Monday, August 24, 2015

Smuggling Hope

My friend, Maren Tirabassi, and I seem to be having a conversation in poetry form this past week.  She responded to the poem in last week's post by writing one as well.  You'll find it here:

She writes about bringing roses into a women's prison for a poetry class she was teaching.  I was so moved by her poem and by the memory of the poetry class she taught for the men at the prison where I worked that I wrote the poem below. 

Smuggling Hope
The poetry teacher
brought roses into the prison.
The guards inventoried them, 
going and coming, 
like they were semi-automatics.

They forgot to count the petal-bullets secreted in sleeves or cheeks.
Later to be rubbed between trembling fingers,
or breathed in more ardently than ever any line of cocaine
in the late night firefight with the incoming demons of memory and shame.

She brought in roses
and they treated her like she was smuggling weapons.
She was.
How many saw the dawn 
because of the ammunition that got past inventorying eyes?

Friday, August 21, 2015

God Is A Mother Visiting Her Son In Prison

Years ago when I worked in the prison systems of South Carolina and then Massachusetts, I would sometimes be assigned to the Visiting Room.  Many of the men I worked with were doing long stretches behind bars.  For these men, often the only visitors they got was a stooped grey haired mother who arrived faithfully weekly, monthly, whatever her life schedule would allow.

I would see these women get off the bus and shuffle their way into the prison.  Many in clothing that marked them as both deeply rural and very poor.  I was reminded of my grandmother who lived with us during a part of my childhood.  Every month she boarded the bus for the ride from Spartanburg where we lived to Columbia where my aunt was a patient at the state psychiatric hospital.  My aunt had been there for years and would, eventually die there, a chronic schizophrenic.

Last night, will reading Lauren Winner's Wearing God (a book I highly recommend), I began thinking about those mothers.  And I began thinking about how they reflect the waiting of God.  You and I, trapped in whatever keeps us from fully engaging in the life of freedom and relationship with God for which we were created, imprisoned.  And God, like these mothers, visiting, waiting, loving, refusing to let go.

God is a mother
visiting her son in prison.
Every Saturday
she mounts the steps of the Greyhound bus
and rides the 3 1/2 hours
our if the city and out into the country.
Past the cornfields and alfalfa and razor wire
Through the metal detector and the sally port
To sit in the Visiting Room and wait.
Til it suits someone to let him come down.
God is a mother
visiting her son in prison.
Her hair going grey, then white, over the years
As she carries her paper bag with sandwich and soda to eat in the waiting room.
O love that will not let me go,
God is a mother
visiting her son in prison.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Is A "Culture Of Life?"

The phrase "culture of life" is one that is going to get bandied about a lot over the next few months.  Though many people have forgotten, its first modern use was by Pope John Paul II in 1993.  While the term seems to have been kidnapped or hijacked by folks on the right of the political and religious spectrum and its meaning pretty much limited to discussions of abortion and stem cell research.  To limit it this way does not do justice to either the phrase (not a big deal, phrases get trivialized all the time), or to the deep meaning of the moral theology to which it is connected (a bigger deal), or to its root in the teachings of Jesus (a really big deal).

In John 10:10 Jesus says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  Jesus raises this in terms of His own mission and purpose in the world.  He uses the image of a shepherd caring for sheep and giving up his life to protect them.  Another reading of this verse would be, "I came that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness."  Such a reading rescues Jesus' comments from being squeezed into a narrow definition of religious feelings and otherworldly, nebulous expressions of "abundance."  It also reminds us that the messianic mission described in the OT scriptures, the mission that Jesus came to fulfill, was at least as concerned with the bringing of justice and God's Shalom and setting the world to rights in the here and now as it was with arranging a pleasant afterlife for God's people.

