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Much of the story is hard to recall, but certain details are deeply moving. I have never liked prisons. OK, that didn’t come out right. I have never been in prison, nor should I have any reason to be in prison. Just that when I have visited prisoners I have always had what could only be described as an anxiety attack. The walls and bars, closing in on me even though I could leave at any time. That said, I have always been intrigued by prison ministry; with those of my colleagues and lay ministers who can go into the depths of incarceration and minister to those who may never be set free in a physical sense again. I have often wondered why I am so intrigued about prison ministry. Is it because losing our physical freedom is a metaphor for the emotional bars that keep us in chains? Is it because, as my mentor Bo Lozoff, said “we are all doing time” in our bodies and our lives wrought with struggle and occasional joy? Or is it because, for a few, prisons actually are the wings that set us free when we are released from the ability to achieve desire and chase after happiness? In order to get at these wings of love that set us free, I started my musings today with a story about a prison. Matt Fitzgerald is a liberal Christian pastor in Chicago. Eager to prove himself as a writer and minister Matt jumbled at the chance to interview a man waiting on death row on the subject of Grace.
Now death row is a powerful and scary place to be. For decades you languish in this sort of limbo between waiting to die, and hoping to live. Those who have found a spiritual center on death row talk about it as “the most freeing place on earth”, because with death’s imminence you focus your energy on the inner life in ways we can’t imagine.
So it was that Matt interviewed death row prisoner David Steffen. As Matt recalls: “In the 1970s David had been convicted of brutally murdering a teenaged girl. Twenty-one years later, at the time of his visit, David Steffan was still awaiting execution…..It was raining, and guards drove Matt through the empty, gloomy yard on a golf cart. He was frightened. It was a barren place. The loops in the concertina wire looked vicious. One guard drank a can of Mountain Dew as they drove. She didn’t speak, just stared at Matt malevolently. When Matt arrived on death row he walked through several gates and checkpoints before meeting with David in a classic government room with fluorescent lights and gray plastic furniture. Death row looked more like the DMV than a dungeon and was all the more menacing as a result.
The killer looked younger than his age. His skin was smooth, and he wore his brown hair short. His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses, the kind hipsters wear. They sat across from each other at a small table. As David Steffan spoke he kept his eyes on Matt’s hands—ready, it seemed, to react defensively if Matt picked up my pen or reached for a bottle of water. But aside from this wariness he was remarkably peaceful for a man living under such intense pressure.
Matt was there to ask David, a convicted killer, about God. Matt noticed right away that every time God’s name was mentioned, David referred to God’s mercy; he spoke of “God’s mercy” over and over again in a sort of litany. Each time the words grace or mercy were mentioned he prefaced them with adjectives familiar to any Protestant: “unmerited,” “freely given,” “undeserved.”
Bandying sacred language back and forth with a murderer unnerved Matt. He loved doing this with members of his congregation. But there in the prison, church talk became unwieldy, uncontrollable. The ease with which David spoke the spiritual language bothered Matt and pushed hard against his faith. All those years ago Matt was sure that he knew who deserved unmerited mercy—and Pastor Matt Fitzgerald was not certain that David Steffan deserved that love. So Matt pushed back.
He scolded him… about cheap grace: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. . . . Cheap grace is without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Then Matt asked David if the weight of his sin had perhaps caused him to seize upon God’s love too easily. Had he grabbed for mercy before truly reckoning with the horror of his crime?
Matt was about to learn that a young pastor didn’t need to chasten a murderer who’d had 21 years to ponder these things. David Steffan knew all about cheap grace. He had found the concept organically through years of reflection and had wrestled with it, walked right through it and come out the other side. Here’s what David said:
“The gospel requires us not simply to be sorry, but to be transformed by our sorrow. For me, this is a daily transformation. I’ll never forget my crime. It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself—not in order to justify your actions, but in order to accept God’s love.”
Then David told Matt a story, gesturing with his hands so that the chains tying them together clanked and rattled in accompaniment. Outside his cell, said David, there are two fences, each about 20 feet high and covered with roll after roll of barbed wire. The space between the fences is empty, a no-man’s land designed to strand escapees.
A rabbit lives between the fences, David said, and he watches it every morning. “The rabbit has no sense of where it is. It doesn’t know it’s living out its life in a maximum security prison. It eats clover and dandelions and wakes up early. It has no sense of being restricted by all these fences. It’s the same for me. I’m in prison, but I’m not letting myself be restricted simply because I’m wearing shackles and handcuffs. I’m a person, and I’m a person who is loved and forgiven by God.”
