Are Christians not allowed to take any credit?

I received a circular email today from a church planter who has written several helpful books on house church. He used to be a high school teacher; now I think he writes for a living. His name is Frank Viola.

In the email he sent out today, Frank listed three failures in 2014. He had failed to work out three times a week, failed to lose inches off his waist, and failed to read four books by now.

Next, Frank listed “My Successes So Far.” He prefaced the list with this: “(I attribute all success to the Lord. So these are really “praise reports.”)”

I immediately lost interest in Frank’s successes as I tripped over the much larger question that was now begging for my attention: So let me get this straight. If Frank is right, then he must take full responsibility for his failures and no credit whatsoever for his successes?

Frank Viola is by no means the first Christian brother or sister I have heard say this sort of thing. Within the last year, I can safely say I have heard something quite similar from half-a-dozen of my Christian friends. Some of them will blurt out with great happiness a description of some wonderful thing they accomplished, but then very quickly catch themselves to say that of course they give the Lord full credit for it, taking none for themselves.

“Why not?” I feel compelled to ask.

I get it when it comes to failures; I’m quite happy to take credit for mine, all the multiple truckloads of them. But would God not want me to take any credit for success? Is there something in the mind or will of God that insists that I give him all credit for every good thing I accomplish while taking all the blame for my failures?

Doesn’t the parable of the talents suggest that even God commends us when we have done right (without first requiring us to give Him credit for it)? “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25.21).

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem giving God credit for the amazing grace that God has poured out on me and plenty of other people too. I can take no credit for saving myself, no credit for being forgiven of all my sins, and no credit for the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. But if God chooses to so manifest His grace in me, do I not have to agree to be so used? Do I not, as Paul put it in Romans 12, have to offer my body as a living sacrifice?

I don’t know. Maybe I am reacting against what I see as a false humility in those who must so quickly give God all the credit for the good while taking all the credit for the bad. I rather like what Job said to his wife: “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” That’s a tough statement and I think it says something about a relationship with God that has a few wrinkles and twists in it. As I think mine does, at least at times.

This is probably just something I have to work through. Some might say that my strong reaction to the professed humility of others suggests that I have a real problem with pride. Maybe so. But until God lets me see it I will continue to be as irritated by this as by a fingernail dragged across a chalkboard.

“Come on in boys, the water is fine”

Walking back to the shore following his spontaneous baptism in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, Delmar tells his fellow criminals that “the preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions.” He mentions that his robbing of the Piggly Wiggly is included. One of the other criminals reminds him that he denied being involved in that robbery. Delmar hesitates, then admits that he was lying when he said that. Yes, even the robbery of the Piggly Wiggly has been washed away. “Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now,” he says. Finally, lifting both arms he extends the invitation: “Come on in boys, the water is fine.”

None of the nine men I baptized at the penitentiary last Sunday said those words, but the expressions of delight and joy as they came up out of the water said just as much to the 40 other men who witnessed the event.

It’s odd that an act of obedience that the Bible considers as “into the death of Jesus,” should be such an occasion of joy. But sin is an onerous burden. The men to whom I minister know this better than most. Some of them have the rest of their lives to think about where sin put them. Leaving it under the waters of baptism is a cause to rejoice.

Paul said it well in Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live. Yet not I; it is Christ that lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Come on in; the water is fine.

Returning to normal?

The lockdown that followed the killing of Correctional Officer Eric Williams at Canaan on February 25 has ended. We had our first encounters with the inmates at the camp on April 1 and were admitted back into the penitentiary on April 14. Today I was able to resume a series of classes on forgiveness that began at the camp on February 22.

A few of the inmates at the penitentiary spoke of their “40 days” of lockdown as an important spiritual experience. They spent a lot of time reading the Bible and receiving comfort and inspiration. Others expressed frustration at the fact they were inconvenienced for so long for the evil committed by just one inmate. Still others had little to say except that they were happy it was over.

