Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and pray.
I was listening to the discussion at a staff meeting recently when our consultant made this remark about me: “Paul is so quiet. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything, except maybe the person of Jesus.” I smiled, partly because it was funny and partly because on the inside I am like Barney Fife, the nervous deputy on the old Andy Griffith Show. My mind churns with ideas, and my mouth is eager to assist.
So why did I appear so calm that day? Because I was praying, quietly to myself, over and over again: Father, Father, Father. At other times I will pray the name of Jesus or the name Christ. Sometimes I find myself praying a short phrase, such as Come, Spirit.
This is not a mindless chant I practice in order to reach some higher spiritual plane. Just the opposite. I realize I’m on a low spiritual plane, and I am crying out for help like a little child who runs to his mother saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” My heart is hunting for its true home. David captured the feel of the praying soul in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (verse 1, ESV).
Why am I quietly crying out for help? My tendency to interrupt in staff meetings is a “dry and weary land.” When I feel my inner Barney Fife crying out for attention, I pray quietly, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Like Augustine, in his Confessions, my heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God.
I’m at my worst when I’m passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people’s minds . . . and I shut up!
When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. The only way to quiet my soul’s desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.
Interrupting, selling, and boasting are just a few of the things that draw me into continuous prayer, into continual childlike dependence on my Father. Each of us has our own list. We can let it drive us into a praying life.
Poverty of Spirit, Not Discipline
I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, a rut between my soul and God.
Even now I often don’t realize that I am praying. Possibly, it isn’t even me praying, but the Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is not assisting us to pray; he is the one who is actually praying. He is the pray-er.
More specifically, it is the Spirit of his Son praying. The Spirit is bringing the childlike heart of Jesus into my heart and crying, Abba, Father. Jesus’ longing for his Father becomes my longing. My spirit meshes with the Spirit, and I too begin to cry, Father.
When Jesus prayed, most scholars think he regularly addressed his Father as abba. It is similar to our word papa. Their logic goes like this: We know the word abba because it burned itself on the disciples’ minds. They were so stunned–no one had ever spoken to God so intimately before–that when they told the Greek Christians about Jesus, they carried over the Aramaic abba word into the Greek translations of the Bible. This so shocked Paul that he used abba in both Romans and Galatians. Translators have continued the pattern set by the early disciples, and no matter what language Scripture is in, they still use abba.
This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus’ prayer. His first recorded sentence at age 12 is about his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son uttered when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. It was his first word on the cross–“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) — and one of his last — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.
I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayers. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. Paul told us, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.
This is the exact opposite of Eastern mysticism, which is a psychospiritual technique that disengages from relationship and escapes pain by dulling self. Eastern mystics are trying to empty their minds and become one with the nonpersonal “all.” But as Christians we realize we can’t cure ourselves, so we cry out to our Father, our primary relationship.
I was driving to work one day, thinking about all the options for a new three-year plan at work. The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became–I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The scripture “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.
Paul the apostle was constantly aware of his helplessness and the helplessness of the churches he loved — and so he prayed constantly.
Paul’s Example and Teaching
“Unceasing prayer” is Paul’s most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentioned continuous praying, he seldom said it the same way twice (emphasis added throughout):
• Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
• I give thanks to my God always for you. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
• I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
• Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
• We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
• Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
• Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
• Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• We also thank God constantly for this. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
• As we pray most earnestly night and day. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
• We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
• I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)
When Paul told the young churches to pray, he encouraged them in this same pattern of “constant in prayer”:
• Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
• Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Given Paul’s emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.
The Jesus Prayer
The Greek Orthodox Church still uses a simple fifth-century prayer sometimes called the Prayer of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (see the Philokalia, Vol. 4). The Orthodox tradition calls short prayers like this “breath prayers” because they can be spoken in a single breath.
The earliest version of this prayer came from a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who cried out as Jesus was passing by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). If you add Paul’s Philippian hymn, “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11), you’ve got the Jesus Prayer. From the beginning, this prayer was used continuously. When the crowd shushed Bartimaeus, “he cried out all the more” (Luke 18:39). He must have been shouting at the top of his lungs because three of the gospels mention his loud persistence!
My wife, Jill, has her own version of the Jesus Prayer. When we walk the dogs together on Sunday morning, we pass by an incredibly neat house with a well-manicured lawn. It is especially entertaining in the fall, when both the husband and the wife run around with a shoulder-pack leaf blower, chasing individual leaves. With her German heritage, Jill feels the pressure to obsess over neatness. As we walk by this immaculate house, she’ll start praying repeatedly, God, save me from myself. God, save me from myself.
