Monday, May 7, 2012

Life, Sacrament, and Fellowship

Letters to a Mississippi Jail Inmate
Another in a series of occasional essays derived from letters I've sent to a gay friend in federal prison...
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From his letter to me:  "My Thimble of Grape Juice and Matzo"

I reply:  So, you went to the prisoners' church service on Easter Sunday?

I'm glad to hear it, but not so glad that you took part in celebrating Communion.  I know you have a Roman Catholic background, but we evangelical Christians believe that anybody who receives Communion without believing that Jesus Christ died for their sins actually commits still more sin (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; since you now have a Bible, I'm going to give you Scripture references so you can see I'm not making this stuff up!).

We're even warned not to receive Communion if we harbor anger or hostility against a fellow believer.  We're supposed to go to that person and make restitution before being eligible to take Communion.  That's because it's a sacrament observing Christ's sacrifice on the cross for us.  He didn't suffer lightly for us, and we shouldn't take our observance of His sacrifice lightly, either.  Often, we call it "celebrating the Lord's Table," but we can celebrate without sinning.  I realize that's a very unnatural-sounding juxtaposition of ideas - celebrating without sinning.  But the ways of Christ don't often fit the ways our humanistic cultures do things.

Being part of the prison church may be a way for you to escape a lot of the physical harm you might otherwise experience being incarcerated, but even if you think a lot of your fellow prisoners there are also Christian impostors, you should understand all it takes is for two or three legitimate Christians to be in that service for it to be more than a physical sanctuary for you.  In Matthew 18:20, Christ says that whenever "two or three are gathered in My name," He is there with them.  It may not feel like it, especially to people who don't believe He's their Savior.  And some of the preachers who come in from town to lead your services might not always preach a true Gospel.  But God will hold each and every one of us to account for how we treat His name, His word, and His sacraments.

You say respect is in short supply in all levels of prison.  So please allow me to suggest that the next time they have a Communion service, you just politely demure, saying you need to resolve some things before you can partake.  It'll be the truth, right?  Maybe it seems that since so much bad stuff takes place in prison, taking Communion to go along with the flow seems relatively harmless.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to be respectful towards the sacrament, would it?

Don't worry - respecting the sacrament won't save you.  There is no 10-Step process to salvation, in which respecting Communion makes the list.  Hopefully some day, though, you'll understand why this is important.

"I'm Curious to Know Why You Stayed"

You ask why I'm still bothering to be your friend, even after you've spent your first full year in prison.  While it's true that we've never talked about what I think about your crime and your sentence, part of the reason I never brought it up was that I didn't have anything to add to what our criminal justice system was doing.  Why bother rubbing salt into a wound?

You admitted that what you did was wrong, that it was a crime, that you owed society a punishment, and even that you were stupid to do what you were doing in the first place.  Yeah, your sentence seems a bit harsh, especially compared with sentences for other crimes we think are more heinous, but you willingly took it as part of the whole process.  Altogether, that package of being willing to be held accountable for one's actions is something I can respect.  I still think what you did was completely wrong, but you've taken responsibility for it.

Maybe you've heard about the recent death of a guy named Charles "Chuck" Colson.  Colson was convicted of crimes connected with the Richard Nixon fiasco in the early 1970's and when he was released from serving his prison sentence, during which time he experienced a "jailhouse conversion," Colson started a ministry to fellow convicts.  Called "Prison Fellowship," Colson organized a system of churches and preachers conducting outreach programs to their local prisons at all levels of the criminal justice system.  I knew two guys here in Arlington who participated in those for years at the Tarrant County jail in downtown Fort Worth.

The basis for Colson's desire to minister to inmates comes from Christ's command to help prisoners (Matthew 25:31-41).  Actually, the word Christ uses is "visit," but since I haven't been able to see you personally, letters and phone calls are the next best thing.

