Saturday, April 18, 2015

Visions of Slavery on Easter Sunday

My husband and I recently took a vacation that led us through several areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky. Because we both enjoy architecture, we had decided we would tour several antebellum plantations. The way we had our trip organized, the first plantation we visited was Oak Alley just a short drive from New Orleans. As it turned out, our tour of Oak Alley fell on Easter Sunday afternoon.

The house and grounds were beautiful. The tour was informative about the antebellum age. But the most profound part of the day was a self-guided tour through reconstructed slave quarters.

I can’t say I didn’t know about slavery. I had learned about it in school, read about it in books, and even seen movies that depicted it in various powerful ways. But this was different. Standing in front of what would have been a slave duplex, each side of which  was barely bigger than my bedroom at home, and realizing that a dilapidated version of this would have been the home of countless numbers of slaves on whose backs the master’s fortunes were built was sobering, to say the least. And of course the fortunes were clearly represented in the beautiful mansion just a few hundred yards behind us.

Alongside and inside these rugged dwellings were pictures and narrative that described the life of an average slave. Some shacks had rustic beds with primitive mattresses. Some had only a makeshift mattress on the floor. Some had no bed at all. Most had fireplaces for cooking.

The tools the slaves were expected to use to work in the fields were barely stone-age. I don’t really know whether these were the best available at the time, but I got the sense that they were not. Not only were slaves considered nothing more than property, but they were not even given proper tools to do the best work possible.

Two things were especially striking to me that resurrection Sunday. First, the field slaves worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours every day in miserable conditions. Nonetheless, they often were not given enough provisions to live on. Thus, most had small plots of land as well as a few small farm animals for additional food and income. But here’s the fairly obvious point. After working a long day for the master, they could not come home and rest. Rather, they then had to tend to their own plots and animals. Only after taking care of their own needs were they free to fall into bed.

Second, in the last of the six buildings, there was a book that listed the sale and purchase of human persons – slaves – for the plantation. On one wall in that building the first names of all these slaves were inscribed, row after row of them. It was something like the Viet Nam memorial, but to humans who had never been paid for their work, had been purchased like tools, and frequently treated no better than animals. Is it any wonder that with the Mississippi river within sight, the slaves sang songs like “Deep river, my eyes are over Jordan. Oh don’t you want to go to that gospel feast, the Promised Land”?

On the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the liberator of us from our slavery from sin, I received a fuller picture of just exactly how bound I was apart from Christ, what bondage looked like. And in fact, I am while I am no longer bound by sin, I am still affected by it. My vision, like that of the slaves must continue to be forward looking to that “gospel feast” where sin will no longer have an effect on the world, even as I work in the present reality of one called to resurrection life. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Doing Justice With Ex-offenders

Today’s paper continued a series they were running on whether Michigan should have a registry of violent ex-offenders just like the registry of sex offenders. Part of the story focused on a young man who had been convicted of second degree murder. At age 38, almost half of his life had been spent in prison. He was up for parole and hoping to rejoin society. He dreamed of being a husband and father and contributing to his community, dreams not unlike those of most people.

He was released from prison at the discretion of the parole board and a judge. Like so many others, his freedom was short-lived. Six months after his release, he went on a crime spree, robbing a number of gas stations and convenience stores at gunpoint, a gun that turned out to be a BB gun.

What happened?

Without even reading on I knew. I had heard stories like this during my time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola this past January. He simply couldn’t survive on the outside. While he is culpable for his actions, it is hard for me not to wonder what society, especially the church, could have done to help.

It is a fact that persons with a felony record have little chance of finding employment at all, let alone employment that will pay a living wage. Often, ex-offenders end up back in the same neighborhood with the same friends and in the same circumstances that led to the poor decisions that put them in prison in the first place, primarily because they have no other support system.


It’s not that support systems don’t exist. In my city they do. But it’s likely that these folks don’t always know how or where to look for them.

