Taking the Eucharist to Youth Ministry

I wrote this paper two years ago, but a number of my friends are taking the class this term and the professor handed out my paper to be read! I forgot I had given her permission! But it was good to be reminded, and be able to go back and re-read it. I am happy to share it, especially because I continue to be drawn toward Eucharistic theology.

Since it is up for public consumption, I decided to post it here for all to read.

Taking the Eucharist to Youth Ministry

Andy Root recently published a book called, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry.  In it he writes, “I believe a small but growing (in numbers and depth) group of youth workers are ready, even yearning, to think theologically about youth ministry.”[1] Considering the reputation youth ministry has for being quite un-theological (or at least, the reputation for not being very thoughtful about what theology is being displayed), that is encouraging.  If Youth Ministry professionals have agreed to develop a better theology, then it follows they must choose what theological doctrine is the best place to begin. For instance, the theological starting point of the book Consuming Youth: Leading Teens through Consumer Culture is vocation, of the doctrine that individuals are called by God, as illustrated in the following quotation: “…the biblical concept of vocation has been replaced by psychological and cultural ideas related to ‘getting a job’ and ‘making money.’… Youth were separated from expectations to fully attend to the call of God upon their lives…”[2] The authors feel that the theological doctrine of vocation is especially missing in the lives of young people, and if a culture of vocational imagination were fostered in the midst of our consumerist culture, it would serve as an antidote to the sociological plight of teenagers.[3]

I agreed with many of the arguments put forth in that book, however I found myself thinking that while vocation is important, it was not the right place to begin the conversation and not an adequate foundation for discussion on youth ministry. Instead, I think the theological doctrine that most adequately serves as a foundation for youth ministry (and for all ministry, really) is the Eucharist. In this paper, I am going to first summarize a few aspects of  Eucharistic theology that I think are particularly relevant to this discussion. Then I will explain why it is a good starting point for youth ministry in particular, considering the developmental needs of adolescents and in light of teenagers’ cultural location. While I would agree consumerism is a defining aspect of young people’s experience, I argue the Eucharist is a more adequate response to the negative ramifications of that culture precisely because it offers an alternative vision of consumption. With that theological framework of the Eucharist as a lens, I will then address certain goals I have for a thriving youth ministry, and what criteria I would use to evaluate when a youth ministry is thriving based off that theological framework. Finally, I will conclude with my overall philosophy of youth ministry: what is its purpose, who are the ministers and who is being ministered to, what content is being taught and by what method, and what church environment is successful youth ministry.

A theology of the Eucharist could be discussed in many different ways, since different authors highlight different aspects of the sacrament.  Different authors often begin by talking about different things: an affirmation of materiality, which extends the theological truths of the incarnation, or the eschatological vision and hope that partaking in Eucharist fosters, or the alternative economy that the Eucharist communicates. All these are important, but what I want to discuss could perhaps be called Eucharistic Ecclesiology, or the connection between the communion meal and the church of Christ. There are two aspects of this I want to discuss: when participating in the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s story (as well as our own). But also in the Eucharist a re-member-ing takes place in which we as individuals are knit together and unified into one body, Christ’s body.

The Greek word for remembrance is anamnesis, and the foundation for Eucharist as anamnesis is found in Luke 22:19: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Biblical scholars tend to have three basic questions about anamnesis in Eucharistic practice: “Who is doing the remembering? What is to be remembered? What is being done in the act of remembrance?”[4] Scholar Paul Bradshaw concludes that most scholars agree: “(a) God is the subject of remembrance; (b) the church is the one who remembers; (c) both remember in a mutual process.”[5] This is quite profound: not only do we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, but we are remembered by God—just as God told the people of Israel to remember him and his commands, despite their unfaithfulness to do so, he constantly remembered them, even in the midst of slavery in Egypt or famine in the desert.[6] Memory in the Eucharist is not just about remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, even if that is one aspect of it. We also remember the Triune God’s faithfulness to his people throughout history, as well as his faithfulness to us as individuals in all areas of our lives. In the suffering of Christ, we also remember those who are have suffered throughout history and who are suffering in present day.

One way to talk about this remembrance of others in suffering is “Anamnetic Empathy.” In psychotherapy there are four aspects of the process of empathetic behavior, according to Theodore Reik’s model, which are particularly relevant for youth ministers as they encourage their youth to go through these stages:

“(1) Identification: paying attention to another and allowing oneself to become absorbed in contemplation of that person. (2) Incorporation: making the other’s experience one’s own via internalizing the other. (3) Reverberation: experiencing the other’s experience while simultaneously attending to one’s own cognitive and affective associations to that experience. (4) Detachment: moving back from the merged inner relationship to a position of separate identity, which permits a response to be made that reflects both understanding of others as well as separateness from them.”[7]

I vividly remember the first time I had communion with wine. I grew up in a church tradition that once a month would pass around tiny little wafers and cups, and it was stressed communion was only a symbol, nothing super mysterious was happening. When I was seventeen, I was visiting a non-denominational church that drew liturgical inspiration from various denominations. It was there I went up to take communion by intinction, and when I put the piece of the loaf in my mouth, all of a sudden I tasted the bitterness. For the ten years of my life that I had taken communion, it was always sweet grape juice that always left me wanting more. After that one small bite, the abruptness of the bitterness shocked me into thinking about the bitterness of Christ’s suffering on the cross and the bitterness of his death. I was shocked into thinking of my own suffering throughout my life, and by extension, through anamnetic empathy, the suffering of others in Christ’s body.[8]

This brings us to the second aspect of remembrance: “…the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice.”[9] This knitting together, or unifying us into one community, means that there is a liturgical pairing of the church and the Eucharist: both are the body of Christ, and therefore it makes sense to term the theological foundation as Eucharistic Ecclesiology. Cavanaugh makes the distinction that: “Christians are the real body of Christ, and the Eucharist is where the church mystically comes to be.”[10] But it’s important to recognize that while participating in the Eucharist creates unity within the body of Christ, it also requires unity.[11] Our ethical conduct, whether or virtues or our vices, become everyone’s when we participate in communion, for better or for worse. Scripture warns against taking communion without being reconciled to one another; the Eucharist is not magically going to make disagreements disappear, but through amnametic empathy it can help us be unified in actuality and potentiality.

The act of remembering (and re-membering) in the Eucharist is important for young adults in particular for a number of reasons. In an essay called “Formative Memories: The Neuroscience of Adolescent Memory and a Practical Theological Perspective for Youth Ministry,” D. Andrew Zirschky argues that for teenagers, memory is life-defining. In mid to late adolescence, what Dan McAdams calls “narrative identity” is when “people begin to arrange their entire lives—the past as they remember it, the present as they perceive it, and the future as they imagine it—into broad and self-defining life narratives that provide their lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and meaning.”[12] Because teenagers are at a developmental stage where narrative identity is key, the Eucharist is precisely the place where they can participate in remembering and constructing their own story by situating it in the broader story of what God is up to in the church and the world. I read a book called Resident Aliens when I was a teenager, and a passage that became really important for me illustrates this point in terms of baptism primarily, but we can extrapolate the importance of the Eucharist:

“When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train… We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone…. Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance. The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world, a story that invites us to come forth and be saved by sharing in the work of a new people whom God has created in Israel and Jesus… In Scripture, we see that God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something… The little story I call my life is given cosmic, eternal significance as it is caught up within God’s larger account of history.”[13]

Not only is Eucharist important for young people because developmentally they are at a place of the autobiographical self, seeking meaning and purpose in their life, which the Eucharist speaks to in a very real and sensory way, but also because by situating their stories in the cosmic story of what God is doing in the world, they are bound to a community of people to whom they belong. In the same span of time when I was reading the previous book,  I encountered this passage that immediately struck a chord in me:

“Community is a place of belonging, a place where people are earthed and find their identity… When a child feels it does not belong to anyone, it suffers terrible loneliness and this is manifested in anguish. Anguish is like an inner agitation which affects the whole body, transforming the digestive and sleep patterns, bringing confusing, destroying all clarity about what to do, and how to act.”[14]

I immediately knew what Vanier was talking about. How many times had I gone to bed in anguish because I had been rejected by my latest crush and was suffering acute loneliness? Kenda Creasy Dean would recognize this as the theological rock of passion: “the burning desire to be engulfed by love, to be ignited by a purpose, to radiate light because the love of another shines within us.”[15]

As has been show so far, the Eucharist makes sense as a starting point for youth ministry because of the developmental stage that young people inhabit. Another reason Eucharist is a good place to begin is because of the cultural location of young adults in particular, especially the digitalization of experience and hyperconsumerism.  Young adults need to be reminded of their own materiality and the materiality of others in this increasingly digital world of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google that gives rise to disrespect of bodies through cyber-bullying and (sexualized) chat roullette. Participating in the Eucharist is a very sensory-laden activity (or at least is meant to be), that affirms materiality:

“Anamnetic empathy… is an embodied practice. It is not merely initiated by listening to the words that tell the stories of salvation; rather, it embraces all our senses. We bring to the table our actual bodies, which contain a myriad of memories, and there we drink the wine and eat the bread. Through this real eating and drinking we may taste, see, and smell in fragmentary ways what the basileia [kingdom] is all about: a joyful feast that nourishes everyone and in which we do not need to hide the stories of our lives and our bodies.”[16]

Another aspect of young adults’ cultural location is consumerism, to which the Eucharist can very clearly offer an alternative for how to consume well. William Cavanaugh says, “One of the peculiarities of the Eucharistic feast is that we become the body of Christ by consuming it. Unlike ordinary food, the body does not become assimilated into our bodies, but vice versa.”[17] Consumerism tries to convince us that if we buy the right product, we will feel happy and free and live a flourished life. Instead, as soon as we buy one thing, it must be discarded for the newer and better item, leaving us just as unfulfilled (if not more so) than before. Especially for teenagers, the pressure to be “cool” intrinsically links their worth with their purchasing power.[18] The Eucharist, in contrast, offers an alternative way of consuming (because we cannot get away from consumption entirely). Instead of being left with nothing after consuming: “We are consumers in the Eucharist, but in consuming the body of Christ we are transformed into the body of Christ, drawn into the divine life in communion with other people. We consume in the Eucharist, but we are thereby consumed by God.”[19] This can be summed up in the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Augustine reports in his Confessions he heard a voice say to him: “you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”[20]

One summer I interned at a Mennonite church, and once a month they would have a special communion service. After the service, however, they would have what they called a “Fellowship Meal”: basically, a potluck. But potlucks can have a lot of theological depth behind them, if one understands that the extension of what happens in the formal worship service permeates our entire lives and has ramifications for how we live every day. This can be discussed in terms of “sacramental permeability.”[21]

The Mennonite church has a strong theological emphasis on community and reconciliation with one another. Community, as unified in the Eucharistic supper, means that we are all equally image-bearers of Christ, whether we are old or young, men or women, rich or poor. When I discuss the Eucharist as a theological starting point for youth ministry, I should be explicit in saying the practice of the Eucharist should not frequently be done by be just the youth group in the attic or basement or whatever youth room that is exclusively theirs. Instead, everyone is God’s children, and all are gathered together at the table.[22]The church is to be a place of nurture for young people because it is a place of discipleship: “[the church] calls people to conversion, but it depicts that conversion as a long process of being baptismally engrafted into a new people, an alternative polis, the countercultural social structure which is called church.”[23]

A thriving youth ministry, then, with the theological framework of Eucharist Ecclesiology, is one in which young people are nurtured in the wider church community, in which they are included and made to feel like they belong, and that their participation in the Eucharist is framed for them in such a way that they feel their story is given wider significance in the story God has been up to throughout history. They are called to be new creations in Christ, changed by the bread and wine they consume so that they become more and more like Christ.

In Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon tell the story of trying to make confirmation in their church about discipling their young people to resemble an ordinary person who lived their life in an extraordinarily Christian way. They decided the best way to do confirmation was to connect each youth with a mentor in the church and participate in various activities: reading the Gospel of Luke and discussing it together, attending and discussing Sunday services together, even assessing the church budget and their own financial contribution to the church. This would go on for a few months, and when the Sunday of confirmation arrived, the mentor would tell the church what the young disciple was bringing as a contribution to the church community, and the young disciple would thank the congregation for a gift they had provided (sermon, basketball team, Sunday School teacher), that helped his or her growth as a disciple.[24]

This story illustrates that a thriving youth ministry is one in which every youth feels connected to the church community in some way, and one way to do this would be to include young people in communion services with the adults. Whether the youth are actually feeling unified in actuality during these services might be hard to assess, but at least the participation in the mystery of the Eucharist bestows grace even when a youth pastor, or the youth themselves, are unaware of it.

Perhaps even more important than participation in Eucharist with adults would be assessing whether sacramental permeability had occurred: if participating in the Eucharistic meal bled over into the youth’s ethical decisions and everyday life. For instance, Hauerwas and Willimon go on to tell the story of Max, a fourteen year old who was paired up with mentor Joe, a twenty-four year old. It turns out Joe was sleeping with his girlfriend, and Max, dropping by unannounced, discovered that fact and held Joe accountable.[25] Because of the equalizing nature of the Eucharist, young people should feel confident in challenging their brothers and sisters in Christ, when appropriate. The pastor intervened in the situation, and “Eventually, the pastor got Joe and Max back together, but not before Joe had been given the opportunity to reexamine his life in light of the claims of the gospel as it met him in a fourteen year old named Max.”[26]

The purpose of youth ministry, with the framework of Eucharistic Ecclesiology, to disciple and engraft young people into the church community, primarily through the Eucharistic meal which allows them to be re-membered into the body of Christ by remembering Christ’s narrative and situating their own narrative in the larger story. Although I did not discuss baptism much in this paper, the two sacraments go together  purposefully. Baptism can be understood as the event where a resident alien, or resident of another country, makes the transfer of citizenship (except unlike when it is done in geographic countries, there is no test to prove they belong there: the grace is bestowed on them, and it becomes clear that this was their home all along). There is a common phrase, blood is thicker than water, to illustrate that families should stick together no matter what. What baptism and the Eucharist teach us is that, “Water is thicker than baptism.” Baptism and the Eucharist re-draw family lines and allegiances so that our ultimate allegiance is to the Body of Christ.

Being engrafted into the Body of Christ is a process, even for those who have received infant baptism. Young people should be nurtured into their faith identity, and because they have a lot to learn, young people should be the primary learners. However, like the story of Max and Joe illustrates, because of the equalizing nature of the Eucharist, we are open to wisdom that young people might bring to the lives of adults as well. I imagine most youth services would not do communion every week (although they certainly could). Instead the content of most youth group gatherings would have the understanding that any teachings that were taught could have their embodiment in the Eucharist in some way, or at least would paint a picture that the theoretical teachings done three times a month were an extension and supplement to what they were learning liturgically in the act of taking communion. Our bodily habits tend to tell us more about what we believe then the theoretical worldview we are able to recite. Youth should learn about reconciliation and peacemaking in sermons inspired by Scripture, but they can also learn it through the Eucharist itself perhaps even more vividly as they see it and taste it and smell it.

If the culture of a church is not already pretty inclusive of young people into the wider church service, youth ministers might have some difficulty changing the environment. Older people sometimes tend to have a bit of fear or discomfort around young people, and both groups assume the other does not want them around. The only way to get rid of these prejudices is slowly, over time, taking communion together and perhaps having young people meet one on one with adult mentors. When faced with the humanity of the other, whether the “other” is a youth or an adult, will help individuals extend their understanding of humanity to the wider group.  The youth minister should have confidence that Christ is already involved in the lives of the congregation, and will be active in mediating the relationships.

As I mentioned, it might be hard to assess this sort of approach. I think the best way to evaluate is often already done by many churches (although perhaps in a somewhat compulsory way). I grew up in a church that every September would have a “back to school service” where we would sing songs and do skits according to our age range. Similarly every June we would hear from a couple graduating seniors about their faith. I think giving the opportunity of testimony on a regular basis allows people to see the work that God is doing in their relationships, and gives individuals a chance to reflect on their own relationship to the larger church community.

Eucharistic ecclesiology is ultimately a good theological starting point because it speaks (both theoretically and liturgically) to young people where they are, developmentally and culturally, as it allows them to remember their story in light of God’s overall story, as well as re-membering them into a community of belonging.

Works Cited

Berard, John, James Penner and Rick Bartlett. Consuming Youth: Leading Teens through Consumer Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

Bieler, Andrea and, and Luise Schottroff. The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

—–  Torture and Eucharist. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know that Something is Wrong. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Root, Andrew. Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Vanier, Jean. Community and Growth. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989.

Zirschky, D. Andrew. “Formative Memories: The Neuroscience of Adolescent Memory and a Practical Theological Perspective for Youth Ministry.” Kindle booklet.

[1] Andrew Root, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 10.

[2] John Berard, James Penner and Rick Bartlett, Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 28-29.

[3] Ibid, 65.

[4] Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection, (Minneapolis, MN:Fortress Press, 2007), p.158.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The miracle of manna is often seen as a precursor to the Eucharistic meal to highlight God’s constant care and providence in our lives.

[7] Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, p.168.

[8] When I say suffering of others in Christ’s body I do not just mean professing Christians. Dorothy Day is quoted as saying: “St. Augustine says that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Therefore all men are our neighbors and Christ told us we should love our neighbors, whether they be friend or enemy.”  Quoted in William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 221.

[9] William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 229.

[10] Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 212.

[11] Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist,235.

[12] Kindle book.

[13] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 52.

[14] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 13.

[15] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), xiv.

[16]Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 170.

[17] Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 232.

[18] Berard, Penner, Bartlett, Consuming Youth, 82-3 et al.

[19] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), xi.

[20] Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 232.

[21] Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 5.

[22] Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 54.

[23] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 46.

[24] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 105-7.

[25] Ibid, 108-9.

[26] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 109.


Melody Moezzi Answers My Question This Week!

I’m honored that author Melody Moezzi, whose most recent book is called Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, answered my question this week on her web series, A Saner Spin on Crazy. She is coming to Princeton Public Library on October 10, which I am very excited about. The short answer to this question: No- never use them. I should have added to my question by asking her what good alternatives would be, especially if a person is being violent toward themselves or others. She also has some good info about NAMI and the “Keeping All Students Safe” act.

Prison Links from 6/4/14; And What Do We Do About It?

NPR’s Fresh Air on the book Burning Down the House

The 40 minute program is worth listening to. If you just have time to read the article, however, here is a highlight:

The American rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain, and 18 times that of France. It costs, on average, $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up — far more than the U.S. spends on a child’s education….
he described his humanity draining out of him as he listened to the guards banter and tell jokes and just pass the time, as if these were something other than suffering human beings on the floor in front of them. ….
There is a movement towards treatment inside juvenile facilities, and I sat in on some of these groups, these therapeutic modalities … and what the kids would tell me was, “I’m supposed to open my heart in group and put my deepest traumas on the table, but the guy leading the group has the key to my cell.” So right there you have a conundrum.

NPR’s All Things Considered on Aging Inmates and returning citizens:

This is just 12 minutes long. As my husband says, it’s always about the money, and the incarcerated elderly (and incarcerated youth– see above) are costing taxpayers a lot of money:

There are more men like them growing old in the nation’s prisons than at any time in U.S. history. It’s the result of longer sentences and the elimination of parole. And the price tag is showing. It costs taxpayers $16 billion a year to house aging inmates, with their health care and special needs.

Laughing in Prison:

How do we make sense of laughter?  We all know its liberating power, but we also know its debilitating sting. On the one hand, laughter has the cumulative strength to tear down seemingly, immovable walls. On the other, it may be the last recourse for sanity, when those walls encroach upon us and overwhelm us.  How then, can laughter be both generative—a force for life and power—and protective—a last and often weak defense against the hells of our world?

I’m quite a fan of Orange is the New Black. We can’t care about things that we aren’t exposed to, and pretty much everyone consumes entertainment, of whom I am primarily talking about myself here. It is dramatized, of course, but many of the issues raised in the show are right on. This article highlights recidivism (the difficulty of being a returning citizen/ re-entry), mental health, pregnancy in prison (i.e., being shackled to the bed while giving birth, if that experience isn’t hard enough), and the experience of transfolk in prison (having a transperson playing a transperson– what craziness is this!? lol; see this).

