The Benediction

May the Lord torment you. May the Lord disturb you. May the Lord keep before you the faces of the despised, rejected, lonely and oppressed. May the Lord give you strength and courage and compassion to make this a better world. And may you do your very best to make this a better city, a better state, a better world. And after you have done your best, may the Lord grant you peace. Amen. 

When I first read this benediction attributed to a Bishop White of an Indiana conference (I have no clue as to his denomination) it struck me as a description of my halting answer to the call God has had on my life since before time began.

It was 18 years ago that I attended to a worship service for the first time after a brief 35 year hiatus. I didn’t come to worship, I came to hear my new wife sing in her choir. It was a couple of years after that service that we both went on an Emmaus weekend and I began to feel nudged by God that he had a plan for me.

One day a friend named Chris from the Emmaus community asked me if I would serve on Kairos prison ministry team. He described it as Emmaus on steroids. As soon as he said the word prison, I said ‘hell no!’ and he finished his spiel to my back as I walked away/

I didn’t want to go because I had already been. Not to serve on a ministry team but to pay my personal debt to society. From 1972 when I returned from my stint in Viet Nam to 1986 I was doing what I called life in prison on the installment plan.

It took another year of Chris pestering me before I agreed to serve on one Kairos weekend contingent on his promise to never ask me again. So in 2005 I was a part of my first Kairos team. How many of you have baked cookies for a Kairos weekend. God bless you all. That simple act of kindness has broken through the walls of denial, hate, shame, and self-defense of many a convicted felon and opened their minds to the possibility of not just their own personal redemption through Jesus, but of active discipleship both inside while they serve their time and, if they are released, continued discipleship in their lives after incarceration. Mathew 25:36 reads “I was in prison, and you visited me”. If you have baked Kairos cookies you have visited Jesus while he was in prison.

Chris never asked me to go on another Kairos weekend. He didn’t have to. My lord tormented me, disturbed me, and kept before me the faces of the men incarcerated in West Tennessee State Prison. As a result, I have served on a more than a dozen Kairos teams. I also have led Bible studies, and 12 step recovery meetings, up at West Tennessee State prison.

Increasingly, I became convinced that God had additional plans for me. I came to believe that what incarcerated  men (and women) need most is what we take for granted. They needed a church in which they could learn and grow in their Christian faith, where they could be discipled, learn their spiritual gifts, and how to use them to bring the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And I knew that God wanted me to plant a church for them inside those walls, to minister to and with them both inside and, if they were released, to do everything I could to help them transition back into society.

What an order. I entered Seminary 10 years ago and I attended the last in-class session of my final class to complete my Masters of Divinity degree at Memphis Theological Seminary. I will be ordained by the Christion Church Disciples of Christ. In my first year of seminary a pastor named Diane Harrison spoke in one of my classes about her new endeavor to plant a church in the State Prison for women here in Memphis. I chased her out to the parking lot and asked her if I could help with that, and she said yes. My wife and I have been a part of that ministry ever since. About three years ago The United Methodist Conference finally recognized that ministry as a congregation and it is now Grace Place United Methodist Church inside a Tennessee State Prison.

A little over a year ago, due to the number of ladies we are incarcerating in Tennessee, all the men on the medium security side of West Tennessee State Prison were dispersed to other prisons and the ladies serving time at the women’s prison here, as well as many women from the other women’s prisons around the state, were moved up there..

And Mark Luttrell State prison here in Memphis was re-imagined as a transitional prison for men with three years or less left on their sentences. This opened up an opportunity for me to answer my call fully. In early August of this year I met with the chaplain there and have since been using all that I have learned from my years of experience with Grace Place, and from training I received from and organization named Prison Congregations of America to begin another Church Plant in Mark Luttrell Transitional Center.

I started with leading a worship service there on Thursday evenings and a Bible study on Friday evenings. On the front end I told the men who came about my call to plant a church inside and that I needed their help. And I began to try to garner support of DOC churches to be sponsoring congregations for that effort. We are now Prisoners of Hope Christian Church (DOC).

