Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, December 09, 2005

An illustration

Don't see our inability to unwaveringly focus on and imitate Jesus as a problem? Well...okay...but here's an article that came to me that probably got loud cheers from the church it was written to, but illustrates both Christians' need for "conquest & control" (see Nov. 6 post) and our failure to mold our ethics to Jesus' standard. Here goes:

"You've probably seen the grungy-looking guy on the corner with a hand-lettered cardboard sign that says "Will work for food." (I don't know why, but some people give those guys money instead of offering them a mob. The sign doesn't say "Give me money." Surprisingly enough, I've found that the sign-holders don't respond cheerfully when you seriously propose that you would be willing to pay them for actual physical labor. Oh, well...) I don't know how you respond to such a sight, but how would you react if it was a 14 year old girl holding the sign? Maybe you saw this recent news item:
Edmond, OK - Tasha Henderson got tired of her 14 year old daughter's poor grades, her chronic lateness to class and her talking back to her teachers, so she decided to teach the girl a lesson. She made Coretha stand at a busy Oklahoma City intersection with a cardboard sigh that read: "I don't do my homework and I act up in school, so my parents are preparing me for my future. Will work for food."
There was a flood of calls to talk radio stations either praising the mother or blasting her for publicly humiliating her daughter. On motorist even called the police.
My observations: 1). I'm glad the mother tried, but 14 is a little late to get serious. Respect for teachers, pride in completing a task, and being punctual are virtues that a TWO-year old should be learning. 2). To all the folks upset with the mother, I say we could do with a lot more public humiliation these days. When this country started, folks were put in stocks in the public square for the express purpose of humiliation. 3). Anyone who thinks it is their responsibility to call the police in such a case is seriously confused. The desk sergeant who took the call should have said, "A - it's not your kid, B - She deserves it, C - Don't you have something worthwhile to do with your time?"

Okay, say what? Let's ignore the denigration of the poor at the beginning of the article for now. Did I just hear an ambassador for Christ just say we need to humiliate more people? Really? And the thing is, not too many readers are going to have a problem with this. They have been trained not to see the glaring disparity between this strategy for achieving "Christian" objectives and Jesus' strategy for advancing the kingdom. Didn't Jesus come to defend the poor and helpless (regardless of the reason for their poverty)? Didn't Jesus come and give love and dignity to those from whom the religious institutions would take it away (the religious institutions call them "sinners")? Did the Creator of the Universe ever use his infinite power to force people to do what he wanted them to do? Can we not see that the use of "stocks in the public square" is as sinful now as it ever was, even if we achieve the desired outcome from the person we punished? Why in the world would we ever try to achieve moral behavior from a motivation of fear rather than from a knowledge of God?

I agree that the mom in the story is reasonably clever. It's kind of a funny scene, worth a spot as odd news on some local station, maybe even worth a chuckle. I'm not making a case for this being child abuse. But it is a case of someone using their power and authority to elicit a desired response from someone under their authority by humiliation and threat of further humiliation if the desired outcome is not attained. I'm not here to criticize the mother, but I do criticize the church who has bought into this ends-justifies-the-means mindset. I do criticize those who see this story as a commendable parable of how Christ's followers should behave. Does this pass for Christ-like behavior these days?

Since when do we get to humiliate people into giving us our desired outcome? Why do we get so upset when the secular left (convenient label, not necessarily an accurate one) bullies us by attacking the Ten Commandments or "in God we trust", yet we'd gladly use the same bullying tactics to further our cause if we had the chance. Do we ever think that it might be possible to achieve what we want and still have Jesus disgusted with us?

And why are we fighting for taking "pride in completing a task, and being punctual"? Those things are fine, but their relationship to Christian ethics are shaky, at best. They much more closely resemble American middle class values...maybe something the church needs to work to separate from Christian values. We seem to have a hard time telling the difference.