I will say, as I’m listening to the Fresh Air story in which she talks about PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act), any sexual encounter in which someone with power has sex with someone who is vulnerable, is inappropriate. So the “sweet” relationship between Daya and Bennett in the first season was misleading, at best. It looks like they might address this directly in season 2; the cast members all say the show gets “deeper” so I hope that’s what they mean.

This is kind of the odd link out, but if you ever saw the movie Blow with Johnny Depp (2001), the drug dealer the movie is based off of, George Jung, just was released from prison today in Jersey at 71 years old. NPR’s going to be doing another story tomorrow about aging inmates being released, so I’ll probably do another post if I think it’s worth listening to.

Finally, I want to end with a wonderful article by a friend and mentor Katie Mulligan: Justice: On Being Useful. She writes about how to be activists in the world around us. I’ve been posting a lot of prison articles, and it may seem like it isn’t much, but reading these stories and trying to empathize with this population is a first step toward activism. For myself, I’m trying to discern if there is something in the air with this issue– clearly it seems like a topic a lot of people are thinking and writing about right now, considering how many articles are coming in every day, from big news sources too. And considering people in America care about money, as taxpayers it seems ridiculous to liberals and conservatives alike we would be paying so much money to incarcerate people when that money could pay their college tuition,or some other program that would cost less money. If alternate programs could be imagined where less money was coming out of taxpayers pockets, I imagine Americans would support prison reform for that reason.

Now I’m not a political or legal guru who can imagine these things. But if I hope that the forces who are involved in those systems might begin to come up with alternative solutions that I can be an activist for. But until then, I will continue to read, hear these stories, and pray for change.


Consolidation of Links: Education in Prison, PCUSA General Assembly and Detroit, Why You Hate Work, Newlyweds, Esther Earl, Mental Health

Prisons turning inmates into intellectuals:

For far too long we have thought about prison education almost exclusively in terms of the reduced recidivism it produces, which study after study has shown to be evident. But in some sense this is an inadequate metric and paradigm, neglecting the kinds of economic and social opportunities that are and should be available to prisoners who pursue and complete higher learning. As Ms. Dreisinger put it, “These guys reoffending is really the last thing I’m worried about.”

PC(USA) General Assembly in Detroit this year:

It’s another General Assembly. Another series of committee reports and study papers. Another gathering of good-hearted folks who lift up various problems to the Lord and then go home, often to the safety of their suburbs.

Except for the General Assembly locale, nothing much seems to change.

At least that’s the way it seems when you’re the only full-time black Presbyterian pastor in Detroit.

Last year, Forbes magazine named Detroit “America’s Most Miserable City,” a distinction that no doubt reflects the fact that 38.1 percent of all Detroit families and 50.4 percent of all children in the city live below the poverty line. The overall death rate for children through age 18 is 120 per 100,000—more than six times the state average of 18 per 100,000. National media outlets have chronicled the city’s $18 billion debt and its plans to emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

But city leaders alone can’t solve the city’s problems, says Detroit’s new mayor, Mike Duggan. He says solutions must involve partnerships with Detroit’s religious communities.

Whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will serve as one of those partners remains an open question.

NYT Article: “Why You Hate Work“:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

Prayer for Newlyweds:

Although I didn’t agree with everything this article said, I did appreciate these sentiments.

So, I’m staring at the groom’s face, to see his reaction when he catches the first glimpse of his bride in all her beauty and then again when they lock eyes, knowing that this is the moment when their whole lives change.

It’s this moment when you can see all anticipation, all love, all excitement, all fears, anxieties, and “am I enough?s” in the groom’s eyes, and you know that his bride has equivalent emotions running through hers, sometimes even in the form of tears.

I don’t have to imagine the excitement, joy, weight, and anxiety that this new commitment entails– I felt it on my wedding day and I feel it every time I’m at a wedding. It’s something that you don’t easily forget, especially when you take marriage as seriously as it is meant to be taken. Yet I don’t pretend to know these couples’ stories or how they came to this decision, or how it will effect them and shape them as a unit in the time to come. What I do know is that these newlyweds will need prayer. A lot of prayer.

As you prepare for the film’s release this week, Esther Earl, inspiration for John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, wrote a letter to her future self: 

remember how you always wanted to do something for the world? remember that? if you haven’t done something amazing, don’t forget to try. the worst that can happen is you fail, and then you can just try again until you succeed. those words don’t work on me now, but just try to remember them.

Public Figures with Mental Health Concerns Around Anxiety:

No matter which way you look at it, there’s a stigma that’s attached to emotional and mental health issues — particularly when it comes to anxiety disorders. And even though the condition affects nearly 40 million American adults, including those public figures who appear so cool under pressure, there still can be a barrier when it comes to understanding what it’s like to suffer from chronic fear and stress. In order to gain that understanding our culture needs — and to realize that suffering from anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating — below find 11 incredible public figures who will make you rethink what you know about anxiety and panic disorders.

I’m trying to learn more about conversations surrounding mental health in preparation for my summer internship at a Psychiatric Hospital. I just read a wonderful book by Melody Moezzi, and I’m going to devote a whole post to the review. But in the meantime, she has an entertaining web series called “A Saner Spin on Crazy.” Here is Episode 5, where she addresses the question of what to tell people when you’ve been hospitalized for mental illness:


Prisons in the News (and on my Facebook feed) this Week

I’m not sure if I didn’t notice all the prison related news before I did my prison internship last summer, or if it is a topic being brought to the public’s attention in a new way at the moment. I thought I’d consolidate some links, highlighting quotes and providing a few words of commentary. 

Rikers Island Deaths: 

“No inmate should be treated that way, especially those with mental health needs. The city has to do more to protect them,” City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley said Thursday. “A lot of people who are in Rikers Island should be in a hospital, in a clinical setting, not in a jail.”

In February, an inmate death was in the news: Herome Murdough, 56, a former marine suffering from bipolar and schizophrenia, died when his cell heated to 101 degrees due to a heating system malfunction; his psychiatric meds made him more sensitive to the heat. 

In September, Bradley Ballard, 39, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was in solitary confinement for seven days after makiing a lewd gesture at a female guard. He was denied medication, and agitatedly tied a rubber band around his genitals and clogged his toilet so it was overflowing. Guards peered through the window, but did not do more than that until he was found naked and unresponsive on the floor, his genitals swollen and infected, covered in feces. He died at the hospital a few hours later. 

“He didn’t have to leave this world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment,” Ballard’s mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, said from her Houston, Texas, home. “He was a caring young man.”

According to this article, about 40% of the 12,000 inmates at Rikers are mentally ill. Because of the bad press, officials are promising reforms. But my question is whether this is a systemic issue of prisons in general. To follow up on that, let’s turn to a European example: 

Bastøy Prison in Norway

This clip is actually from Michael Moore’s film “Sicko,” which came out in 2007.  The prison has about 115 inmates and 69 staff, only 5 of whom stay on the island overnight. Recidivism rates are quite low. The whole model is based off of respect for the prisoners, and treating them like human beings, teaching them responsibility so they can be good citizens. In the U.S., our culture cares more about punishment than rehabilitation, clearly. For instance, in the clip they talk about a man convicted of murdering two people by cutting them up with a chainsaw. During the last four years of his sentence, he went to this prison on the island, and his job was to work in the forest… with a chain saw. The warden says, most people would think a person like that would need to be locked up– but they are showing that is not necessarily the case. (Thanks to Kathleen Meisner for this link!) 

Another prison that came up when I was searching is called Halden Prison. This is a newer prison, just opening in 2010. It has a capacity of 252 people. Rehabilitation is done by giving inmates access to amenities, having unbarred vertical windows that let in more light (So important!), jogging trails, sound studio, and cooking and music classes. Not to mention, “…guards are typically unarmed because guns ‘[create] unnecessary intimidation and social distance.'”  There is a focus on “human rights and respect” in the Norwegian Prison system. The U.S. wanted an American citizen to be extradited back to the U.S., but Norway declared most US prisons do not meet the minimum humanitarian standards

For every 100,000 people in Norway, there are 71 prisoners, which ranks 175th in the world (The Netherlands and Ghana both have 53, ranking at 196, and many African countries have 30 or less). The United States  ranks number one with 716 prisoners per 100,000 people. That means the U.S. has about 10 times the number of prisoners per capita as Norway. Also, this high prison population does not seem to deter crime; Norway has a much lower recidivism rate and has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. 

Despite having the highest percent of our population in prison in the world with about 2.2 million people, inmates are often forgotten, even by churches. Take a look at the next two articles:

West Virginia Jail: 

In January, 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked into a West Virginia watershed, which has a whole host of environmental concerns of course. But this article brings up that in all the coverage of this disaster, hardly anyone commented on how this would affect the 429 prisoners, and the one that did had glowing reports. This article, however, based on interviews with current and former inmates and their family members, tells a different story. The jail went back to using tap water about 8 days after the spill, and prisoners report suffering various health problems because of exposure to chemicals present in the water supply. They also did not get nearly enough bottled water. 

Inmates said they had a choice: They could drink the sweet-tasting water that might make them sick. Or they could deal with the inevitable drain of severe dehydration.

And a quote from one of the officers: 

“They’re criminals and they’re the worst of the worst, yes, but they’re people and at the same time,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to his current position in West Virginia law enforcement. “It’s the state’s responsibility to take care of those people. That doesn’t mean you give them hugs, it just means you make sure their basic needs are met. Water is one of them.”

Regarding that, however, the article mentions that many inmates have yet to be tried or are being detained for minor offenses. Because our culture is so forgetful or disdainful toward the incarcerated population, however, whole systems and the people that work in them are able to get away with denying basic rights to this vulnerable population, completely at the mercy of the state.

Many West Virginians are left fearing what health problems might arise decades down the road. But inmates might be at even bigger risk. “They’ve had a more extreme exposure than the typical West Virginia American Water customer,” said lawyer Kevin Thompson, who is representing affected West Virginians in a class-action lawsuit. “The typical customer had the power of freedom. They didn’t have to drink the water, they didn’t have to stay, they didn’t have to take showers.”

Can you have church without prison ministry?

