What Makes Bad Men Good? A Tour of Eastern State Penitentiary

When my students voted to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary as the historic part of their tour of Philadelphia (for their week-long Urban Explorations class), I wasn’t expecting the tour to be that significant to me.

I was wrong.

The Eastern State Penitentiary is America’s most historic prison. The architectural wonder is known as the world’s first true “penitentiary,” that is, the building was designed to inspire penitence—or true regret—in the hearts of prisoners.

The massive stone structure is surrounded by a thirty foot stone walls, complete with neo-Gothic battlements, to impose fear in prisoners.

The novelty of Eastern State’s construction at the time was that the architecture represented a new philosophy. Instead of punishment, the designers of the prison sought reform. In Europe at the time (late 1700s), most prisons were simply holding pens for criminals. No attempt was made at reforming a man’s character. Prominent Philadelphians (including Benjamin Franklin other Enlightenment thinkers), however, sought reform, for the lack of reform!

It caused them to ask an age-old question: what makes bad men good?

Their answer was three-fold: (1) silence and meditation (isolation), (2) the word of God (the Bible), and (3) work (shoemaking, weaving, etc).

The website for the Eastern State Penitentiary gives this history: “Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

 

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Eastern’s seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations included each prisoner having his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence. In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, that ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls.

We booked our tour only a day in advance, which meant we got the audio tour version, and this slow amble allowed us to connect the narrator’s words with the stone walkways.

In a stern, solid hallway, next to rows of two-foot doors, I asked my students if they agree that silence and isolation would make someone sorry and bring personal reform. (I got mixed reviews.) Which means that it is a very good question to ask—what makes bad men good? (And how do you answer this question at a state level?)

My students were not the only ones with mixed reviews of isolationism. Charles Dickens spoke out about the penitentiary; in fact, on his tour to the United States, he cited only two things he wanted to see—Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He wrote: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Besides the fascinating history of the historic prison, the prison itself is well-presented as a museum (a bit cold on the last day of winter! But realistic in that sense.) I found myself contemplating issues of humanity, of human character, and of prisons today (the Penitentiary has a striking visual exhibit related to the current American prison crisis, including but not limited to the issues of race).

And then imagine my surprise when I heard soft strains from Cellblock 4, and I ducked around the corner to find the Gettysburg College Choir singing the last lines from Stephan Hatfield’s “Hard Shoulder”:

Have you no coat on a winter’s day
Have you no one to see you through, Lord?
Am I just like you, Lord?
Blessed are they that mourn; they shall be comforted
Blessed are they who mourn…

The director turned around to announce they were performing as a part of their “Peace and Justice” tour, performing pieces relating to social justice. Hatfield’s piece was written to honor street people, and the choir followed up with an ensemble performance of Ysaye M. Barnwell’s “Spiritual,” a very effective piece of performance art sung in the space, hauntingly heard in the former prison.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

In this world of trouble and woe,
a member had better be ready to go.
We look for things to stay the same,
but in the twinkling of an eye, everything can be changed.

The troubles of this world fill our hearts with rage
from Soweto, to Stonewall, Birmingham, and LA
We are searching for hope that lies within ourselves
as we fight against misogyny, race, hatred, and AIDS.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

They ended with Eric Whitacre’s “Hope, Faith, Life, and Love.”

This choral surprise was a personal delight, but I later reflected that I think that the college students probably got the most out of their performance. (There were very few listening in on the concert, only a couple of Eastern State staffers, me, and like 3 other people. Besides, how many tourists are prepared for Whitacre?)

When we return to the question—what makes bad men good?—I think we ought to look further than Barnwell’s “hope that lies within ourselves.” I think of something loftier, and since I’m in a poetic mood, in a poem’s how I’ll answer–I’d choose something like a star.

Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Hi, It’s Nice to Meet You

Hello all! The calendar reading March 14th leaves me scratching my head for two reasons—how has winter steamed by so quickly, and how am I ever going to dig my little VW out of a FOOT of snow?! (Winter storm Stella’s been a doozy!)

