Friday, January 20, 2012

Letter to a Mississippi Jail Inmate

I've been having a good old-fashioned snail-mail conversation about faith with a friend of mine recently incarcerated in a federal penitentiary located in Mississippi.

In order to earn himself some protection, my agnostic friend has joined the "church" which meets in this prison every Sunday.  Apparently, inmates don't pick on you as much if you go to the services.  Or at least, going to church implies you have some moral scruples to keep you from doing all the rest of the ugly stuff other prisoners do to bide their time behind bars.

My friend grew up Catholic, but hasn't been to mass in years.  I believe the only evangelical Protestant church he's ever been in is mine, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, when he attended a Christmas concert several years ago with his boyfriend.

I'm not going to tell you what he did that got him incarcerated, because that's not significant right now (no, he didn't kill or rape anybody).  And the only reason I'm telling you his sexual orientation is because in prison, he's learning that even previously-die hard heterosexuals, um, aren't.

Suffice it to say that he's suddenly got lots of questions about things that we rarely talked about when he was living foot-loose and fancy-free here in north Texas.  And I've decided to be as blunt with him about my faith as I am with anybody else who reads this blog.

But since I'm no evangelist, why don't you read this letter over my shoulder and see how accurate I am?  Please at least pray that the Holy Spirit would work in my friend's heart to receive these truths. 

Especially if you discover something I could have worded better!
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Preachers, Sermons, and Pain

So, you say you’re not learning much about God in the prison's church?  You say the preachers they bring in speak down to the congregation of inmates?  Well, unfortunately, that’s not entirely uncommon, whether you’re inside prison or outside it!

Yes, personal Bible study can be a better way to learn about God, but the way “normal” evangelical church is done, the sermon should be designed for you to learn something. It may not provide a completely new learning experience every week; sometimes, finding a new insight on a passage of scripture or a new application for your personal life is what takes place instead.  But I would expect some sort of discovery or affirmation of faith each week.

A number people in the church I’ve attended for 13 years make the same complaints about our current preacher as you do the ones in prison.  Not that our pastor harps on “prison, prison, faith, faith” all the time!  But they expect more in-depth teaching than what our pastor does.  I know it might sound funny to you, but I’m learning to be patient and see if I can learn something in sermons that even I agree can be more “milk of the word” than “meat of the word.”

I suppose some of the preachers you get in prison assume they need to be aggressive and raw in their speech to get your attention.  Yet I’d agree with you – it’s best to preach and teach from one's strengths, and if someone's never been incarcerated, don’t pretend to know what it’s like.  When talking about your faith, you don't need to try to empathize with your congregation as much as you need to simply speak the truth in love.

No, the preachers you get likely have no idea what it's like to live in a confined environment where you can't escape the rapes, extortion, and stabbings.  But try to ignore their ignorance.  God never promises His believers that we won’t have problems in life.  However, it’s not the sufferings themselves, but how we respond to them that is more significant. It’s a life-long process to learn how God allows trials for our ultimate good, and for developing our faith and trust in His ability to work all things – both positive and negative – for our good and His glory.  God knows everything that happens to all of us before it happens – He’s known since before He created time.  That may not provide much comfort in the moment of pain, but the more we trust in His ability to work things for our betterment, the less fearful we should become.

Purity, Homosexuality, and Grace

As far as Christ and purity are concerned, did I really say,“Christ is the bridge to purity, and purity is the way to God?"  Or are you trying to paraphrase?  If I did, I probably meant that since God is pure, we cannot simply approach Him in our unworthiness and depravity.  We need a substitute, and Christ is that substitute.  Christ is our purity, so that we can approach God as if He’s our father.  “Nobody comes to the Father, except through Christ” (John 14:6).