Matt was shocked. In front of him was a man who had brutally killed a teenager, someone’s daughter; in front of Matt was a man who (had been freed by love). Matt was so startled that he jumped back from the table and stalked out of the room…..David Steffan had claimed what Matt preached. And yet when the evidence was of this spiritual freedom was presented, Pastor Matt could not believe it. Matt reflected later that he spent a lot of energy trying to contain the presence of God’s love. I had carefully learned rituals and chosen music and crafted sermon sentences that aimed to cultivate grace. (But here before him was a man who had been freed on the wings of that love)….how could a murderer grab hold of the same love we had all been given?…. Matt wrote that never would have guessed that the most unnerving thing I would encounter on death row was the love of God.
When Matt walked back through the prison yard the rain had let up, and the guard who had maintained a steely silence on his way in was now pleasant and talkative. Dogs were playing in the prison yard, chasing tennis balls thrown by inmates. The guard explained that these dogs had been removed from abusive homes and were being trained by prisoners before returning to the world. I fought back tears. Suddenly everything seemed brighter I anticipated meeting a monster and found a man set free by love instead. From “Shocked by Grace” in The Christian Century, Jan. 21, 2014
What roots hold us close? Family, this Church, Music, Acting towards Justice, What was it someone wrote last week “Don’t just listen to them sing, watch them dance”? Our roots are the dialogue with growth, the spirit within me, the joy of grandchildren telling you what they did that day.
We need these roots, I need these roots, Matt Fitzgerald needed his roots, but the wings that set us free are inviting us into new territory of desire. This is the side of the Spirit which we sometimes don’t want and often don’t understand. Wings that set us free are, more often than not, shocks to our stability and affronts our faith. Illnesses, a death, losing a job, a divorce, losing our way, ironically are the very keys to looking at our world in a different way. Like Dumbo learning to fly, our liabilities become our assets when we let go and lift off. This is what it was for a young pastor so sure of himself, this is what it was for a man on death row, this is what it was for Dr. Martin Luther King as he learned to take the mantle of leadership. These wings, unfurled against the winds of uncertainty can set us free.
I found this story of the prison yard epiphany powerful for many reasons. The first is a continuation of our theme from last week: like St. Valentine, we are all imprisoned by love… either having love bear down on us with its desire to care and please or, in love’s absence the prison of our loneliness. This story reminded me that while love imprisons us, it also frees us from the mediocrity of life and a view that life is not worth living. It takes only the thought of love, its impending desire, for us to remember that life is worth living, even when as we are imprisoned by its hold. As my mentor, Bo Lozoff who spent his life bringing spiritual freedom to prisoners once said, “We are all doing time….the question is what are you going to do with the time you have?”
Some of you remember the story of my father’s death. Of how I was moved to suddenly have Francis stop the car in Yellowstone National Park, for no reason I could think of, strip down to my underwear and jump into the glacier lake, rising to the surface of the lake with my heart in my throat yelling “YES” as loud as I could while my wife thought I had finally come completely unglued.. Only later would I learn as we were racing down the Rockies and once again in cell phone range that my father had a fatal heart attack at the very same moment swimming in a pond in MA. I haven’t tried to make a connection between these events other than to mention the synchronicity of the moment. I feeling compelled, deeply moved, to jump into an ice cold lake – I am not normally an impulsive man – at the same moment my father was drawing his last breath, 2000 miles away swimming in a pond. Were these his wings setting me free? Was it some sort of atomic kinetic connection? Or just a coincidence? The point is we were connected somehow in ways that will likely always be a mystery until such a time as I pierce the veil of knowing between this world and the next.
What wings set us free? What are those brave elements, relationships or the unknown for a cause we can’t fully explain? Catherine Keller, one of my favorite theologians talks about being “flown to the Divine” a take on Alfred North Whitehead’s phrase. I like to think my decision to suddenly jump into that lake was a flying; seductive and passionate in a deeply spiritual sense into a connection that I didn’t imagine existed before. I can tell you this: that swimming moment has created a bond between my father and I which is surprising me still. We weren’t very close towards the end of his life; suddenly I find myself remembering him with more passion and love than I thought possible. Is there a spirit at work deep within me, deep within any of us, that help us out of our mediocrity and asks us to consider possibilities beyond the obvious?
I believe there is.
What wings of desire set us free? Well, as I suggested in the meditation, at the very least it moves through us, like breath and life. But that alone is never enough to understand what matters most to you. The beauty and mystery of our lives as UUs is that we have the power to find meaning in our lives. For some that meaning may be that there are many paths to the Holy that beneath our diversity is there is a unity that makes us, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. For many of us we are moved by the knowledge that there is no wrong way to love, and no wrong way to discover what is holy in your life, like so many spokes on a wheel. The point I remind you of here today is that the beauty of our faith tradition is that it doesn’t really much matter which path you take as long as you are not hurting another. I remind any of us today, different as we are in political sentiment, sexual orientation, even class, that we are here to be moved towards that unity that makes us one. Hate and exclusion have no place in these walls.