Today I want to welcome the newcomers to Shasta’s Fog! A few of you are showing up for the first time, and today I’d like to discuss four types of posts you can expect from Shasta’s Fog in the future. (And for faithful readers, this post is for any of you who haven’t had a chance to read my recently updated About page!)

1. One type of post I usually write is literary in nature. (Last year 50% of my posts were in some way related to literature or poetry!) These posts are normally the brain-child of literature I’m currently teaching (I’m a high school AP lit teacher), books I’m currently reading, poems I’m pondering, or poems I’m writing.

My most recent literary post included thoughts on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and if I were to write a literary post right now, I might include a poem I wrote sitting in a graveyard by the North Sea in England, after a 5 a.m. jaunt along the cliffs, past the bombed out Whitby Abbey, a strong monument to the history of monastic life, English poetry (Caedmon DID live there after all), and the church of England.

(I found this poem after digging through my 2014 U.K. photos and journals, which I was perusing in order to co-teach a mini-term called “Urban Exploration.” Every winter, my school cancels all classes for 7th-12th grades for one week and hosts a week of Mini-terms, where students can take career-oriented or personal interest classes.)

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Fair morning whispers to the child of light.
She rises early who farewells the night.
Pink sky, brown rooster—white, the gulls which cry,
salt wind, green cliff, stone monument nearby
wet grass, thick wheat, stone pathway for her feet
small bird, fat slugs, three snails—all these do meet
the sun above the cliffs at Whitby’s shore,
smooth North Sea, tugboats, church bells, gates, and more.
Light’s morning glimmers, puzzling beauty’s flash
amiss—“For safety, stay on this, the path.”

2. The second type of post I write is spiritual in nature, though many of these posts are literary posts in disguise. (For example, I discussed N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe, but it felt more like a personal spiritual credo than anything else.)

If I were to write a post relating to spirituality today, I would write about my foray into observing Lent, how I’m observing the Episcopalian kind this year (mainly because they get to cheat on Sundays), how I eagerly champion the virtues of Lenten fasts in all my literature classes, and how that basically flows from two agendas: (1) It is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today, and (2) I basically just don’t want to be the only one walking around admitting that I actually am addicted to Netflix, Youtube, and snacking. You have vices too.

3. The third type of post I write is travel posts. I recently traveled to Central America and posted some photos and poetry related to Nicaragua.

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Upcoming travel posts will be in honor of my personal conviction to properly celebrate the Easter holy day, as I will be celebrating in community by traveling with friends to a new city—Québec City! Let the party begin! (Not that breaking my fast there will necessarily include Netflix or Youtube, but it may include some exquisitely divine food (poutine and macaroons!), architectural wonders, crisp river walks, and a cathedral Easter service.

4. Last but not least, I also write about cultural issues, including but not limited to:

(1) those issues relating to geography (Pennsylvania: a place to where all women wear maroon, guys still wear deck shoes even though everyone else stopped wearing Sperry’s in 2012, and where chip aisles do not exist and only pretzels are munched!)

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(2) issues relating to Anabaptism (including snarky posts about Mennonite culture), and

(3) those issues relating to singleness and marriage (you all seemed to really like [and really hate] this post).

If I were to write a cultural post today, I would write about some thoughts I’ve been thinking relating to single women in the church and this idea that all women ought to submit to all men in general, whether on a committee, whether at a job, whether at a hardware store, or on a co-ed soccer team. (Here it goes. Friends and family: keep your fire extinguishers nearby.)

Deep breath.