The church is called to care for the most vulnerable among us.  Hear the thoughts of Zach at theamericanjesus.net below:

Which is why I think it’s so strange that prison ministry isn’t just an assumed part of the life of the church. I mean, when it comes to our Matthew 25 calling – I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you take care of me? I was in prison, did you come and visit me? – we’ve usually got all of those ministries down, no problem……except for the last one. We’ll raise thousands of dollars, use up our vacation days, and travel halfway around the world on a mission trip, but drive a few minutes down the road at virtually no cost to spend a few hours visiting folks in prison? 

Zack also writes about the reasons why more people do not get involved in prison ministries:

First, in my own experience, it seems that the primary reason few people at our churches are involved in prison ministry is fairly obvious – prisons are scary and we’d rather not go to there, like ever. Combine this the logistical challenges of working in or just visiting a prison and you’ve got a recipe for church folks never visiting prison folks.

But more than just being scary places, I think we ignore our call to prison ministry because unlike our caricature of the noble poor person, prisoners, we assume, are getting what they deserve. Maybe so. I’m not implying whatsoever that pedophiles, murderers, rapists, and the like don’t deserve to be in prison. But for us church folks, for a people who celebrate and talk about grace so much, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that we refuse to extend grace to some because they don’t deserve it?

I can concur about the logistical struggle of getting into prisons. Last summer when I interned, it was easiest because it was my full time job, I had the time and energy to fight the bureaucratic red tape of being allowed access. The past few weeks since school has gotten out, I have tried to visit the prison and been unsuccessful for various reasons. However, when I interned, most volunteers were retired folks who had the time to go. For the PCUSA, in particular, where the median age is 61, I think more work should be done by pastors to be an advocate for their retired congregants to volunteer in prisons. Too many of the programs that are already existing are from evangelicals who just want to convert the prisoners and make them Christians so that they tally up their heaven-bound count. PCUSA and reformed theology has a more robust theology of the body, and cares about the social situation that inmates face. Volunteers will see the prisons first-hand (esecially important since I probably wouldn’t recommend Netflix’s Orange is the New Black to most of the elderly people I know), and in so doing, would have a passion for trying to advocate on behalf of these populations. You can’t care about what you don’t know. 

If you’re still tentative about visiting a prison or jail, here are some documentaries that you could watch in the meantime: 

  • Prison State which appeared on Frontline, for an overview of incarceration in the US
  • Into the Abyss on Netflix
  • Orange is the New Black also is worth watching, but be prepared for sexual content. Also, certain things are certainly dramatized. You can read the book, but I do appreciate how the show highlights other characters’ perspectives. The Regina Spektor song and intro alone are worth watching: 

Think of all the roads
Think of all their crossings
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard
Remember all their faces
Remember all their voices… 

From Melech Thomas

The War on Drugs is really a War on Thugs. It is not interested in a drug-free society. It wants a nigger-free society. Drug abuse is not a criminal issue as much as it is a public health issue. The only reason why drug use is so “criminal” in the eyes of the American “justice” system is because of the billions of dollars that are made by putting undesirable Black bodies in prison beds. Drugs HAVE BEEN and CONTINUE to be destructive in the Black community and the folk who brought drugs into our communities should be arrested, but Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are dead, and Oliver North is hosting shows on Fox News. #DismantleThePrisonIndustry#StopTheNewJimCrow

About the New Jim Crow- an oldie from NPR on Michelle Alexander’s book (one of the ten must-read books of the last decade according to my friend Chris Smith in his article for Relevant). 

The Case for ReparationsHere is a clip about the article that was published by The Atlantic: 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow. Race and incarceration are definitely related, so it’s important to talk about racism. 

And lastly, Shane Claiborne on the death penalty being brought back to Tennessee: 

I made a comment on Facebook that I hoped Claiborne didn’t read the comments on this post, since they are quite heated, and illustrate the obstacles to overcome if we are going to change the culture of punishment in the U.S. 

I don’t think there is any good way to kill someone, but there is definitely an evil way – and electrocuting someone to death is evil. No one speaks with more credibility than former executioner Ron McAndrew who describes what it is like to smell someone as they die by electrocution, and to watch someone’s head smoke as they die. I cannot believe that we are actually considering the electric chair a viable form of “justice” in the United States in 2014. We have much work to do.

I will continue to pray for Gov. Bill Haslam, with tears coming down my cheeks, and I hope you do too. I will continue to pray for the victims’ families, and for those who have created victims by committing violence. And I will continue to pray for the men I met a few weeks ago on TN’s death row who face execution and who have invited Gov. Haslam to visit them and pray with them. One of them is writing a book with his victim’s family, a book on forgiveness.

We don’t want to react impulsively, but consider this…
Maybe it is time for people of faith and conscience to start going to jail in TN – for nonviolent demonstrations against the 10 executions that are scheduled. I’m sure considering a few trips to TN this year, and I hope you will too (the first execution is scheduled for October). 

As I am writing this book on the death penalty, I am continually inspired by folks around the country (and world) who are tirelessly organizing for alternatives to execution — so demonstrations against executions happen all the time. But perhaps it is time for lots of us to join the great abolitionists already at work in Tennessee. Perhaps we should all consider laying our bodies in the way of the electric chair to stop such a horrific glorification of death. I really do think we will look back a generation from now, as we look back at slavery, and wonder — how did we possibly think that was okay? 

There’s a verse in the Bible that says: “Do not repay evil with evil… overcome evil with good” (Romans 12). In the case of the electric chair — we see a “cure” that is far from good… it is as bad as the disease. 

Please consider how you might act. I will too.

“All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” — Edmund Burke

Consolidation of What’s Been Going On This Week (4/25- 5/1)

So, I have been posting a lot of things on Facebook lately. As my friend Daniel Camacho has said, Facebook is a place that tempts both the vices of vainglory (pride) and envy, in particular. It is true, every time I see one of my friends post pictures of flowers their husbands gave them that day, I instantly want my own flowers.  And if I post something, I desire for it to get a lot of likes, and I judge its value on how popular it is, and if it does get lots of likes, I swell with pride that something I did was popular.

But I have come to see social media as incredibly useful at the same time, for exposing me to things I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, and I hope that for my friends as well. So when I post things, it is almost as an extension of my identity that likes to teach, and watch people’s faces light up when something clicks with them.

With that said, I don’t want to inundate people’s feeds with lots of things. And, some things are more important than others that I post, but they might get lost since I’m posting other things multiple times a day. There are also a number of different themes the links I post tend to be about. So, for the sake of potentially getting people to see my posts without inundating them, and being able to organize them by level of importance, I think I am going to do a blog post every day or two where I consolidate the different links I’m coming across. Rachel Held Evans does this, and I know I’m nowhere near where she is in terms of viewership, I think her model is potentially a good one. So we’ll see how this goes!

So I’ll go ahead and do posts from the last week that I did put on Facebook, but from here on out they should just show up on here.


Prison/Death Penalty

From Shane Claiborne (5/1):

Just got off the phone with Ron McAndrew, one of the most credible voices on execution and the electric chair. He supervised a botched execution where Pedro Medina caught on fire. We talked about faith, moonshine, and his journey from executioner to abolitionist.Read more about him: http://www.ronmcandrew.com/
Photo: Just got off the phone with Ron McAndrew, one of the most credible voices on execution and the electric chair.  He supervised a botched execution where Pedro Medina caught on fire.  We talked about faith, moonshine, and his journey from executioner to abolitionist. </p><br /><br /><br />
<p>Read more about him:  http://www.ronmcandrew.com
executions in us
“Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again.”
cross electric chair
4/21 from the Huffington Post:
I’m so lucky to have met this young man, Nyle Fort. He got asked to write an article for The Guardian, and he KILLED IT.
“Black has always been beautiful, way before neoliberalism enabled whiteness to say so, centuries before Hollywood recognized its economic potential, and histories before People and Marie Claire magazines put Lupita Nyong’o on their covers. While Lupita’s beauty is consumed the world over, whatever hope was left for affirmative action has been “eaten” by the judicial jaws of an unjust supreme court and immorally digested by an utterly unbeautiful country.
And black people, as always, are left to clean up the shit that drops from the imperial anus of white corporate America into the ghettoized toilets of terror – of stop-and-frisk and police brutality, of underfunded schoolsand overcrowded jails – that marks much of black life in the US.”


 Both of these clips are… concerning, to say the least. Sacrament of baptism equated with waterboarding… and guns are the answer to every social problem imaginable, therefore they should be allowed to be carried everywhere– including churches, classrooms, and airports…
Sexual Assault:
College and Universities can no longer turn a blind eye and pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” Biden said before playing the PSA. “I understand that the good guys in the report, they may feel like they’re damaging the reputations of their schools, I get it. But it doesn’t matter.”
From the first moment I called myself queer, I have never wanted to rebury that truth. But I still resent the structures and cultural pressures that made it so hard for me to figure it out, that make it so hard for so many of us to hear our pulses.” 
Gang Violence: 
She is a “violence interrupter.” So awesome.
Jars of Clay Fiasco: 
“Over the past few days, Christian band Jars Of Clay’s front-man accidentally stoked the flames of what now appears will ultimately be an Evangelical civil war. The backlash has been nasty, and outright misleading. Here’s the full scoop, plus why you’re no longer allowed to believe in the separation of church and state and still be an Evangelical in good standing.”
Benjamin L. Corey
And some shameless self-promotion- a book review I did for Englewood Review of Books:
Next, some shameless plugs for my friend and teacher Christian Amondson, whose new project is called
Syndicate TheologyHere’s how the website describes it:
Syndicate provides a new forum for theological discourse. Modeled upon conference symposium, these dialogues focus on particular books and provide substantial critical engagement from a group of scholars whose interest intersect upon the book being featured. These forums are intended to provide significant attention and space for ongoing dialogue between these participants, and ultimately the theological guild at large. We hope that the conversations of Syndicate will serve to revive the original aim of theological publication, which was to promote the common cause of theological study within the nexus of robust discourse while at the same time drawing critical attention to important publications in theology.
Basically, it’s top-notch scholarship on interesting books, that feels like a never-ending conference where you are watching a panel discuss the book. You can submit questions for the panel via Facebook. The page launches May 12, so I encourage you to like them on Facebook and subscribe via email.
cavanaugh syndicate

I’ve also posted a lot of are from a book series I’ve read by Julia Spencer-Fleming. These books have been both incredibly life-giving, and actually narratively informative and educational on how to be a woman pastor. The main character, Claire Furgusson, is an Episcopalian priest. A very human, flawed woman, but sincere in her desire to serve God and her town. So here are quotes I’ve been facebooking from that series:

