Work out your own salvation

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Philippians 2:12

Salvation is forgetting about my incoming email as I run alongside my daughter, my hand barely holding the back of her bike seat, while, together, we learn to let go.

Salvation is the rain-filled clouds parting at the end of a long run, revealing a cobalt sky through the poplars, birches and silver maples.

Salvation is driving by the men’s prison where I teach and seeing it not as walls, barbed-wire fencing and sniper towers, but as the place where Sam, Jose, Jesse, Khabil and Curtis live.

Salvation is writing my way into new understanding; following the silvery, slippery thread of inspiration to words on a page.

Salvation is a glass of ice water on a ninety-degree day; the velvety fur of my German Shepherd’s ears; warm whiskey on a sore throat; clean sheets on the bed; laughing hard enough to cry; the last page of a good book.

Salvation is all that turns me toward the world, not away from it.  More than a ticket to paradise, salvation is resurrection for the here and now.

[Feature Image: TMimages PDX]

The Blessing is Outside your Comfort Zone

“The blessing is outside your comfort zone.”  I recently heard this quote on a podcast about the spiritual practice of running.  But this truth extends beyond the topic of physical exercise.

A month ago, I was escorted to a classroom in the men’s maximum-security prison twenty minutes from my home. I was there to teach a class to fourteen inmates on the meaning and importance of empathy for healthy, human relationships.  The class was part of a research program funded by New York University to offer support and resources to the incarcerated and hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism.  Ten of us at my college have volunteered to develop and teach a liberal arts, literature-based curriculum as part of this program.

As I prepared for the class, I felt anxious about the teaching and about how I would be received.  From the volunteer training, I expected to meet murderers and sex offenders as well as men serving unreasonable, unjust sentences for minor drug charges.  I expected the men to come from lives and backgrounds vastly different than my own.  I expected the majority of the inmates to be black and brown—because these are the people we incarcerate in America today.  (I was right, there was only one white man in the class of fourteen.)  I expected that I would have to win them over and earn their respect, in spite of what seemed like huge relationship obstacles.

But when I arrived, early, they were already in the classroom at their desks.  I decided not to sit behind the large teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but rather sit at a student’s desk in a circle among them.  One of the inmates didn’t like the rickety desk I had chosen to sit in, so he stood up and insisted I take his because, as he told me, it was better.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and I asked them to share why they were interested in the class.  Their answers varied a little, but every man shared that he wanted to better himself, wanted to learn, and wanted to give back to his family, his community and his society.

The men devoured the literature I had given them to read.  I asked them to read one chapter of a book and instead they read the whole book.  And when the class was over, every single inmate, before leaving, took a moment to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for teaching us.” Clearly, I had an amazing experience teaching this class full of engaged, thoughtful, respectful men who, I discovered, defied many of my expectations and assumptions.

I’ve been back to the prison many times now to teach.  It’s never comfortable going there.  I have to leave my cell phone in the car, cutting me off from communication with the outside world. (This is terrifying.) To get to the classroom I have to walk through multiple large metal doors that open as I approach, then close and lock behind me. (Prison is no place for the claustrophobic.) But the men I meet there, the stories I hear, the meaningful conversations we have and the pain I feel when the class is over, knowing they will go back to a small shared cell with paint peeling off the walls, is worth traveling twenty minutes down the road where the blessing lies outside my comfort zone.

[Feature Image: Mitchell Haindfield]

Visiting the Prisoner

4420998173_2cc850dfdb_oTwo Sundays ago, I preached for my alma mater’s homecoming worship service. In this sermon I talked about how Christ calls us to people and places outside our spaces of affluence and comfort, to those who are invisible and insignificant in society, to those we would not think to go to ourselves if there were not some spiritual force pulling us (or even pushing us) in that direction.

Then, last week, I came across a video from The Work of the People where Dr. Christena Cleveland discusses the “Gospel of Individualism,” or when people see their own resurrection as distinct from, separate from everyone else’s resurrection. What’s the point of being Christian, Cleveland challenges, if your resurrection is separate from everyone else’s? If you believe the Gospel can transform the world, then how does your relationship with God take you outside of yourself and your personal world? How does your relationship with God transform the world of others?

Finally, a Christian Century article by prison chaplain Chris Hoke, just did me in with these words of challenge:

America leads the world in incarcerating its own people. Almost two and a half million human beings are locked away in mass social tombs, an overstuffed underground beneath our society. They are not physically dead like Lazarus, of course, but philosopher Lisa Guenther calls it “social death”—cut off from loved ones, family, and their children. Huge geographic distances, dozens of thick walls, and expensive phone calls seal these men and women off from the land of the living. They are effectively dead to society.

What if every church wrote to, adopted, and received just one prisoner? Two things would happen. We would empty the prison system, and every church would be changed.

A church has just about everything someone just out of prison needs: rides, friends, prayer, child care, employment connections, lawyer references, teachers, rental opportunities, lawnmowers, people to stand alongside you at custody court and neighborly misunderstandings, and a used car that runs. We could call the movement “One Parish, One Prisoner.”’

Hoke’s article arrived in my email feed while dropping my kids off at school.  After opening it, I moved my car to a quiet spot in the school’s parking lot so I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way while I read. Hoke’s passion captivated and inspired me. So when I got to my office, I did something I had been meaning to do for five years since moving to Monmouth. I looked up the phone number for the men’s prison fifteen miles from where I live, called and asked to speak to the chaplain. His name is Manuel and he has served the inmates of my local prison for eighteen years. We scheduled a time for me to visit the prison next Thursday so we could meet in person and discuss ways we could partner in ministry.

I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t anxious about venturing down this road towards the incarcerated. The night after I scheduled this Thursday’s visit I had a nightmare that a riot broke out while I was in the prison. But mostly,  I’m excited.  Excited because I expect to meet Jesus behind those bars.  I’m pretty sure he’s the one who keeps calling me to go.

[Feature Image: Dave Nakayama]