When I spoke at the penitentiary on April 14 I referred to the unfortunate and widespread experience of the innocent suffering for the actions of the guilty. I used the example of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem suffering the loss of everything because of the misdeeds of the unrighteous. I asked the men to look with me at Isaiah 40 as a mirror, reflecting the hope that a long exile was over and the mixed feelings often resulting in questions about God and the fairness of it all.

It was difficult to judge whether I was connecting. The message was likely too indirect, I fear. No one said anything afterwards. A fellow volunteer who was with me said he understood the point, which was some consolation. I’ll be back again in a couple of days; I’ll be interested if anyone says anything.

In my preparation for the talk I had looked at the Genesis story of Abraham pleading with the Lord for Sodom. I mentioned this in the message. “Far be it from you,” Abraham urges the Lord, “to put the righteous to death with the wicked…. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Most of us who had any schooling in prayer, either directly or by example, were not taught to be so brazen as to stand toe-to-toe with God and tell the Lord what justice demands that He do. Yet Abraham survived it and, in fact, bargained the Lord down from 50 righteous to but 10. Who says God won’t change His mind in the face of “the fervent prayer of a righteous person?”

After about four years of ministry at Canaan, this is the first time I can say with some assurance that I’ve witnessed what many of us call “an attack of the enemy.” Staff especially fell victim to anguish, fear and depression. One of them committed suicide shortly after Mr. Williams’ funeral. It took real courage and moral strength for the staff not to take out their feelings on the inmates who, sad to say, many of them view as irredeemably evil men. One man, who is especially kind to those of us who go in to work with inmates, told me if he was in charge he would keep the lockdown in place forever.

The lockdown is over but Canaan remains far away from being what it used to be. Normal may come back some day, but not any time soon. But we will continue to go in to teach a better way of living in hopes that some will seize upon it and choose a better life than before.

Mourning a senseless death

Last Monday, correctional officer Eric Williams was attacked and killed by an inmate at USP Canaan. The community, inside as well as outside the prison, continues to mourn the loss of a fine man who enjoyed the good favor of many. We ask God to comfort Mr. Williams’ family and friends. May he rest in peace.

Laughing at God’s grace

Ten men at the penitentiary sat with me a couple of weeks ago, watching Robert DeNiro’s effort to achieve penance for the killing of his brother in the film, “The Mission.” DeNiro played the part of Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader who was particularly feared by the Guarani Indians in the area above Iguazu Falls, at the border of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Jeremy Irons, playing the role of Father Gabriel, began the mission among the Guarani. After Mendoza killed his brother, he cloistered himself in the church in Asuncion, spending day after day in confused solitude. Father Gabriel is sent to visit the man who captures and sometimes kills those who are members of his mission. He confronts Mendoza, calling him a coward and challenging him to an act of penance as the way to forgiveness—God’s and his own.

Mendoza reluctantly agrees, determined to show this lowly priest that there is no possibility of forgiveness for one who has committed a deed as heinous as killing his own brother.

Nevertheless, for his penance Mendoza decides to accompany the missionary priests back to the jungle mission, pulling behind him all the weapons of his trade—swords, shields, manacles—all bound together by heavy netting. Pulling his past life behind him, Mendoza laboriously climbs the steeps and cliffs that will take them all back to the mission. Along the way, he loses his footing and slides down a muddy slope and, later, almost falls off the cliffs beside Iguazu falls.

Finally reaching the top of the climb, exhausted and covered in mud, Mendoza is confronted by the Indians, one of whom puts a knife to his throat. He questions Father Gabriel, who responds in the Guarani language. Inexplicably the Indian cuts Mendoza free and throws the slave trader’s past off the cliff into the river below. Freed from his burden, Mendoza falls forward, looking first at the cliff and then at the Indian who cut him free. Stunned by grace he begins to sob as the Indians gather round him, laughing and tugging at his beard, and then joins them in the laughter of grace.

