Gabriel, Archangel. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”

38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “Let it be.” Then the angel left her.

I’m not a student of angels. They flit, they appear, they’re gone. Because they are nebulous and because not much is known about them, they are the easiest divine targets onto which humans can project their religious wishes and whims. Thus, we have the purely human concocted concept of guardian angels. (Everyone who is alive at this moment has a guardian angel. Can you argue with that statement? Neither can I; all I can do is smile as politely as I can and ignore it.)

Gabriel was an archangel, an angel from the top of the hierarchical angelic heap. Archangels are given the big jobs biblically, and Gabriel drew one of the biggest jobs of all: telling Mary that she was going to have a baby. “And such a baby it will be!” (I’m thinking of Gabriel as kind of a Larry David, by the way)

But, just in case that upsets your comfortably established image of Gabriel, just below is part of an altarspiece painted by Fra Filipppo Lippi. He paints Gabriel and Mary in the setting of the European Middle Ages which is also absurd by about 1400 years and 1500 miles. But, of course, it somehow  nicely “fits” our sensibilities about “Bible times”, yes? (Gabriel’s on the left. I know, he looks more like a housewife from next door but, then, who says archangels must look like Dwayne Johnson?)

 

image

“The Annunciation” by Fra Filippo Lippi, circa 1460

Perfectly trusted by God, chosen by God, and ready to serve God, Gabriel is a divine ideal, a man so perfect he cannot be allowed by men to be a man. For humans wanting to move toward divinity the angels serve as intermediaries- roadside parks on the way to the Grand Canyon! No matter how close we come to them, angels will be just a little bit beyond us. In the religious narrative, they are good goals: they are both approachable and beyond our reach.

But Gabriel, in all European art of this period, is always shown in his super-humanness as crouched or bowing in front of Mary! No, we cannot be like Gabriel no matter how hard we try, but Mary- it seems- is like Gabriel without trying at all! She simply is. “I am that I am,” could be her name, too.  She didn’t need to aspire to worthiness, and she didn’t need to ritualize her way to godhood. She didn’t have to be good enough, righteous enough, or educated, pretty, or well-dressed enough. She just had to be. And then to be willing.

38” ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘Let it be.’ Then the angel left her.”

After Mary said that, what else was there for an archangel possibly to do but leave?

***

Now, enjoy Paul McCartney singing ‘Let It Be’ as you think about all the above

Words of Love..

 

“When genuine friends of God..repeat words they have heard in secret amidst the silence of the union of love, and these words are in disagreement with the teaching of the Church, it is simply that the language of the marketplace is not that of the nuptial chamber.” (Simone Weil, Waiting for God)

This is important. Because the Great Sausage Grinder that carries so much weight in the American Church doesn’t allow much gristle to make it into the morning’s meat patties. Or any fat whatsoever, or any extra spices. Or much taste. Bland is the standard; that way, aberrations are easily discerned.

Screw it. Pass the pepper, and the sage. Throw on some onions, and add some fat- some chicken fat- fried!-  greasy and crackling. Grind it all down again, one more time with fresh basil, and garlic and cilantro, and a spoonful of sugar..just because. Now grill that sausage over hot-fired mesquite, sprinkled with Jack Daniels, and slathered with a puree of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and oregano.

Good.

God.

Now, eat:

“I was afraid it

would screw up my art

and I would end up

writing sermons

instead of songs.”

(James McMurtry)

“Humankind has not woven the
web of life. We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.”
(Chief Seattle)

Even after all

this time

the sun never

says to the

earth

“You owe me.”

Look what happens

with a love like that.

It lights the

whole sky.

(Hafiz)

In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
(Rumi)

Time Out..Gaza is still occupied

 

I’ll resume my discussion of tribalism and fear, but I think we ALL need to be periodically shocked (right down to our socks), by a glimpse of how despicable humans can be when they’ve got “God on their side.”

And if you can stand it, here’s a slide show. This was all happening last December while we here in the U.S. were concerned about retail sales and the GNP, and whether or not that son of a bitch behind the counter at Target would say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wearewideawake/show/

Meet me at Starbuck’s in the morning and over a double latte and orange scones; we can argue about teabags, then head to the mall.

God, Sex, Goliath, and Other Scary Things..