Julia Spencer-Fleming

[While doing a Eucharist home-visit for an elderly woman]:
“Mrs. Johnson looked at her. … ‘You know what pleases me?’ Clare shook her head. ‘That the last priest to tend to me on this earth is a woman… For most of my life, women couldn’t serve on the vestry. Couldn’t be in Holy Orders. Couldn’t sit in convention and vote with the men. … I knew this,’ Mrs. Johnson breathed. Her eyes closed. ‘I knew we were good for more than ironing the altar cloths and holding bake sales.'”
 Out of the Deep I Cry, p.220
“I’m not so sure I’m really cut out for parish life. Doing good is one thing. Being good is a lot harder. “
Out of the Deep I Cry, p.242.
darkness and to death[While discussing a missing girl with the girl’s brother]:
” ‘She is seeing someone from town,’ van der Hoeven said slowly. ‘Romantically, I mean. At least, that’s what she told me. I have to say, that’s unusual for her. She doesn’t have much of a track record with men.’
‘Maybe she prefers women,’ Clare said, her face bland.
Eugene dropped the coy sideways glance and stared her straight in the face. ‘Certainly not.’ Russ could see him reassessing the priest in light of her scandalous statement.”
To Darkness and to Death, p. 57.
“I used to believe the three legs supporting the Episcopal Church were scripture, reason and tradition. That was before I became a priest. Now I know the three legs are really get ’em in, get ’em back, and get their pledges.”
To Darkness and to Death, p.177.
“This, she thought, is the real reason for celibacy. She had no husband, no children, not even a dog or a tropical fish relying on her, yet she still felt as if she had half the weight of the world in her lap. She tried to imagine what it would be like, dragging home all the concerns and issues of people who needed her as a priest, only to deal with the people who needed her as a spouse and parent. She could remember how exhausted her mother had always looked at the end of the day, riding herd over two high-energy girls and twin boys. And she didn’t have an outside job. How had she done it? How did any women do it?”
To Darkness and to Death, p.190
“The deacon set down her china cup. ‘… it gives me a sensitivity toward– a reverence for the role of priest that will help me help you.’
Several alarm bells went off in Clare’s head. ‘Uh, just so you know, I’m not really comfortable with the whole reverence thing. Ordination didn’t suddenly make me a better and nicer person.’
Elizabeth smiled indulgently. ‘You remind me of some of the first-time parents I used to meet when I was teaching. They often felt insecure about using their natural authority with their kids. Accepting where you are in the hierarchy takes time and experience. … You don’t feel you have any problems establishing your control over your parish?’
Control. Good God. ‘Leadership isn’t a matter of control,’ Clare said. ‘Leadership is infusing the people around you with trust and confidence and expectations, so that when you move in one direction, they follow.’ “
All Mortal Flesh, p.40-41. 
And two brand new ones, which hadn’t made it on the Facebook wall yet: 
[After the death of his wife]:
“When are you going to give me the talk about God?” he asked.
“Which one?”
“You’re a priest. Aren’t you supposed to be comforting me? Telling me about heaven and all that?”
“What do you think heaven is?”
“I don’t believe in it.” Christ, he sounded like a five-year-old. A five-year-old who needed a nap.
“Then don’t worry about it. Whatever happens, happens. It’s the one thing we’re all going to get to learn firsthand, eventually.”
“But… doesn’t it all seem like such a waste?”
She turned toward the police station, thumping over the depression in the sidewalk into the lot. She put the car in park and turned toward him.
“Nothing is a waste. You don’t have to believe in heaven to believe that.” She took his hand again. “All the good things Linda did in her life, all the people she touched, all the work she did, all that lives on. Her life had value. It had weight and meaning. She affected the world around her in ways you will never, ever even know about.”
He sat with that a moment. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I can believe in that.”
She smiled, a little. “Humanist.” She leaned back and unlocked the doors.
All Mortal Flesh, p.80.
[A committee meeting discussing a scandal between her and the police chief]:
“Clare didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Her defenders. ‘There is no illicit sex. There is no murder. There is no story.’ She got to her feet. ‘I’m not a dreamy-eyed girl in the throes of her first love. I knew I couldn’t have Russ Van Alstyne. I made a choice. I chose my congregation and my position as your pastor. If you can’t appreciate that and support me now when I need you, then to hell with you.’
The meeting broke up very shortly afterward. …
‘I couldn’t help but overhear…’
‘Go home, Elizabeth.’ Clare sounded rude and didn’t care. ‘I’m talked out for the night. Go home to whoever it is that loves you and thank God for your blessings. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ “
All Mortal Flesh, 107-8.

I’ll end today with a shoutout to a fellow seminarian who has beautiful work she’s producing. Perfect option for Mother’s day! She does custom work, too! https://www.etsy.com/shop/inkandparchmentpress

happily ever after

Final Reflections on My Prison Internship

At my next job interview, I wonder if my resume is going to be looked at with some confusion. “Wait… you worked for ten weeks in a prison… AND as a children’s librarian? At the same time?” Even though my internship only ended a few weeks ago, sometimes I can’t believe it either. It seems like another world, another person, had all those difficult experiences and did all those hard things.

Like going to a woman’s door, knocking on the window to see if she wants prayer, and then realizing the reason she’s not getting up is because she’s on the toilet. The overwhelming feelings of shame and embarrassment for her.

Or meeting with a woman week after week whose health is deteriorating… and that even though she is eligible to go live in a halfway house, the prison would provide better health care. So she’s forced to stay for the sake of her physical health, at the expense of her emotional and mental health. The feelings of uselessness and futility… that nothing I do matters.

Being surrounded by men (and women) in blue uniforms, where your clothes give you all the power. Knowing that were circumstances different, some of the women in khaki could have been in blue, and vice verse.

One reason it feels like this was a whole life time ago is because I became completely invested in my time there. So to go from complete inundation in that culture to no contact with it whatsoever… that has been hard. Because even if I’m hanging out with my librarian co-workers or my friends, and they say something that makes me want to add a tidbit of information about the prison atmosphere… people don’t know how to respond to that information.  Even if they are curious and want to know more, they don’t know the right questions to ask. So I’ll wind up offering a little tidbit, to which I get a lot of sad faces, and then silence. Until someone changes the subject.

When I tell people for the first time that my summer internship was working in a women’s prison, their eyebrows go up. “Oh!” they say.  “How was that?” One of these times, I’m going to say, “How do you think it was???” What I wind up answering is, “Good, but hard.” It was good- I learned things about myself and my gifts, and I think I was affirmed in my pastoral gifts. But it was hard that the system is so unbending and unchanging…. and as a person who likes to fix things, the fact that I couldn’t make any progress at making that environment even a little better on an institutional level… is so disheartening. Every other internship I’ve had, I’ve felt like my input and fresh eyes were seen as an asset. Not in this particular environment. Anything new or different is met with suspicion, as a possible security risk. So if change happens, it happens very slowly, over a long period of time. And I don’t think I would have it in me to stick it out that long.

Instead, I have to focus on the individuals I met, and try to convince myself that to those individuals, I did make a difference. I brought them a few weeks of good theology. I hopefully communicated my empathy… and gave them hope that they can keep living each and every day. I saw and heard them… they were seen and heard by me, but more importantly, God sees and hears them always.

I must admit, I take some pride in people’s perception of me when their eyebrows go up and they say, “Oh?!” Immediately I’ve gone from just another random stranger or acquaintance to someone interesting, who would willingly go to a prison for no profound reason other than because it was an option. But I know I should be ashamed of my conceitedness, considering when these women get out and their next job interview looks at their resume, and sees their criminal record.  That will be met with a very different, “Oh.”

Sermon About Joseph

My second sermon this summer was preached in a minimum security prison. In some ways, I liked it less than my first sermon– I didn’t have as much time to prepare the text, and so I wish I had polished off the rough edges. But the conditions were much better. Neither place where I preached had air conditioning, so the first sermon I preached with loud fans blowing around; my microphone seemed loud and ringing in a distracting way (for me at least). This time, it was a cool Sunday morning, with no need for fans, and really no need for a mike. My delivery was slightly different than the text I wrote, much more casual– perhaps too casual, but I hope my moments of vulnerability communicated to the women that we are on the same page. Preaching with, vs. preaching at. So, without further ado, here is the text of the Joseph sermon. I also should say, I know if I ever gave a sermon to fellow Princeton Seminarians, I definitely would not do it in this way. 

It is an honor to be with you today. [Remarks about it being my last week with them.]

A few weeks ago when we were last here, we heard a snapshot of  the story of Jacob and Esau. I went through a few ideas for a sermon text today, but I finally decided on sticking with the theme of stories from Genesis. The verse I want to focus on is Genesis 50, however, the story begins in about chapter 37, so before I read the main verse, I’m going to do my best to summarize. You can follow along and skim if you’d like.

So in Exodus 37 we get introduced to Joseph. You probably recall fragments of the Joseph school from Sunday school or from seeing a movie- you know there’s something important about some multi-colored coat.    Joseph had a complicated family tree. His dad, Jacob,  had twelve sons by four women, so you could imagine relationships among the brothers was a little messy. Joseph’s mother’s name was Rachel, and she was the favorite of his dad’s wives. Rachel only had two sons, Joseph and his younger brother Benjamin, and his mother had died giving birth to Benjamin.

Genesis 37:3 tells us “Israel [also known as Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” Like the Jacob and Esau story, we now how a very tense brotherly relationship, to say the least.

After that, Joseph has a couple dreams, both of them which depicted him as greater than all his other brothers, and even greater than his parents, by having his family members bowing down to him. Perhaps he should have kept this to himself, because if you thought his brothers hated him before, imagine how they felt now. This brother who they all picked on claimed that he was going to be better than all of them? He wasn’t the oldest… so where did he get that crazy notion!