My class members, more than half of whom are Muslim, watched the 20-minute clip with focused interest. For a minute or two, no one said anything. Some things don’t need analyzing or commentary, and I’ve learned to allow periods of silence. Soon, one of the Muslim inmates observed that Mendoza, who earlier in the film was provoked to violence when he thought someone had laughed at him, not only accepted the Indians laughing at his tears of repentance, but even joined them in it. “Something like that would probably not happen in prison,” he said.

One of the Christian brothers replied, “It would in our community.”

In the news

The Associated Press reported today that Rodney Dwayne Valentine was charged on Saturday with trespassing at the Rockingham County jail in North Carolina. No, he was not a visitor who refused to leave. Mr. Valentine was an inmate who refused to leave.

Jailed originally in May, Mr. Valentine was released on Saturday morning. He asked the sheriff’s office to drive him to a local motel and they refused. When he continue to hang around into the afternoon, he was charged with second-degree trespassing.

He is being held on a $500 bond and is scheduled to appear in court on August 9.

Perhaps the food in the Rockingham County jail is very good. Perhaps Mr. Valentine had nowhere to go.

Most inmates I know can’t wait to get out.

The fall

Early this morning, a work crew removed the statue of Joe Paterno from its spot outside the Penn State football stadium. Tomorrow morning the NCAA is expected to announce “corrective and punitive measures” against Penn State’s football program.

How the mighty have fallen!

The report released ten days ago by Louis Freeh was scorching in its condemnation of Paterno’s successful efforts to persuade the powers-that-be at Penn State to ignore the evidence that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing minors in campus locker room showers.

Why would Paterno do this? Why would the winningest coach in Division 1, who sat atop a football empire at one of the nation’s finest universities, who was universally praised for the high graduation rate of his players, who was a saint in State College…why would he do this?

The answer is in the question.

His empire was more important than anything else. So also, apparently, was his pride. Of which Proverbs 16.18 says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

He did not live to see his conduct in the Sandusky matter excoriated. Nor would he witness the unceremonious removal of his statute or the NCAA’s possible “death penalty” against Penn State’s football program.

However, Paterno’s legacy as a great college football coach has now been eclipsed by his legacy as the enabler of a sexual predator and as the man who refused to protect innocent boys from that sexual predator.

When the original story broke last year, I wrote that Joe Paterno had made one serious and costly mistake. That was wrong. Joe Paterno lived in denial of things that mattered most to people — the protection of their children; stopping those who hurt them. His world was Penn State football and his honored and esteemed place at the head of it.

And now his fall from that lofty perch is complete.


“Higher Ground” disappoints

A couple of nights ago my wife and I watched Vera Farmiga’s film, “Higher Ground.” In this, her directing debut, Farmiga also starred in the role of Corrine Briggs, whose life the film follows from a young girl accepting Jesus to a married mother deep in doubt about much she has been taught and thought she believed. Along the way we are treated to a bit of realism and a greater amount of distortion.

Farmiga’s character, Corrine, raises her hand at the conclusion of a week of VBS, indicating that she has heard the knock of Jesus on her heart and opened the door. She does not really know what this means or what she should do about it, and no one offers to help, especially at home. She observes frequent fights between her mother and father, who eventually divorce. She meets the leader of a high school rock band, falls in love, gets pregnant and then gets married at eighteen. Since no one has helped her grow in the faith and knowledge of Jesus, Corrine seems unanchored to anything, and life as a very young mother is quite challenging.

Traveling with the rock band, baby in tow, Corrine and her husband, Ethan, almost lose the baby when the bus, driven by Ethan, careens off the road into a lake. At the last minute as the bus is submerging, Ethan finds and rescues the baby. Later, both believe that God has spared their family and that they should respond by getting serious about God. This leads them into a decade-long relationship with a scripture-quoting church led by Pastor Bud.

Vera Farmiga was born in New Jersey into a large Ukrainian immigrant family. When she was a young girl, her family left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and became Pentecostal in faith and, apparently, church affiliation. “Higher Ground” appears to be as much Vera Farmiga’s story as that of Carolyn Briggs, the author of the book on which it is loosely based, This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost. Briggs also co-wrote the screenplay for “Higher Ground.”