What’s wrong? Here’s the answer:

(These thoughts are complicatedly interrelated as most of the thoughts in all of our minds are. I admire deeply, though, those persons that are able to simplify in ways that I can’t. Bear with me. I promise some new ideas here that will affect the way some of you see the world from this point on. Really!)

Families, Bands, and Tribes

Our species evolved and spent most its communal history in bands of families and tribes of bands. Families bonded together for security and diversification of the gene pool, and crossed the difficult barriers of geography and suspicion to become bands. The people who lived on that side of the mountain needed to get at animals on the other side of the mountain and- “oh, by the way, while we’re over there hunting can we procreate with your people?”

(Trying my best to simplify- I trust you understand. This is cultural anthropology in the smallest nutshell it’s ever been crammed into.)

The bands became tribes. Not overnight and not automatically, but as populations increased and as climate changes (like ice melt), geographical episodes (like volcanoes), and animal migrations or extinctions occurred, the advantages of cooperation over competition were hard to ignore! Now, Americans, think Ojibway, Dakotah, Chipppewa, or Apache. Those are tribes– they lived in districts, many lived in smaller bands, they spread out over a geography, and sometimes at peace and sometimes at struggle with adjacent tribes. What united them was the geography, the resources they learned to share (Apaches and the earliest horses, for instance), language, and shared DNA. A member of a tribe knew they could move from valley to valley without harm, because that was tribal land. They also knew they might have problems on the other side of the valley, over the mountain, because that was the land of another tribe.

Stories

Stories evolve among any group of people over time and every tribe on earth was abundant with them. Stories informed those who heard them how to think, how to act, and what the tribe determined was important to know. The shared knowledge of tribes through the telling of stories is why we as humans are still vital (too vital from other species’ viewpoints!). The Dakotah had stories about the Cold and Buffalo, the Aleutians had stories about shifting ice and Walruses (is more than one Walrus, Walri?), the Aztec had stories Warm Seas and Fish, etc, etc, etc.

These stories were how children learned. They weren’t “made up” stories. They were truths that had been observed, or thought about; conclusions about the world around them were made, and those thoughts and conclusions were made memorable and interesting through stories. The stories contained the most current truths available.

Now, here’s the part that has everything to do with today: One way to make sure children in a tribe knew their place, understood their role, and knew to never go over that mountain was through fear. Fear works. Has, does, and will. It’s no accident that the purveyor of bad tidings in the Garden of Eden was a Serpent (hissss!) rather than a cow or a chicken (yum!). Nor, continuing with the familiar stories of the Hebrew tribe, was it surprising that the awful, horrible, sneaky Philistines had a secret weapon (Goliath) or that the loose-living, oft-married Samaritans were trash. Both were good reasons to keep the kids who were feeling their wild oats blooming, at home, where having no other gods before YHWH was much more manageable.

More To Come

OK, I’m going to continue with this tomorrow, and I will deal with these two ideas:

1. Humans lived in tribes a long, long, long time- longer than any of us have the ability to imagine. Ideas and concepts are as deeply a part of us as our physical structure or repertoire of emotions are, and as our abilities to stand erect and run evolved, so did our need for stories and the structure with which they were told. Stories are in us. We need them.

2. We live in a time, however, when we do not need to be afraid, out of ignorance, of the people who live on the other side of the mountain. Our tribe is global now. The separations no longer keep us alive by insuring our safety. The separations now, exacerbated by fools, are going to kill us. Our stories must be re-written.

God Stuff, Chapter # 8,004,897,254

I sit with a group of people every Wednesday night that help keep me focused on both the enemy and the Great Love. Enough said. If you want to know more, my email is around here somewhere.

stp We’ve been reading together from a book, Sought Through Prayer and Meditation, published by Hazelden. Last night, as we read, a phrase jumped from the page and began running around in my imagination. The phrase is running around there turning on lights, discovering new metaphors, writing poetry, and turning over dumpsters full of old, rancid, even carcinogenic dogma.

Here’s the sentence (found on page 15) in which the three word phrase appears: “The very moment I surrendered myself as completely and honestly as I could, the supernatural rush of the life of God invaded me.”

Life of God.

You may have to bear with me for awhile here, read the white spaces between words and lines, or maybe even allow my words and phrases loose in your imagination, to do there what they will. I promise I will only describe my reactions and thoughts in terms personal to me, without telling you how you must or should or are commanded to react or think for yourself about that phrase.