Next in the story, Joseph’s brothers were all out shepherding their flocks, and his dad sends Joseph to see how they are doing. All Joseph says is “Very well,” I’ll do it, but you can imagine what he’s thinking. “Really dad, you want me to go hang out with all my brothers who hate me? Great idea!” But it’s his dad telling him to do it, so he agrees. He asks someone where they are and gets pointed in the right direction. When his brother’s see him coming they say, “Here comes that dreamer!” What a great line! You know they meant it as an insult, but is that such a bad way to be known? What if you were walking down the hall and you heard people say, “Here comes that dreamer!” would you think it was a compliment? What do you think it means to be a dreamer?     I remember a sermon a pastor gave when I was around ten years old, and he chose that phrase as the title of his sermon. He said, this is a way I want to be known. Being a dreamer is about being someone who knows God’s power cannot be limited, and because of that, my dreams are free to be unhindered, because I’m going to have faith in what God will do.

Joseph comes up to his brothers, and this is when things really take a turn for the worst. They strip him of his robe, this robe that symbolizes their father’s love for him, all that made him special—and they threw him in a well. Most likely, they were just messing around with him, and in a few hours they would fish him out—he was still their brother, after all. But, as these things do, it escalated, and some merchants came by. The brothers get it in their heads to sell Joseph as a slave. It was better than killing him, they thought, but still solved the problem of getting rid of him. Joseph is then sold by those merchants to some other merchants, and he gets carted off to Egypt as a slave.

Meanwhile, his brothers take his coat back, and they’ve put some animal blood on it. They bring it to their father, who thinks Joseph is dead.

That takes us to the end of chapter 37. Chapter 38 is a different unrelated story, so we pick back up again in ch. 39. This is another famous Bible story type passage, where we hear Joseph gets sold as a servant into this guy’s house named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife is bored or something, tries to seduce Joseph, fails, then claims Joseph came after her. Once again, an article of clothing gets Joseph into trouble as he shrugs out of his cloak while fleeing the wife. She uses that as proof against him, although we as readers know his innocence. Some of you might know how that goes, being framed and having evidence twisted against you.

Joseph gets thrown in prison despite his innocence. Up to this point, we have not heard what God is up to. But now, finally, we get an explicit statement that shows God has been with Joseph the entire time. 39:20-21 says, “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.” Joseph seems to have the gift of leadership, and the warden recognizes that and utilizes that. But more important than the wardens actions are what this passage tells us about God. God was with him—he did not abandon him. If this happened to me, I might be tempted to say, “God, where are you?! Why did you let these horrible things happen to me?! Why did you let my mother die? Why did you let my brothers hate me and sell me into slavery?” Remember how the brothers almost killed him? Maybe Joseph thinks to himself he would rather be dead than to be suffering this way—in a land far from home, falsely accused… in prison. Perhaps you can resonate with this sentiment. But, the narrator tells us, God is with Joseph, and is helping him prosper, even in less than ideal circumstances.

Once again, Joseph the dreamer now becomes involved with dreams. Two of his prison mates have dreams that he interprets, through God’s help. We don’t know a lot about Joseph’s faith in God, but his ability to interpret dreams correctly seems to indicate he has been working on his relationship with God while in prison, and is close enough with God that he understands what God is up to in his environment.

After he interprets his prisonmates dreams, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt has dreams that need interpreting, and someone remembers Joseph can do that. Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to say there is going to be a famine in the land. 41:38-39 says, “Pharaoh asked his officials, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace…” And just like that, Joseph is no longer a prisoner but is in a position of power. His intimacy with God has been recognized, and God’s gifts to him have been recognized- both the spiritual gift of dream interpretation, but also the practical gift of authority and leadership.

The next few chapters detail his rise to power, and a whole back and forth with his brothers and father. Because of the famine in the land which he foretold, his brothers are forced to try and travel to Egypt to get some food, of which Joseph is in charge of. At this point, it’s been many years, and they don’t even recognize their brother, who has taken an Egyptian wife and speaks the Egyptian language, etc. But after some back and forth, where Joseph has them return home to bring back their brother Benjamin (the only brother by his mother Rachel and therefore his favorite); once all the brothers return, there is a beautiful scene of forgiveness and reconciliation. Remember the story we heard last time, where Jacob and Esau embrace and weep? We see that again here in 45:14-15: “Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them.” It’s pretty remarkable to me that Joseph was able to forgive his brothers for everything they did to him. But ultimately, even when he was telling them his dream of being greater than them, he most likely just wanted them to love him. Finally, after so much hardship- of being beaten, enslaved, imprisoned, and in the midst of a famine- Joseph and his family have reconciliation.

So now that we’ve summarized everything that’s happened to Joseph, we turn to Genesis 50:15-21. Now I am going to read a full passage, so you can turn there and follow along:

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

As the passage says, Joseph’s father has just died. His brothers are worried that their state of forgiveness and reconciliation was perhaps only held together by their father’s presence. Even though Joseph’s father showed favoritism toward Joseph, he did love all his sons in his own way, and so perhaps the brothers picked up on that- that to try and please their dad, Joseph had reconciled with them. When they come to Joseph, they lie to try to protect themselves, coming up with this last command from their father that Joseph needs to forgive them. But in the midst of the lie, the brothers call themselves the “servants of God.” Then they say to Joseph- we are “your slaves.” Now the roles have reversed. Where once Joseph was enslaved, now the brothers are slaves.

Joseph could take advantage of this situation—he has all the power. He could make his brothers suffer, the way he suffered. But he doesn’t. He says, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Joseph has eyes to see that even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of less than ideal circumstances, God is at work, and God can bring about something good and beautiful.

When Joseph was young, never would he have imagined he would be in a foreign country, in Egypt, living far away from home. But instead of pining away after what might have been, Joseph chooses to get on board with what God is doing.

I think it’s important to make the distinction, God is not the one causing the suffering Joseph went through. People made choices that created that suffering. God is sovereign and all powerful, but people have free will to choose to make evil choices and inflict suffering on others and themselves. But what the story of Joseph illustrates to us is that even in the midst of suffering and pain, God can be making the most out of those circumstances.

When I was a child, I lived with my dad and stepmother and her two daughters. I resonate with the Joseph story, because like him I suffered at the hands of my family who wasn’t quite my family- these half-brothers of Joseph hated him for various reasons- and my stepmother seemed to hate me. Not only did she hit me and harm me physically- she told me things that harmed me emotionally- that she wished I was dead; that she could kill me and make it look like an accident. I suffered at her hands, and it got so bad that I had given up hope. I wanted to die- I thought it was the only way out.

But for three days and three nights, I prayed with all that I had in me for God to save me. I was a child, nine years old at the time, and I was vulnerable and powerless. I was down at the bottom of the well, not knowing if I would ever see the light again. God graciously granted my prayers, and created the circumstances for me to get out of that environment.

For many years, despite the fact that I was physically free from the damage my stepmother could do, I was still in bondage to the emotional damage she had done to me.  Was I really worthless like she said? Was I unlovable, only worthy of hate? But, in the midst of whatever turmoil and suffering I have experienced, whether physical or emotional—I cling to these words in Genesis. Others might have intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.  Through these experiences I learned about myself… and I can relate to others who are going through periods of suffering, and try to be a force of comfort to them. 

The Joseph story tells us things about God—it tells you God is present, with us no matter what, even in the midst of suffering. Perhaps especially in the midst of suffering. We know that God’s son Jesus died on the cross for us. This illustrates that our God is a God who suffers, who understands our pain, and overcame it. The Joseph story also gives us a model for how we should act in the midst of suffering. Pharaoh, a man who probably worshiped his own Egyptian gods, could recognize Joseph as someone with the “spirit of God.” Even his brothers, in their hatred of Joseph, refer to him as “that dreamer.” To me, someone who dreams is someone who puts their faith wholeheartedly in God. Even in the midst of suffering and less than ideal circumstances, one can dream of a better reality—not from one’s own power, but through God’s power.

Our dreams can be based on the knowledge that the God we follow has defeated suffering and death completely at the cross of Jesus Christ. In closing, turn with me to Hebrews 13. I have a final few verses to read that to me seem to resonate with the Joseph story:
The chapter opens up- “Keep on loving each other as Christians…. Remember those who are suffering…” then v. 5-7-

“For God has said, ‘I will never leave you; I will never abandon you.’ Let us be bold then and say, ‘The Lord is my helper- I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ Remember your former leaders who spoke God’s message to you. Think back on how they lived and died, and imitate their faith.”

Let us today remember the story of a leader in the faith, Joseph, who in the midst of suffering, trusted and dreamed that God would prevail. Let us remember, God is always present with us, sustaining us, bring forth goodness and beauty from what others intended for evil and harm. 


May the Church Continue the Conversation on Race

Sorry this is a long post. I appreciate it if you read to the end, and look at the hyperlinks that are embedded.

Yesterday, I got pulled into someone’s racism.

I was working my job at the Princeton Public Library, on the children’s floor, when a Caucasian woman approached me, baby on her hip. “I need to tell you something,” she said. That’s not usually how conversations go while I’m working; usually people are asking me a question or something so I immediately gave her my full attention.

“There’s this man who has been wandering the floor; it doesn’t look like he has any children.”

“Oh, is he making you and your child uncomfortable?” I responded.

“No, it’s not that… I think I just saw him take something out of a stroller.”

“Oh! What did he look like?”

“He’s Hispanic, has on a striped shirt and baseball cap. He just got on the elevator.”

I immediately knew who she was talking about. I had seen the man come in, and he did look a little out of place since he didn’t have a child. Another patron was trying to assist him, telling him the reference section was on the second floor, but the man waved him away, and didn’t quite seem to understand.  They had come up in the elevator together, so I assumed a little communication had occurred, so I didn’t try to intervene. I wasn’t going to assume an adult male alone on the children’s floor was an immediate threat. But now, this woman’s comments made me feel like I needed to address the situation.

I asked the woman if the stroller was hers, and she said it wasn’t, but I knew if he had taken something we should try and stop him from leaving the building. I radioed the security guard, but he wasn’t responding, so I just decided to head down the stairs myself and hopefully run into security on the first floor. I did, and I told him what was happening as I kept my eyes on the elevator.  The elevator opened and the man wasn’t on it, so I scanned around the first floor, and I saw him looking at the DVDs. I pointed him out to the security, but before they approached him I said let me go back upstairs and make sure something actually was stolen.

