was the best, would we want to live somewhere else?  Would we actually attempt it?  Could it be that this sort of nationalism is actually a means by which we protect ourselves and learn to deal with the vagaries of our lives by insisting that we have the best possible of all worlds?
Obviously, this wouldn’t work so well for someone struggling to stay alive in the Sudan.  But in the wealthier and more complacent Western nations, is this malaise more common?  Is it simply a Christian issue?  Are Christians immune to it?  I agree that the Biblical witness calls us to be more realistic about things, but as with all other aspects of the Christian life, it’s not something that comes easily or consistently to us.  
While the author seems to take (implicitly, perhaps) conservative Christians to task on this issue, there are related issues that affect people on different ends of the political spectrum.  The superiority complex the author criticizes here can apply in many different ways, and is evident in much of the liberal rhetoric I hear on NPR and other places.  We know best.  We’re smartest.  Our ways are the best.  Our opponents have nothing to offer, nothing to contribute other than their votes towards our programs.  Granted – this rhetoric flows freely both directions.  But it’s good to remember that we all suffer from it in some respect, not just conservative Christians.  
The author here draws an excellent distinction that is often lost in liberal rhetoric on the topic.  The United States is remarkable in many ways and for many reasons.  Oftentimes in the quickness to squash the unhealthy nationalism, all that is heard (or expressed) are the negatives about our country.  We need to remember and should be proud of the many, many good things our nation has done and is doing and – by God’s grace – will continue to do.  And we need to have an open and even-keeled eye (as much as possible) to evaluate all our programs and situations with the understanding that they very well could be wrong or misguided, whether it’s a new military initiative or ongoing funding for a long-standing social program.  Just because something is doesn’t mean that it’s right or right at this time.  As Christians, we ought to be the first to be able to recognize that in ourselves and in our nation.