One of the (few) good things about being unemployed is that you are afforded a certain flexibility in your schedule that wasn’t available when you were working a 9 to 5 job. In the last several months, I have taken the opportunity to do things like get back into shape, catch up on some reading that has been stacking up on my nightstand, and to spend some more time with the kids during the daylight hours. It has also afforded me the chance to do a little refocusing on what is important, and to do some self-evaluation that I have too often tried to avoid.
For the last couple of weeks, I have initiated the habit of spending an hour or so at a local park for some daily devotional time. The routine usually entails me setting up camp at a picnic table overlooking a creek, reading from a daily devotional and Scripture, and spending some time seeking God’s guidance through prayer.
But a good deal of the time spent is me simply looking out on my surroundings, appreciating God’s creation. And the more time I spend looking out at what’s around me, the more I find that God is revealing Himself to me—sometimes in unexpected ways.
By now, pretty much every political pundit, social commentator, or dude with a computer and a Facebook account has commented on the violence that surrounded last weekend’s rally/riot in Charlottesville, Virginia.* I’m not sure there is anything that I can add to the conversation that hasn’t been stated more ably or eloquently elsewhere, but I still feel that I ought to say something—if for no other reason than to get myself on the record, and to sort through some of the things about the events (and the aftermath) that have been cluttering my mind.
The violence and identity politics on display in Charlottesville should be deeply disturbing to all who observed it, regardless of creed, politics, and ethnicity. For a county “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” what happened in central Virginia must remind us all that those values need to be actively preserved and defended, especially when challenged by those who claim superiority simply because of their race or heritage.
Recently, during a fit of spring cleaning, Beth and I were going through a stack of books and notebooks, trying to determine which were worth keeping and those that would better serve not taking up valuable shelf space. In one of those notebooks, I came across the following—a reflection written by a younger, still-single Steve (circa. 2007) who was contemplating marriage and the future. It reminded me that there is joy in uncertainty when you trust the One who holds the future in His hands. ‘Tis a lesson worth repeating—mostly for myself, but hopefully it speaks to others as well.
It dawns on me that I often view uncertainty or lack of future knowledge as a detriment. I see it as a lack of faith on my part—a result of the Fall. “If only I were more committed to seeking God’s will through prayer and devotions,” I reason, “then God would make his plans known to me.”
But faith is not the result of knowing what lies ahead, but rather in the knowing of Him who knows the future. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for,” but not necessarily a certainty that God will bring these things about in the time and manner we expect, if at all.
Lutherans love Lent. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it has been my experience that when compared and contrasted to Christians of other stripes and flavors, those in the tribe of the Great Reformer seem to have an odd affinity for the season of reflection preceding Easter. Perhaps it’s because we appreciate having a chance to simplify our lives for 40 days and to focus singularly focus on God’s redemptive work. Maybe we like convincing ourselves that making superficial sacrifices reflects well on our personal spirituality. Maybe we’re just sadists that enjoy self-flagellation and denial. Whatever the case, it does seem to be true that Lutherans do embrace this season in a way that most others do not.
I was reminded of this fact as I attended the Ash Wednesday service at my church. Attendance for the evening service was good—maybe not as high as it had been on Sunday morning, but still significant, including a number of families with small children. It was actually one of those very rare instances where I was attending alone—Beth had decided that it would probably a bit of a push to get all of the kids fed and to the church on time, but granted me a special dispensation to attend, knowing my weird affinity for having ashes placed on my forehead. Still, I found myself sitting in the back of the sanctuary with the other families with small children out of sheer habit.
When I was young, my parents gave me a Dr. Seuss book entitled My Book About Me. In typical Seussian fashion, the book pairs simple rhyming patterns with some fill-in-the-blanks, enabling the book’s owner to create a sort of time capsule, revealing the likes, dislikes, and insights of a six-year-old mind.
I still have the book, and I recently pulled it out of my collected effects to do a little reminiscing. There weren’t any major revelations—I was a serious football fan (alas, I still am); my eating habits were apparently more porcine than avian (hopefully that has improved); my “best friend” was Essex Johnson (read here for that sad tale); and apparently I had a severe aversion to salad that I have largely overcome.* Oh, and I wanted a bear as a pet.
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes―and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In case anyone might have missed it, we have entered headlong into the holiday season. Neighborhoods are once again filled with houses adorned with festive lights (ranging from understated to garish), nonstop seasonal advertising assaults the senses, and songs about reindeer, sleigh rides, and snowmen echo in every public space. People run hurriedly from one appointment to another—a holiday party here, a Christmas program there—all while trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and family.
So, with the constant din of crass consumerism ringing in our ears and a list of never-ending tasks stretching out before us, we can be excused for not recognizing that it really isn’t the Christmas season at all, which, technically, begins on Christmas Day and stretches out for 12 days until Epiphany on January 6. Rather, we are in the midst of Advent—a season of waiting and listening on God as He prepares to enter into our world in the form of an infant.
Now, lest anyone accuse me of being a “Scrooge,” I should point out that as I type this, I have a couple browser windows open on my computer dedicated to the purpose of purchasing the perfect Christmas gifts for my loved ones, and am trying to figure out what would be the best times to take the family out to see our favorite over-the-top light displays in town. I love the arrival of holiday baked goods, and I even enjoy the sounds and music of the season (in limited doses).
Still, I can’t help but think that all too often something gets lost in all the to-do that launches in earnest the second Thanksgiving dinner is cleared from the table.
A version of the following post originally appeared on the Prison Fellowship blog (a/k/a, my day job). Check it out sometime!
To go into prison is to be marked for life. Regardless of the time spent, the lessons learned, and the changes made, these men and women will forever be identified as prisoners—a “scarlet letter” firmly affixed upon them, and readily visible to all. Future employers, landlords, and even co-congregants will identify them first and foremost as “ex-cons,” and suspicion will guide their interactions.
And in some cases, these marks are more than metaphorical.
“Freedom Tattoos”—a program created by Pedagogium: The College of Social Sciences in Poland, is offering former prisoners in that country the opportunity to have tattoos they received during their time in prison covered with new, more appealing artwork. The ugly words and images created with makeshift implements during their incarceration are thus transformed into images that reflect their own personal metamorphosis.
An ad promoting the program features two women recently released from prison. One of the women, a young mother, has the word “vendetta” tattooed on the back of her neck, the product of time spent at a juvenile detention center. “Now I want to [cover this tattoo] for my children,” she says, “Because I love them. It’s simple.”