In the characters who comprise Corrine’s church, Farmiga and Briggs introduce us to an understanding and practice of Christianity that undoubtedly exists at least some of the time in some churches. But in Corrine’s church, every religious cliche you have ever heard is standard fare all of the time. Pastor Bud, a man of earnest conviction, never makes a nuanced statement about anything. He endlessly quotes scripture as the appropriate response to every situation and question and continually elicits his congregation’s assent with “Amen?”

In perhaps the only scene in the film where scripture isn’t front and center as the answer to all questions, Pastor Bud is gathered in someone’s home with a dozen husbands, encouraging them in the godly duty of meeting their wive’s sexual needs. They somberly listen to a cassette tape of an expert with “Dr.” in front of his name talking about how to manually stimulate a woman. The tape is stopped after about two minutes, and Pastor Bud suggests that all should go home and put this into practice. (My wife and I looked at each other with total disbelief).

Whether by design or accident, every scene in which Corrine’s church (or some part of it) is gathered comes across as forced and phony. Even though I have heard and seen in real life almost every religious expression and practice the film portrays, it all comes across as either fake or badly acted in the film. In other words, the sincerity of believers seems so insincere in “Higher Ground.”

However, when Corrine begins to question what she has been part of for ten years and starts down the road toward doubt, it is all so real and believable. She comes across as the only character in the film with a brain capable of critical thinking. My experience with the kinds of believers portrayed in the film is that they are far more multi-dimensional than this story presents them. This is not to say that the kind of church Briggs and Farmiga present to us doesn’t exist. But this one is easy to judge. In the real world, even the most conservative churches are far more complex and nuanced than the one in “Higher Ground.”

At the conclusion, Farmiga’s character, Corrine, stands before the congregation to share her questions about faith and God. Pastor Bud moves to stop her, but she waves him away, and he allows her to speak. She says nothing particularly earthshaking: sometimes God has been very real; other times God has not. But then, Corrine affirms that she cannot continue to play the game any longer and walks out of the church.

Should we applaud Corrine for her honesty and courage? Should we judge her pastor and congregation for their simplistic and naive faith? I think the purpose of this film is to encourage us to answer “yes” to both questions.

An auspicious anniversary

A year ago today my socked foot slipped off a carpeted step, hurling me to the landing at the bottom and leaving me writhing in pain. Alone at home and unable to stand, I phoned for help. My wife rushed home from work and a member of the church hurried over to the house. They splinted my leg, helped me hobble to the car and drove me to the emergency room. Several hours later an MRI revealed a ruptured patellar tendon. Four days later a surgeon stitched the torn membrane back together in an operation lasting less than an hour. But I was in for a very lengthy convalescence and recovery.

Fine physical therapists saw me three times a week for about twelve weeks, helping me begin to painfully flex the knee, immobile for about nine weeks following the surgery. Needless to say recovery has been an arduous journey. One year later the left side of my knee is still numb, the result of the vertical six-inch surgical incision. With every step there are strange sensations in the knee, reminding me that something awful took place.

Prior to the fall I could not have answered a question asking me to name the tendon attaching the knee cap to the tibia. In my entire life I never thought once about the patellar tendon. Of all the possible knee injuries, I never heard about this one.

Two months after the injury I began a series of studies at the prison on the body of Christ. One passage from 1 Corinthians 12, never particularly obvious to me before, stood out:

On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

My experience, which bore this out in the physical, helped me understand it better within the community of faith, especially in a prison setting where the diversity among the members is greater than often experienced in typical churches.