Jesus' example is one of love, of giving up power, of radical transformation, but not through power structures. May we learn to turn our backs on our striving for power and embrace the way of Christ.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Isn't Jesus Too Easy?

I'm finding myself a little frustrated by how much difficulty the Christian world has actually emulating Jesus in both their personal lives and in the organizations they build. I often see people pulling some scripture out of Revelation or the Old Testament as scriptural justification for their actions (actions that rarely would be out of step with accepted behavior in society at large or in church culture...why are those things so similar?), and when I inevitably ask, "Let's look at this through the lens of Jesus....can you imagine Jesus doing that?", they look annoyed and hold strongly onto their proof-text from Leviticus.

I consistently teach that the Gospels hold priority for us as we shape our theology and ethics, and that Jesus must always be the first place we look for when we want answers. It's so tempting to want to run to Paul, whose messages are so much more conveniently structured and rational. And frankly, Jesus never taught about church elders. But he did teach about shepherding and how a shepherd treats his sheep. He was very clear about what leaders shouldn't look like. And Jesus never taught about the theological implications of baptism...but he was baptized. I recently preached 20 lessons walking through the Gospel of John, emphasizing how I think we can glean a complete ecclesiology (understanding of the church) from the life of Jesus. He's subtly teaching us how to "do" church. And when we ask who we should be as the church, the first thing that should shape us is the life of Jesus. But oddly, enough, that's a radical message to much of Christianity. As I finished up the lessons from John, a church member came to me privately and we had the following conversation:

HIM: "You've just deconstructed virtually the entire church."
ME: "Do you mean the church Jesus is looking for, our particular congregation, or the current popular understanding of church?"
H: "You've just deconstructed virtually our entire understanding of the church."
M: "Well...yes."
H: "If we do what you're saying, nearly everything will have to change."
M: "Do you think that what I've said inaccurately depicts what Jesus would have the church to be...am I just making it up?"
H: "If we do this, nearly everything will have to change."
M: "Well...yes."

Have we become more afraid of change than of being separated from Christ? Somehow we've managed to admire Jesus, to talk about him a lot, to invoke his name, to call upon his power to fix our problems, but not be transformed by him. It happens in our personal lives, in how we treat people, which I talked about in the last post. It happens in the way we structure our churches (impersonal, hierarchical, Sunday-focused, maintenance mindset, self-focused, counting success by looking only at the 3 B's: budget, buildings, & butts). We unintentionally betray the Gospel when we tell people "You need to come to church." No, you need to get to know Jesus. It happens in the discourse of the larger Christian world. If you ask me, using any of the popular labels Christians use today to identify themselves(conservative/liberal, right vs. left, Democrat/Republican, mainline/evangelical) is an admission that our viewpoint skews heavily in one direction, that we are more concerned with being in a certain camp than aligning ourselves with Jesus (Yes, labels are necessary for convenience's sake, but they help little in pointing toward truth). See Volf's article here:


Maybe we need to get rid of all our agendas that we try to accomplish in Jesus' name, in order to please him, and insist that our entire agenda simply be Jesus himself.

Another person approached me and asked me if I was serious that just Jesus was the answer to everything. I told her that he wouldn't help her learn to change the oil in her car or perform surgery, but spiritually, yes. Our lives and behavior must be formed first and foremost by him. Our churches must be formed first and foremost by him. She asked, "Isn't that just too easy?"

Friday, December 02, 2005

Broken Barriers

I've spent a good portion of my teaching during Advent not just focusing on preparing for the coming of Immanuel, but also in simply adoring the one who inexplicably chose to come and be with us in the first place.