So I jog up the stairs, find the woman who told me she had seen something stolen, and had her point out the stroller to me. I found it, but the owner was not immediately noticeable. I asked a few people, until finally I found the owner. It was a Hispanic woman, with a young daughter, maybe six years old. She spoke almost no English, so the girl acted as translator. The first thing that came to mind was that maybe the man was her husband. So I asked if she was here with her husband. The little girl translated as best she could, and eventually the mom understood and told me no. Then I tried to ask if something had gotten stolen, if she could look on the stroller and see what was missing. Eventually through pantomiming, she understood, and she looked around and didn’t see anything missing. I told her I was sorry for disturbing her, and I think she understood.

I radioed security and told them it was a false alarm, and I apologized for the inconvenience. I found the woman and told her nothing had been stolen.  I explained to my fellow employees what had happened.

They kept telling me I handled it in a professional way, which is probably true. But at the same time, I wondered how much race played into the situation. If it had been a white man alone, who was perceived to look more friendly, would the woman had watched him as carefully as she seemed to have been watching the Hispanic man? I don’t want to argue with what she thought she saw, but if it was imagined, why did she imagine it? Why did she assume this man was being suspicious and not that he was just wandering while his wife and children played somewhere else?


I posted on Monday my sermon from Sunday, and promised a post on Trayvon Martin. I had a whole post typed up, but it disappeared into the cyberwebs, so I decided it wasn’t meant to be. So many people have written blogs about the situation, too, I didn’t want to post something unless I really felt it was worth adding to the conversation.

I have been debating whether I should have changed my sermon to say something about Trayvon Martin all week. I know one person who brilliantly did that found here. Instead of a certain unnamed man going down the road, she redubbed it to be, “A certain child went to the store for skittles…” contextualizing this story in a very real way to the story of Trayvon Martin.

However, if I were to change my sermon, the natural flow would have been to argue we need to love our enemies, and in this case would mean, loving George Zimmerman.

My facebook feed blew up with people upset that our system of justice would not bring justice to the situation of Trayvon, and I agree we should lament that the outcome of this trial seems to affirm Zimmerman’s actions were reasonable, that treating people of color, children, young black boys, as suspicious is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior. However, if people want to sentence Zimmerman to jail, to life in prison… I can’t accept that is acceptable either, because I have seen the inside of prisons, and if Zimmerman’s problem is racism, that is not going to be solved in prison. If people want punishment for Zimmerman, that is for God to give. If we want redemption for Zimmerman, the prison is not going to give that to him. Idealistically, Zimmerman would find healing of his racist attitude in the church.

Trayvon_Martin_PosterNow this is not what people want to hear right now. And I don’t even want to hear it exactly. Even though I see George Zimmerman as a victim of a racist system, he is not nearly as victimized as Trayvon Martin of course, and I want to respect that. One of my friends posted the verse Jeremiah 6: 14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” People want to talk about justice, and exposing this behavior as inappropriate; they do not want to talk about loving our enemies, loving George Zimmerman, because that would come close to condoning his behavior.

Since that was the natural flow of my sermon, I think it’s okay I did not mention the trial explicitly. I hope my audience made connections in their minds. It certainly was in my heart, if it wasn’t in my mouth. But someone at work today reminded me that it took Obama a week before he gave a full speech about it.

Also, perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, considering this is the first sermon I’ve ever given in my adult life.

As a guest preacher, I also think the difficulty was magnified tenfold. When you know your congregation, you know what they’re going through, if it is a less diverse, white privileged congregation, I probably would have said some pretty harsh things. I know my great grandmother was pleased with the outcome of the case, and if she and I ever spoke about this, I’m sure I’d have to have a pretty hard conversation with her. But those types of conversations need to happen in the context of relationship. If someone is unaware of their own white privilege or the importance of this case, they are not going to change their perspective when hearing from a stranger, most likely. They probably need to be carefully shown by someone who cares about them, so they don’t immediately get defensive.

I saw this from one of my friends, an elementary science teacher (and a person of color), and I thought it was very wise.

“After reading this, http://wearenottrayvonmartin.tumblr.com/ and other things, I would like to give some words of advice to fellow friends educated in white privilege in the form of a metaphor.

In first grade, students learn about plants and that plants are green and they have leaves. They can call a living thing a plant if it fits these characteristics. Very simple and not 100% true.

In second and third grade, their education takes them to different characteristics that broaden their view of what a plant could be. They also learn the word function and start to realize that parts of plants have jobs to play. Getting a bit harder but still not 100% true.

I teach fourth grade, and they are learning about the basic steps of how a plant makes food- they learn words like xylem, phoem, chlorophyll, stomata. They also learn the function of each part in creating plant food. Getting really hard, using a lot of brain power, and vaguely speaking is 100% true :)

To all my brothers and sisters educated about white privilege, institutions of racism, etc. (explanations, procedures, vocabulary, solutions), please do not scrutinize, judge, or abandon those who are infants or 1st graders or 2nd graders when it comes to knowledge about white privilege. Be patient with them for their understanding, at the moment, is limited. Give the grace of time. At times, we need to be the teachers. It is how we teach a person that will encourage them to continue and explore or abandon the subject. A great tip is to always have all your sentences in questions (unless you are motivating them).

If it is hard for you to understand that adults can have 1st grade understanding about these things, then teaching people about the topic is not for you, and I ask you to please refrain from thinking about “giving them the truth because they need to know” when you see a not so correct solution that people write about.”

So if you know where your congregation is on this spectrum of knowledge, it might be easier to discuss. But for the guest preachers, I think it’s unfair to have expected them to say much about the situation.”

Part of the reason why I’ve been stressing over the fact I didn’t mention it, was a facebook comment that soon turned into a blog post by tumblr_lztqa80uDk1qj6kyzEnuma Okoro: “When Your Church is Silent.” She asked if people had heard this mentioned at church, and most said no. I appreciate the many blogs Okoro has been writing this past week about the situation, and since she is an African American woman, I mostly want to be in a posture of listening this week. That’s why I think it’s so great Obama gave a very personal speech about it. I think when people voted for Obama in 2008, they had hoped he would talk about things like this more often, so I’m glad he finally did and chose not to avoid it.

If I had preached about Trayvon Martin, I would have been speaking to a mostly African American congregation, as a 23 year old white woman with no children. Many of them do have children, and what I keep hearing about this situation is how much pain there is from mothers who cannot protect their children. If mothers on the outside feel that way, imagine how incarcerated mothers feel. They literally are incapable of protecting their child in situations like this.

I know many of the inmates I preached to have a lot of grief and anger and sorrow over this situation. Over the past week, I’ve asked them to teach me about that. I could not have taught them anything from the pulpit. Instead, I need to be the one who is taught.

Not to metion, emotions are so high and varied on this situation, it would be hard to preach about this topic without being incredibly emotional, and tapping into a variety of emotions from your congregation. I would hope it would not do more harm than good. I think Katie Mulligan’s sermon which I linked earlier was brilliant, and fit her congregation, but someone less skilled, and less aware of their audience might not have done such a good job.

Perhaps preachers did not mention it last Sunday, especially since the verdict came in only a few hours before. But I hope churches mention it tomorrow. And the next week. And that this conversation continues to occur where we ask ourselves, how can we rid the world of racism? Racist behavior and attitudes like George Zimmerman displayed? How can we keep our young children of color safe? How can we change the minds and hearts of the Zimmermans of the world?

One post I saw said, “Please don’t apologize. Just start conversations.” 


The Parable of the Good Ditch Layer.

On Saturday I preached, for the first time in my adult life, in a women’s correctional facility. This sermon was inspired from the congregation, from the womens’ stories I hear every week. As I was reading through the lectionary text, I found myself reading it in a different way. I got a few requests that it be made public, so here it is. {Side note: I did not mention Trayvon Martin, but I will be working on a blog post which should be up shortly}. 

Good morning! It is a privilege and a humbling experience to be preaching the word of God among you this morning. Let us pray that the meaning of the Scripture becomes clear to us this morning:

 [Prayer of illumination]: God of mercy, you promise to always be with us.  In the midst of the many words in our daily lives, speak your eternal Word to us. May we respond to your gracious promises with faithfulness, service and love. We know that we do not live by bread alone. Let the heavenly food of the scripture we are about to hear nourish us today in the ways of eternal life. Holy Spirit, you give light to the soul. Pour out on us the spirit of wisdom and understanding, that our hearts and minds may be opened to know your truth and your way.


Today, we are reading from Luke chapter 10, verses 25 through 37. I am reading from the NIV translation today. Please stand for a reading of the Gospel.

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.

“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

27 The lawyer answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: 

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.

They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road,  and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was. And when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 

35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper.
‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

When I was choosing what to preach on for this morning, I decided to choose one of the lectionary texts. (A lectionary is a list of Scripture readings for each week of the year, compiled by the church, that has a sort of logical progression to it). I tend to appreciate the lectionary because I take comfort in knowing Christians from all over the world are reading the same text together, and there is a unity in that. However, when I realized the Gospel reading from the lectionary was the story commonly known as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” I admit was a little disappointed. “Everyone’s already heard this story before! The message is too simple, too basic, it won’t be challenging enough.” However, when I started reading it carefully and prayerfully, I realized the story was convicting me in a new and challenging way, despite the fact that I have read it before. Hopefully it will do the same for you.

First, your Bible probably has some sort of heading that names it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” As much as I appreciate the editors giving it that name, when we name this story that it automatically makes us think the main character is the Samaritan. Certainly that is one way of reading the story. But another way is to see the main character, the protagonist, as the person in the ditch. A protagonist tends to be the person that the plot, the story line, revolves around. And surely in this story, the person the plot revolves around is the unnamed person in the ditch. So today, we are going to rename this story, “The Parable of the good ditch-layer.”

Before we go into that story in more detail, it is important to look at the context in which Jesus tells this story. We are told an “expert in the law” gets up to “test” Jesus. We should not think it’s someone like the lawyers we have now who are experts in the laws of the United States of America. The government at the time Jesus was telling this story was the Roman Empire, which certainly had laws people could be experts in, but in this context it was talking about the religious law. This would perhaps be like a modern day Bible scholar, an academic.

