(originally posted in Isa 61)
I write letters to complete strangers in prison.
I have never been incarcerated, by the way.
There’s a couple ways of describing why I do this. Depending on one’s comfort with a certain vocabulary, I could say that God told me to write these letters. If that offends, I could instead say that the idea occurred to me and that I had an overwhelming compulsion to follow it. It doesn’t matter. How I describe it is not what’s important.
In the letters, I don’t preach. I don’t patronize. I simply try to offer hope, because I know what it’s like to be hopeless.
When I received the call to ministry a little over a year ago, I was sure the One on the other end of the line had the wrong number. At my worst, I have broken the laws of the land and the hearts of those I love. At my best, I have been vaguely spiritual while religiously ambivalent. I had been attending church regularly for the first time in my life after a mostly non-religious upbringing, but only because I had children, and a wife that longed to return to her own faith, from which she had become estranged in her college years.
If pressed, I don’t know if I could say that I was really even a Christian. If it weren’t for Martin Luther King or Thomas Merton, I assure you the answer would be no. Buddhist? Maybe. Christian? No thanks.
The most disturbing part was that I couldn’t begin to imagine myself pastoring a congregation. Not only had I zero desire, but I was certain my experience and qualifications left me far short of ministry. I did not know the language and I had not even read the Bible all the way through. I still have a hard time seeing myself as a pastor. And what makes this vision difficult to materialize in my imagination is not theology or the vocation itself. It isn’t fear of economic insecurity or ridicule.
It’s the church.
Actually, it’s what I had thought was the church, informed in part by my own misconceptions and in part by the truth of a broken institution threatening collapse under its own weight.
I’m not here to bash. But I’m not here to apologize either.
The point is that in my call, the biggest point of resistance centers around church as I have both misunderstood and correctly understood it. And if little ole me can look at what congregations have become, fairly or unfairly, then I can imagine that I’m not the only one who has been turned off by the church, to put it mildly. Of course, I don’t speak for all denominations or all people and not for all time in all places. But from where I stand in a relatively affluent, white corner of the United States of America, to say the church can be irrelevant or co-opted by the empire shouldn’t be shocking.
So I write to prisoners.
I write to prisoners because the message of hope, forgiveness, wholeness and love that wants to flow through this space I occupy so forcefully that I feel irresistibly drawn to the places it is needed most. I have come to believe that we are not individual creatures, that the lines we draw around ourselves to mark where you end and I begin are arbitrary at best. Truthfully, we are connected in ways that you couldn’t imagine. Inextricably. We are like threads of a great tapestry woven tightly together. And when you want to know the condition of our social fabric, you must go to the edges, to the margins, because that is where our tapestry becomes unraveled first.
I believe there is something trying to be born in this age. You can sense it in the growing swell of tension and unrest, of disillusionment and disgust. There are communities trying to come together, fighting to be heard over the deafening noise of commercials, news pundits and the voice in your head that keeps telling you to check the Internet on your phone again, and again, and again. I implore those of us who are seeking new community, drawn out of or repelled by church buildings, to meet at the margins. Until the criminal, the addicted, the poor, the mentally-ill, the homeless are set free of the lies that they are obsolete human garbage, then none of us are free.
Years ago, I found God roaming the barren grounds of a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville, KY, lighting cigarettes for broken men. I found myself in the dried, yearning eyes of those men. I don’t necessarily believe that it is because the addicted, the criminal, the poor deserve hope more than anyone else, although it may be true, but one cannot grasp hope so long as his fingers are clinched tightly around his hollow idols. You see, one must know he is broken in order to surrender the shattered pieces to God. And it is undeniable that your chances of finding someone who knows that he is broken -fairly or unfairly- tends to be greater in the places where society has thrown away its people. Once I caught a glimpse of the Kingdom at the margins, I’ve been unable to stay away. It is where I go to find myself and lose myself all at once. And in embracing my brother, I find that I am held in the very hands of God.