The cultural milieu in which I find myself has this unstated (and sometimes stated) belief that all women must submit to all men. Were I to write a post about this cultural topic, I would (1) take a close look at the Scriptures from which this application is normally derived, (2) I would note when those Scriptures are speaking to women in marriage relationships and when they are not, and then ask if there are any “submitting” passages left over, (3) and then I would ask my favorite current question: “Why are some people so intent on making sure that all women (single or married) know their place as “submitters” when, in my experience, single women in the church do not practically live under any especial authority that differs from that of married men in the church?” Because that would be a fun conversation (though one probably best had in person).

So there you have it, new readers! Feel free to use my blog’s category guide as well to find content most suited to you: Teach (education topics), Read (books and literary posts), and Travel (cultural posts).

I look forward to reading your feedback, and I welcome suggestions for new posts in the comments!

Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

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Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people “good” by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be “priggish”, “intolerant”, and (of course) “Puritanical”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

Nicaragua: An Oral Photograph

I didn’t take a picture of bike taxis or red motorcycles, Nicas riding double, triple, or of tanned faces staring out of full, dusty buses.

I didn’t take a picture of clay roof tiles, bright pink walls, turquoise paint, sky blue everything, pottery-colored walls, emerald, yellow, brown ones too.

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I didn’t take a picture of animal flesh, hanging in market, the dark stalls under roofs, to protect in rainy season, narrow aisles, of a man spinning his knife-sharpening wheel, sparks flying into the soft cotton of his shirt, under the hanging canastas, piñatas, effigies.

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I didn’t take a picture of ladies’ beautiful,manicured feet, nor my culturally-inappropriate dirty ones.

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I didn’t take a picture of stepping through dimly-lit hallways into melon-colored rooms where exhausted mamas clutched tiny newborns, and baby bundles and Antorches that we gave them, and glowing fathers, lying with women on single beds, five families in one clinic room, murmuring gracias.

I didn’t take a picture of córdobas, gym-sacks, mochilas, and back-packs.

I didn’t take a picture of the Nica lady, who daily paraded by the front gate, head laden, nasal voice selling comidas.

I didn’t take a picture of tiny, heaped, road-side fires, small ash heaps sending smoke into my nostrils.

I didn’t take a picture of roosters crowing, of lavender sunrises, of reading Scripture early on quiet hammocks.

I didn’t take a picture of dumping Nicaraguan coffee into a pot, cement countertops, drying dishes with rags, of setting out fresh bananas, slicing papaya and scooping out the moist black seeds and tasting fruity flesh, of sweat rolling down my back and legs at 9:00 a.m.

I didn’t take a picture of tacos, Ricardo chicken, chilaquiles, hamburguesas, or Fresca. Of water in a bag, jello in a bag, rice in a bag, plantains sold by a girl in Central, topped with cabbage and dressing, so sweet.

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I didn’t take a picture of a Catholic funeral we barged through at Catedral, the confused old Nicaraguan woman muttering to us about a boat in the street, the girls flocking into world’s most beautiful McDonalds, and me not buying any because WAIT. Are the missionaries buying ice cream?

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I didn’t take a picture of the ugly Santa pictures, curiously covering holes on the back of the bald bus, wind whipping our hair to Latin rhythms, beats.

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I didn’t take a picture of boarding a 12 passenger van forty times, of policía with batons, of homeless people sleeping on cement, of a well-dressed woman on a motorcycle.

I didn’t take a picture of gringo tourists, sun-tanned legs embarrassingly naked, of an americano scoffing, and my pride at her acculturation.

I didn’t take a picture of a university man in crisp khakis and a beret reciting love poetry to my friends and me in Central.

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I didn’t take a picture of the English-speaking man on top of Catedral, who was surprised to find that Mennonites live in León.

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I didn’t take a picture of the jewelry vendor in the shade under the flowering yellow tree in Central, the only time I tried to barter, him laughing at me, because it’s real turquoise, doesn’t even scratch with a pliers. Doscientos, por favor.

I didn’t take a picture of Nicaraguan children singing Spanish hymns, of girls teaching me “Choco-choco-la-la” hand games, of playing kickball in the street with a small ball, of six o-clock sunsets.

