This is the second of a two-part blog post on what I learned from teaching Christian prison literature to inmates of two Washington State correctional facilities, inmates who self-identified as “religious” or “spiritual,” though not all as explicitly or conventionally “Christian.”
For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book on Christian prison literature, or rather, on one particular kind of Christian literature, namely works which enunciate the convictions of Christians who were incarcerated for opposing the laws, policies, mores and/or ideals of their society, and which narrate their experience of trying to live in accordance with their “counter-cultural” convictions during their period of incarceration. I am investigating the various ways in which Christians who have been incarcerated for their religious convictions manage to maintain those convictions in the face of the relentless and often brutal efforts of the state to silence them or force them to recant, and exploring the spiritual resources they draw upon to endure repression and the rhetorical strategies they use to continue promoting the very convictions for which they were imprisoned. The figures whose prison writings I am studying are Vibia Perpetua (ca. 180–203), Anicius Boethius (ca. 475–ca. 526), Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662), Thomas More (1478–1535), Michael Sattler (ca. 1490–1527), John Bunyan (1628–1688) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). As I studied this literature, I began to wonder whether readers with first-hand experience of living a religious life behind bars, as I have not, might see things in it that would escape my notice. I resolved to find out.
What is the “discernment” or “testing” of spirits? As I understand it, it is a two-sided gift, involving both theological discrimination and spiritual insight. Theological discrimination refers to the capacity to sense when someone’s ideas or actions are out of alignment with the historic Christian faith. Spiritual insight, also known as the virtue of prudence, refers to the capacity to size up people and situations, and then to intervene in ways that forestall or correct mistakes, calm tensions, reconcile adversaries, and heal wounds of mind and heart. Teachers, perhaps, need an extra measure of the former, pastors and chaplains of the latter. But good teaching requires a share of prudence, just as skillful pastoral care must be deeply rooted in solid doctrine. So I venture to say that everyone called into Christian leadership needs to be “discerning” in both ways.
Back in August, 2012, I received an email from “Cheryl,” a prospective student at Seattle Pacific Seminary, who felt a call to pastoral ministry. She asked my advice on which of two denominations she should join. I replied…
At the time of this story, I was a United Methodist pastor in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was sitting in my church office when the phone rang. The caller explained that her daughter, Karen, had recently gotten engaged, and asked if I would perform the wedding. “We belong to another Methodist Church,” she said, “but yours is closer to the site of the reception.” Then she added that Karen, who lived in Florida, wouldn’t be coming home until a week before the wedding. That ruled out any pre-marital counseling. By now I was getting leery of this situation, but the mother assured me that the pastor of her church, my colleague in ministry, was okay with this plan, that the couple would be getting premarital counseling at their church in Florida, and that a professional wedding consultant would handle all the local arrangements. So I somewhat reluctantly I agreed. Fortunately, the preparations went quite smoothly over the next few months, and the bride-to-be called me several times from Florida to extend the proper courtesies and make sure everything was lined up. My worries were over—or so I thought.
“When I was a freshman in college, I fell in love with a tree. Nothing weird, mind you. It was a pure and chaste sort of love. [….] I spent my undergraduate years at Haverford College, a small Quaker school ten miles west of Philadelphia, PA. The campus is beautifully landscaped, and is in fact a registered arboretum, with specimins of many exotic trees and shrubs. One of its most distinctive attractions is the ‘Climbing Tree,’ a gnarly old osage orange that stands just to the left of the entrance ramp to the Magill Library.”