One direction I felt pulled in as I meditated on the Advent passages was to examine the easily overlooked, yet revolutionary fact that God came to us and offered relationship. How does that one part of the Gospel story transform us? Yes, Jesus came and ministered to the sick and needy and leprous and impure. But the fact we use those labels implies self-rightiousness in some sense, because they often cover up the fact that even the best of us are in many ways needy, impure, sick and at least inwardly leprous (the physical disease kills your nerves, your ability to feel). Jesus didn't break down the barriers when he talked to and cared for prostitutes, or when he ate with tax collectors, or when he healed the broken and unclean. By that time, the real barrier had already been destroyed. It was destroyed the minute the infant Christ's flesh touched human skin. When he began to relationship with us "lowly worms"; when he lowered himself to become one of us.

The barrier that was broken was between human and God and Jesus wiped it out. The barriers between sick and well, pure and impure, needy and wealthy, etc. are largely of our own making, because we are all in the same boat. And for us to erect barriers is an affront to the Christ who tore them down. He came to open the gate...but we sure love our gates. To be able to close people out, to say that we won't relationship with them, they are not good enough is a precious ability to us. But it's not Christlike.

I'm not very good at predicting what the people in my congregation will respond to and what will offend them. At times I've shook with trepidation as I've preached something I knew would step on toes, only to be greeted with applause and congratulations. Other times I ram something home with confidence, expecting to be cheered, only to be met by icy silence and offense. This was one of those times. Although one good friend literally slapped the pew in front of him in agreement, I also saw several gaping jaws, many people turn away in disgust, and a few outright angry glares as I said something along the lines of this:

"We love hierarchies. All of us operate by them. You do, I do. We learn it through 'cultural transmission', but we all rank people. Somewhere in our heads exist some sort of list that ranks people from most valuable to least valuable. Our lists may vary a little, but I think if we wrote them down, we'd find that they are very, very similar, with celebrities and athletes, wealthy business men and politicians, maybe doctors and lawyers at the top. And at the bottom would be the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, the addict (at this point I at least have the full attention of our homeless addict, with whom I am good friends, and whom I will blog about sometime...we met him in our jail ministry). These hierarchies of human worth exist, but they are sinful. Jesus destroyed these destinctions, and left us an example that teaches us to root them out of our lives, too.

"Many of our problems of 'self-esteem' stem from these hierarchies, our feelings of inferiority. We fume and stew because some nobody treated us like we occupy a lower place on the totem pole than they do. We get upset because our current situation in life puts us on a lower rung on life's ladder than we deserve.

"I challenge you to start paying attention to how these hierarchies of worth play out in your life. Pay attention as you talk to people who are both higher than you and lower than you on your personal continuum of value. See how your entire attitude and habits and mannerisms change between people you encounter who are different sides of the scale. Force yourself to see and admit that which we all do...we assign value to people and treat them differently according to how those values make us feel about them. Then force yourself to admit that it's wrong.

"I challenge you to speak the exact same way to the lawyer you know and the next guy that you meet who is begging for money. Feel the same about them, value their God-given worth equally, I dare you. Treat the person who is not the same race you are the exact same way you'd treat someone who shares the same skin color with you. Talk to the person who speaks with an accent with the same amount of patience you'd show someone speaking English. Don't speak to the caretaker of the disabled person in the wheelchair, speak to them. Feel just as comfortable when someone with torn, dirty clothes steps onto a elevator with you as you would if they were wearing a suit. Treat a criminal like a human, Jesus did. Treat everybody the same. I promise you...if you haven't been practicing, you can't do it. You are too well trained. Too used to listening to the world's system of values and not to God's. Too used to valuing what looks and acts and speaks just like you and too used to being afraid of what's different.

Jesus came and when he came he broke down the barriers. Barriers between us and God, but also races, tribes, communities, economic groups, age groups, everything. And he challenges us to live like it. Can you?"

People didn't like it, can you believe it? :-) Well, I understand why now that I think about it...but it's one of the things that makes me love him more and convinces me that His is the true way.

Aliens and Advent

I was one of the first customers to score the new War Of The Worlds DVD from Netflix this week and we watched it tonight. Anybody else disappointed?