I didn’t take a picture of William and me exchanging verses, in line at four-square, the kind I played in grade school, when I made a boy cry. Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará, Mas Jehová Dios llamó el hombre, y le dijo, ¿Dónde estás tú?

I didn’t take a picture of the Nicaraguan man whose bicycle screeched to a halt and our soccer ball rolled right up to his front tire, resulting in a glare.

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I didn’t take a picture of Yolanda, Yessenia, Selena, Karina, Julio, Omar, y David.

I didn’t take a picture of missionary men, preaching in Spanish, of missionary mothers and their flocks, their quiet tables, of their cares behind kind eyes, of south-facing blue kitchens, opened to little courtyards and plants, just like the one from Prada to Nada.

I didn’t take a picture of chickens, a small Nebraskan boy clutching his chicken, like his father must have clutched wheat, nor his sandy smile.

I didn’t take a picture of Moron, the missionary cat, nor Pip.

I didn’t take a picture of cows in the road on the way to Cerro Negro, bells ringing, horns in a filed line, wood loads in the carts.

I didn’t take a picture of my hand pressed into the darkened soil on Cerro Negro, and it springing back as the sulfur steam heated the earth, my skin.

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I didn’t take a picture of a scorpion I tried to kill, the ant farm in the cabinet I cleaned.

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I didn’t take a picture of narrating “El foso de los leones,” of working with a missionary to tweak the Google translated script, and his 8-year-old daughter surprising us both with her translation skills.

I didn’t take a picture of a woman sweeping her dirt in the Nicaraguan equivalent of the Projects, or her glare when I forgot my face, shocked at her neighbor’s smoky, chimney-less house, and turned, and locked eyes.

I didn’t take a picture of pulling a number at the meat counter of a grocery, ordering “cuatro pechugas con alas.”

I didn’t take a picture of painting a little boy’s sticky face who must have had a snack earlier. “El fin. Eres un gato.”

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I didn’t take a picture of a beautiful young girl, shyly hiding her smile, at her gate, waiting for the Pied Piper of Hamlin to take her to children’s church.

I didn’t take a picture of Raquel pulling a dictionary out of her gym sack to look up embutidos (means sausages).

I didn’t take a picture of houses with dirt floors.

I didn’t take a picture of León’s zoo, or spider monkeys, and the one whose hairy palm I held, fed a banana.

I didn’t take a picture of the senior girls playing the ukulele, Lancaster caramels melting in our mouths, lying on sandy beach towels.

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I didn’t take a picture of bobbing in the powerful Pacific waves, white-washed pinks, blues, and grays reflecting off the golden foam, salt water in my mouth, the sun ducking behind clouds, swimming and swimming, silence…

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I didn’t take a picture of the drunk man, tottering under the orange street light toward the line of children, seated on a cement embankment, waiting for church to begin, moved along by a missionary.

I didn’t take a picture of the Spanish social kiss, warmly given after el culto. Dios te bendiga.

I didn’t take a picture of my heart, congealing on the sidewalks, of it bubbling in the sunshine, or cooling in the Poneloya ocean, moistened by wave after wave… Of it being pried apart, and a new, fresh memory being lovingly planted, like an unsuspecting oyster, tossed on the beach, a piece of sand finding its way inside…

Who knows what pearl may grow from this beautiful, divine irritation.

A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

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I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

You Are Rare Art (Before I Met You)

Before I met you, you were already a rare piece of art. Grey background, yellow flourishes, black shadows, peach strokes, all overlaid with strands of gold.

You are rare, a type of art that takes time and talent to appreciate, to understand, to comprehend.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 5, 1948

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for Art, though. I don’t want to spend the time. And that is the worst thing I (we) can do. To never take the time to take a step back and appreciate a good canvas.