Because the life of God is different in me than it will ever be in you. The life of God is not a sometimes sharp-edged definition formulated by others and passed on over the centuries through dogmatic teachings, for which I am a modern agent who must somehow coerce you today into accepting this phrase in its ancient form and colors. In fact, I doubt that the life of God has colors which could be defined anyway; they’re probably off the rainbow somewhere in infrared or ultraviolet or gamma light where birds and insects and fish are swimming and flying through colors you and I have never seen (and will never see!). I’m almost certain that the life of God could never be honed or trimmed for the convenience of my linguistic limitations, from the light-year-spanning breadth and quark-deep-depth that the life of God must , among many other dimensions, occupy. I know for a fact and I am proving to you at this moment that the life of God is a force and a fact that cannot be written about, bought from any purveyor of abstract notions, or referenced in Google, history, the Bhagavad-gita, Quoran, or Bible.

The life of God is slippery, and not. It is big, and not. It full, empty, dark, light, complete and whole, partial and growing, Mysterious, and –if not Knowable- perceptible. And that is the word I’ve needed here: perceptible. The life of God is perceptible. But impossible to explain. And now I’m laughing so I’ve just confirmed that the life of God is funny, too.

It is the life of God which I want animating me, defining me, motivating me, and using me. I don’t want your definition of “God” no matter how good that definition is, doing those things. The word “God” in me has been learned. The life of God in me is giving birth:

To the Me with no name.

To the Creation without boundaries.

And to You, whether you know it or not.

(Which is why I’m laughing again, and why metaphors are searching for new homes, why dumpster spills need cleaned up, and why I’m trusting that the life of God has made the jump into your consciousness as well!)

Fight Club in Jerusalem: A Modern Christian Parable

From the BBC, 11/9/08:

“Israeli police have had to restore order at one of Christianity’s holiest sites after a mass brawl broke out between monks in Jerusalem’s Old City.Fighting erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion.”

Here’s a video. Now, “Get Ready to RUUMMMMBBBLLLLEEE….!”

It’s a live action parable of the abysmal silliness that so much of the world’s Institutional brand of Christianity has descended and solidified into.

(Quick note: This is is the kind of blog entry that I will get emails about, and maybe a few comments lamenting my “embrace of secular humanism.” They will prove what I am about to say. If any of those critics would ever share their names, a discussion might be possible; but- alas- they almost always are sent by “A Friend” or “Anon” or “Concerned.” Oh, well..)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is supposedly built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. The administration of that shrine has been historically shared by several Christian denominations, the logistics and traditions of which are of no relevance to the following points:

1. These are Christian monks fighting about space in a building. A thing. A humanly crafted and built place which may or may not be directly on top of the landmark that it purports to be.

2. The fight is not about care of the facility or its proper preservation as an historical place. The fight is about rules, egos, doctrine..religious trespassing, I guess we could call it.

3. Jesus is not visible. Which is almost always the case where people are busy buffing idols to a holy sheen.

~~

Now, back to the U.S.of A. Parables are, after all, analogies that mind-changing lessons may be drawn from for those who, as Jesus said, “have ears to hear.”

1. We Christians fight a lot in this country over space in “holy” places, too. Most people would deny that they consider government buildings and various monuments around the country to be semi-sacred, but remember the fight several years ago to remove a wrongfully placed chunk of granite with the Ten Commandments on it from the Alabama Supreme Court building? Or, take a look at these recent “prayer warriors” taking their very public prayers to God about their shrinking 401k’s to Wall Street:

wall street Yes, you are seeing correctly. They are praying, hands pressed on a golden bull. A friend of mine asked, “What could be more ironic than this? Answer: nothing.”

2. And those American fights over Christian “space” are also about rules, egos, doctrines and religious trespassing. There are those Christians among us who have a vested and institutional interest in keeping the lines between Jesus’ person and the rules and doctrines about his teachings, blurred. Very blurred. Otherwise, there is NO WAY one could move from this:

Matthew 5: 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

to this:

“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran”                                                           

Actually, there is a way, because many “Christian” leaders have proved now that it is NOT how you live that makes you a Jesus follower, it IS what you say. If you sprinkle enough Jesus words often enough into what you say, you get a pass, no matter how outrageous what you’re saying is. That’s what gets me in a little trouble here sometimes- I am one of those who would rather see someone living the gospels, than yapping and yammering about them on their way to Christian cruise ships or as they are deciding where to shop because someone said “Season’s Greetings” to them instead of “Merry Christmas.”

