Friday, May 15, 2009

Preaching and Truth-Telling

I remember meeting a Presbyterian minister when I was at my seminary for a study week a few years ago. He was telling a story to those of us sitting around the table one night about a small group of ministers who gathered each week to eat, talk, pray, cuss, and sometimes drink. He said that once somebody came up with the idea that each of them would prepare and preach a sermon for the others like no other sermon they had ever preached. This sermon, for the pastor’s group only, would be what they would like to preach if they felt free to do it. Each minister prepared for their day. And, as this minister told us, his face glowed. You could tell this had been an experience that was very deep and dear for him. He said that the sermons were amazing. He said the first minister to preach really opened the door by just laying himself out there, with brutal honesty, and glorious mercy. As the minister tells it, at times they all laughed so hard, the sermon had to stop; and at times a couple of them cried so hard, the sermon had to stop for a minute. Each sermon by each minister was an act of freedom and grace and trust and courage. There were admissions made that would never be shared outside that group. There were cuss words said, there was anger expressed, there was love, there was real flesh and blood human life shot through with the grace of the living God, and there was ecstatic praise of God. It makes me think about the relationship between preaching the Gospel and telling the Truth. It is hard to tell the truth in public. It is hard to tell the truth unless you have the security of a powerful trust. When you can really tell the truth, amazing things happen. You are able to tell things that you didn’t even know about until you hear it coming out of your mouth.

Maybe the secret of life is finding a place where you can risk telling the truth of your life. My guess is that love is that place, and love is trust or it isn’t love. Sometimes you have to take the risk in order to find out if the love is trust, which is to say, ‘sometimes you have to trust someone before you are really sure they are trustworthy; otherwise, you will never know.’ Most of us figure out how to do this a little at a time, but there comes a time when you have to either stop and go the other way, or take a leap of faith. Maybe true preaching is like true love – it isn’t discovered without taking those risks, those leaps of faith. When you take risks, you may find out you have relied on those who are unreliable, that you have put your heart in the hands of those who do not care; but, you may also wonder in joy after you have taken the risk: “why didn’t I take this risk years before!!”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Quiet People Like Me

I like to go off from the crowd, either alone or with one or two friends. Sometimes, even one or two are too many for me to be around. Sometimes, it is enough for me to be with my self. But, just because being with people tends to wear me out, doesn’t mean people don’t mean a lot to me. It is because people mean so much to me that they wear me out. A stranger beside me on a bus. I notice them. I feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or give him or her the idea that I don’t care about their existence. But, I don’t know how to sit, what to say. It wears me out. A gathering of seven or eight people. I don’t know how to deal with that many people at once unless I have a clear role. Give me a thousand people in an auditorium, make me the speaker, I am not nervous. Give me four people I don’t know and put me in a room with them with the expectation of social interaction, and I am as nervous as can be.

It is a real misunderstanding of shy people when others think they don’t care about people or don’t care to interact with people. It is often an oversensitivity to others that causes so much reticence to interact. It is because human interaction means so much that many quiet people don’t take the risk of conversing with others.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Criminal Law and Social Control

This morning I am representing a relative of a church member in criminal court. So, this morning I will be a criminal defense attorney opposing the efforts of the government to prosecute my client. I will be playing a role as advocate for the defendant in an adversary system. I have a professional duty to "zealously represent my client," as our ethical standards say. I do not have the duty to sit back with the prosecuting attorney and figure out what will be best for my client (though, I may have to pretend I am doing that to get what my client wants). No, my client wants me to 'beat the case' if I can, and get the government off his back. And, that's exactly what I will try to do. Of course, if I look into things, and we aren't likely to "beat the case," I will negotiate something with the prosecutor that my client can live with. And, that's often what happens. At that point, defense attorney and prosecutor are fairly businesslike with the prosecutor making an offer to resolve the case, the defense attorney perhaps making a suggestion or a counter-offer after talking to his client; and, then, a plea agreement is reached, the matter is announced, and the case is over. The case I have this morning is not too serious. The worst that is likely to happen is 11 months, 29 days of probation. But, if my client fails on probation, it can mean 11 months, 29 days in jail at some later date. I have also stood up with clients entering plea agreements where the client was going to prison for 15 or 20 years. And, I have stood up with one client who heard the verdict of guilty read by the jury, and then heard that she was going to prison for the rest of her life without possibility of parole.