When I’m not thinking artistically, I find myself sometimes wanting to add to the picture. Do you ever want to adjust a painting? (Maybe some people come to mind—your brother, a parent, perhaps one of your students.) Do you ever meet a new person and think, “Well if I could fix just this one thing, then they’d be a really nice person.” “I like her, but this Thing really bothers me about her.” “Such a nice guy, but did you know This?”

I learned something this week: Nobody asked you. Nobody asked you to change a painting. Nobody asked you to “fix” a “broken” picture. Nobody asked you to create anyone.

You know, people really are who they are, whether or not you affirm them.

But sometimes we get struck with a savior complex, and we feel like it’s our duty to change people. When I run up against this, it always turns out badly.

My own impulse to “fix” people, and my inability to see, to listen, and to understand, remind me of the impulsive and sensual Dmitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, who in his love-stricken state, cannot bear the facts about Grushenka, a disloyal woman.

Dmitri reasons to himself: “‘If she’s sitting at Kuzma’s, she won’t go to Fyodor Pavlovich . . . if only she’s not lying,’ he added at once… His jealously was precisely of such a sort that, separated from the beloved women, he at once invented all kinds of horrors about what was happening with her, and how she had gone and ‘betrayed’ him; but, running back to her, and shaken, crushed, convinced irretrievably that she had managed to betray him, with the first look of her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive, he would at once lose all suspicion, and with joyful shame reproach himself for his jealousy.”

But she has betrayed him. And Dmitri cannot see the truth (rather he cannot accept the truth) because of his own selfish jealousy.

And Dostoevsky indulges us at length, with this explanation: “It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can tolerate and be reconciled to, and what they can forgive! Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it. The jealous man (having first made a terrible scene, of course) can and will very promptly forgive, for example, a nearly proven betrayal, the embraces and kisses he has seen himself, if, for example, at the same time he can somehow be convinced that this was ‘the last time’ and that his rival will disappear from that moment on, that he will go to the end of the earth, or that he himself will take her away somewhere, to some place where this terrible rival will never come. Of course, the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one. And one may ask what is the good of a love that needs constantly be spied on, and what is the worth of a love that needs to be guarded so intensely? But that is something the truly jealous will never understand, though at the same time there happen, indeed, to be lofty hearts among them. It is also remarkable that these same lofty-hearted men, while standing in some sort of closet, eavesdropping and spying, though they understand clearly ‘in their lofty hearts’ all the shame they have gotten into of their own will, nevertheless, at least for that moment, while standing in that closet, will not feel any pangs of remorse.”

In this case, it is ridiculous to feel shame but no remorse. This, truly is the jealous heart.

We need not limit Dmitri’s blindness toward (and jealousy for) his lover alone. How many of us, due to our own selfishness, or jealousy, refuse to really see a person for who they truly are? How many of us refuse to allow someone to live outside of “our box,” never bother to sit down and really listen to a human, especially if it’s a person who either makes you feel AWKWARD or really just flat out annoys you? (Distant children, difficult students, and new acquaintances come to mind. Or, in Dmitri’s case, a person whom you love very much…)

In every situation, be careful if you feel like the bringer of truth. Please pause and consider carefully: while we influence people, we do not necessarily recreate them.

People are not containers. You can’t “fill them up” with truth.

People aren’t boxes that you put things in.

They are canvases.

In your whole life, you may only get to paint one purple stroke or a green dot.

No need to cover them in voluminous red vomit.

Before you meet them, and after you are gone, they are rare art.

The Idol of Marriage

Guys, staaaaaap.
Why is everyone so curious what I, the outspoken blogger, thinks about marriage?

“Stats are booming!”

You wackos.

(But thanks. I feel the love!)

In my last post, I gave my exact thoughts about the topic of dating and marriage. In that post I shared mostly what was on my heart. I have, however, decided to throw caution into the wind (due to reader disappointment) and share a few thoughts. (This post has been percolating.)

Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of marriage, some of which I may or may not have shared in my Practical Christian Living class.