And yet something about the movie sticks with me. I think it has more to do with the story than with this most current telling of it. Maybe I expected too much from the duo of Spielberg and Cruise after enjoying Minority Report so much. This version does better when it approaches things with a detached, epic disaster-movie feel; humans trapped like ants, being destroyed by forces beyond their control. When it starts to focus on people, letting them talk, things start to get ugly. Let's face it, Tom Cruise has spent too much time inhabiting his charismatic Top Gun persona to be convincing as a loser dad. And Dakota Fanning is hardly believable as a human. She's TOO precocious, too mature, too prescient, and has too much presence to come off as more than a realistic special effect. Then there's the guy that plays Cruise's son. He probably does a fine job, but his character is poorly written and annoying. I don't believe ANYTHING he does. He is inserted into the weak script to provide convenient conflict, transparent emotional manipulation, and a shameful warm fuzzy at the end.

I'm usually drawn to character-driven movies, but this one is at its best when it's clinical. To be sure, there are some great Spielbergian scenes: the river of death, the train, most of the Tim Robbins basement sequence (although part of it is a reworked Jurassic Park raptor-in-the-kitchen scene, and Robbins' character himself is a contrived annoyance). But by far the most powerful scenes are one of human helplessness, where people are hunted and slaughtered by an unstoppable malevolent force. Those were powerful to me, not because of any pornographic need for bloodshed, or of any lingering junior high sense of what's cool, but because it serves as a reminder. This story is still being told 107 years after being written because it reminds us that in spite of our need for an illusion of control over our lives, we are in a cosmic sense, helpless. We surround ourselves with stuff and technology to make our lives stable and safe, but one alien-induced burst of electro-magnetic energy (or one earthquake, or hurricane, or tsunami), and we lose those things, we are lost. Sometimes the realization that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control is as threatening as the force that stripped us of our illusion in the first place.

I preached on the first Sunday of Advent the sheer unbelievable-ness of a God who would come and be with us, of a God who would dirty himself to associate with us. A God like that is not unheard of outside scripture, but the manner in which Jesus did it is mind-blowing. Zeus occasionally came down off Mt. Olympus, but only as a powerful warrior, impervious to any human threats against him, unable to be hurt. He only came in power, knowing that he would be safe anywhere he went. But not Jesus. Jesus lived for nine months inside a human. He was born an infant, simply incomprehensible. I have a ten month old daughter. She's amazing to me, but she would die within hours if not for the care of her mother and I. She is not powerful; in fact, she is so very delicate, so very easily injured. My three year old might last a matter of days on her own, but she too would die if not cared for. If I don't wrap her in the walls of our house and carry her where she can't go, and hold her hand as we cross the street...the world would crush her. She is not protected, except by her parents. Jesus threw off not just the power of the creator of the universe, but also the power to protect himself, and placed himself in the care of humans. It didn't have to be this way, but he came in a form where viruses could make him ill, where splinters could get infected, and where a whip wouldn't just bounce harmlessly off his back, but instead would shred and tear. He gave up not just comfort and security, but also invincibility...he gave up the reality of the illusion we strive for so mightily.

We may convince ourselves we are invincible and in control by molding and shaping our bodies to be strong and powerful. But a simple gunshot can relieve us of that fantasy. Most of us do it by acquiring plenty of stuff and technology, which boils down to money. Want to know why we live in a disgracefully materialistic society? Our stuff gives us the illusion of control. We surround ourselves with it for security. The bigger the house, the larger the SUV, the more state-of-the-art technology, the more impenetrable we feel. And War Of The Worlds illustrates what happens when we lose all that. We fall on the mercy of a mysterious other (this story also serves as a metaphor and condemnation of imperialism, looking at it from the losing side), and suddenly the always-available supplies of food, water, electricity, and other comforts are cut off. We can almost envision those for whom the alien death ray would be a welcome release from living (like much of the world does) without those things we take for granted. This story exposes the illusion for what it really is. We are so helpless that only God can get us through, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