3. Our American Christian idols are as shiny and silly as idols are anywhere in the world where they are hiding the God who is larger than our imaginations. (I love, by the way, historical artifacts, religious or secular. They are often beautiful, always worth preserving, and instructive about particular places and cultures.) I see God being personified in all kinds of idolatrous silliness: political platforms, national flags, religious doctrines, and even- amazingly- Bibles! Bibles- full of warning after warning and example after example of people making idols out of things “not-God” and suffering the consequences for doing so- Bibles themselves have become objects of worship for many, many people. (Wondering about that statement? Listen to a preacher who prefaces, often, his statements with the phrase, “The Bible says..” in order to give validity to whatever it is he wants to say. Watch how those same preachers often wield the Bible like a wooden stake, ready to be plunged into a vampire’s heart.)

So, yes, I laugh at the Greek and Armenian monks in their fisticuffs for Jesus. Maybe it’s a Jerusalem version of the movie Fight Club that became visible for awhile yesterday! If so, the monks should remember the words of Tyler Durden in that movie: “The things you own, end up owning you.”

I laugh at those monks, yes; even as I’m cringing at similar attitudes which could easily give rise to similar actions in myself.  So I laugh and I cringe, but I also let myself be reminded, and corrected when necessary, that it is Jesus who I follow, and not words or things or people that masquerade as him.

What I believe (in case you’ve been worrying about it!)

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. 1Peter 3:15

About my faith:

1. God is. I can’t even begin to describe God, let alone define God. Anything I say about God must fit inside my mind, and the one thing I can say with authority and absolute assurance: God is bigger than my mind. (Psalm 139: 7-18)

2. I can’t see God. I can only see where God is passing through. (Exodus 33:23) Thus, I see God’s methodologies and systems much more often than I see God’s direct interventions. Those methodologies include breath-taking scenes like Mt.Ranier, an ocean storm, and a baby’s cooing and laughing. But they also include the chaotic explosions of stars, the ripping apart of a live songbirds by hawks, the chomping down on innocent baby turtles by sharks, and tsunamis. And flu. And asteroids. And sunshine. And magenta, and minor 7th chords.

3. I can live within the rhythms and harmonies of God, or I can choose not to. (Genesis 3:13) Those rhythms and harmonies are in place and operating- they have been for a long time. In fact, my body (and yours) are examples of Life evolving to fit within that “music” of God. If I walk wherever I go, the chances are excellent that I will live a longer and healthier life than if I periodically and frequently put myself into a quarter inch thick metal cage and go hurling down the highway at speeds much faster than my body was meant, by God, to move.

4. Savvy? If you can’t follow this so far, that’s OK; many can’t. I believe, along with the writers of Genesis, Psalms, and the Revelation that the only way I can even begin to talk intelligently about God is through metaphor. God is like a king (Psalm 103:19). God resembles a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). But God is neither. But God kind of is- youknowwhatI’msayin’? Our human, finite language about divine and infinite concepts is inadequate- always has been and always will be. So we may not understand each other when we talk about God; or we might. I think it’s always better to give each other the benefit of the doubt, instead of going to war over exactly what God is or what happens to us when we die.

5. Thank God for Jesus! I can follow Jesus- he had feet, hands, and a brain like me. He did real things and said I (and you) would be able to even greater things than he did! (John 14:12) I like Jesus so much that I resent those who have turned him into a set of doctrines to be obeyed instead of a son of God to be followed. I don’t like it when the doctrine-lovers take words like those in Matthew 5 and turn them into a set of rules that justify human greed, human ego, and human proclivities toward violence. In fact, I love Jesus– even though “love” is a many-splendored word; i.e., I don’t ‘love’ Jesus in the same way as Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson would probably say they love Jesus. So let me just say, I really, really like Jesus. And- you know what? I think Jesus would say the same thing to me. (But he is a really strange guy, because he’d probably say the same thing to Benny and Pat, too. And Osama, and Kim Jong-il.) Following my metaphors?