We have already had two men released and both immediately engaged with an outside church in their home towns and are doing well. Prisoners of Hope has helped each of them by meeting some of their immediate needs, and the last to be released stayed with Joy and I in our home a couple of weeks ago long enough to come here and worship with us at lindenwood and. After the service, he was given access to the clothes closet to get a couple of outfits. So we as the church are already actively helping with this ministry.

We are still small. My wife Joy and I are the only outside volunteers that are certified by Tennessee Department of Corrections for this endeavor. I have opened a bank account for Prisoners of hope with $800.00 and have already raised an additional $1600.00 in contributions from others.

There are many ways that you can join in and support this church plant. Most of you are probably not called to go inside, but I hope a few of you are. We have now and will always have a need for more volunteers both inside and out, for regular financial support, and for a community to undergird our efforts with prayer. As the church grows we will need more people qualified to lead efforts beyond worship and Bible study to help these men in their discernment and growth process while inside. That can take many forms limited only by the imaginations of people like us and the regulations of the Department of Corrections.

And once the men are released, they will need a church out here, brothers and sisters in Christ who will welcome them in, accept them as family, mentor them, and love them as Jesus teaches us to love on another.

As a church, the men have adopted Zechariah 9:12 as their verse of promise. It reads “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” And so once again I find myself doing life in prison on the installment plan. But this time it is God’s plan, and he uses my darkest past experience to help others find their way home.

I ask each of you to please, pray for us and if you feel a nudge, visit us, join us and or support us as you feel nudged in what has become for me the greatest adventure of my life. But whatever you do, don’t miss this opportunity to be a blessing and, in the process, to receive one.

And so …

May the Lord torment you. May the Lord disturb you. May the Lord keep before you the faces of the despised, rejected, lonely and oppressed. May the Lord give you strength and courage and compassion to make this a better world. And may you do your very best to make this a better city, a better state, a better world. And after you have done your best, may the Lord grant you peace. Amen. 

For more information, please email me at reverendbudw@gmail.com

Advertisements

A Month In Prison

It has been a month since we began this journey in the prison. Each Thursday evening we have had a service of worship, word, and table, and each Friday we have spent two hours of study in our sacred text. Our presence is becoming known, and men are coming.

It was Thursday July 27 2017. The first night inside four men came, and they were skeptical to say the least. They questioned the idea of starting a church inside, and they questioned me on my sincerity, commitment, and theology. I came away that night wondering if anyone would be back the next evening for our first Bible study,

As I drove to the prison Friday evening I was still uncertain if anyone would show up. But when I got there, all four of them came back, and they brought three more. We began our first study night with a text from Zechariah chapter nine beginning at verse twelve which reads, “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.”

I sat in amazement as these men the men became engaged in the process and came to realize that they had all been reading and studying this book on their own apparently long before I got here. but for possibly the first time they were engaging with me and with each other in the process. The two hours we had went by too fast and They had to return to their abodes and I had to leave the prison and go home. But I could barely contain my excitement at the level of discourse I had been a part of that evening.

The second week, by ones and twos more men came. That Thursday we had to bring another long table to hold the thirteen of us there for the Bible study. and so it has continued to grow.

In one short month a church was born inside the Mark Luttrell Transitional Center, a Tennessee state prison for men. What began twelve years ago as an inkling of what God was calling me to has become a reality, and I am both excited and feeling overwhelmed. The men are beginning to talk about doing more as the church, discussing ways that we can begin discipleship training among the newer brothers that are joining us, and ways that they can draw more men to us.

We are actually becoming not just a church, but ‘The Church’ inside. And it is incredibly soul satisfying to be on the front line with these men as it happens. What began as only an inkling between my ears, that I questioned and wrestled with for a good while before I said ‘yes … send me’ has taken on a life of its own.

We are Prisoners of Hope Christian Church (DOC), a living growing congregation in the prison, and I can hardly wait to see how God is going to use us to not just engage with the men while they are there, but to give them the love, support, and encouragement they need when they are released.

