Thursday, February 26, 2015

Some Thoughts on Death Row

Somehow, the old police chief got the request from a man he had arrested years earlier. The man was now old as well and, after years on death row, was about to be executed. He asked the chief for a visit before his execution. It seemed they had more history than was spoken aloud for the chief went to the prison to see the man. Once there, the man wanted him to read Bible verses he remembered from his childhood. Old, black, and poor in the Deep South meant the man was illiterate. The chief didn't have to look up the verses from John. The meanderings of the man in the cell, remembering church from his childhood, were enough to prompt the chief's memory: "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

The old man in the cell asked the chief if he believed those words, wondering what would come upon his death. The chief answered as best he could, then went home. Later, another member of the police force asked the chief about his visit. In their discussion about the death penalty, the chief said there is only one way to execute a man that isn't cruel and unusual punishment. Tell him he's set free, let him walk a ways beyond the prison gates, and shoot him in the back of the head. 

Those scenes from the '80s television series In the Heat of the Night have stuck with me for more than twenty years. I think of those scenes more often at some times than others, but many, many times over the course of the years. I think of them especially as I, too, focus on the state of Georgia and the fate of Kelly Gissendaner. She's been awaiting her execution since early 1997; after all, that's what people on death row are doing--waiting for the day they die. 

In the name of not executing an innocent person, the average time waiting for execution is now well over 15 years. In those years, most prisoners are isolated from the prison population. Some spend 23 hours a day in their cell. Mostly, they just wait, pondering the day that they die. I can't imagine anything like that. Yes, I wish we would abolish the death penalty, but even more than that, I wish we respected the humanity of inmates. 

I have never met Kelly. I was inside Metro State Prison when she was housed there. The facility closed in 2011. Part of the tour, though, was naming the fact that the prison housed the only woman on death row. That information was given the same as the fact that we could speak to the women, but they could not speak to us first. The thing I remember most about visiting the prison, though, was that there was hope inside those walls--a wonderfully surprising amount of hope. 

They had a puppy training program. Some of those puppies would become seeing eye dogs. It was a sought after privilege to work in that program. One of the women who held a squirming puppy and told us about the program remains one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. The scars on her arms, scars I recognized were from drug use, made no difference in her beauty. I can still see her haunting blue eyes. I was there because of the prison chaplain, so we saw their Bible study room and music practice room and all the things that were part of her work there. The women affectionately called her "Chap" and asked to hug her even though touching was against the rules. She politely declined.

Classmates of mine taught in the certificate program my seminary launched at that prison. Kelly is one of the people who earned that certificate. The Metro State Prison choir came to our seminary chapel for a concert. It was easy to forget they were inmates as they stood on the floor of the chapel in choir robes. Their shoes made me remember. Then, once I paid attention, I saw the guards around the chapel. The van was parked as close as it possibly could be to that chapel. It had to take an act of God to get them there, but there they were, singing their hearts out in a packed church.

Hope. Faith. Gospel: nothing is ever so broken it cannot be redeemed. I saw those things inside prison walls, taking over lives and people who were broken. A justice system that offers little hope is broken. A justice system that mostly just keeps people inside walls is broken. We can do better, for Kelly, who it seems will die on Monday, and for so many others. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Dumpster, a Lesbian Wedding, and Some Peanut Butter

There are many strange things in my head related to church world. Let's just go ahead and say that. One of the stranger things, though, is social media engagement with my church's accounts. I know which posts and tweets get traction with our followers and which ones don't. I can't help it. I keep track of it the same way I keep track of the dates of Sundays for about two months out--without much thought and as a way of mentally sorting out what needs to happen next.

And the three most significant posts lately have been a dumpster, a lesbian wedding, and some peanut butter. Each post, with no paid advertising, has garnered several hundred views and other sorts of engagement that seems to excite the algorithms that fuel social media. I could blame the pictures that were attached to each of those stories. Pictures also seem to excite the algorithms, I admit. I also don't think that's it.

I think we really like these pictures of abundance. Because, yes, each of these pictures indicates an amazing abundance.