At the end of the movie, humans prevail, sort of. But even that just illustrates our true impotence. Those who subdued us and met every force we threw at them, are subdued by the smallest and most inconsequential organisms on the planet: bacteria. The irony is almost biblical. Just like the coming of Jesus, when the power of sin threatened to destroy us...we were saved by the powerless, the unimportant, the vulnerable...a baby.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


One thing I hate to do is get in a rut when it comes to sermon preparation. I prepare each sermon in a series in the same manner, but I prepare for different groups of sermons in very different ways. I refuse to admit that there is one right way to preach. My favorite approach so far has been (I recently finished preaching through the entire Gospel of John) eliminating all preparation except for extended meditation on the text itself and what it is saying to me in my current situation. I love to play around with the way I prep and the way I preach. I have no rules except for a commitment to Him and His Word. Maybe that's a young preacher's game, but hey, I've been doing this less than a year.

So now I'm entering into a whole brand new experiment. In an effort to connect with other branches of Christianity and experience some solidarity with other tribes, I'm going to spend a year following and preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary. A lectionary is simply a collection of passages of scripture arranged for use during worship. Many churches from the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist traditions (and others) base their liturgies on the RCL. It cycle starts again every three years.

Liturgies (or table readings, as they used to be called) have been in use since the fourth century, first utilizing continuous readings, where each Sunday picked up in scripture where the last left off (the readings during the month of March must have been inspiring = Numbers and Leviticus). Now four passages of scripture have been carefully chosen for each Sunday; one from the Old Testament, one Psalm, one epistle, and one passage from a Gospel. There have been many lectionaries over the centuries, but the main one was the Vatican's Lectionary for Mass (1969). The Revised Common Lectionary (1992) is based on and derived from that, and is the most common one worldwide.

What I like about the RCL system:

1). It's anchored in history. It's older than my roughly 150 year old tradition. It's been tried and refined for centuries by some of the greatest scholars the church has ever had. I like being tied to the ancient ways.

2). It's catholic. That word really just means universal. I love the idea of Christians all over the world, all over my city, encountering the same text with me every week. I think that's beautiful.

3). It's scripturally healthy. We're kept with a healthy diet of scripture and not allowed to give one portion too much emphasis over another. I like the balance.

4). It's Christ-centered. One portion a week from a Gospel. Every service and sermon is rooted in Christ. Nuff said.

Wish me good luck. This coming Sunday is the first week of the lectionary year (year B). We'll see how it goes (especially during Holy Week - days my church is loathe to recognize). Anybody else want to try?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Conquest, Control, and Church

I was priveleged to attend a day-long seminar with Brian McLaren last week (Kansas doesn't exactly get a flood of great speakers coming through). Although much of what he said was familiar to those of us who read his books, he was challenging and left many of the 300 ministers (well...pastors - I think only four of us were from CoCs) with headaches after they thought through some of the ramifications of what he said. One thing that has made me uncomfortable about McLaren's writings is his tendancy to appear without backbone, almost pluralistic. Hearing him speak wiped away those doubts. Make no mistake, behind the humble, soft-spoken demeanor is a very bold man who knows what he stands for. Several times he made statements (about Left-Behind "theology", lack of justice in the church, etc.), that given his audience, made me cringe. I totally agree with him, but I don't know if I would have the guts to say the same thing.

Easily the most controversial topic of the day was when he asked us to rethink our notion of Conquest and Control and the role in plays in the life of the church. The Bible was written, both Old and New Testaments, mostly in a time when God's people were a minority, a marginalized group of stragglers and strays who were looked down on and often persecuted by surrounding society. But a few hundred years after Jesus, something happened. A Roman emperor became a Christian and this "new" religion was thrust into a situation of power than it wasn't prepared for and maybe shouldn't have accepted. But for better or for worse, the church ruled the western world for centuries. Wars were fought in the name of Jesus, people who didn't agree with the church were tortured and killed, entire continents were stolen away from the indigenous people, genocide was committed by "Christians." Our faith was forced on people against their will. Jesus was communicated through conquest and control. And although modernity dethroned the church as the ultimate authority in favor of reason and science, we've retained some of that conquering attitude. Sometimes we long for the "good old days" of being in charge, instead of the really old days of being persecuted and hated.

