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An Inspired Outburst

A wise man (and a good friend) once told me that the main job of a pastor is to look for God in the ordinary, everyday events of life and to help others find him there too. This has easily been the most rewarding part of the seven months I have now spent wearing the “pastor” hat. I have met a lot of people in a lot of different situations and I have almost always come away with a renewed sense of admiration for how God speaks in the various contexts his people find themselves in.

One of these contexts, for me, has been the local prison. I’ve tagged along with a few people from our church who lead services there a handful of times now, and each one has been an eye-opening experience for me. Last Sunday was no exception.

Our time at the jail is usually fairly predictable. There are two identical services for two different segments of the population. There is a prayer, followed by some songs, a corporate prayer time, some more songs, a short homily, a few more songs, and then a benediction. It’s short and sweet—around 50 minutes or so, in order to leave time for cookies and coffee. The services are not usually very interactive other than the open prayer time. The guys mostly just stand when they’re told to stand, sing when they’re told to sing, sit and listen when they’re told to sit and listen, and leave when they’re told to leave. At least this is what I had come to expect.

Well last Sunday one guy evidently wasn’t familiar with the script. The regular prison chaplain was away, and his assistant had a bit of a different style. The main chaplain usually has very short homilies that make one or two main points in a calm and somewhat understated manner.  He might ask the odd rhetorical questions, but it’s pretty much one-way communication.

His assistant, on the other hand, had a much more interactive approach. Her text was 2 Cor. 12:10 and she focused on Paul’s assertion that when he was weak he was really strong. As a part of this point, the chaplain was really trying to get the inmates to admit that here, in prison, they had reached the limits of their strength, and needed to “let go and let God” (I have issues with this odious phrase, but that’s probably best left for another post…). During the second service, she went on at some length about how powerless the inmates probably felt and about what they needed to do about it.

At one point, she looked right at one particular guy and said, “So, what are you going to do, now that you’re in here?” His response (the aforementioned departure from the script) went something like this:

I dunno… Lift weights. Eat a lot. Take some courses. Stuff like that…

This clearly was not what the assistant chaplain was looking for:

But you’re still hanging on to your own power, man. You’ve gotta let it go. Just let go and open up to God

Well this wasn’t going down too well for the young man in question:

What do you mean? How is praying to some f@^*in’ invisible dude a better option?

Back came the chaplain (she was not the easily-intimidated sort):

I realize you might think this is a bunch of garbage, but it I’m here to tell you it works.

The young man’s response:

I don’t think it is a bunch of garbage, I think the way you’re putting it is a bunch of garbage. It’s not like we’re on death row here. We’re all in here for two years or less. What’s the big deal? Suck it up and get on with things. This is f#%^in’ bull____!

Not exactly your typical ending of a sermon. The assistant chaplain mumbled a few more closing remarks, we sang our song, and the service was over. The young man in question sat brooding by himself with his cookies for most of the time after the service. I thought about going over and blessing him with my wealth of apologetic insight—showing him that while God was obviously invisible there were good reasons to believe he existed—but (mercifully, for his sake) someone else struck up a conversation with him before I could. This guy didn’t need apologetics; he probably just needed someone to listen to him.

The experience got me thinking. How would I have handled things if I had been in the chaplain’s shoes? Would I have said anything remotely helpful? What would “helpful” have looked like? Could I have spoken on the passage in a way that didn’t lead to this kind of an unpleasant confrontation? Was this confrontation even an undesirable thing?

Judging by the conversation amongst the volunteers afterward it was. Most construed the episode as some kind of spiritual warfare—a battle for his wayward soul, the convicting of the Holy Spirit or some such thing. And it may have been. I don’t know anything about the state of this young man’s heart and mind, and I don’t want to pronounce definitively upon what spiritual battles may or may not have been going on Sunday night.

But as someone growing into the role of a public communicator—and learning that there is sometimes a substantial gap between what you think you were saying and what someone heard—I couldn’t help but think that perhaps it wasn’t just as simple as this guy resisting the clarion call of the gospel. There was, after all, a significant element of truth in what he was saying. It is important to take negative situations and just make the best of them; a healthy perspective on the magnitude of your trials is important; there are times when we can over-spiritualize the solutions to what is facing us. God is invisible and he does seem absent at times.

And there are times when the manner in which we communicate the gospel is a “bunch of garbage.” I’m not saying this was the case on Sunday—I thought she did a decent enough job all things considered. But there was something refreshing about the visceral immediate reaction of this guy when he didn’t understand/agree with how things were being presented to him. I wonder how many times someone has wanted to say something like what this guy said when I’ve been droning on, in abstract and ethereal language, about this or that lofty truth or principle of the gospel?

Of course, we don’t do that in church, do we? It’s not very loving or polite or uplifting.  But maybe it’s not such an outlandish idea. Those of us entrusted with semi-regular presentation of the gospel have an obligation to do our best to explain things like the strength-in-weakness paradox well. That’s not to say that it all falls on the shoulders of the communicator, but we do have a unique opportunities and responsibilities. If someone doesn’t “get it,” it’s not automatically their intellectual deficiency or resistance to the Spirit that is to blame. Sometimes we just need to do a better job. And sometimes (gulp) we need to be willing to hear this.

So was God present in this ordinary, everyday event at the jail last Sunday? I think he was. I think he was present in a very sincere and well-intentioned presentation of one of the central truths of the gospel: the world is made new not through a display of raw power but through the “weakness” of the cross. I think he was present in the conversations around coffee that took place after the two services. I think he was present in the hugs and the prayers, the well-wishes for those getting out, and the fraternity and mutual care that was evident amongst the inmates.