Does this mean I'm staying friends with you just because I earn brownie points with God by doing so?  No.  Do I get into Heaven quicker by telling some prisoner that he shouldn't partake of Communion unless He's born-again?  No.  For any of our actions to glorify God, they have to be done with a sincere heart.  And yes, me staying friends with you helps glorify God, but you and I also developed quite a good friendship before any of this prison stuff ever happened.  Sure, you're gay, and I'm not, but neither of us peg our identity on our sexuality.  You're a sinner, and yes, I believe homosexuality is a sin, but it's no more heinous a sin than any of mine (Romans 1:18-32).  The only sin God cannot forgive is the sin of denying the work of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:20-30).  And the primary work of the Holy Spirit is revealing to us the truth about Who Christ is.

"The Value of Life"

You already know that I'm praying for your salvation, whether you like it or not!  If and/or when you believe Christ is the Son of God, and that He died to pay the punishment for your sins, God can redeem your soul from the eternal effects of all of your sins, just as I believe He has saved me from all of my sins.  Unfortunately, considering the part sexuality plays in your situation, I understand that people on both sides of the homosexual debate have made this dialog more difficult than it needs to be.  It's difficult not only regarding our interactions outside of faith, in which some of my fellow born-again Christians say your sins are worse than theirs, but also for gay people who come to faith in Christ and need to integrate well into evangelical churches.  Some of that is because of the homosexual culture gay activists tell gays you need to embrace.  Then too, some of that is because Christians can hold particularly bigoted opinions of people who are gay before they're "saved."  The phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" sounds very trite today, but I believe it is a genuine Biblical mandate.

And frankly, unless you believe that God loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for your sins, you probably won't understand why the practice of homosexuality - like any other sin, actually - becomes unacceptable after salvation.  Is there a switch that gets shut off in gay people?  No, because there isn't a switch that gets shut off for straight people to suddenly stop lying, or overeating, or gossiping.  But we can talk about that later.  Suffice it to say that God does not tempt His people more than they can bear (1 Corinthians 10:6-13).

You ask about our society's construct of purpose and individual validation.  I think that at certain levels, God's the One Who gives all of us - whether we're saved or not - the drive to produce, learn, and socialize.  Of course, these drives vary by person.  For example, neither you nor I are social butterflies.  But to the extent that people are driven to do these things, the question needs to be asked:  for whom are they driven?  Are they driven for their own gratification, or to honor Christ?

The extent to which you're driven by even by altruistic motivations tied to one's self, the less fulfilled in life you'll be.  Of course, I'm not physically confined like you are right now, and no, I'm not really sure how someone in your position produces things that can even partially satisfy (although some of your clandestine cooking sounds pretty creative).  But I do believe that God gives His people a sense of purpose that can extend beyond their actual productivity.  That's not a commercial for Christianity, that's just how I believe God set up His world.  Christ is intended by God to be that Thing that gives meaning and hope.

Does that mean we Christians are bubbly and happy and bouncing off walls all the time?  Of course not - for one thing, you know me, and you know I'm not a bubbly person.  God created personality traits, too, and those kick in from time to time regardless of whether we're saved or not!  But I can attest to the fact that my life does have a purpose - as any believer's life does - and that's to glorify God.  I'm not always happy with the opportunities (or my perceived lack of them) that God allows me to have, but that's something I need to commit to Him in prayer, believing that as I allow Him to guide me, His plans will come to fruition.

If that sounds all fatalistic and ethereal, it's likely because you've yet to be born-again to new life in Christ.  I find it interesting, however, that after a year of finding it more of a cultural curiosity than even a hiding place, you're continuing to attend the church services there.  I can tell you:  it won't be a perfect "church."  My large and wealthy church in Dallas is far from perfect (in fact, some might say that its size and wealth help make it so imperfect!).  However, even if much of the doctrine and theology you're hearing there isn't sound, God, in the form of His Holy Spirit, can speak to anybody simply through His words in the Bible (Hebrews 4:12).  Maybe He's speaking to you?

Maybe you don't think so.  And maybe He isn't - at least, not right now.  I can understand how your cynical nature resists the "jailhouse conversion" tendency among inmates desperate for anything they think will help their case.

In God's eyes, however, we all have the same case - with the same sentence - whether we've ever been incarcerated or not.  Christ is the only One Who can make the difference.

And it should be obvious when He's the One making a difference in anybody's life.
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