 

 

 

 

Following Jesus

I didn’t set out to be a preacher. Most of you can look at me and tell that. I don’t really remember what I set out to be, but I can tell you what I became.

I became a liar. I became a cheat. I became a thief. I became an addict to both drugs and alcohol. I became a user and abuser of women. I became angry and violent.

I lived like an animal and eventually society put me in a place just like this one. I didn’t set out to be there either, but that’s where I was.  More importantly, that’s who I was.

I look around at you ladies, and I know none of you set out to be here. You too had dreams, hopes, a future. But life is difficult and we make mistakes.

Sometimes life deal blows that wound us deeply and we react from those wounds. And sometimes we just get overtaken with anger or fear and strike out.

And some of us don’t stand a chance to begin with or at least that is the only reality we know. No none of us set out to be here, but here we are.

Feeling encouraged yet?

Me either.

So I better get to the rest of the story.

Jesus meets us right where we are. Every time and all the time, Jesus meets us right where we are, and wherever that is, it is for us at the foot of his cross.

Mathew 11 28-30  “Then Jesus said ’Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.

Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

 I know there are some heavy burdens being carried here.

But Jesus meets us right where we are, and wherever that is, it is for us at the foot of his cross. There you can finally lay that burden down.

You heard my confession earlier. Believe me that was a brief summary of the burden of all I had become, all I had done, and all I had been named or named myself.

But at the foot of Jesus’ cross, I could lay all that down, and so can you.

Jesus makes that possible because he didn’t meet you here to judge you . Jesus met you here to offer forgiveness and grace, to lead you into a life of abundance. And it only takes one small step at a time.

You have already followed Jesus for a while probably without even knowing it. For whatever reason you came to grace Place tonight, I know Jesus led you here.  

Your being here is one small step you have already taken in the footprints of God.

We will share the communion meal shortly. All are invited and welcome to join us at His table. It is a means of grace. It is one of  the reasons Jesus led each of us here tonight.

Another small step in the footprints of God.

Get a copy of the bible and read Jesus’ story for yourself. Read it to and with each other and talk about it. Some of us have difficulty reading, and hearing Jesus’ story could make all the difference in the world to them.

Another step taken in the footprints of God.

Each and every little act of kindness to one another, every kind or respectful word to a CO, every helping hand offered, each and every act of love, is one more step in the footprints of God.

And I will make you a promise that only God can keep.

 If you continue to take one small step at a time in his footprints, you will find that in this very institution you can have the abundant life you were created for.

Every need you have will be met, and your life will be full of love, peace, comfort, joy and hope. I don’t make that promise lightly. I make it confidently, because Jesus is the one behind the promise.

And Jesus is the promise keeper.

Broken

When I was nine, we moved from Fort Wayne Indiana to Humboldt Tennessee, and my thirty years of wandering in the wilderness began. Humboldt was a small rural town in Gibson County. I was a little guy and not a gregarious kid, so I did not make many friends there.

It was my first year in Jr High that I met Wayne. He was a year or two older than me and among other things, one of the school bullies. He hated black people, N-lovers, and damn Yankees. I made two out of three on his list. Inevitably, he challenged me, and called me out for a fight in the field we crossed going home.

I had never been in a fight. I was young and stupid, but not stupid enough to think I could win a fight with anyone, much less with Wayne. I had never wanted to fight anyone. I was mostly quiet and never violent. I had already been a victim of horrific violence in the form of sexual abuse. I abhorred violence in any form. I knew as word spread around school that there would be a crowd of kids in the field mostly cheering Wayne on as he beat the crap out of me. And I knew I couldn’t avoid it.

I left school as usual and started walking home. Kids started following. I turned off the sidewalk and started down the hill that became the field. I could see Wayne and several other kids already there. When they saw me and those following they began to whoop it up.

I kept walking and as soon as I got within twenty-five yards of Wayne, he started walking towards me. His friends began to fan out and form a circle, and I noticed those following me did the same. The name calling began. Wayne cussing and spitting … telling me just what he thought of me and want he was going to do to me. I was damn near peeing my pants.