Let's start with the dumpster because that's the least obvious thing to be excited about. Well, for most churches, it wouldn't be very exciting. For my church, it's huge. In 2008, long before I came here, we built our very first building. Money wasn't exactly fluid before, but we needed a home; money got tighter. I hear stories of how little money for anything there was. Because of our location, we can't get a city dumpster. Contract services are too expensive, or so it was believed. So until January of this year, people took the trash home with them. There wasn't a system, per se, it just happened. I took home a few bags in the back of my truck on a regular basis. This year, we got a dumpster. We have a three year contract. Our finances are on solid enough footing that taking on that additional expense didn't seem overwhelming. Oh, and I used the magic of Google to figure out it would only cost us about $65 a month to have a dumpster. We ended up at $58 a month. In the month that it's been here, the dumpster has made our relationship with the other groups that use our building better, almost instantly. Who knew that a dumpster could do so much?

Now to the wedding. We don't have a large LGBT population at my church right now. We do have a lot of straight allies. More precisely, we have a lot of people who love members of the LGBT community. These are their sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles, college roommates, childhood playmates, and high school prom dates. Many people at my church intentionally sought out a community where those people they love would be welcome, even if they live on the other side of the country. Therefore, things like marriage equality are celebrated. Opening up our doors for a same-sex couple to be married is an act of justice like few others. It's also an event for which my church folks will show up to do things like sign marriage licenses because getting to say yes to even one person from the LGBT community matters that much. It's one of those things that's amazing to trust in and even more amazing to watch. Calling it love seems too mild a word. That wedding was an outpouring of so many emotions, only one of which was love. It was unbelievably abundant for the few gathered that day and even more so in a community that celebrated on behalf of people they'd never met.

Finally, peanut butter. We just started collecting peanut butter on the third Sunday of each month. We chose to do that because peanut butter is an ongoing need at most every food pantry, including the one in our community. It's a tangible step to tackle a problem we'll always have. Unfortunately, even Jesus said there will always be hungry people who don't have enough to eat. (I'm paraphrasing. He said, "The poor you will always have with you." But you get what I mean.) When I dropped it off at the food pantry this morning, the woman volunteering immediately said, "How did you know we needed peanut butter? We're completely out!" I wasn't surprised to hear that. Peanut butter is usually listed as one of their most needed items. Most Christians, actually most people of any faith, genuinely want to help the poor. We don't always know how to help, though, especially in a way that meets a real need. It turns out, peanut butter does just that. Everyone understands how peanut butter meets a need. At my church, most people can afford at least one extra jar of peanut butter. It's a story of abundance in a beautiful, simple form.

So there you have what sounds like a bad joke or a parable headed your way. I, however, thank God for a dumpster, a lesbian wedding, and some peanut butter.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ordinary Faithfulness

Humans of New York is one of my pleasure reading stops. As a general rule, it's amazing picture and story, rooted in the very ordinary. A few days ago, the story of Vidal appeared. After talking with Vidal, they did what any good journalist would do; someone went and found Ms. Lopez. You can easily read all of the story that unfolded as a result. In a middle school in a neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York City, there's a principal who believes in her kids. She and Vidal met President Obama as a result of the story. Today is the last day for the crowdfunding campaign set up by Humans of New York to send kids from Vidal's school to Harvard. No, the kids won't necessarily be enrolling; visiting alone is a chance to say, "You can do even this!" The campaign far exceeded the goal and now money received is being used for a scholarship fund for that school. It's a story worth following from beginning to end.

So why on earth am I bothered by it? I confess, I spent some time mulling over why on earth I was bothered by this amazing outpouring of over a million dollars to help a struggling school help struggling students. I mean, really, that just seems wrong on my part

And maybe it is. I did figure out what was bothering me, though: this school needed something extraordinary because the ordinary was so bad. More than a million dollars infused into a school's budget in a meaningful way likely feels unbelievable to the entire school, including Ms. Lopez. I also think they'd trade it all for solid school funding and strong support from the immediate community. I could be wrong, of course.

