Dec 12, 2011

Thoughts on Wilderness, Jail and Christmas

Many summers ago, I taught the preaching workshop at our Annual Conference Licensing School. There I met Ben Busheyhead, the pastor of a small inner city United Methodist Church in Milwaukee. The week after we met, Ben returned to Milwaukee while the media horrified our nation with stories about Jeffery Dahmer. I called Ben and he told me that Dahmer lived only eight blocks from his church. Creepy!

I don’t suppose anyone ever assumed Dahmer’s innocence. Yet, Jeffery notwithstanding, we know historically jails have hosted many innocent people through the ages.

Prison, I think is an equivalent in our society of the wilderness experience - a time of trials from which one emerges stronger in both person and faith. For some, prison becomes a place to incubate hate. For others, prison becomes a place to find God, hammering out a vision of what life with God would look like.

For example, the seeds necessary to sign a Camp David Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel in 1979 were sown in Egyptian president Anwar Sadat while he was in prison. Eldridge Cleaver, the former Black Panther Party leader, turned his life around in a way that is little short of remarkable in prison. As I thought about John the Baptizer this week, I realized that he too spent time in prison, like other jailbirds heroes of faith: Joseph, Jeremiah, Samson, Peter and even Paul.

What all this may mean, is that when we find God, it may not be at the optimum moment of spiritual seeking. Nor is it always in ways we might think of as religious. The people of Israel, for example, found their God in bondage to both Egypt and Babylonia. God then called them into the wilderness. Likewise, those Christians who kept winding up in Roman jails, constructed much of the good theology in Acts of the Apostles.

Sometime, such an experience can be the defining moment in a person's life. On April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor involved in the German resistance movement against Nazism, preached his last sermon in a small schoolhouse serving as a prison in Schonberg, Germany.  He preached “without ornamentation, liturgy, or religious trappings” for Protestants, Catholics, agnostics and atheists. After the closing prayer, guards summoned him from the schoolroom. Dietrich then spoke to his fellow prisoner Payne Best and said, “This is the end - for me the beginning of life.” For resisting the Third Reich the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer the next day.

How fitting is it that Bonhoeffer preached on that last day of his life? It is symbolic of a neglected side of his person and work, his love for preaching, and listening to sermons. We know Bonhoeffer for his endorsement of “religion-less Christianity” and for rejecting “cheap grace,” but these famous expressions tend to eclipse his love for the church and his devotion to the Word of God preached. He never forgot his love for God for a moment—even in prison.

If, for some reason this holiday season, you keep thinking to yourself, “It sure doesn’t seem like Christmas,” do not worry. The great gift of the Advent-Christmas worship cycle is the gift of Christ which is none other than the word of God made flesh. Also, remember these words to encourage you when you are feeling un-Christmassy: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2).

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