When he finally ran out of rants, I calmly said “I don’t want to fight you Wayne. I think you’re wrong, but I got nothing against you.” More screaming and name calling. Then he hit me. I hit the ground. When I got back up, I looked at Wane and asked “Did that make you feel better? I hope so, but I’m still not going to fight with you.” So he hit me again.

That’s the way it went for what seemed a long time, but probably not more than ten minutes. Wayne screaming cussing and knocking me down … me getting back up talking to him calmly and refusing to strike a blow. After a while, the crowd began to fade away. By the time Wayne gave up in disgust it was just the two of us. As he left me beat up, bloody, and hurting but still getting back up, I said to his back  “I win!”

I lived in Humboldt for another year and a half, and then we came to Memphis. When I graduated High school, I won the lottery. Then it meant I was going to be drafted. So … I Joined the U. S. Air Force. Basic training, schooling in aircraft munitions, and off to a bomb dump near you. It was in my third year that I got orders for Viet Nam.

I still abhorred violence.

So I went Home on leave before deploying, made a consciences decision not to go, and went AWOL.

Where to hide … oh yeah … Humboldt … I could go out and stay at the Dover’s farm where I had lived every summer for the six years I lived there. That little farmhouse between Gibson and Milan was the only sanctuary I ever found in my wilderness wandering. As I rolled into Humboldt, a certain nostalgia hit me. It felt odd because I hated the place. But I was drawn to drive by our old house, ride thru the cemetery, and hit the main drag.

I stopped at a small diner/beer joint to get a hot dinner and after ordering noticed that Wayne was sitting at the bar, nursing a drink, and looking at me. When he noticed me noticing him he got up, came over, and sat down. It had been eight years since we had laid eyes on each other. We talked for an hour as I ate and he drank. He reminded me of the times he had kicked my butt when we were kids. He hadn’t changed much, though he looked and sounded old. As we left, I shook his hand.

I drove on out to the Dover’s Farm. It was late evening and my visit unannounced. Still I was immediately welcomed in to stay as long as I wanted. Coffee was brewed and I sat around with Mr. Ellis, Mrs. Dover and all eight of their kids. Ted was my age and the others younger. We stayed up way too late talking and laughing before going to bed. Up at sunrise and to work. I stayed for a month.

But I kept thinking about the one fight I really had with Wayne as a kid, and I knew I had to go back. I couldn’t hide out here forever. After about a month I said my goodbyes and came back to Memphis to turn myself in. The military acted like I had simply missed my plane. They gave me a ticket and off I went. When I arrived at Phan Rang Viet Nam, I was given a room in a barracks, Jungle uniforms, and a Job working on the napalm line.

I refused to go to work. When “they” asked me why I wouldn’t go to work, I calmly told them I wasn’t going to fight these people, that I had nothing against them. “They” went into Wayne mode cussing, spitting, and calling me names. They sent me to a shrink, took away all my rank, ninety percent of my paycheck, my freedom to go anywhere out of my squadron area except as ordered, and made me stay in country for my entire year before kicking me out.

I spent that year fighting, but not with the Vietnamese. By the time I left, I had become addicted to heroin, inured to senseless violence, and incapable of trusting anyone. When I stepped off the plane in San Leandro California with one duffel bag and my discharge papers, I said to myself “They won.”

And for the next sixteen years, I was right …

Smacked Down by God or Smacked Down, by God

Monday evening, May 5th, was gorgeous. It was a perfect evening to go out for a ride on my motorcycle. So, naturally I did. There is nothing like it. I get a sense of complete freedom.  There is the thrill of risking life and limb, but also a certain confidence in my ability to engage the risk with hyper awareness, reasonable caution, and a well maintained machine.

But nothing can protect one from the stupidity and carelessness of others. So on Monday evening, May 5th, 2015 it was my turn. It was my turn to have someone driving a full size truck casually turn left right in front of me like I wasn’t even there. But I showed him. I tore the side mirror off his truck with my rib cage when I slammed into it at thirty-five or so miles per hour. Over all the noise, I heard my ribs break. It felt like being kicked by a mule. And let me tell you, broken ribs are a gift that keeeeeep on giving.