One thing that is clear, is that adding an ex-convicts name to a registry will do nothing but harm. The sex registry is a case in point. Consider this: an 18 year old makes the poor decision to streak at a college football game. He gets arrested and guess what? He is now a registered sex offender in some states. Does that make any sense at all?

And how is something like a crime registry not forcing a person to serve a sentence beyond what the judge demanded? How is this sort of thing just? How is it not reactionary based purely on fear?

Ex-cons are not monsters. They are human beings made in the image of God. How can the church help affirm that?

If perfect love casts out fear, as the Bible teaches, might churches find a way to partner with agencies who are doing good work with ex-offenders to show these people that they are loved? Might we be able to begin thinking creatively about how to offer support to these marginalized men and women, and not promote further marginalization?



Monday, February 16, 2015

Blog Tour of Todd Billings' "Rejoicing In Lament"

Rejoicing in LamentThe title alone of J. Todd Billings new book is intriguing.

I mean, there are plenty of books on lament. And plenty of books on praise. And even quite a few on praise and lament. But rejoicing or praising in lament? That is quite different.

Billings is a professor of theology whose work I have long admired. His writing is always orthodox, always classically Reformed, and always ultimately grounded in the biblical text. And this book does not disappoint on any of these criteria. Unlike his previous books, however, this short volume arises out of Billings own experience of loss. You see, in the fall of 2012 Billings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable and fatal cancer.

If you think that this book is just another self-help book for dealing with the tragic events of life, think again. Rejoicing in Lament is theology done in the crucible of suffering. No simplistic solutions are offered, no easy clich├ęs, no Bible verses flung out like final answers to the problem of cancer.

Rather, Billings invites his readers into his life – from his agonizing questions to his deeply personal theological reflections drawn from his CarePages. If you are not already convinced that this book is worth your time, several highlights are worth calling attention to.

Billings clearly understands lament. He neither downplays nor overemphasizes the role of lament in the Christian life. He notes that lament can involve everything from grieving to protest. He emphasizes the importance of acknowledging pain and suffering in our lives and in the world. Worship that does not recognize the brokenness of our world is not complete. Lament is an important word in the life of faith.

Yet Billings also recognizes that lament is not the only word, not even in the throes of suffering. “In lament,” Billings writes “we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that.” (43) Our identity in Christ is more than confusion and disorientation. Ultimately, asserts Billings, the psalms of lament are psalms of hope. In fact, Billings goes so far as to suggest that lament is itself a form of praise because of the element of faith that lament entails. Billings notes that “Praise, petition, and lament in the Psalms are all tightly woven together in prayers that help us recognize and rest in God’s promises.” (47)

Although  the book leans in the direction of biblical theology, Billings skills as a systematic theologian are also on display. Billings deals brilliantly and humbly with topics like the problem of evil, prayer, and the impassibility of God, all in relation to the overarching issue of suffering and lament. In fact, his description of impassibility is one of the most clear, accurate renderings of that traditional attribute of God of any I have read in recent years. He sweeps away the misconceptions and caricatures of this important doctrine, demonstrating its weight and importance for a proper understanding God’s relationship to human suffering today.

In some ways, the title of this book says it all. Throughout, Billings opens the door not just to abstract ideas of rejoicing in lament, but to his ongoing experience of doing just that.

To hear Billings himself discuss this important book, please go to:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Community

The first time I saw this t-shirt was a few years back when a group of students came back from Angola Prison in Louisiana. They had spent a week there with a colleague of mine whose heart is focused on ministering to the men who are imprisoned there, many of them for life.

I remember thinking that it was funny. I figured whatever else was true of Angola, the folks there had a curious sense of humor. A prison referred to as a “gated community”? Well, ok….I guess.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to spend a week in Angola Prison. What I found there was surprising. 

I found community.