I have been an atheist, a Buddhist, a Christian, a mystic, an enchanted agnostic, and as I moved from one perspective in my faith journey to the next I realized that they are really all pretty much the same. I have left behind the worry I am going to hell, life is hell enough. I have left behind the worry I am going to heaven, life can be heaven enough as well. Gone, really for me, is the need to argue about the existence of God or even the validity of the Trinity. I have decided that at the end of the day what matters most, is love and other people. That is where the spirit moves me. For too long now I believe we have wasted our time in mental gymnastics as Unitarian Universalists with questions like “Was Jesus God or human?” “Is the bible fact or fiction?” “Is prayer useful or illusory?” (See William Schultz Finding Time, Skinner House Books, 1992). Instead I believe we need to be asking “how are we going to get along?” “What can we do about poverty and injustice?” “How can we survive through a struggle and celebrate life?” “How are we going to be there for someone going through a divorce, a parent who has lost a child, a beloved elder who is losing their independence”. In short, the wings that set us free are already in us and around us. The principle we live by that all life is interconnected. That is what matters most to me. All the rest is just the means to an end. I know that prayer moves many to a place of solace and peace. I know that for many the personal relationship with Jesus as a son of God, makes the divine accessible in their lives. I know the bible contains both wonderful truths and horrible prescriptions. The kind of beliefs we have are really only useful if they move you to becoming a whole person, capable of loving and being loved.
Roots hold me close and wings set me free, as paradoxical as that sounds is the very ground of love. Family, love, music, this church, our tradition as a people of action, these all hold us close. But freedom is moving beyond the comfortable and into the unknown. Take a card from any heroes journey, the real strength, the real way to freedom is found in what we already have, the Tin Man’s heart, the Scarecrow’s brain, the Lion’s courage. It’s already there. It was there for Martin Luther King at a kitchen table when he prayed to God that he couldn’t go on and heard a voice telling him he could. The wings were there for Marci Wayman, a former member of my last church who two year ago lost her young husband Tom to a freak staph infection and he died two days later. She went on to find new work, new meaning and to raise their three children. It went on for me and it can go on for you.
In 1999 my father, by then a full time activist, and co-founder of the Program for Corporations, Law and Democracy was at the World Trade Organization Protests in Seattle. He served a people’s arrest warrant to the finance minsters of the G-6 as it was then for crimes against humanity in promoting the personhood of corporations over the rights of indigenous people. For that he was arrested and sent to the King County Jail. My mother called me, frantic. “He will die in there. Can you get him out?” I was living three thousand miles away outside Washington D.C. I promised I would muttering to myself how ridiculous this was that his eldest son is bailing his father out of jail. I managed to reach him by phone. “What are you doing there?” I asked him incredulously. And, just as Henry David Thoreau said to Emerson, who came to bail him out of jail for refusing to pay his poll tax and support the Mexican American War, he said “What are you doing out there?” Besides, earning a living, caring for a congregation, and raising five kids: What was I doing outside of jail while my father was being booked for sedition and causing a riot? As I made the arrangements to post bond, I had that freeing moment , those wings that unfurled to set me free.
No, I would probably never be arrested and go to jail but the same roots of generations of Unitarians that hold me, also are the wings that set me free. And I devoted my ministry to acting out my faith through interfaith action ever since. These were the wings my father and I shared, to free the broken each in our own way. Perhaps these were the wings that emerged from that glacier lake as I surfaced with a deep yell, as my father drew his last in a lake three thousand miles away. Time and space are not the wings that set us free. It is our faith in something much larger than ourselves; family, freedom, peace, justice and the desire for love.
No prison, no death sentence whether imposed or inevitable as it is for all of us, can keep our wings furled for long. Bo Lozoff, my mentor and friend, who taught me so much about freeing ourselves from the prison of life, died last year in a motorcycle accident. I will remember him for his easy manner and deep spirituality. He dedicated his entire life to working with prisoners and setting their spirits free as their souls wrestled with the bars of their guilt. The prison ashram project continues to reach out to people, many on death row still. (see www.humankindness.org) One of Bo’s greatest lines invites us to unfurl our wings of freedom, “We are all stumbling towards the light”, all of us, from well-meaning pastors, to death row murderers, to young widows, to the young and aching old among us. Wings set me free, Spirit of Life, Come to me, Come to me!