The church no longer holds a sacred place in our society. We've been marginalized in another way...we've made ourselves irrelevant and ignored. But we are NOT persecuted, at least in the West. Yet we still hold onto that militaristic language that created the need for our removal from power in the first place. We still talk of "taking back the nation for Jesus." Our most famous speakers still hold crusades. We seek to convert non-Christians instead of invite them. We sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers', 'Soldiers of Christ Arise', etc., and teach our children to be in the 'Lord's Army.' Does that sound eerily familiar to anyone else? How is this better than jihad? Because we are right and they are wrong? Or because those in power get to set the rules, and we long to set the rules for others instead of settling for playing by the different rules of Christ's kingdom?

Sure, there is plenty of war language in the Bible, particularly in the OT. But as McLaren pointed out, there is a marked difference in conquest language used by people who are fighting for their survival against vicious oppressors and conquest language used by people who are wealthy and fat and who have sacrificed their credibility by selling out to the values of their culture. It's different to be fighting for your own rights than to be fighting for power with which to overrule the rights of others. That power sounds like what Jesus catagorically avoided during his time on earth. McLaren asked for a shift in values from conquest and control to one of conservation. Conservation of the environment, of course, but that's only part of the story. Conservation of the rights and lives of others, honoring what's beautiful about them as God-given and inviting into the kingdom, but not forcing them to play by our rules until they choose to.

He reminded us of the incident in March 2001 where the Taliban destroyed the gigantic, ancient statues of Buddha that had been carved into the side of a mountain near Bamiyan long before Islam was ever heard of. There was worldwide outrage that these historical artworks had been desecrated. His question to the audience was, if you had lived in Afganistan at the time, in fact, if Christians had ruled Afganistan, would you have felt it was your Christian duty to support the destruction of those statues or to speak out and stand against the effort to blow them up? Maybe that's the difference between conquest and conservation. It was interesting to discuss. Lots of different opinions. What do you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I'm tired...

Please understand that there are things that I love about being a minister. I love and respect ministers. Many of my closest friends are ministers. I will always support them 100% and encourage them when they need it and be impressed that they are laboring long and hard without the recognition they truly deserve. I don't want to invalidate all the great things ministers and pastors all over the country are doing for Jesus. I'm only speaking for myself. But as for me...I'm tired.

- I'm tired of having a job where if I lose it, I lose my income and my house and my faith community and my friends.

- I'm tired of maintaining a high standard of quality at work, yet having my job be in danger.

- I'm tired of my family being treated poorly because people are uncomfortable with me.

- I'm tired of working more hours than almost anyone else, and still being accused of being lazy because I wasn't in my office Tuesday afternoon.

- I'm tired of my wife feeling like I'm never home and never get a day off. I'm tired of her being right.

- I'm tired of being told that the three hours I spent with the paroled drug addict was a waste of my time.

- I'm tired of the snide comments when I don't wear a tie when I preach.

- I'm tired of people coming to my home and begging "pleeeeease don't cause problems."

- I'm tired of the spiritual people in the church being looked down upon for "not being realistic."

- I'm tired of acting like everything's alright, preaching happy sermons when my heart is broken and my church is falling apart at the seams.

- I'm tired of the church, which is supposed to be the safest place on earth, hurting people.

- I'm tired of working for churches I probably wouldn't attend if they didn't pay me.

- I'm tired of my salary taking up almost half the church's budget.

- I'm tired of that nagging suspicion that I'd be closer to God and more Christlike and more missional if I wasn't a minister.

- I'm tired of getting rave reviews for my sermons, but getting laughed at when I want to put into practice what I just preached about.