And I also think that God was present in a young man’s exasperated, expletive-laced outburst at a message he didn’t (or didn’t want to) understand. Whether he was resisting God or resisting a message he thought ought to have been better, clearer, more relevant, or more interesting, his honesty and pragmatism, his willingness to express disagreement, bewilderment, and even anger was a kind of a weird breath of fresh air. If nothing else, it said he was engaged, that he was thinking—that he needed things to make sense.

And who knows? This little outburst might go on to play some small role in the story of this man’s life and the larger story of a God who uses all kinds of counter-intuitive means to draw his people to himself.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. dilys #

    what i am left thinking about is this particular phrase: “I don’t think it is a bunch of garbage, I think the way you’re putting it is a bunch of garbage.” it says to me that while we may attend to paul’s words about our strength-in-weakness, we can fail to acknowledge the power that we actually hold as spiritual leaders, middle-class folks, educated individuals, and the list goes on. so, when i hear about an obvious authority figure telling an individual whose freedoms are temporarily suspended that he needs to give up his power to an invisible Being on whose behalf she is speaking, the IRONY could not be starker.

    if anyone should speak about God’s power being made complete in our weaknesses, then it should be the one whose voice and power, from society’s view, has been taken away, the one who has been imprisoned, like paul. i appreciate that the man “talked back” and spoke from his own experiences, and i would hope that the chaplain would be able to explore how and when to speak into others’ lives without denying their experiences.

    February 14, 2009
  2. The irony of speaking about strength in weakness from a position of authority is certainly always lurking in the background. I think there’s always a temptation to pay lip service to this central element of the gospel without allowing it to affect how we exercise authority.

    At the same time, I think it still has to be possible to teach on passages like 2 Cor. 12:10 with integrity from a position of authority. I’m willing to cut the chaplain some slack. I think she could have presented a more multi-dimensional understanding of what “strength in weakness” might look like, but it wasn’t like what she said was crazy or anything. Hers was not an easy job and she handled things pretty well, all things considered.

    February 15, 2009
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I really like this piece, Ryan. It speaks well of your ability to present a balanced account of personal/emotional events. You make a good scribe.

    Goes without saying, but I will anyway, that I admire the passion of the assistant chaplain, though it sounds to me that she might have suffered from a lack of support and wavered in her commitment.

    There is fruit to be harvested in the anger of the the young prisoner, my friend. Speaking as a former angry young man, all your really want is someone to help you confront what you already know; that your anger is making you sick inside and that ultimately it will destroy but “in the now” it’s a useful weapon, a survival mechanism and it seems like the only one you’ve got.

    You need someone to give you something else but you don’t know how to ask and even if you did, the process takes time.

    Don’t dare confront an angry young man unless you’re prepared to invest in relationship. It will only do you both a great deal of harm.

    February 18, 2009
  4. Thank you Paul. You may be right about the young man, although yours seems like a pretty confident diagnosis based on only a few paragraphs. I don’t know his situation well enough to pronounce definitively upon what was going on in him spiritually. As I said in the post, some of the things he was saying seemed fairly legitimate and wise to me.

    February 19, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Trust me brother, if what you say is accurate, she wavered, and the moment was lost.

    Tell me why didn’t, at the point of the inmates last comment, a male member of your entourage, laugh and reply, “so the fuckin’ options you’ve been choosing are so much better.”

    You baled. He saw your collective weakness and he exploited it.

    It’s not about you vs. him. He’s a victim; be compassionate. It’s about principalities. Pray well, fast, “put on the armour” before your next visit.

    If you even hope to have half a chance with the wayward, you better show strength, you better show courage.

    “Sin vs Salvation” sermons, have their place.

    February 19, 2009
    • I guess it’s just too bad for this inmate that there weren’t more masculine, courageous, Christians around who understood spiritual warfare, had done the proper preparation and who wouldn’t weakly waver when opportunities to save an obviously lost soul destined for perdition presented themselves.

      February 19, 2009
  6. dilys #

    thanks for your thoughts, ryan. i’m not a preacher, nor have i ever held that platform before so i can only imagine the kind of inner conflict that a pastor might experience when she delivers words of import that implicate herself as well as the congregation. also, i appreciate the dialogical approach that the chaplain took and the room she allowed for them to engage in the text. i take those opportunities when i can, since they seem to be quite rare.

    February 19, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Yeah, your sarcasm aside, now you’re getting it…..mostly…

    From “wayward” to “destined for perdition” well, that’s a rhetorical leap I’d be proud to call my own but to be fair to me, it’s not what I said.

    As for the “masculine” reference. Maybe you need to learn more about male prison populations.

    If your gonna talk tough, you better look and act the part. And most importantly you’ve got to stay tough when somebody calls you on your “shit”.

    No knock on the lady, sounds like she was in there “swinging”.

    Sounds also like she understood why she was there?

    Why were you there?

    February 19, 2009
  8. Thanks, dilys, for the kind words. I agree that whenever possible a non-adversarial approach is more productive and more respectful of those we are seeking to reach. I think that letting the text speak for itself is hugely important. If a passage causes someone (like this inmate) to get angry and defensive, so be it. As I said in the post, I think it could be an important stage on this guy’s journey.

    February 19, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Your answer is prophetic. I am made humble and wiser by it’s truth and it’s rightful rebuke. Thank you.

    I have crossed a line, I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. I’ll back off.

    February 20, 2009

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