Hearing the judge pronounce a sentence is a fairly solemn moment. It reflects the lack of power that an individual has over his or her own life; and reflects an almost ultimate type of control that the government has over an individual, at least where the punishment strips a man or woman of their liberty and orders them locked up like an animal in a cage. It seems that this type of complete control over an individual should be used very rarely and only to protect society from those who are dangerous. But, in our society, we have chosen to lock up people for all sorts of reasons other than that they are dangerous. We use jail as a means of social control, to try and force citizens to conform to social expectations. "You want to drink alcohol and you are 20! If you do, we will charge you with a crime and lock you up!" "You want to drive a car when you don't have a licence; we will arrest you and lock you up!" "You want to smoke marijuana; we will lock you up in a cage.!" THE GOVERNMENT WILL FORCE YOU TO ACT LIKE THE GOVERNMENT WANTS YOU TO ACT!!!!

Of course, the government's efforts at social control through passing and enforcing the criminal code is basically the effort to control the poor, and the criminal code is not much enforced against the middle and upper classes. In a "good neighborhood" you are never subject to law enforcement "knock and talk," which is when an officer knocks on the door and coerces you into consenting to the search of your house or apartment. In a "good neighborhood" you are not approached and questioned and asked to show I.D., and then politely asked if you mind being patted down "for my safety and yours." The examples are numerous.

The criminal law has two intents: one is to prevent serious crime and punish those who commit serious crime; but, the second intent is social control of the poor or the "alternative." I really have a problem with the second intent of the criminal law. I have no problem understanding why someone who is robbing and raping needs to be locked up. I have a real problem understanding why someone who chooses to use a mind-altering substance should be locked up so long as that person is not violating the interests of others. I have a real problem locking up people for a lot of things. The reason we lock people up for social control is that those who have authority like to use it and show others who is in control. "You want to live life your way - forget it! We make the rules to tell you how to live. You don't obey our rules; we lock you up like a dangerous animal."

I guess when it comes down to it, society has decided that alternative lives and poor lives are dangerous to society. Anytime you can catch them violating any little thing, you best lock them up. And, anytime you can pass a law that will define how they live as criminal, by all means, do it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


The Quakers began as a religious movement in England when George Fox experienced the 'Inner Light' that enlightens all of life. Fox saw that the clergy did not have the power of truth, but that truth was available to every person in the depths of his or her being. But, Fox's belief wasn't some simple affirmation of humanity. No, it was a spiritual, theological insight that shook him to his core and he found nothing left inside him after the shaking but the still, small voice of God. It was a deep earthshaking experience of God that gave him new eyes with which to view human beings. Fox said: "There is that in every man which is of God."

The Quakers believe that God - whose image is in the soul of every person - has re-claimed all humanity in Christ. Quakers believe that the seed of renewal and truth of Christ is planted in the soul of every human being. As Thomas Kelly says: "Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives . . . it is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the tabernacle of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all."

Thomas R. Kelly, from "The Light Within," in A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION.

I have referred to Thomas Kelly's book of four talks in bold letters, because it is a book that comes from the depths of faith. I think that the Quakers, who began as a reform movement with God's revelations to George Fox, really get to the heart of faith. I have found no better guide in recent years to the spiritual life. Quakerism is a mystical faith, but it is grounded in the Gathered Meeting, which unites the people in communal worship and waiting on God and also serves as a check on individual nuttiness.

One other practice I respect very much about Quakers is the spiritual experience of having a "Concern" placed upon them by God, and then responding to this "Concern" as a way of drawing near to both God and people. For example, John Woolman, who lived in the late 1700s, had a concern placed upon his heart about slavery. So, he responded to this concern by refusing to write wills that passed on slaves as part of inheritance, and he travelled from Quaker home to Quaker home to speak personally to Quakers about this concern. When he felt he had done what he needed, he returned to his home.

I have wanted for a long time to go to a Quaker Meeting. They have a traditonal Meeting in West Knoxville that I could attend. If I went, I could go and just be silent - for the time of worship, joining my silence with that of others. Someone might say a few words, but maybe not. Instead I go and sing and pray out loud and preach on Sundays. But, I also have some time of silence in worship. That is the best part for me. All the talk, and singing and praying is really just to set the mood for the silence. It is the better part. Maybe the Quakers have figured out how to have that quality of holy silence without all the noise and orders of worship. Sometime I want to join with them and find out.