- I'm tired of feeling like my spiritual gifts are meaningless.

I still love God and think the church can be a thing of beauty. But I don't have to be paid by a church to be a minister. I don't have to be a preacher to preach.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I've been in jail

I have a good friend who spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood in juvenile hall and in jail. He was hooked on alcohol and drugs and sex and everything else. But in jail with all the time in the world and nothing to do, he began to read enthusiastically and found his way to Jesus in his jail cell. He embarked upon a genuine journey of discipleship and although lacking an education, he has become one of the most well-read and theologically knowledgeable people I know. He occasionally schools me, reminding me how narrow my spiritual background is and how far I have to go in reaching beyond that. But my friend's life is radically different now: he is married, has a cute little daughter, owns a small business, and is a dedicated man of God.

But he has been yearning recently to go back to jail and he asked me to come with him. And so he started a jail ministry, and I accompany him once a week. This seems to be his calling, what his life has prepared him for, and he is passionate about it. In fact he makes trips to the jail three or four times a week, even though he doesn't live nearby. He does the teaching, I'm simply there for support. Because of his criminal record he need a "legitimate" person to come with him at first.

But this isn't your typical prison ministry. I've done a fair share of prison ministry, venturing into big medium- and high-security facilities with sniper towers and razor wire. I've visited inmates on death row. I've been searched and questioned and had my background checked numerous times. I think everyone should take every chance they get to minister inside a prison. But this is not a prison, it is a jail (Prisons, my incarcerated friends tell me, are MUCH preferred to jails). A small, rural Kansas county jail. If you want to minister in most prisons, you have to be put on a waiting list. No so, here. These men are forgotten by society, by their community, by absolutely everyone but my friend. He doesn't have to compete for time with anyone, and the inmates can't wait for him to come back.

I've been inside several times and it still seems a little surreal. If you watch TV or movies, you've seen prisons that are huge and intimidating, overflowing with burly guards wearing body armor. This is nothing like that. We are let in through a flimsy locked door, up a flight of stairs to "the cage." It is an old iron-barred contraption that was put together inside what used to be a community meeting room. The whole thing is about 50' by 20', including 12 cells that are 7' by 4.5' (double occupancy). The main security measure around here seems to be the fact that most of these men really have nowhere else to go if they were to break out. The entire staff of the jail in the evenings when we are there consists of a scrawny janitor and one guard who happens to be three and a half feet tall. Really. There are no firearms, so if something were to go wrong, our only hope for rescue rests on a midget with a can of mace and a teenager with a mop.

In a prison setting, normally you'd study in a supervised common room. Here, we enter the cage with the entire population and are locked in and left alone (the guards' office is down two hallways, totally out of sight of the cage, where the guard and the janitor play video games). So we sit in the little common area. And as I look around I notice that I could fashion weapons from about 25 or 30 items just in the area of the inside of the cage near me. I'd hate to think what what someone more experienced, like one of those criminal masterminds from TV, would do with it. This place is a playground for Hannibal Lector.

But there's more. These men are hungry for God in a way that startles me. Yes, some of them just want his assistance to get out of jail. But in most of them I find a level of humility and brokenness that puts to shame every single church I've ever seen. It's hard not to admit that you've done wrong when you're forced to wear an orange jump suit and sleep on a steel slab. These men show me on a weekly basis qualities that SHOULD characterize the church, but don't. They crave the Word of God so much that I am humbled. One burly, grizzled guy let us know that our first night there when he growled, "Don't go telling us a bunch of stories, we don't care...we just want the Bible." They ask questions, they communicate their confusions, they argue (although without personal animosity; they know these are the guys they MUST live in community with for the next several months), they never want to stop when our time is up. Their attitude toward the Word is what the Church's should be but isn't. And it still surprises me, but it shouldn't. Once again, God's foolishness has shamed my wisdom, and the least of these have outshined the greatest.