At the time of the accident I was deeply involved in beginning House of Bread. Someone suggested that the accident was an “attack of the Enemy” meant to hinder or stop something God wanted me to do. I am not convinced, though my skepticism does not mean I think Satan is powerless to oppose the work of God. In my case I was hurrying down carpeted stairs in socked feet, holding something in both hands and, therefore, not holding the handrail. A few seconds of carelessness, resulting in months of recovery (not to mention being hospitalized later with a pulmonary embolism from a blood clot that had developed in the knee through weeks of immobility).

So I remain agnostic about Satan’s involvement, but I have no doubts about how God has used the injury to his glory and my sanctification. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”



Three provocative books

I have a bad habit  of starting more than one book at a time. Currently I have three books going and I rotate my time among them. All three, in some way, are about criminals and criminal justice.

More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More is by Byron Johnson, who is on the faculty at Baylor University. For a number of years Professor Johnson has been keenly interested in researching the positive role faith plays in reducing crime and recidivism. Previously he was at the University of Memphis (among other academic settings) where, as he states in the first chapter of More God, he discovered that his interest in researching the impact of faith on criminals was not only unappreciated, but cause to be dismissed. More about his research in a moment.

The second of the three books I started is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Ms. Alexander is a civil rights lawyer who has taught at Stanford University. She has also directed the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California. The New Jim Crow is a disturbing book for someone with my background, who has always tended to see the criminal justice system in a positive light. (Ms. Alexander notes in her acknowledgments that her husband, who is a federal prosecutor, does not share her views about the criminal justice system). Ms. Alexander’s thesis is that the war on drugs is the latest effort of politicians of both parties to enhance their standing with white voters (mostly southern but not entirely) through institutionalized discrimination against minorities. In the same way the old Jim Crows laws in the south discriminated against blacks in education, voting, public accommodations, housing and employment; so also has the mass incarceration associated with the war on drugs effectively done the same to minorities in the past 25 years. More about this later.

Finally, the third book is Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton E. Samenow. First published in 1984, and now updated and revised, Inside the Criminal Mind explores how criminals think and how their thinking supports and justifies their criminal behavioral. Samenow is a clinical psychologist with about four decades of experience in the field of criminal behavior. His research through countless interviews with prison inmates convinces him that people turn to criminality because their thinking becomes distorted — what Samenow calls “thinking errors.” He acknowledges that environmental factors such as poor parenting, poverty, and racism put people at a disadvantage. However, these factors do not cause someone to become a criminal. After all, the majority of people who experience disadvantage do not become criminals. Those who do, Samenow maintains, do so because of distorted thinking. Setting them on a path to responsible behavior involves correcting their thinking errors.

Taken together these three books shed light on my work in very different ways. First, Byron Johnson’s research affirms that a faith-based approach to criminal rehabilitation is likely to yield positive results. Professor Johnson examined 272 academic studies on the relationship of religious faith and involvement to criminal behavior. All but two of them established a correlation. The majority of inmates with whom I come in contact are men of Christian faith. Many of them had church involvements in childhood and some even in adulthood, but still turned to crime. Now behind bars, however, they all believe that God and their faith in God will help them in their hope to live responsibly once they are released.

Michelle Alexander’s book echoes a persistent complaint I hear from federal inmates, the majority of whom are men of color: they have been victimized by corrupt police, severe drug laws, overzealous prosecutors, and draconian sentences for drug crimes. This is not to say that they are innocent of breaking the law; I can’t think of a single inmate who says he is innocent. Nevertheless, some who are serving life sentences for drug offenses are convinced the police overstepped their legal bounds, their defense attorneys served them poorly, the prosecutors held all the cards and the sentences they received are unbelievably harsh.

When I pray with inmates collectively, I sometimes pray for justice to be done. At the same time, when I talk with inmates one-on-one I do not dwell on the injustices they feel they have experienced, but rather on their need to revise the way they think. I have yet to talk with an inmate who did not readily admit that the way he used to think about himself and others was a large factor in his involvement in crime. So, while I have some sympathy for Michelle Alexander’s thesis, I see my work as largely framed by Stanton Samenow’s findings.

When I finish these books I will likely have more to say. But for now, the reading is quite stimulating.