In my opinion, marriage is an idol. Marriage, its place, and its importance have grown far too large in our minds due to our misunderstanding of what marriage actually means. And further, idolizing marriage leads to ineffective Christian witness both inside and outside the church.

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  1. First, a lot of people are confused about what marriage means.

Marriage is a metaphor created by God to represent the future union of God Himself to His pure, beautiful church.

The first “thing” is God and His church, not the other way around. Human marriage is not the “thing.” God one day receiving His pure, beautiful church—THAT is the thing. Marriage is temporary. The church is eternal.

Jesus Himself said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). (You know you won’t be married in heaven, right?)

Paul reminds us that marriage is not the ultimate goal by a strange inversion at the end of his comments on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:25-32).

Just when we think Paul won’t end his moral rampage about husbands, he flips the argument on its side, indicating he’s actually been talking about God and the church the whole time.  (This is not to say that husbands ought to be rude to their wives. Paul’s instructions regarding Christian love still stand.)

Paul’s inversion reminds us that we do not look at marriage and say, “Oh, this is kind of like God and the church.” No, we look at God and His church and say, “This mystery, so amazing, is reflected to me by the human institution of marriage.”

Let us not have such an earthly perspective that we do not see marriage as temporary or that we do not see the church as eternal.

  1. Second, the idolatry of marriage is evident within the church.

It seems like we in the church place great importance on marriage, sometimes at the expense of Kingdom work!

Why is it that many Christian young people find themselves secretly praying, “Jesus, don’t come back until I get married”? (Which is really the subliminal “Jesus, don’t come back until I have sex.”) (And honestly, this is a very common prayer, according to youth!)

Strange isn’t it, that we prefer getting our jollies over the return of our great Lord?

What is it about this marriage relationship or this intimacy that is of utter importance that we cannot imagine getting to the end of our lives without it?

(And married people can’t imagine it. Grown men who are happily married get very uncomfortable by the idea of being celibate for the rest of their lives.) (Though I can’t imagine why. We single people have been doing it for years.)

So where do we get this idea that ultimate satisfaction comes from a romantic relationship (or a marriage relationship)? Is it coming from the church? If so, why?

Or, perhaps, have we bought into the secular message that sexual expression = worth?

Strangely, we in the church forget that our ultimate goal is contributing to God’s kingdom on earth and living in relationship with His people. Building God’s kingdom through the church is the Gospel message, after all.

When people don’t recognize that marriage is a metaphor for something greater, and that marriage itself is not eternal, it can become an idol after which many people seek. People desperately browse the marriage market, follow and like their next new crush, safely marry, and then obsess over all their unmarried friends, attempting to lead them into “Christian bliss,” or marriage, the obvious path to spiritual maturity.

There are people (married or not) who cannot imagine a person living on one’s own (especially a woman living on her own). They cannot imagine “not being known,” as it were, emotionally and physically. They cannot imagine laying down their idol of marriage and instead fully devoting themselves to Kingdom work.

(We know after all, that that’s the whole point of singleness. Paul says in I Corinthians 7:28, 32-35: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul so clearly outlines the purpose of single living. (Did you hear that singles? We are just SO MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL than everyone. The Bible says so.)

And a side note, perhaps this is what I am saying to you, O gentle reader, who does not wish to be mimic Immoral Married Monica. Help us change the conversation about single people. Instead of the inevitable, “Are you dating?” “Why are you single?” “So have you found anyone yet?” I beg you to instead ask, “Tell me about your Kingdom work.” I know so many single people who have so much to say about how they are influencing the Kingdom of God… either immediate work, or dreams and goals. Can we not talk about these eternal things? Do we have to talk about your second cousin in Goshen who still single and what you would describe as “decent”?

There is a lot to be said about how the idol of marriage appears in church when it comes to preferring marriage to just about ANY other identity, but I’m running out of time, so let’s move on.

