Where the Gospel Matters

I've been trying to put my finger on why I enjoy so much, spiritually speaking, the prison bible class I lead and the worship over at Freedom Fellowship.

Talking with Jana the other day I think I figured it out. I said to her, "I like to be in places where the gospel matters."

I don't want to be harsh or judgmental, but sometimes I get the sense that the gospel just doesn't matter that much to a lot middle-class and upper-class Christians.

Two example of this.

When the gospel doesn't matter Christians tend to default to the dominant language of the American culture: consumerism. That is, people think about church in relation to their likes and dislikes. They like this and they don't like that. They prefer this and they don't prefer that.

In my circles you hear a lot of this in relation to the worship service and the preaching. Basically expressing likes and dislikes about what happens on Sunday morning.

I've grown tired of this sort of thing. Not sick and tired. Not angry tired. Just weary tired. To be sure there are things I like and dislike about our church. There are things, if I were in charge, that I'd change. But I've grown weary of using this filter for church and the spiritual life. I'm tired of thinking about the Kingdom through the prism of my preferences.

The other indication that the gospel doesn't matter is over-intellectualizing. I'm a college professor. It's my job to over-intellectualize. And I'm pretty damn good at it. I'm one of the best at our church in making biblical topics "interesting." That talent for finding the "interesting" angle is what gives this blog the variety and freshness it has.

But I'm getting weary of being interesting. (Don't worry, I'm not talking about this blog. I'm talking about church life.) The opposite of interesting is boring. I'm growing tired of putting that filter over my spiritual life and church life, sorting what bores me from what interests me.

These filters--preferences and boredom--fall away when I'm in the prison or speaking at Freedom. These audiences are simply trying to survive. They have a different agenda in listening for the Word of God. They don't don't use the language of liking or not liking. It's not a filter they use. They also don't come to hear something interesting, intellectually speaking.

In the prison and at Freedom the gospel isn't a hobby, or a book club, or a form of entertainment. 

For them, the gospel matters.
(Picture note. A few weeks ago a strong storm blew into town on a Monday night with winds getting up near 70 miles per hour. Herb and I were in the middle of our study at the prison. With the possibility of the facility losing power we had to stop and the men had to get back to their cellblocks. The storm and wind were so bad Herb and I waited in the guardhouse until it blew over. I waited patiently and read the latest edition of The Catholic Worker which one of the chaplains subscribes to. When the storm passed we walked out to our cars under sunlight and a huge rainbow. I snapped a shot of it with my phone. Incidentally, as you can see, it was a huge--horizon to horizon--double rainbow. Yes, I did film it with the phone but, sad to say, I didn't go all "double rainbow" on it.

I've given the picture the title "Double Rainbow over Barbed Wire.")

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16 thoughts on “Where the Gospel Matters”

  1. I go again and again in my mind to Father Gary Smith's (Society of Jesuits) journal, "Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor."

    Excerpted from Chapter One:  "People With Nothing to Prove":

    "Stewart has an unaffected candor.  As a matter of fact, he has no idea what it means to be pretentious.  What you see is what you get.  If he is happy, it is all there; if he is sad, one has no doubt.

    That is often the way for people with no power, no money, no exterior beauty.  They have nothing to prove.  And so Stewart is non-threatening.  He crashes through my defenses.  He brings out what is good, whole, and deep down in me:  the ability to love tenderly, speak truthfully, receive openly, and face gently my own weaknesses."

    *Interesting* is simply a distraction, without real, honest "withness."  I have little time or patience for academic debate, neither for the sake of scientific or theological progress.  (Something about noisy clanging cymbals and puffed up egos.)  Unless real loving interaction is at the root and heart of it, I'd be "already gone."  I'm bored and weary of argument and debate and power plays, in church or in secular society.

    "These audiences are simply trying to survive."  I am not ashamed to admit that this is where I have been, and still am, to a large extent.  I need some Good News, every day.  And I remember very well why.  How is it that so many seem to forget, if they ever committed it to memory in the first place?

    When I go into the nursing home for our weekly Bible fellowship, I don't forget for one second that I am to be their angel of Good News.  That's the only word I am to speak:  Faith-hope-love.  My position?  Right there with them, in the trenches, needing a word of hope as much as anyone else.  May I never unlearn that lesson.