In fact, I found a 6,200 member community who are deeply involved in each other’s lives. There are ASE certified auto mechanics teaching others to fix brakes, work on engines, and do all those things that mechanics need to do. I found men taking care of the huge Percheron horses, standing behind these giant beasts saying, “now give it to me boy,” and watching the horse lift its rear leg for a new shoe. They filed the hoof, placed the shoe, and then filed the hoof smooth, taking pride in the beautiful end product. I joked with them that this was like watching a horse pedicure. They laughed.

I found men in school, seminary in fact, learning to love God and his word, preparing to minister to the other men in the various camps within Angola. And I found men gently tending to the needs of their dying brothers, violent criminals giving hospice care to men society had long since forgotten about.

The truth is I found community that was in many ways richer than most of the communities we live in, richer than many of the churches we inhabit each week. Most of these men are striving to live decent lives, to regain the human dignity they had forgotten about for a while. And they do this together, encouraging each other, helping each other, and holding each other accountable when they fail.

And some do fail. Some don’t make it. For those who are not interested in behaving, do not care to live in community, there is a cell where they spend 23 of every 24 hours. Human dignity, after all, includes a level of respect that holds members of the community responsible for their actions, rewarding success, and penalizing failure.


Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is community, a community shaped in no small part by the power of the gospel. I was blessed to be a part of this community for a week, to worship and interact with my brothers in Christ. I was enfolded and welcomed in a way that is rare on the outside. And I couldn’t help but wonder as I sat and rocked on my porch that overlooked the 18,000 acres that is Angola Prison, what church on the outside would look like if we dared to let the power of the gospel penetrate us deep down like it has this gated community nestled on the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Freedom in Christ

It was a cold, dreary, rainy day as we walked into the building that housed ‘death row’ at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, Louisiana. It was almost as if God was weeping over the many human choices that brought this place into existence.

I was at Angola with a colleague and a group of students. We had come to meet some of the men at Angola and learn about how God has been working within the prison walls. Our week to this point had been uplifting; unbelievable in some ways. We had worshipped with three different churches pastored by inmates. We sat in pews with convicted felons – murderers, rapists, violent criminals.

Societal throw-aways.

Human beings made in the image of God.

We had seen how the Holy Spirit has been working in the men of Angola. In this place where most would expect only darkness, we had seen men living as children of light. Grace will do that.

But now we were entering a place where any notion of hope seemed hard to imagine. Death Row. The name was on the front of the building.

85% of prisoners at Angola were serving life sentences without chance of parole. Yet many of them had relative freedom within the prison. No so on Death Row. These men are facing the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. They spend 23 of 24 hours of each day in their cells under heavy guard. One hour each day they may come out, shackled hand and foot. During this time they may exercise, shower, etc. – all within cages. This is a sad, seemingly hopeless place.

Yet, we were met by an inmate chaplain – Jerome – whose job it is too care for the spiritual needs of these men. I don’t think I have met a more cheerful, positive person. Of course he is a ‘lifer’ as well, although not the sort you find on death row. When we asked what he does with these men in this dark place, he said, “I love them.”

Indeed.

He showed us how he ‘does church’ with the men who are interested. Each man is led out, shackled hand and foot, to one of the ten exercise cages that are situated in a row outside the building. It was cold as we stood there but he said the men don’t care. Once in the cage their chains are removed through a slot in the gate. The men are then free to raise their hands and praise the Lord.


There, Jerome told us, in worship, these men are free. Maybe they know something the church on the outside doesn’t.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fear, Racism, and EIT's

This has been a disheartening couple of months to be an American. In some ways, that is not all bad since many of us have a tendency to idealize our country to the point of idolatry. Nonetheless, there is a lingering sadness in my heart over recent events.

I chose not to weigh in with all the other bloggers on the events of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the problem of justice for people of color. My blog silence was not tacit approval. It simply reflected the fact that most of what needed to be said had been said and I really had nothing more to add. To any observant person, it has been quite clear for some time that our justice system is broken. I didn’t need Ferguson to remind me of that. All I need to do is observe the racial imbalance in conviction rates and prison populations. If any good comes out of Ferguson, it will be the re-opening of these sorts of conversations.