Why did God make you gay?  Well, I’m not an expert on human sexuality, but I find logic in the progressive evangelical line of thought that says that people born with certain emotional traits actually are more likely to adopt homoerotic dispositions if their father figure (for boys) or mother figure (for girls) is either absent or particularly aloof.  This is not a definitive blame-the-parent scenario; sometimes, parents and kids just don’t connect in the most beneficial of ways.  And I also think that the age-old condemnation of homosexuality (an excessive sanctimony, considering that same-gender sex, while listed as a sin in the Bible, is no worse than gluttony, gossip, and greed) can actually exacerbate homoerotic proclivities in some people.  It’s an issue that I think the evangelical church is only now beginning to examine and flesh-out according to literal interpretations of previously-ignored texts.

So while I would not say that God “made” you gay, I would say – and hey, you asked – that over time, you’ve developed a sin pattern involving homoeroticism that was based in some measure (as yet not understood) on your genetically-based personality and some combination of parental/nurturing habits.  Maybe that sounds like a cop-out to mix both “nature and nurture,” or just another way to re-frame Christian gay-bashing.  But you’re a close friend, so you know I’m not bashing you.  Frankly, on the sin scale, I’d say your gayness is no worse than my gluttony.  The only unpardonable sin is denial of Christ’s deity.  I struggle with all sorts of immoral sexual thoughts and desires, as do virtually 99.99% of Christians.  I think the ones who bash gays the most are the ones who haven’t been able to reconcile the imperfections of how they were raised.  But none of us have perfect parents.  Just because we can’t get into Heaven based on our parents’ faith, we’re not denied Heaven just because our parents weren’t perfect.

I don’t look at you as a homosexual.  I look at you as a creative, witty, skinny guy with a Roman nose who is obsessed with Apple products and is gay.  More importantly, right now, God looks at you as a sinner, but not a gay sinner.  He looks at you as a person who has yet to believe that His Son, Christ, died for your sins so that you could have fellowship with Him.  God looks at me as a sinner saved by grace – His grace, in leading me to the knowledge and belief in His Son – and an adopted child of His.  Adopted from the ways of this world to His family of believers.

Trinitarian Theology

The “road to salvation” can be lonely, because as I said earlier, it’s not based on anything else except you and your faith – or lack of it – in God and Who He is.  It’s particularly lonely when we don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of us.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, comprised of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit.  I’m sure you’ve heard of “Three in One,” describing the Trinity.  The Chinese government even calls Christianity the “Three Selves” church.

Perhaps I should explain the role of each Person of the Trinity:  God the Father is the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of all things.  God the Son is the perfect Sacrifice for our sins.  God the Holy Spirit is the “deposit” of our eternal reward who reveals God’s truth to us.

Nobody is led to saving faith in God through Christ without, first, the Holy Spirit revealing the truth of Who Christ is to them.  Plenty of people claim to know Who Christ is, but they don’t truly believe that He is the Son of God.  And that’s because the Holy Spirit is not living in them.

How can you tell, then, who is saved, and who isn’t?  Well, that’s not supposed to be a terribly important thing for people to be able to do.  But there are ways we can determine the people within whom God is working.  There are things called the “Fruit of the Spirit” that the Holy Spirit enables every believer to demonstrate in their life.  These are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

Since none of us are perfect, no believer will ever have all of these “fruits” perfectly demonstrated in their life here on Earth.  But if we don’t even desire them, or pray to improve in them, or value them, or seek to emulate them in some convincing way, then we’re allowed to discern that the Holy Spirit is not working in and through this person, which means they’re not saved.

Not that we’re supposed to walk through life pigeonholing people by whether they’re exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit in profound ways.  But since in the Bible, God calls us to be careful to prevent unsaved people from corrupting the church, we’re supposed to be on guard for people who don’t possess this fruit.  This is important, because even though plenty of “good” unsaved people can mimic most of these, it can be hard to tell whether it’s just their personality (for example, some people are doormats, and wimpiness can look like meekness) or whether the Holy Spirit is truly guiding them in these attributes.

But maybe that’s a bit too much information to dump on you all at once!  I’m including a bulletin from this past week’s church service to hopefully help put some of these concepts into a context of what they look like in my church.

And if you'd like me to get you a Bible, please let me know.

You can fact-check everything I've said against it.
_____

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