But I'm pretty sure it would benefit the school more to have a steady stream of reliable funding to go beyond basic needs to dreams. It would benefit the school more to have a few dozen of Ms. Lopez--people who believe in the kids, are there for the kids, and will keep showing up with them and for them. Along the way, I realized I believe that because of the dollar I put in the offering plate every week as a kid. Go figure.

I didn't know that dollar made so much of a difference until twenty years later. In church world, we call that something like teaching stewardship. More often than not, I call it faithfulness. Faithfulness is one of the things I struggle with most on an intellectual level and believe most deeply all at the same time. Faithfulness is, well, boring, a lot of the time. It just is. In my case, in my church, it meant showing up each week, going to class, giving my dollar, and sitting very quietly in worship. It also meant being dragged along when my mom took food to sick people or dropped off fruit baskets to people in nursing homes.

Mostly boring, sometimes inconvenient, rarely exciting faithfulness in all things, just like putting my dollar in the offering plate. Now that faithfulness means yes, I give money intentionally, but I also show up at school plays and band concerts, anniversary parties and birthday parties. It's faithfulness to a community, called together by God. It's exceedingly ordinary and I'm learning to be ok with that. It means there are probably a few people who think fondly of me, but it won't earn media attention.

So I'm settling into my faithfulness, trusting that it does more than I think it does. Of course, I'll still read about Vidal's trip to Harvard.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Your Church Is Really, REALLY Big

I'm much, much, much better with self-control than I used to be. I can effectively step back, calm down, and talk about it later. That's not to say that there aren't things that make me, shall we say, irrationally angry. I feel my heart beat a little faster. I need to talk, even if it's only to the air (usually it's a text message). It's a sort of negotiation with self that usually lands in a pretty healthy place.

Most recently, it happened when reading a book that several friends and colleagues have enjoyed. It falls into the realm of Christian writing about how you can follow Jesus better. I totally confess that I'm more into the sort of Christian writing that helps me think about Jesus in new ways. That's what makes me come alive, even though I know that faith requires far more than intellectual assent. But I digress. Let me tell you why this book set me off in the manner it did. There was a line that I shall not quote directly but roughly was, "I'm a Christian! I know about all these things so I'm a Christian!" And the list of what the author knew about was a slew of evangelical Christian conferences.

No, actually, knowing about those things doesn't make you a Christian. It marks you as a specific sort of Christian, or at least identifying with that culture. At the end of the day, knowing about those things makes you a Christian just as much as being in a garage makes you a car. That's not the point either, though.

The point is too many of us have a narrow view of church. We live in our own congregations, in our own denominations, in particular traditions, and assume that's what it means to be Christian. Everyone on the Christian spectrum is guilty of it. I almost murdered one of my seminary roommates a few times for failing to see beyond the United Methodist Church. (I worked a few times to state the problem without profanity as I usually do.)

In our culture of church-shopping, we're used to approaching church as another product. We like it, for the most part. We have brand loyalty, for a few of us. There is value, though, in hanging out at a church that is neither the brand you normally enjoy or a church you don't enjoy. Maybe, just maybe, that's not the point.

Go to a Roman Catholic community and enjoy the mass. If it's your first time, you probably won't be able to follow along, but that's ok. Go to the megachurch down the road and see what it's all about. Find churches with electric guitars and others with acoustic guitars. Find churches with old white guys as pastors and young women as pastors and head to a church where you'll be the only person with your skin color there. Go to churches that break into a sweat if the service goes for 61minutes and churches that are worried that Spirit has abandoned them if they can't measure the worship time in hours. Go to everything in between all those parameters, too.

You don't have to make this your new mission and spend a year visiting all the churches you can find. You should absolutely be rooted in a single faith community. This is one of those occasional things. This is one of those things you do because the love of Christ compels you.

It won't be easy. You'll likely find your blood boiling at some point, be bored stiff at some point, be terrified at another and, again, everything in between. You'll find a vast array of not only worship styles but theology. You'll find a vast array of people who, like it or not, are your family, too.

And you'll find out that no matter where you normally worship, if you let it be, your Church is actually really, really big.