  1. This idolatry also creates problems for the church’s witness regarding relevant social issues.

Bellering about marriage convinces young people that they CAN get their jollies in the church, just find a right nice young fella and settle down. However, this does not take care of the problem of people idolizing marriage and refusing to find their identity in Christ alone and refusing to find meaning in Kingdom work. I do not need to explain to you how this could be problematic.

Christians, then, finding their worth in their marriage relationship, or in their partner, haven’t got much to say regarding the sexual revolution in which we find ourselves. You know we’re in a new sexual revolution, right?

How can Christians who find their identity in their partner have anything valuable to say to lonely divorcees? How can Christians who find their identity in being married have anything important to say to single adults, young or old? How can Christians who find their identity in something other than Christ alone have anything to say to homosexuals? How can Christians who find their identity in their partner, and not Christ, have anything to say at all about the fornicating teen who wants to get an abortion due to the consequences of her behavior? (We Christians love to condemn the sin of abortion without ever (or, okay, rarely) thinking about what sin, and what belief about identity, that sin proceeds from.)

It is my personal opinion that sexual the climate in which we find ourselves is in part due to the Church’s improper view of marriage. Perhaps marriage became too important. (In the 50s, maybe?) Then the Church failed to get something across in the 60s, and in the 70s, leading to even more sexual freedom, which led to boredom, which led to sexual experimentation, which led to still more boredom.

That boredom is today’s sexual climate. After all, virginity is on the rise.

Relevant magazine recently pointed this out in an article called “Why Aren’t Millennials Having Sex Anymore?” The article states, “Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, ‘exhaustive’ study called ‘Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,’ found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins.”

And we ask, so why HAVE kids stopped having sex? What have they stopped believing, and how does it relate to the church? If sex is not the thing, then WHAT IS? Millennials are asking this question, and we better have an answer.

Back to the issue at hand: if we look to marriage or to sexual expression for our ultimate satisfaction, we will miss our ultimate meaning.

Allow me to quote from Christopher Yuan from his book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. In this book, Yuan hints at those ultimate identity markers which those of us in Christianity are offered:

“God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy… God never said, ‘Be heterosexual, for I am heterosexual’…

Holy sexuality means one of two scenarios. The first scenario is marriage. If a man is married, he must devote himself to complete faithfulness to his wife. And if a woman is married, she must devote herself to complete faithfulness to her husband. The idea that I might marry a woman seemed like an impossibility—though God could do the impossible. But the truth was, I did not need to be attracted to women in general to get married; I needed to be attracted to only one woman. Heterosexuality is a broad term that focuses on sexual feelings and behaviors toward the opposite gender. It includes lust, adultery, and sex before marriage—all sins according to the Bible. God calls married people to something much more specific—holy sexuality. Holy sexuality means focusing all our sexual feelings and behaviors exclusively toward one person, our spouse.

The second scenario of holy sexuality is singleness. Single people must devote themselves to complete faithfulness to the Lord through celibacy. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture, and abstinence is not something unfair or unreasonable for God to ask of his people. Singleness is not a curse. Singleness is not a burden. As heirs of the new covenant, we know that the emphasis is not on procreation but regeneration. But singleness need not be permanent. It merely means being content in our present situation while being open to marriage—and yet not consumed by the pursuit of marriage.

Holy sexuality doesn’t mean that I no longer have any sexual feelings or attractions… So the question is, if I continue to have these feelings I neither asked for nor chose, will I still be willing to follow Christ no matter what? Is my obedience to Christ dependent on whether he answered my prayers my way? God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them. Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles. I realized that the ultimate issue has to be that I yearn after God in total surrender and complete obedience.”

When we do not find our identity first before our Lord, and when we do not find our ultimate satisfaction in Kingdom work, then perhaps we have some sort of idol.

I believe this idol keeps us from regenerative work both inside the church (in our ministry to singles, homosexuals, single parents, the divorced, the elderly) and outside the church as we seek to bring meaning and true identity to all who ask.