6. I can read about Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, AND in the gospels of wildflower fields, ocean shorelines, and your eyes. Call me a pantheist, a humanist, or a pagan- I don’t care. Jesus doesn’t lead me (or anyone) into definitions and theological arguments. He leads us to the “least of these.” (Matthew 25: 34-35) So, you’ll have to pardon me if I am prone to spend more time and lend a more attentive ear to those who are actively following Jesus out to the ragged edges of life rather than just talking (on and on) about him from the comfort of their easy chairs. The gospels of actual Jesus followers’ are thicker, and far more interesting. (By the way, you can also, if you are an ancient Greek, call me an atheist- I do NOT believe in Jupiter. But there were sure some cool stories told about him!)

7. Last point. Go ahead, test me. Vote for McCain. See if I stop loving you.

God’s Reputation Is At Stake !!

 

Rev. Arnold Conrad of the Evangelical Free Church, praying Friday at a McCain campaign appearance in Iowa:

“I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it is Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that [Obama] wins, for a variety of reasons,”

“And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day,” he added.

To their credit, the McCain campaign almost immediately distanced themselves from the pastor’s remarks.

                            ~~

God needs to be made aware that his reputation is at stake?!?

Oh my.

Aside from the profound religious ignorance Rev. Conrad reveals- Hindu and Buddha are not the names of gods- his “prayer” also reveals the blasphemous practice of so many religious people who believe they have God in a box. These are the religionists who believe they know exactly who God is, what God should be doing, and how God should be doing it. They are engaged in the very seductive, easily fallen into psychological practice of projection.

Karl Wolfe, Ph.D., defines the phenomena this way: “Psychological projection is the phenomenon whereby one projects one’s own thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings..onto someone else.” In the negative, for instance, an overweight person might be prone to point out to others the slovenly, bad eating habits of other heavy people. In the case of people like Rev. Conrad, projecting onto God one’s own selfish desires or personal preferences, is the ultimate example of this very human defense mechanism.

Thus,we hear militant Muslims speaking for Allah as they defend their support for terroristic activities: “Blessings upon he who acts for the sake of Allah and went on raids for His sake.” (Dr. Ibraham Maadi, here). We also hear with great frequency, such pontifications from Rev. Pat Robertson, like this one, spoken after the school board in Dover, PA, was voted out of office for mandating the teaching of Intelligent Design:I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected him from your city. And don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for his help because he might not be there.”

These, unfortunately, are not isolated quotes. Most of us tend, unthinkingly, to project our own desires,wants,needs, and definitions onto others, including God. But to do so, without sometimes painful self-examination, is wrong. We lessen God by doing so; we make God conform to our own political, cultural, and social biases. And, in the case of religious leaders, such personal projections are easily mistaken by those who trust such leaders for spiritual guidance, as actual pronouncements of God.

I wonder if Rev. Conrad (or Dr. Maadi, or Rev. Robertson) would be willing to pray as Jesus did, “..nonetheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Actually, I think I already know the answer, at least in Rev. Conrad’s case: if Obama wins the presidential election, he will probably blame Satan. Satan is every unthinking projectionist’s fall guy for things that happen outside the boundaries that have been constructed for God to operate within. Unlike Jesus, they are unable to accept God’s will as such, when it goes against their projected hopes.

"The Other Side of the Fence"- Kairos Prison Ministry

“This takes me to the other side of the fence..”

That was Cameron’s* reaction to eating BBQ sliced beef and red beans for the first time in seven years. Cameron is 60, and a long-time inmate of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Five days ago, I didn’t know him at all. Today, I can’t get him out of my mind.

prison

The Fence is four foot coils of razor wire, attached to the top and the bottom of two parallel sets of 16 foot chain link barriers, in between which there is a 10 foot wide dog track. To even get to The Fence from where we were eating BBQ , involves a hundred yard walk through a no-man’s land overseen by guards in towers with rifles, the entrance and exit of two locked sally ports, and another long walk over caged and gated sidewalks and past numerous prison officers, with radios and handcuffs hanging from their belts and immediate access to in-prison, highly-trained SWAT teams, with weapons. At each of the sally ports, visitors must note the posted signs: “ No Hostages Beyond This Point!” That means that those rifles will be aimed, if necessary, should the occasion ever arise, through hostages.

