Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Glory and Grit

Psalm 96:9 Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!

Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."

Our church culture tends towards extremes and absolute divides. Perhaps that is just a characteristic of the American temperament. We have a hard time with "both/ands," and usually opt for the "either/or". An example: either a church is concerned about teaching the Word and doctrine, or it is concerned about the poor. The word and doctrine crowd think the poverty crowd are simpering social-gospelers. The poverty crowd thinks the word and doctrine crowd are the dead orthodox. Well, why not orthodox people who care about the poor? Why is it so hard for us to avoid what smart people call neo-Platonic dualism? Why can't we love doctrine and those for whom life is very hard?

I find the same thing true in terms of worship and ministry model. Churches tend either toward grit or glory. The gritty church assumes that everything has to be raw to be authentic. It is like NYPD Blue, a show of unparalleled brilliance in terms of grit. The police were as flawed and volatile as the perps. The lives of the heroes were as tragic as those of the villains. The camera took it all in with unblinking eye. The gritty church assumes that worship should be as raw (and sometimes as vulgar) as life itself can be. There is little beauty, and a lot of very straight talk. I am not offering a blanket condemnation of that --I think straight, pointed sermons that are as explicit as Scripture itself can be when circumstances warrant are part of real preaching.

The good of the gritty church (and Mars Hill Seattle would be a classic example, I think) is the sorts of people they are reaching --the great unwashed multitudes that would feel very uncomfortable in a church that operated on the "glory" model (more about which below). They see prostitutes and sinners come to Christ and be forever changed. Their pews are filled with the lost who are being saved.

The glory model is different. It isn't about a particular worship style (it could be contemporary or traditional) but about attracting a particular type of person --generally affluent suburbanites. Like Ravenhill (if memory serves) said, "Churches used to be about rescuing the perishing, now they are about recruiting the promising." We need great programs and great buildings in great locations. We need to be shiny and impressive. Production values are the name of the game in worship. We want to recruit people like us --people who are smart enough to get it, and successful enough to pay for it. The church locates where life is easy (at least on the surface), and aims all it does on serving the people. Though the church (like all churches) engages in service, the ethos is more about catering to the people, rather than pressing them into the gritty areas of life. The service core of such churches, one might suspect, is rather small.

The glory church is good in that it seems to recognize that God is pleased when we do what we do as well as we can, when we are dissatisfied with shabbiness or shoddiness in music, in preaching, in teaching, in our buildings, etc. Churches do not have to be dank, ugly and serve industrial grade coffee. We can put out nice brochures and have great instrumentalists and erudite and compelling messages. All this is good.

My argument is simple: we should have both. The church should be excellent, have great worship, do all that it does with an eye towards its Master, and it should be in the prisons, on the streets, in the undesirable neighborhoods, with the addicts and the refugees and the homeless.

Can a church do both of those things? I think it must. It is not optional. A church cannot be a church and fail to seek to serve the needs of the community around it as well as the world. In many ways, it is easier to reach the world than the community. The "undesirables" across the sea are far more palatable than the ones sitting in the pew next to you --this recalls a classic scene in "The Help" where the same ladies who won't let their domestic employees use their restrooms are collecting funds for the starving children of Africa. This does not mean worship should or must become gritty. We need glory too. We need to have our eyes lifted, if only for a few moments, off what is ugly in the world and focused on what is beautiful about God in Christ.

May the church not shun the grit even as it embraces the glory.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Update: A Prison Visit, at Last

Yesterday, God granted me success in seeing my imprisoned friend.

He is doing well, away from the issues that claw at his heart and destroy his body. He looks good. He is his "old self," which is his new self in Christ.

He hopes to get out. I don't see that happening. He has not quite come to terms with the magnitude of what is facing him.

In the meanwhile, he has joy in Christ and is ministering to others, studying the Word with them and encouraging them. I have no doubt he will do this even if he never again sees the light of day.

Visiting the prison is interesting. As I was leaving, they were pulling a sad man out of the detox/holding room not 3 feet away. A foreboding deputy had found some sort of drug in the parking lot outside the prison. An older white biker-type was being frisked and his worldly possessions cataloged. I stood there with my friend, unacknowledged, waiting for him to be taken back, watching the sad panorama of lives unfold around me. There are stone-faced prison personnel who visages bereft of human kindness --perhaps the defense mechanism that comes from any small show of compassion being exploited, there are those still in the thrall of addiction, whose minds have been forever altered by the damage of drugs. It all looks like the sad wreckage of humanity.