But then came the news from the Senate Intelligence Committee that after 911, the CIA was using “Enhanced Intelligence Techniques” in an effort to obtain intelligence on terrorism. Of course EIT, as those who have read the report affirm, is simply a euphemism for torture. Like John McCain, I would like to believe that America is above this. Clearly not. The fact that the question about whether the information gained was useful or not is irrelevant as far as I am concerned, although many have indicated that intelligence gained from torture is nearly always deeply flawed.

From a Christian perspective, I have been even more disturbed. Although with the racism issue I have seen movement and heard at least some voices, with the torture issue the church has stood silent.

We seem to be willing to speak up when a victim is a friend or acquaintance, or could have been. But when the victim is the frightening “other,” we seem to have much less to say. And here is the crux of the matter.

Fear.

With both racism and torture, we fear those who we perceive as a threat, whether the person is a threat or not. And fear breeds violence and hatred. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love is, of course, the love of God, a love that should be reflected in all of those who are united to Christ in faith.


In a fallen world, a certain amount of caution is necessary. But to be pro-life, as I think all Christians should be, is to not fear those who, like us, are made in the image of God. Rather, it is to advocate for those whose inherent dignity and worth as human persons is threatened regardless of who those persons are.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mall and Academic Conferences

A funny thing happened today. I went to the mall.
Now you may be wondering why that is funny or strange. My family would likely tell you that just my being at the mall is unusual. You see, shopping is not on my top ten list of things to do in my free time. I see it as more of a necessary evil than a recreational activity.

No the reason being at the mall today was strange is because for the past five days I have been at an academic conference for folks like me who are involved in studying theology and the Bible.

As I headed into Macy’s today, the juxtaposition of these two events gave me pause.

In the first place, the mall just seemed much more down to earth. It is full of the trappings of Christmas and all of the mundane things that try, as one old hymn puts it, to charm us most. It doesn’t take much thought to walk into the mall, or even to buy something. A few simple questions will do: Does it fit? Do I like it? Do I need it? Do I want it anyway? Is the price-point within my budget?

That about does it. My feet may get tired but my brain does not.

The academic conference, by contrast, takes quite a bit of thought. It’s hardly mundane although at times the questions being asked are fairly ridiculous, at least at first glance. And the answers, well, suffice it to say that several of the theses being proposed needed to be read several times to get at the core of what they were asserting.

But lest I leave you thinking that these two events are entirely unrelated, I should point out some similarities.

Both the mall and the conference feed on folks who are trying to be noticed, albeit for different reasons. People go to the mall to keep up with the latest trends and buy the latest products, be that shoes, some popular brand-name coat, or some other item vying for attention. Ultimately, this is about making sure that you – or your kids – are not wearing WalMart while everyone else is wearing North Face, unless of course WalMart is the in thing. It’s about pride and identity.


Likewise the conference is about keeping up with the latest trends in research and scholarship (clearly not fashion). It’s about vying for the attention of publishers and institutions in order to make sure that your ideas get noticed and therefore, you get noticed. It’s about pride and identity.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that both of these activities are more complex than these brief descriptions suggest. In fact, in some sense, both activities are about identifying with some particular community that one values. And the problem with both is that sometimes in the midst of the mundane or the not so mundane, our identity with our Ultimate Love gets lost.

One of the best parts of the conference was the Sunday worship service. It was a mid-course correction of sorts, reminding the Christians who participated that the danger of pride is always at our doorstep in the academe, that we are called not to be academic stars, but to serve.


I’m not sure what the mall equivalent might be – maybe a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus?? – but somehow, somewhere, maybe on a Sunday morning, I hope we are all reminded that our identities do not lie in  the brand names we plaster on, but in how we use our resources to serve those around us, regardless of what those resources are.