In other words, getting to the other side of The Fence is pretty much an impossible thing to do if one is a maximum security inmate of the TDCJ.

Unless he is eating BBQ and red beans.

~~

Kairos Prison Ministry is a four day event in which approximately 40 men from the “free world” spend 10-12 hours per day with 42 men who are incarcerated. It is a Christian ministry, and is supported by 30 (or so) women and men outside the prison in a central location who are preparing two hot meals to be brought in each of those days to the 82 men inside. All of that food is the kind of food- fresh, tasty, and unlimited- that the inmates will never otherwise enjoy while they are incarcerated. It is eaten in utter and profound silence, not by rule, but in awe. It is prepared with love, and eaten piled high with the condiments of memories- “other side of The Fence” memories.

The food is but one aspect of our (the various volunteers) attempt to demonstrate to these imprisoned men the reality of Jesus-love. Live music, active ears, open hearts, and whatever semblances of freedom that we can give the men within the confines of a prison gym setting, are our other offerings. But the food (supplemented between meals by several thousand dozen homemade cookies), is the primary gate to everything else. You’ve heard me say before that the most important part of the gospel for many people is a hamburger. Participation in the Kairos Ministry over the past 14 years is where I formed that foundational Truth of my own ministry. I see it confirmed all the time.

Jesus said, when he stood up for the first time in his hometown of Nazareth to announce the new turn his life had taken, that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives, to set prisoners free.” He was reading from the Isaiah scroll which described “The Day of the Lord,” and he said that day had come. That day is both present now, and always coming; that’s what motivates those of us involved in this ministry. We don’t go inside with master keys or literal escape plans. We go inside to demonstrate that prisons can come in all shapes and forms, that captivity is an epidemic human affliction, and that the commonalities which bind us as humans are far more important than the superficialities that we allow to separate us.

Cameron was four years old when his father died. His mother, a drunk, put Cameron and his sister in a series of Texas orphanages, during those times when she didn’t have a boyfriend to semi-support the family. Cameron and his sister hustled rent and food money during those times, beginning when Cameron was 4 and his sister was 6, by picking up bottles on the streets for the 2 cent deposits, by repackaging yesterday’s donuts found in dumpsters and selling them on the street, and by picking up dropped bananas from unloading banana boats and selling them for 3 cents each to those who didn’t want a stale donut!

No mother, no dad, no home. His first time in jail was soon after he joined the Army, and drugs and drinking greased the path for a number of subsequent prison terms. He makes no excuses for his life, though. He regrets his choices, but didn’t even have the ability for much of his life to know that other choices could be made! Hustling at 4 years old for rent and beer money for mom caused a prison to be built for Cameron long before the one he now resides within.

Cameron’s was one of 42 such stories which had the opportunity to be told this weekend, often for the first time. Those stories were not listened to in judgment, nor in some kind of tsk-tsking false sympathy. They were simply listened to and accepted. In return, though, the storytellers were able to see, hear, and feel a response most of them had never before experienced: “I love you, anyway.”

Those words don’t have to be spoken, though sometimes they are. They can be written, perhaps in one of many letters the inmates are given by team volunteers and others during the weekend. Those words can be heard in the lines of a song or the sounds of a blues harp or guitar. They can be felt in the sincerely welcoming, looking-at-you-in-the-eye embrace of a guy who could be out on a boat this weekend but instead has chosen to sit beside you in a prison gym. Those words- “I love you, anyway”- can be seen in the tears which inevitably and often gather in the corners of the eyes of those who are listening.

And they can be tasted in BBQ and red beans. They can enable someone who will never again be able to literally be there, to be on the other side of The Fence, forever.

The most important part of a Kairos weekend is that the volunteers go home. They leave. Many will be back for periodic visits, but the inmates are now able to live within a community of other inmates who have shared their four day experience. Racial divisions, age, faith, gang, and experiential separations, have begun to fade in the Light of human commonality. They have shared laughter, tears, food, time, respect, song, prayer, and natural human empathy in ways that are potentially life-changing.