Perhaps saddest of all is that, due to overcrowding, all Christian services have ceased, at least for now. I pray that won't continue. There are men and women in our prisons who are ripe for Christ. Pray that we can bring him to them.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More Prison Sadness and a Note of Hope

I received another letter from my friend in prison today. The third letter. I have written him three times. His letter indicates he has not heard from me or anyone else. He must be in despair. I don't know what to do but to pray. I am going to call the warden tomorrow, but I doubt he will be able to tell me anything.

Pray for my friend.

The note of hope is that some people get this. Prison reform is hard, but it can happen. Ohio is an example. May Chuck Colson be granted an extraordinarily long life --I just don't see many other Christians doing this sort of work: http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/18186

Oh, and just an update. My last post was prophetic. I drove to the jail at the appointed time --and was turned away at the door. I will, DV, try again early this week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Forgotten Man

I have a friend and congregant in jail. Why he is there is really immaterial, but let's just say it is not due to any official injustice. He and I had become very close when life was going well for him and then, when things fell apart, I did not know where he was. I would hear reports from those who had seen him, and the reports were not good. So I must confess I was a bit relieved to hear he was in a place where, while certainly not desirable, he would be clothed, fed, housed, get his insulin and be away from the demons he could not seem to escape.

Prisons are not pleasant places to visit. I have been to three, each of them quite different. We do not expect prisons to be pleasant. Yet, I wish they were better than they are, for a multitude of reasons. Not only this, but prisons are not easy places to visit. If you go to see a shut-in or a sick member in the hospital, by and large, you pick your time, or you arrange a time, and you go. A prison is the luck of the draw. You drive there. Some prisons allow you to arrange a time, but there is no guarantee you can actually the person at that time. If someone else is using the visiting room, you may be out of luck (and about 2 hours of your time, without having made a visit).

It was Charles Colson who opened my eyes to the horrible reality of imprisonment. We are "law and order" people. We want those who commit offenses to serve their time. Christians, other than Prison Fellowship, have not given much thought to what ought, and ought not, occur behind bars. We allow prisoners to be dehumanized --and wonder why animals are released. Prison Fellowship has had good success with rehabilitation --except where the courts have shut them down for being too "Christian," not realizing that the gospel is at the heart of why they are successful.

To me, it should not be hard for society to provide a decent prison environment --one that made a productive use of time, that was safe, where a man could earn his keep, and improve his mind. It should not be like a murderous cattle pen, where the strong can prey on the weak, and the murder and rape are ever-present fears. Decency demands this. These are men and women made in God's image --marred by sin and candidates for redemption. They ought to be treated with basic dignity and afforded basic protections and basic joys.

I have yet to see my friend. The jail was busy, you see. I could not go when I needed to go. I must wait till tomorrow. At 3 pm. To see a man with nothing but time on his hands. Even then, this is not an appointment but a hope. I will drive an hour round-trip on this hope, as I have before, and hope I am not disappointed in my effort to see him. If this is frustrating for me, what must it be for my friend? What is more, he can only be visited by his pastor and immediate family, and then only for twenty minutes, once a month. The man's family wants nothing to do with him. The church is his family, but he is beyond most of our reach.

My friend tells me that the man who has been behind bars for years is a broken man. He is not defiant like the young offenders. He has lost hope. He is ripe to hear the gospel --but it is hard to get the gospel to him. The system and its byzantine rules (and they are staggering) makes it very hard. My friend tells me the man who comes to the prison to do services has no gospel at all --all condemnation and no grace. All of this makes me very sad.

Prisoners, like the unborn, are out of sight and out of mind for most people. They are men and women. They have done wrong and been caught. They are paying a debt of sorts. Some of them are dangerous and never need to be let out. Some of them are self-destructive and need to be kept away from the substances that enslave them. Most of them are like looking in the mirror.

I hope someday, perhaps, to have a part in prison ministry. Until then, let's not forget the forgotten men and women behind bars in this country. Let's figure out the ways to get Christ to them.