    God bless you, Dr. Beck, in your prison ministry.  ~Peace~

  2. Thank you for the great snapshot, but more, the YouTube video.  I had exactly the same reaction the first time I witnessed a total solar eclipse.  I never felt closer to the Divine... a tiny speck in the vast ocean of the universe....and I too both laughed and cried.  I love this, as do 150,000 others (out of 34 million)!  If anything in this life can break up the monotony of our daily routine, it is a display of nature "in your own front yard".

  3. I love this line:  "
    I'm tired of thinking about the Kingdom through the prism of my preferences."  Also, nice picture and title for it!

  4. Prepare to have your socks blown off.  The depth of this man's heart for Christ, and for people on the margins...  I still have not gotten over it.  Which is an altogether *good* thing.  :-)

    My first encounter and reading was a borrowed library copy.

    Not to blow your mind even further, but I literally *just* ordered this book from Amazon, and the subsequent journal by this same man of his time in Africa with Sudanese refugees, "They Come Back Singing."  This book order prompted, I might add, by your post this morning, and its stirring of my recollections of gratitude for Fr. Smith's moving story.  Felt like I wanted to re-read "Radical Compassion" and remember it again and again, more fully.  I really need to *own* this book!

    Definitely a transformative read.  As this blog has consistently been, for me.

    Keep on, take courage.
    Blessings and many thanks.

  5. The boys and I were heading elsewhere after a library run last week (teen summer reading program) and I looked up as we drove by Freedom Fellowship. I'd never noticed it before, but we don't often go that route. And I thought about the things you'd written. 

    The night of the storm, we had had friends over for a cookout. Our oldest was at work, and our youngest on his way back from Austin from state ensemble competition. We lost power until almost 11 p.m., and that brings the neighbors out of their houses, and saw the rainbow.

  6. Richard, do you know Bob Ekblad's Reading the Bible with the Damned (2005)?

    From the Preface: "My reading experience has been divided between reading in the south with campesinos in rural Honduras and in the north with undocumented Mexican immigrants, Chicano gang members, and inmates from diverse ethnicities incarcerated in Skagit County Jail in western Washington State.  This book presents reflections on reading the Bible and doing ministry with people on the margins of the dominant culture/empire and the mainstream church."

    Definitely worth a look.

  7. Hi Kim,
    Yes, I've got it on my shelf! My friend Richard Goode at Lipscomb University, who does prison work, recommended it to me when I started working at the prison.

    BTW, Richard is editing a book coming out with Wipf & Stock inspired by the prison work, advocasy and ministry of Will Campbll. Everyone keep an eye out for And the Criminals With Him.

  8. @ Richard -- I might have known!  And thanks for the heads-up about the Goode book.

  9. well I’m weary of the spoils of my ambition
    and I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch
    well I wish I had the courage to deny these of my self
    and start to store my treasure in the clouds

    for this is not my home
    I do not belong where the antelope and the buffalo roam

    Cause I’m just a little jealous of the nothing that you have
    you’re unfettered by the wealth of
    the world that we pretend that’s going to last
    They say God’s blessed us with plenty
    I say you’re blessed with poverty
    cause you never stop to wonder
    whether earth is just a little better than the land of the free

    A song called "Little Alba" by Andrew Peterson.  I led worship this week for about 60 senior adults. I was worried all week whether or not they were going to like it. I do get tired of trying to make sure that what we do in church is pleasing to everybody, especially me. Thanks Dr Beck for keeping this blog relevant.                                                                                                                        

  10. I feel much the same way. I want to be where the gospel matters. And, most of the time at church, the gospel matters only for an hour or two and then its back to business as usual in the real world. For several years (through many struggles)  I've sensed some draw toward the ministry and seminary - and while this may certainly be from the Lord, I think what I'm really longing for is a community where the gospel matters. This dawned on me while reading this post.