As those things are for the volunteers who have gone home now, too. This is not a one-way ministry! Our hearts have been broken, too, and are re-forming this day in new and better ways. Part of us lives on the “other side” of that Fence, too, even as we continue to go about our lives in our so-called free world. That’s the Affliction of being Jesus followers. But that is also the flat-out, never-ending, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything Joy.

~~

(Some of you who read The First Morning know that it was during a Kairos weekend in 1994 that I decided to become a preacher. I saw Jesus- alive- that weekend in the simple acts of one of the prisoner-helpers in a way that I had never before witnessed, in a church or anywhere else . I figured then that I might be able to tell about Jesus in that way to other people, too, and for 13 years now, that has remained as my main goal.

I’ll write that story again here soon. For you, but mainly for me. It was green beans that put me on the other side of that Fence, and I need periodically to remind myself of that fact.)

*pseudonym

Was Blind, But Now I See: Hope

I have no hope; I have no fear. I am free.” (Nikos Kazantzakis)

“Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.” (Derrick Johnson, Orion Magazine, May/June 2006)

I throw the word hope around quite easily and very often. Most preachers do:

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
(Old hymn)

“To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)

I have used the word and concept of hope most often as an antidote for some set of uncomfortable, unsettling, even fearful circumstances which exist in the present moment. Implicit in hope (as I have most often used it) is the looked-forward-to future absence of those difficult feelings being experienced right now.

I am wondering, though, if I have not merely been grabbing at the whole concept of hope in the same way I used to grab at a glassful of Jim Beam? Is it simply one more way to get outside of the present moment, and to justify inaction? Does pie-in-the-sky hope cause me and others to sit around and wait for future bliss while the muck and mire of the moment is rising over our shoes, our ankles, our knees ?!

Hope is an attempt to counterbalance Fear. We can control Fear by constructing an imagined scenario of No Fear. Or so it seems. To Not Be Afraid is a primary motivator used by advertisers, preachers, and politicians. They know their audience is afraid of not being pretty enough, of not going to heaven, or of being blown to bits in another 9/11 scenario. So they offer Hope: a new shade of Max Factor lipstick, a walk down the aisle for the absolution of sins, or a “Happy Days are Here Again” ballot choice.

And we, wanting desperately to escape the dread which weighs heavily on our shoulders, believe them. Again. And again. And again, again. We have believed them for so long, that it feels natural- human, we think- to hope for a better tomorrow. We shovel out money- usually, borrowed money- in the hope that a new car, a new entertainment center,  or a shiny new piece of bling-bling on our arm will finally, despite the $125,738 unsuccessfully spent on similar doo-dads in the past, make us happy.

We pray for miracles- supernatural interventions by God, Allah, or the personal guardian angels that over 50% of Americans believe are standing nearby in anxious desire to serve them- to alleviate the anxieties of today.  It’s sooo much easier to tell God what to do, than it is to ask “What can I do?” And, where two or more are gathered, it sounds a lot holier , too.

And, politicians? 9/11 and stories about inadequate health care are mantras for them. They know we fear violence and sickness because we are afraid, above all, of Death (another soon-topic in this series),  and so they work hard at keeping those fears in the forefronts of our present thinking, so that we may hope for an end to them by properly voting.

Hope, too often, nullifies, debases, and puts off Action or Acceptance. We are blinded to our own abilities to actively affect the difficult circumstances we can do something about, and to Accept those circumstances over which we have no control. To help a 16 year accept themselves as the unique person he or she already is, it seems to me, a far greater act than helping him buy steroids, or signing the permission papers for her to get a boob job. To visit a lonely invalid or prisoner is a much more satisfying way to follow Jesus (or Allah, or one of those angels) than waiting in miserable self-absorption for glory, yes? And certainly, get out and vote, but stop hoping that Big Brother (or Sister) will make our days happy ones. Only we can do that. And if we can’t do it for ourselves, helping others do it for themselves is an even more fulfilling, satisfying, and- dare I say?- happy substitute.

I cannot make myself say that Hope is bad thing. It’s nice to believe the sun will shine tomorrow. But, more often than not, we must simply open our eyes and see that the Light is, and has been, there anyway!  If we look for it, instead of hoping for it, we can experience Light flowing in on us from all kinds of cracks in formerly dark corners. And then we might even observe that while we had been waiting for pie in the sky, there was a big slice of chocolate cake, with ice cream melting beside it, in front of us, waiting to be eaten.