Since this person was an “expert” in the Law, I get the sense that he was asking this question of Jesus to see if he could outsmart him. In high school, I did this with my teachers all the time. I’d ask them the most ridiculous questions just to try to stump them. “Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” Asking Jesus about inheriting eternal life was a controversial topic, and whatever the man expected Jesus to say, he probably was prepared to poke holes in Jesus’ argument. But, like a good teacher, Jesus turned the question back on the law expert. “What do you think? You’re an expert in the Scriptures- you know them backward and forward. What do they tell you?” And sure enough, the man answers well with two separate verses from Scripture- (they don’t appear side by side…). Love God with your whole self (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus affirms that this man has captured the essence of the Law. Every law that comes up in the scriptures has these two aims in mind. You can identify which of the ten commandments are doing which: Don’t worship idols instead of God—that’s Loving God. Don’t steal, murder, etc.—love your neighbor. (But really, we find out, those who love their neighbor are also loving God).

Now that Jesus has confirmed this man has the right answer, one might expect the man could walk away and go try and do it. But he tries to find a loophole. “But who is my neighbor?” He asks. Or another way to put this is, “Who am I required to love like myself?” The verse the law expert is quoting from Leviticus 19 states in its entirety, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. ” “Your People” meant fellow Israelites. So the answer the law expert may be expecting is, love other Jews. Love those who are like you- those who it’s convenient to love. Stick to your own kind- they’ll protect you. That’s how you’ll live a good life.

Yet Jesus does not give the expected answer. Instead, he tells a story. There are four main characters in this story: the man who gets robbed, a Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Secondary characters are also the robbers and the innkeeper. Let’s go through the story assuming Jesus wants the expert of the law to relate with one of these characters in order to answer the law expert’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” “Who is it that I must love?”

Because the law expert is sort of missing the point by asking Jesus this question in order to find a loophole, my first inclination is to try and characterize the expert of the law in the same category as the priest and the Levite, because they also tend to miss the point. These are both characters who, by all expectations, should know to do the right thing. Priests were at the center of Jewish worship in Jerusalem, acting as mediators between the people and God, and Levites were the priests’ assistants [Perhaps like a pastor and an associate pastor]. So these two people have as their job to Love God and Love neighbor… and yet, they don’t get it. They pass by this man lying in a ditch instead of helping him. Perhaps they have some place to be. Perhaps they’ve been helping people in need all day and they’re burned out. They can’t be bothered to help this person in the ditch. There’s also this issue of purity—half-dead people in ditches are pretty dirty, and he could have even been dead for all they knew, so to touch him would to take the risk of getting unclean, which could hinder their worship. However, it’s important to recognize they are going away from Jerusalem, so some scholars have argued that’s not a good enough excuse. I get the impression that helping this man was just too big of a risk.

In fact, they could get mugged too, if they stop to help! This road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous. Jerusalem was over twenty five hundred feet above sea level, and Jericho was about seven hundred and seventy feet below sea level. That’s a steep and dangerous hill, full of rocks and hiding places for thieves. The Priest and Levite probably just wanted to hurry home as quick as they could before they ended up beaten and nearly dead too.

Jesus could be telling this law expert, “Look, I know what you’re doing, I know that you want to make this commandment easier by only loving people it’s convenient to love. Loving someone who has been beaten and left for dead in a ditch is inconvenient.” The Priest and the Levite wanted to protect their own lives more than they were willing to put themselves at risk for someone else. For them, the man in the ditch did not qualify their “neighbor.” He was too broken.

Perhaps Jesus wants the law expert to see himself optimistically as the hero of the story, the Samaritan. Clearly he is a little full of himself since he feels qualified to test Jesus, however, part of the twist is that this “hero” of the story is not someone who Jesus’ original hearers would have considered a hero. They would have expected the third character in the story to be an ordinary Israelite, since it had gone Priest and then Levite… the logical progression would be to turn to the average layperson, and perhaps they would have thought Jesus was making a case against religious authority. Samaritans did not tend to be the “heroes” in Israelite stories, however. Samaritans were “mix”—part Israelite, and part Gentile. The Jews tended to treat them with contempt, like they had had their gene pool contaminated, so to speak. Leviticus 19, where we got the command to love our neighbor, I said before only applied to fellow Israelites. It goes on to say “33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” However, Israel is not in a position of power in their land. The Romans are in control, and Samaritans and other foreigners were a reminder that they were a people who had lost their political power. It’s easy to be merciful to a stranger when you are the one in control. The Israelites don’t feel in control, and perhaps that’s why it seems easier to only love and protect their own. The law expert would have been offended that Jesus told a story with the hero being the Samaritan; in fact, we can see this when he cannot even identify the Samaritan by name as the hero of the story- instead, he says, “The one who shows mercy.” Of course, that’s correct, but his hesitancy to speak that it was the Samaritan who is merciful shows that Jesus is confronting his preconceptions about who he should see as his neighbor, by showing him that the Samaritan can act neighborly. There is an Arab proverb: “To have a good neighbor you must be one.”

But finally, I told you I think the main character is primarily the person in the ditch. I don’t think the law expert would want to see himself as that person, but the plot revolves around this unnamed ditch-layer, so let us ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” or as we rephrased, “Who is it that I must love?”  considering the person in the ditch as the one doing the loving.

The man is not identified by race, so the law expert probably just assumed it was a Jew. All of a sudden, he is just minding his own business when he is overtaken with a band of robbers. They take all his money, his clothes, beat him, and leave him for dead. What emotions would he be feeling in those moments? Fear. Vulnerability. Anger. Shame. Hopelessness.
“Why would God let them do this to me?” he might think. “I haven’t done anything to deserve this!” Perhaps he plotted his revenge, as he lied in the ditch with the hot sun beating down on him.

And yet, Jesus is reminding us of the Scriptures’ commandment that we love God and love neighbor. This neighbor apparently is not just someone who it’s convenient to love, but by including a Samaritan in the story, it is also about loving those we think are undesirable of love, harder to love. So for the man lying in the ditch, the way to eternal life is to love those who robbed him.

But God, they don’t deserve it! They didn’t love me, or treat me the way they would have wanted to be treated! They not only robbed my clothes, they stole a part of myself. How am I supposed to get it back? The answer God gives, is love.

As you are lying in the ditch, you hear footsteps crunching in the gravel. You try to call out, but all that comes out is a soft moan. You hear the footsteps stop, a little ways away from you. Then you hear them pick up again, and briskly walk by, further away from you, on the other side of the road. You see the bottom of a garment, that looks like the clothes the priest wears. A priest just walked by you!? Aren’t priests the ones who are supposed to be charitable and help the helpless? You’re feeling pretty helpless right now. They are supposed to be God’s representative, and he just walked by without saying a word? !!!  A few minutes later, you hear more footsteps. You try to moan a little louder, thinking perhaps the first priest was just a bad egg. This time, the footsteps don’t even slow. You know he heard you, but the Levite is too focused on where he’s going and what’s on his agenda to even glance your way. He walks on the other side almost by habit. Again, your first reaction is anger, but…

The way to eternal life is to love those who have abandoned you. You must love the Priest and the Levite.

By the time you hear the third set of footsteps, you have given up and don’t even bother to make a sound. God must want you to die since two of his ministers have passed by already and have not extended his love to you. You hear the footsteps stop, and then, all of a sudden, they are running towards you! You hear the sound of clothing rip, and you realize the man has torn his own cloak and is bandaging your wounds. He takes out his lunch and uses the oil to soften your wounds and the wine to cleanse it. The man has a donkey, and so he puts you on it, and leads you to an inn. He pays the man to take care of you, and says he will pay for any expense. You can’t believe your ears—the robbers took all your money, and now you are injured and can’t work, you can’t imagine ever paying him back. Of course, you are moved to love this man—and yet, he is a Samaritan. Can you, as a Jew, love him anyway, the way he is loving you? All of a sudden you think, you don’t deserve this self-less love.

And yet, the way to eternal life is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you want to live, you must love the Samaritan too.

No matter who you most resonate with in this story, it is clear, love is not easy. It is certainly easy to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but living it out is more difficult, as this story shows. Our enemies, people who treat us poorly, are our neighbors, and by loving them, Jesus promises we will have life.
Who would you call “your enemies”? Is there someone in your housing unit who never stops harassing you? Is there an officer that you can’t seem to see eye to eye with? Do you have a Muslim roommate who is waking you up five times a day when they pray during Ramadan? Jesus tells us, these are our neighbors. We should love them as we would love ourselves. Doing this, Jesus promises, is the way of life. Perhaps you have someone that you can’t forgive, and you are holding on to your hatred of them. Yet, that hatred is festering, infecting your soul and not letting you live life to the fullest.
Jesus came and brought salvation and liberation so that we can live each day in his love.

At different times, we have all been in one of these roles. Perhaps this story has made you think of a time when you should have helped someone but didn’t, like the Priest and the Levite. Or perhaps you have intentionally hurt someone like the robbers did. The point of the story is not to make you feel guilt, but to move forward in a way that enables you to fully love everyone you come in contact with—including yourself. Do not think that you are undeserving of love. God plays the role of the Good Samaritan in our lives, lifting us up out of the ditch, bandaging our wounds, and healing us so that we are able to live fully by loving him and loving others. When we are on a path of self-love only, we know that the path does not lead to life everlasting. The miracle of love is, the more you give away, the more you have. The more you love, the more you live.

As we take communion with one another today, consider ways you can be the love of Christ to someone in your life. You are both the person in the ditch, and the good Samaritan to one another. Minister to one another as Christ would minister to you, healing one another’s wounds, providing for one another. It may be as simple as praying for each other. It may be doing something nice for someone who isn’t nice to you, despite the risk you take of being taken advantage of. That’s a risk God takes when God loves us, and as we live in God’s love, may we love riskily too.

Let us pray for the strength to do that.

“Dear loving Father, we thank you for your mercy in our lives every day. Thank you for loving us, even when we feel we don’t deserve it. Please give us the strength to love those in our lives it is difficult to love. We know that you reveal Yourself in the Scriptures as a welcoming and inclusive God who calls us to love those we would rather not love.  We ask you to remove all the barriers in our hearts that keep us from that love. Silently, let us take a moment to reflect and confess in our hearts all the things that separate us from each other and from God, all the things that keep us from fully Loving You, and Loving One Another. [few moments of silence.]

God, we give thanks knowing that the proof of your amazing love is this: that Christ died for us that we might live. Friends, God hears our prayers. God loves and values us, forgives what is past, and calls us to new discipleship. God, give us the strength through your Spirit to go forth from here loving you and loving others in all areas of our lives.

In the name of your Son, Amen.