  11. Hi Richard, 

    Thanks for this post. I have a question, which may seem a bit contentious, though I do not in any way mean it that way. I fully agree with your assessment of how the kind of news the Gospel actually is or is heard as is very (completely?) dependent upon one's context. Thus, in a context like a prison or a barrio, the liberating message of Jesus is at once much more risky (life-threatening . . . and hear I have in mind one of your previous posts on prison ministry) and, therefore, really good news. 

    With that said, don't you feel that doing prison ministry exposes the lack in your own faith? 

    I ask this as someone who is drawn to participating in something like a prison ministry, but who is trapped by my own fears of having my faith exposed as empty, bankrupt, self-serving, and . . . not gospel. What if all I have to offer is a gospel that does not bring life? What if I recommend a radical discipleship that is risky for those in prison, but really quite safe for me (again, one of your previous posts made me think of this)? 

    Do you feel this way? Did you used to prior to getting involved in your ministry to those in prison? 

    Well, thank you anyhow for your work on this blog. 

    Oh, and I completely agree with Kim—you should read Bob Eklad's book. Bob is amazing. 

  12. Dr. Beck, my friend Will Smith introduced me to your blog (2) years ago and I never miss reading daily. Thank you for your helpful insights and thought provoking topics.

  13. No worries about the questions. They make perfect sense.

    Some reflections...

    First, I don't want to romanticize my experience. Although everyone is very respectful and appreciative, I'd say 80%-90% of those who come to the study are just there for the air-conditioning, quietness and the kindness that we bring. They have no air conditioning and they live in a pretty authoritarian and hostile world. The time of the study is a place to rest.

    I recognize that this--providing a place to rest, even to sleep--is the main thing I'm doing. I'm not going anything radical or life-changing for them. I'm simply "visiting the prisoner" and giving them a place to rest. And as I see it, that's bringing the gospel. Bringing a little bit of life, a little bit of rest, a little bit of peace into their world. As I've written about in relation to William Stringfellow's work, I'm just trying to be a sacrament, a sign of life in the midst of death's works. As a volunteer out there I just greet the men, give them a hug, chit chat, read the bible, laugh, tell stories, sing, offer advice, share encouragement, pray. And in doing all these things the men get to remember that they are men, that they are human beings. That's the gospel I'm bringing.

    Second, when I teach I don't preach a radical life-threatening gospel. I'm not in a position to preach such a message, inside or outside a prison. So when I talk about things like mercy and kindness I talk about them in a way that's connected to the men holding onto their humanity. I'm not trying to make them pacifists in prison. I'm simply trying to encourage them to find and cultivate spaces of peace in the midst of the jungle they live in. For example, last week I was talking about Luke 10, how Jesus instructs those he is sending out into the world to speak a word of peace to see if that peace rests on an other person of peace or if the peace is returned to you. I talked about how the men could offer words of peace in their world to see if they can find other people of peace. If they find some, if a few people of peace can locate each other, then, if if only for ten seconds, the Kingdom of Heaven is realized in their midst. And I emphasized the ten seconds. "If only for ten seconds," I said, "the Kingdom of Heaven is found on earth." So that's the sort of encouragement I give. Speak a word of peace, see if your peace is accepted or if it's returned to you, and if it's accepted share a moment of peace in the midst of a violent world.

    Here's the deal. I'm not a very radical person. I just believe in kindness. So that's all I do out there. Or anywhere. Nothing about my spiritual life is radical or heroic or exceptional or noteworthy or exemplary. As boring as it sounds, I'm just working on being kind. And the prison is a place where I can show some kindness.

  14. Beautiful:  "Here's the deal. I'm not a very radical person. I just believe in
    kindness. So that's all I do out there. Or anywhere. Nothing about my
    spiritual life is radical or heroic or exceptional or noteworthy or
    exemplary. As boring as it sounds, I'm just working on being kind. And
    the prison is a place where I can show some kindness."

    Don't you see?  This *IS* the radical thing to do.  A willingness to "go there" (in spirit, and in that specific location, with those specific men, according to *their* specific need--not your own) is the act of compassion that *will* change YOU, as much as, if not more than, those men.  I believe it, because I have experienced it when I have let the Spirit lead in response to others.

    *This* is what keeps me coming back to ET, high interest level notwithstanding.  :-)

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts.  You've made me day!  ~Peace~

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