When our kids were teenagers, Jill asked me, “Do you know what our family needs most?” Lots of things came to mind, including a newer car. Her one-word answer took me completely by surprise: “mercy.” We didn’t need to get more organized. We didn’t need more money. We needed mercy. That mindset creates a praying heart.
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time. It’s about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day — and not because we are disciplined. We are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.
David Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols in Captive from Paramount Pictures.
Were it not for the superb acting of David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, the new film “Captive” could pass for an ordinary television crime drama. But it’s not ordinary. Not only are the acting, writing, and production above average for the faith genre, but the film is based on the remarkable true story of Ashley Smith, a young woman who talked her kidnapper into letting her go and turning himself in to police by reading to him from the Rev. Rick Warren’s international best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life.”
After seeing Oyelowo’s magisterial portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma,” one might wonder why he would co-star in a small film like this. Surely bigger opportunities had come knocking. “Captive” was filmed before “Selma,” Oyelowo told Urban Faith, but he would have done it anyway, because his motivation for telling both stories is the same.
“Even though I’m playing antithetical characters, Dr. King and then Brian Nichols in ‘Captive,’ both films hint at the fact that light shines brightest in the dark,” said Oyelowo.
Life-affirming stories like these are some of the kinds of stories he gravitates toward, he said. “Nightingale,” a one-man, 83-minute HBO film that premiered this spring, is loosely based on the true story of a mentally unstable veteran who murders his mother and lives with her body in their home while he tries, unsuccessfully, to reunite with a fellow soldier.
Oyelowo humanizes this sad character and illuminates difficult subject matter, just as he does in the other two films.
“My faith enables me to have a compassion that I may otherwise not have had in relation to the dark side of who we all are as people,” said Oyelowo, a devout Christian. “What makes us human is the fact that we are never just one thing. There is always a battle between the soul and the spirit. There is always a battle for ground between the darkness and the light within us.”
All three characters are “extreme examples of either the dark or the light, but they all have the complexity of what it is to be a human being within them,” he said. “They all have weaknesses and strengths, and those are what’s come to the fore predominantly for better or for the worst at any given time.”
Realistic portrayals of the human experience are what make these films resonate with audiences, Oyelowo said. “Even if you are not Dr. King or you are not Brian Nichols … there’s something to be gleaned from a human perspective in all those characters.”
Indeed. One reason “Captive” succeeds where other faith-based films fail is that both its villain and its heroine, Ashley Smith, are multifaceted. Smith, a young, widowed methamphetamine addict, had lost custody of her daughter and had once thrown away the book that would eventually save her life, and perhaps other lives as well.
In a recent interview with the Rev. Rick Warren, Smith said, “The only thing I did in my apartment that night was give God my brokenness. … When I finally gave it to him, he began to work and show off in my life. … It’s never too late to turn your life around. It’s never too late to let God work.”
Ten years after her captivity, Smith is sober, remarried, and has regained custody of her daughter. “Today I choose to walk with [God] and let him carry my burden,” she said.
Kate Mara plays Ashley Smith in Captive from Paramount Pictures.
Like millions of other people, Oyelowo has read “The Purpose Driven Life.” He said the book inspired him to believe that God had a bigger plan for him than he could have imagined. “As a person who is pretty ambitious and has big hopes and dreams for myself, it was kind of a big revelation for me. But when I then encountered this story, it sort of struck me that never was that truth that is expressed in the book truer than for Ashley Smith.”
Oyelowo said Smith told him she initially felt her kidnapping by a man who had murdered four other people before taking her captive was God’s way of saying to her, “You’ve messed up so much, you deserve death.” She never could have envisioned all that would come of her willingness to surrender to Him in that moment.
That God brought good from the situation does not erase the fact that four people lost their lives—among them, a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and a federal agent. The film is dedicated to those victims. Oyelowo doesn’t know if Nichols has seen it, but he said Nichols’ mother has and is “incredibly complimentary.” For a man who sees the potential for good and evil in all of us, her approval is a “relief.”
Unlike a lot of faith-based films, “Captive” does not feel like it is selling a product, even though passages from “The Purpose Driven Life” are read throughout. Perhaps this is only because, as a viewer, I knew this unlikely miracle actually happened.
Oyelowo said the filmmakers’ goal was simply to tell a good story.
