Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Prison Are You In?

After working as a prison chaplain in the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando for about six months, I had this conversation with my orderlies concerning how I was feeling about my ministry there. I said to one of them who was there on assault and larceny charges, that I felt like the past twenty years of my life seemed to have led me to where I am today. I was being reflective. His response with his great Brooklyn accent was: "Yeah, me too!" Of course we laughed. There was tremendous truth in both of our statements.
So today, my question to all of you that are reading this blog is: What prison are you in?
Let me explain the reason behind my question. Most of you have been to church, or at least have seen Charlton Heston portray Moses in that epic film The Ten Commandments. But for those who have never heard of either Moses or Charlton Heston, let me refresh you.
You see the Jews were slaves in Egypt and being horribly mistreated. God called Moses to rescue them from their captivity. Ring a bell? So, after performing many miracles in their release from their captors, they come to a great river and God opens it up so they can cross on dry land. Amazing, right!! They get to the other side and start grumbling and complaining, wishing that they had stayed as slaves in Egypt. This really ticked Charlton, I mean Moses off. Are you following me? Here is my point: After all that their God had done they began to reflect on their situation and convinced themselves that they were better off in captivity. The journey to freedom had been trying and very difficult, making it easy for them to look back at the "good old days" of Egypt.
I've done that. Have you? Sometimes when things get tough in our current life situation we tend to romantisize our former circumstances. We would rather be "enslaved" in our past than free in the present. We had this discussion at church last night and it brought to mind two principles that I have encountered:
  1. The familiar is less threatening that the unfamiliar, even though it may not be healthy for us.
  2. Sometimes freedom creates an anxiety that is too overwhelming to cope with.
A couple of powerful examples include inmates who have been in-and-out of prison their whole lives because the adjustment to the outside world is, in their minds, an impossibility. They cannot cope with the day-to-day stresses of life on the outside and intentionally break the law to return to the familiarity of their incarcerated life. Hard to believe? I thought so too until I spoke with a few men like that.
The other might be surprising. I have met and counseled with many Christian folks (on the inside and outside) that in spite of their strong faith in Christ are still bound by living within unattainable rules. They set the bar of behavior too high for themselves and others. Legalism is their prison and it is just as real as the bars and razor wire that holds felons in their place. So, which do you think is a more real prison? I believe both are very real to the captive. The actual inmate needs someone or a few people to catch him/her as he leaves his concrete home and enters the free world, in order to help him make the adjustment. He needs someone to believe in him and assist him in adjusting to his new-found freedom.
The virtual inmate, or as I like to call them, the Christian Felon, needs something similar. He or she needs a person who understands mercy and grace to come alongside of them and assist them in their adjustment to their free world. The chains of legalism are just as restricting as the handcuffs and literal chains of the sentenced inmate. As often as I can, I remind the guys I minister to behind bars, that they can be freer than some folks who have all the freedom that they need. Some are. Are you? What imprisons you? What imprisons me? When we discover our limitations we ought to be willing to get the assistance we need to break free from our imprisonment.
I'll leave you with this from the Gospel of John 8:32 "...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  

Until next time,

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is Our Grace Really That Amazing?

     I know, I know, that's quite a lead-in question. How many of us know just how much our personal experiences determine our attitudes? I think we're all aware of the impact they have. Well, recently I had an encounter with someone who used the term grace in a way that caused me to call into question what we really know about real grace. We hear or use the word in so many contexts. We say grace, talk about someone being a gracious person, hear bagpipes playing Amazing Grace or describe the artful moves of a dancer as graceful. That's all well and good, but what does it mean to treat someone with grace?
     My wife is an avid runner. She loves to run mile after mile. I admire her for that because I used to be one myself. Unfortunately my body will no longer carry out the desires of my mind. So, I do the eliptical, treadmill and less joint-damaging exercises. But I digress. My point is that runners often use the miles and minutes they are gliding along the trail or highway to work out some important ideas. This morning my wife came back from her morning run and broached the subject of grace. She said that she has a clearer understanding of why some people in the public eye might have a problem with those of us who claim faith in Christ. Maybe, she said, they see a disconnect between what we profess (about God's grace) and how we treat those outside of our faith community. I hate to admit it, but she is on to something. How often have I been more concerned about the behavior of someone whose lifestyle I disagree with than their spiritual condition? Confession time: too often. My all time favorite author, Philip Yancey, talks about this situation in his devotional guide Grace Notes. In this section he is talking about the Apostles Paul and Peter and their teachings about grace. "We are to administer, or dispense God's grace, say the two apostles. The image brings to mind one of those old-fashioned atomizers women used before the perfection of spray technology. Squeeze the rubber bulb, and droplets of perfume come shooting out of the fine holes at the other end. A few drops suffice for the whole body; a few pumps change the atmosphere in a room. That is how grace should work, I think. It does not convert the entire world or an entire society, but it does enrich the atmosphere." Yancey goes on to say: "Now I worry that the prevailing image of Christians has changed from that perfume atomizer to a different spray apparatus: the kind used by insect exterminators. There's a roach! Pump, spray, pump, spray. There's a spot of evil! Pump, spray, pump, spray. Some Christians I know have taken on the task of moral exterminator for the evil-infested society around them." (p.287)
     Has anyone had that experience...from either side? I have, and from both. Here is what I know: if someone wants to truly be a dispenser of God's type of grace, it needs to be dispersed into the atmosphere without any strings attached. The definition of the kind of grace that God dispenses is: unmerited favor. That means that you can do nothing to "merit" it. You cannot earn it, so you cannot un-earn it! It is a gift. So, I need to ask myself this question: Am I an atomizer of God's grace, allowing the droplets to change the atmosphere around me? Or am I moral exterminator, using a form of grace in an attempt to eliminate the evil-infested society around me?

"For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as the result of works, that no one may boast." Epesians 2:8-9

Until next time, God bless you.