This is what I wrote on May 19th when I got home from the hospital:

I’m dead! 

Damn! 

Searing pain 

Hearing the impact 

Feeling it inside 

Laying in the street knowing 

I’m dead

Fumbling to find my phone

Calling Joy

Leaving a message I was in an accident, but I’m alright

Wanting to hide the truth from her for as long as I can because 

I’m dead

Thinking about my kids

Thinking about my friends

Thinking about the many people that I love

Knowing that they love me back But,

I’m dead

Seeing my helmet lying in the street

Finding my cap and putting it on

Wishing I had brought my emergency pair of clean underwear

(I really have some, they come in a can)

Laughing because it hurts, and hurting lets me know

Not Yet!

 

I didn’t die, even though I really thought I was going to. I broke six ribs down my left side, some bones in my left foot, and lost a chunk of meat from my left arm, but I’m still here.  I was balled up in pain in the street moaning when he asked ‘You ok?’ I had to tell him to call for help. He apologized … Said he didn’t see me … that he was looking at some girl on the sidewalk.

Some friends showed up and called an ambulance. They ended up getting my bike to a safe place, and trailered it home later. One of them got ahold of Joy and went and got her and brought her to the hospital. Me … I got an ambulance ride to The Med. The evening ride didn’t turn out like I planned. It has dramatically altered my life for the short term and who knows about the long. I’m ten days into a six week to six month recovery, and it still hurts worse than anything I’ve ever done to me, and I’ve been busted up a lot to still be here.

I didn’t do anything wrong, wasn’t being a fool, was paying attention, and was riding slightly under the speed limit. I saw him in the turn lane. I saw when he started to turn. But there wasn’t a damn thing I could do. So, for me it boils down to, “how do I make any sense out of it?” and “why do I need to?”

I need to because it feels like I’ve been bitch-slapped by God. Don’t get me wrong, I love God. I give God the credit for anything good in my life, and for any real good that comes out of it. I believe in a creator God who designed a universe perfectly suitable for the flourishing of human beings who God created me in God’s image. I believe in a God who is love, and who desires individual relationships of love and trust with each of us.

But my experience is that God sometimes allows me to suffer the consequences of my choices, and I’m not talking about my choice to ride a motorcycle, in order to get my attention about the choices that I make. I don’t believe in a god so insecure that it needs to punish me for any choice I make. Like I said. I’ve busted myself up before, and I’m not blaming God for any of it.

But these near death experiences get me to thinking about the choices I make that don’t really hurt anybody (rationalization alert), aren’t against the law (mostly), and don’t seem to cause any problems in my life (the jury is still out on that one). I don’t feel particularly guilty about any of them. And don’t worry, this isn’t a detailed confessional.

But the truth is, I know many of the choices I make today do not reflect the Imago-Dei in me. And so, I still at times, give away the blessing of the richly abundant life I was created to live for a facsimile of life full of could have been, would have been, and should have been smacked down by god.Image

Fear & Loathing

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson was a ‘must read’ for me. The title caught my attention and was followed by a story of alcohol and drug induced debauchery coupled with violence. It was the story I could relate to. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” This is how the book began. I was halfway through the desert that was my life when the drugs wore off. That is how life as I knew it ended.

Life as I knew it was bad. Not just uncomfortable or discomforting, but really bad. I had reached a place where I could see no way out, and was totally defeated. The level of chaos and misery had finally surpassed my ability to withstand it even with the use of drugs and alcohol. In prison through quiet desperation I called God out, and God was there. In essence He smacked me into a life I didn’t believe existed for anyone, much less for me. And in the ensuing years He gently wooed me and led me to a place of peace. Peace with myself and others.

I had a name, and I was named by the countless people I had hurt, betrayed, robbed, or dishonored. The litany of names they gave me, I owned. They were no worse than the names I called myself. I knew in my innermost being who and what I was. Many times I wanted to be different, normal, or at least better able to maintain the appearance. But no amount of wanting, wishing, or making stuff happen could change it. I could not make my life work.