So what happens if we broaden that phrase and think about what would mean to committing ourselves to nurturing, along with Jesus, a culture of life in all its fullness for all people?  I do not have all the answers to this by any means, but here are some questions that it might raise:

  • While opposing abortions as a means of birth control, might it cause us to take a serious look at the questions of "life in all its fullness" for women struggling with issues of rape and incest and the life of the mother?  
  • Might it also push us to think about quality of life for children born with serious birth defects?  Including how much funding is given to research to get rid of the birth defects.
  • Might it make us re-examine the issues of sex education and birth control and how these are made available?
  • Would it cause us to critically examine what life is like for persons who are born into, and spend their lives in severe poverty, both in this country and around the world?  Since it's a political season, let's just limit ourselves to the US for a moment and ask about what "life in all its fullness" might mean for families struggling with "food insecurity"?
  • Would taking "life in all its fullness" force us to look at homelessness differently?
  • Perhaps it would make us look closely at our prisons and our larger criminal justice system, exploring the root causes of crime and what successful rehabilitation looks like.
  • Maybe it would make us erase the boundaries and litmus tests that we've put on who is in, and who is out, in our communities of faith....welcoming instead everyone who hungers and thirsts after this life in all its fullness.
Jesus said that "thieves come only to steal, kill, and destroy."  Politicians do that when they turn the complexities of truly imitating Jesus in bringing about this expression of God's Kingdom into a soundbite and a bumper sticker.

We can disagree about what it means to promote a culture of life in all its fullness; but let's be honest about the complexity and commit ourselves to the hard work of being "laborers together with God" in seeking to bring it about.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Would You Deny Jesus A Roll Of Toilet Paper?

I just came back from an incredibly wonderful vacation.  It was the first real vacation I've taken in a couple of years and it was very healthy for me to step away and camp, hike, kayak, ride horseback, weave baskets, and sleep in.

For my time camping (which I did by myself), my wife Carole made sure that packed in my stuff were the essentials of toilet paper, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, know, then things we can't really do without.  EXCEPT.....that each of these things is among the things that you can't buy with foodstamps.  The things that I take for granted as a given in my life are made impossible or difficult to obtain for folks utilizing SNAP.

I was made aware of this while reading the blog of my friend and former pastor, Rev. Maren Tirabassi.  You can find that blog here:

It is well worth the read.  Maren talks about the litany created to bless her church's gifts of things that are denied to some.  I share with you this quote from her blog:

"We are the Body of Christ and so we dedicate these humble, often-joked-about, and desperately needed items so that all members of the human community can affirm that, if one of us is ashamed, all of us must hide our faces; if one of us has access to personal products, all of us feel the care, the respect."

My first reaction to this awareness (for better or worse this is often my first reaction to such)  was/is anger.  There is a deep rage that stirs in me at the built in humiliation that the system imposes on those who are considered as having less/being less.  And make no mistake, in our society this is clearly the equation: having less=being less.  I did a little more research and would like to share with you just a few of the things that you can't buy with food stamps:

  1. Toilet paper
  2. Laundry detergent
  3. Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss
  4. Soap
  5. Diapers
  6. Tampons and pads
  7. Deodorant
  8. Hair products
  9. Cleaning products
  10. Sunscreen (I would have raised an eyebrow at this before I started being really aware of issues around skin cancer.  What if you're working outside to feed your family which is on SNAP; sunscreen might be a really important part of your health care).
 I also discovered that many churches are adding a "Personal Care Pantry" to their Food Pantry efforts.  This seems to me a great way to make a dent in the humiliation and shaming that are part of the experience of poverty in our country and culture.  And it isn't just the lack of these is the inherent shaming of others that so painful and angering to be aware of.

Beginning a Personal Care Pantry is a small thing.....but it is a beginning.  And it is a beginning that fosters awareness.  And awareness creates empathy. And empathy reminds us that we are the Body of Christ.  Crude as it may sound, when any part of the Body goes without toilet paper, or tampons, or toothpaste...Christ does too; and we as a Body suffer.  Whether we numb our awareness of that suffering by looking away, or diving into our computer, or singing praise music (none of which are bad unless we use them to numb our awareness)....we still suffer, are made less, by the harm done to another part of the Body.

O Jesus, who bore our humiliation and our shame on the cross; and who taught us that we encounter You in the least of our brothers and sisters; show us ways to care for and provide for them.  And give us courage to combat the built in, systemic, shaming and humiliating of those who are deemed by those who worship the gods of power and wealth to be less than and unworthy.  Remind us that we have all been made worthy by Your sacrifice and Your love.  Amen