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.