When I called God out, maybe I was finally calling out to God, I don’t know. But I do know that He met me right where I was, pulled no punches, and returned to me cognizance of the real me that I had lost so many years ago. And somewhere along the line, He gave me a name. None of this happened this week. It took place over the last twenty years.

Today, I spend my quiet time looking inward and listening to the voice of my spirit. It is a quiet, gentle voice that holds no judgments about who I used to be. It doesn’t offer recriminations about what I have done, or even about things I am doing now. It mostly just reminds me that I am a perfect child of God. And it sometimes asks if the way I am living demonstrates that. I am not afraid of the voice, but I am sometimes afraid I am wrong, that this life is a sham, and doesn’t really amount to anything.

I know that the thing I have longed for my entire life is this communion with the Spirit that created me, that knew me before my birth, and knows more about me than I do myself. I have always felt the hole in my being that only God could fill. I just didn’t know that a relationship with God was possible.

Today I yearn for more time to spend in the quiet where God resides inside of me, an eternal well-spring of hope.

I killed Jesus

It was cold that night, the night I killed Jesus. Unlike in the biblical story, I killed Jesus just after midnight when most people are sleeping. I killed him as privately as possible; few were there to actually witness his death. And I didn’t make it a big bloody display, beating him senseless, and nailing him to a cross. Oh no, Jesus was dispatched cleanly and humanely. He simply went to sleep.

Jesus was quietly taken into his execution chamber. It was medically sterile, as germ free as humanly possible. I know on that last walk he felt every lash he had received from the criminal “Justice” system. I imagine him recounting the loss of his acquaintances, then his friends. Family may even have abandoned him.

He was strapped to a gurney that night, and an IV line started. First we gave him a powerful barbiturate to calm him, and make him drowsy. Next we injected him with a drug that paralyzed his entire muscular system. No unseemly jerking or twitching permitted. Then potassium chloride was administered to stop his heart.

Good night, Jesus. No suffering here.

It was almost the same protocol as when I had to put my wolf-dog Taz down last year. We had been together for nine years. She was abused as a young dog and we rescued her, giving her a loving pack and me a furry companion. She became my “best girlfriend”. We used to go to the woods a couple of times a week to run and play together. She was an amazing animal who loved me, my wife and kids, and our other four-legged family members.

But she was suffering. Old age had taken a great toll on Taz. She couldn’t run with the wolves any longer. Many days she could barely walk to the door to go out and do her business. The day came when she couldn’t do even that much.

We took Taz to our friend Bill’s veterinary clinic where I gently lifted her up onto an examination table. First Bill injected her with a tranquilizer to calm her, and make her drowsy. Joy and I were talking to her soothingly, and stroking her head. The paralytic and potassium bromide were administered, and Taz died in our arms. It was an end of suffering for her.           

Yes, it was cold that night, the night I killed Jesus. I was hundreds of miles away, standing on a street corner in the middle of the night freezing my ass off and holding a sign. There were about ten of us. We were in front of a church that left one door unlocked so we could come in and get warm as needed.

My sign said something inane like “Why do we kill people who kill people to teach people not to kill people?” It was a small protest against Tennessee’s death penalty, staged at the same time Cecil Johnson, one of “the least of these,” was executed at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville as I described.

I still grieve for Taz. Her body is buried in our pet cemetery along with several others. Her last dog-tag hangs from the front axle of my Sportster, so every time I ride she gets to run with me again. But as I sat down to write this, I couldn’t even remember that Jesus’ name for me that night was Cecil Johnson. And so I wonder.

I wonder if our protest was any more effective than spitting in the wind.

I wonder if my standing in the cold made any difference whatsoever.

I wonder if I was merely trying to mitigate my own guilt.

I wonder why, if our execution protocol is so humane, I still heard Cecil/Jesus cry out in anguish that night “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

I claim to follow Jesus, but still, I killed Jesus that night.

And if nothing changes,

I will almost certainly kill Jesus again.