“If your movie is agenda-ridden, whether it’s a horror movie or an action movie, whatever the kind of movie it is … it’s not good storytelling. Good storytelling is presenting things to the audience that enable them to project themselves into the situation and make decisions with the character as they’re going along,” said Oyelowo.
“Where I think films around faith have failed and the reason why they only appeal to a very niche and specific audience is because they lack complexity. They lack a degree of truthfulness in a sense. Anyone who has read the Bible will see that it’s an R-rated book, that it is a book full of darkness, full of complexity, full of the gray areas of life,” he said.
“What the Bible doesn’t do is glorify or glamorize those darknesses. It very much juxtaposes them with a possibility of light, but in a way that shows things in all their complexity–whether it’s David, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, or Jesus himself. You see the challenges these people faced and the fact that it wasn’t always pretty and it didn’t always have a happy ending. Moses didn’t get to go into the Promised Land. These are the things that I try to bring to storytelling, because I just see them to be the truth of what it is to be a human being on planet earth.”
This approach is why “Captive” is a cut above, and why we’ll keep watching David Oyelowo for many years to come.
Next up for the actor are “Five Nights in Maine,” a story about grief, with Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month) and “A United Kingdom” with Rosamund Pike, based on the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, whose interracial marriage caused an international stir in the late 1940s.
Christine A. Scheller is an Urban Faith editor-at-large. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC.
SHREWDLY CELEBRATING: President Barack Obama shrewdly let his wife Michelle shine at the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Newscom)
Democrats nominated President Barack Obama for a second term at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, but the consensus among pundits was that his wife Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton outshone him in their speeches. Was his by design a more modest speech than those he delivered in 2008 to reflect the chastening of the economic crisis that has defined his tenure? It sure seemed so, as he compared himself to Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt and quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go”?
Speaking of nowhere to go but God, there was a tussle Wednesday afternoon over the fact that the word God initially didn’t appear in the Democratic platform this year. A line about Jerusalem being the perpetual capital of Israel disappeared as well. Just before Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie prayed the invocation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to ask three times for a floor vote to amend the platform to reinsert these references. Then, Villaraigosa clearly overrode a divided final vote to affirm the changes, which gave the Democrats their own Clint Eastwood moment.
Plenty of speakers talked about God, however, including United Methodist pastor and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missiouri), who went off-script Wednesday and began preaching a passionate mini-sermon. “Hope is the motivation that empowers the unemployed. … It is our hope and faith that moves us to action,” Cleaver shouted. “As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, Mr. President, hope on!”
Speaking of shouting, the convention opened with a lot of that Tuesday, most notably from Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker. “It is our most fundamental national aspiration – that no matter who you are, no matter what your color, creed, how you choose to pray or whom you choose to love, that if you are an American — first generation or fifth– one who is willing to work hard, play by the rules, and apply your God-given talents, that you should be able to find a job that pays the bills,” Booker yelled as he introduced the party platform.
As to the platform itself, support for same-sex marriage was included for the first time and language about keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare” is gone. The drumbeat championing “choice” over Republican oppression of women’s bodies resounded from the first speaker to the last. Juliet Lapidos of The New York Timesnoticed and so did Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for The National Catholic Reporter. In a column at CNN, Winters said the Obama campaign has given up on courting moderate, white, working class voters who are primarily concerned about the economy. Instead he is “re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve.” Even Comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show produced a bit about the party of inclusion not being so inclusive when it comes to gun-toting, God-fearing, anti-science Evangelicals.
New York City pastor and councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) told CBN News that he was at the convention to debate the platform change regarding same-sex marriage. “I see myself as a reformer, and I’m hoping that we can put enough pressure (on the party),” Cabrera said. Other Christians were there to offer non-partisan prayers. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Rev. Gabriel Salguero, and Blood:Water Mission founder Jena Lee Nardella were among those offering a sweet aroma of prayer amidst the partisan preaching. And Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus delivered a short but impassioned speech about the potential dangers of Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “immoral budget” and why “our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”
As to those stunning speeches delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s was notable for its passion and clarity and for the heart-warming story of the Obamas’ humble beginnings, but also for the fact that Mrs. Obama’s autobiography excluded any mention of her ever having held a job. Instead she described herself as “Mom-in-Chief.” Clinton’s was widely regarded as being so far above others in its rhetorical skill and specificity that even right-leaning pundits conceded he gave Obama the boost he needed, which brings me back to my original point, and that is that the president may not be Bill Clinton, but he is a shrewd politician nonetheless. Just ask Hillary.
What do you think?
What were the high points and low points of the Democrats’ big party?