Christmas Hope 2018

Passage through the Advent and Christmas season is always jarring for me, with the mighty paeans of praise for a new-born King and stories of God/Fathers and dutiful pregnancies of young women. I groan a bah-humbug at the annual rehearsal of monarchical and patriarchal paradigms of power and look around for some little children eye-bright at lights and ornaments, running laughingly amid the legs of chatting grownups in the shopping aisles or after church. But this year, with real despots strutting through the corridors of power and seated in the places of privilege, the Christmas story has a keener edge. Children really are being killed by the thousands in Yemen and Syria, and fleeing from violence only to be turned away from safety in our own land before our very eyes. Pregnant women still are stumbling toward longed-for places of refuge, people are still selling their souls for money and prestige, greedy for the power they would keep from others. And the very earth is hotter every day in vengeance for our reckless pillage of the fuels beneath our water and our soil, while the wise still seek another way.

And so the Christmas story, not the gloss from Handel, Dickens, and Hallmark, keeps speaking amidst the tawdry tinsel, musak, tired carols, and culture wars. How fitting that we have to dig in stable muck to prise the message from the medium. Herods and would-be despots will always be among us, with their preening lies, self-serving corruption, and pernicious abandonment of the weak, the outcast, the suffering, and the laboring in factories, mines, offices, and birthing rooms. But out of the oppression by the mighty comes from time to time a child who takes on the suffering of the world, sees through the falsehood and the flashiness of fleeting power, and gathers up our longing for Life beyond the deaths that fill our lives.

As a little child evokes our love and awe, we learn again how precious is each life that enters in the darkness of our world. The light of hope within their eyes looks out beyond the heralds of our doom. The emperor is naked once again, and the walls of privilege and power are blown down. The armaments of war are melted by the power of a love that turns the bullets of fear into seeds of reconciliation. If we listen we can still hear the message: Fear Not, for the Creator of All is with you, leading you and us, together, toward peace.  If we get down in the stable’s muck, it’s still possible to find the pearl of genuine peace. It’s enough to make you glad that somewhere in the year, we’re invited to remember this ancient story. In a few days we’ll be asked to get off our knees and start anew on this Great Work. And, once again, a little child will lead us, if only we can hear and reach out our hands. Listen. Reach. Give thanks.

Posted in Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | 2 Comments

On Imprisonment: A Note from Germany

In response to my post “Kairos Time in the Prison,” my old friend and colleague Gerd Decke, a Pastor now living in Berlin, has written me a lengthy reflection on Germany’s history of prison reform. I thought it might be very helpful for the rest of us to reflect on their experience in trying to move to restorative practices in criminal law. Here’s what he reports:

The Biblical, Christian approach should be restoration rather than retribution. In Germany this has been practiced in criminal law since Gustav Radbruch, a most important German juridical thinker, a professor in Heidelberg and also Minister of Justice in the Weimar Republic: I quote from the German Wikipedia on him:

The Design of a General German Penal Code from 1922 and the Juvenile Court Law of 1923 were pathbreaking steps. Radbruch wanted to abolish retributive punishment and replace it with reformative measures. He was against the death penalty and the penitentiary and in favor of a uniform term of imprisonment. Re-socialization took equal place with security as the primary goal of punishment. These steps were introduced in only a limited fashion in the Weimar Republic but they became meaningful in the later development of penal law in the German Federal Republic.

The Wikipedia article maintains that Radbruch was conceiving this key idea of resocialization out of a Christian spirit. Resocialization has subsequently been the focus in German criminal law. Therefore, we also have much lower punishments than in the United States. For instance, murder entails a sentence of 15 years if there are no serious reasons to think the perpetrator would be a danger to society after that time. Then he or she can receive a life-long sentence of security custody (Sicherheitsverwahrung). The German Basic Law also eliminated the death penalty. Extremely important after the war was the so-called Radbruch formula of 1946 that turned jurisprudence from the Nazi era’s blind obedience to laws and required judges to decide against the letter of the laws if the laws are unbearably unjust or when they deny the basic equality of all human beings.

Generally, I know that in German prisons there is the tendency to give the prisoners an environment and treatment that gives them a chance to readjust to society after their release by offering them libraries, free time activities like games, music, sports, and religious care in services and personal spiritual guidance.

For instance, I found that the maximum security prison in Münster stresses that the aim of leisure time/ free time for the prisoners should be to promote their personal development and initiative. This will make both for more security for prisoners and personnel as well as social attitudes furthering community. The prisons offer the possibility of work (in 12 of our 16 states this is required for the prisoners), and getting practice in trades of all kinds and even engaging in studies.

In an article on the maximum security prison in Oldenburg (which has nice new buildings with security glass, no bars except for the outside windows and a park-like outside) I found the following quote, reflecting Radburch’s legacy, which is a great positive vision: “There is no better means to awaken the good in human beings than to treat them as if they are already good —that is our image of humanity, that is our practice and our philosophy. We have noticed that when we talk with the prisoners, when we take them seriously, when we demonstrate respect, when we are examples, then we can transform even the imprisoned. We have done that for over 25 years. Even when dealing with prisoners from 39 countries, with prisoners who cannot speak German nor English and whose language we do not understand, we find that they understand this principle and they all love it.”

I hope this principle will begin to infuse the prison system in the US.

Rev. Gerd Decke, Berlin

Posted in Ethics, Restorative Justice | Tagged | 3 Comments

Kairos Time in the Prison

I recently set aside thirty minutes for prayer and meditation to connect me in a supportive way with the work of people in our local Kairos Ministry with prisoners in a nearby prison. One of my good friends is a retired Air Force chaplain who has spent some years in this work, which creates a space in prisoners’ lives to give voice to their painful past and nourish whatever hopes they have to turn their lives around, whether in prison or beyond. Their guide is “Listen, listen. Love, love.” My friend comes back with remarkable stories about lives in conversion, turning toward hope where they had despaired, turning toward relationships from an existence in alienation.

As I turned my mind to the possible faces of prisoners, guards, and volunteers, I thought once again of how deeply our society is committed to a retributive understanding of life. We live within a religious and civil tradition of laws and ethical obligations. This is what it largely means to be people of the Bible and the Qur’an. We then turn a calculus of right and wrong into a system of punishment that exacts an enormous cost on those who violate the laws, their families, and the whole society. In my room I was able to look out on plants and trees, enriched by the life around me. Their sight is confined to concrete and steel, harsh noises and a constantly menacing environment bent on their injury. With units of time, they are “paying” a debt to society for their sin. When the debt is “paid,” as the retributive theory holds, they are then released back into the world, but now burdened with a lifetime shackle of disgrace or infamy that usually limits their work, their residence, their vote, and their relationships.

The restorative perspective focuses on the harm that has been done, the way the perpetrator of that harm can help redress that harm in whatever way is possible, and on becoming equipped to participate in the society in a positive way. It is a perspective that is even pushing Congress to begin to turn around the extreme retributive model that has given us the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As long as we are captive to the calculations of retribution as the necessary consequence of law and justice we will never begin to walk a restorative path. I began to envision what would restore people who have wronged others, often in order to feed their addiction and mental disorders. What if a prison had gardens for every convict, even as Nelson Mandela tended his tomatoes at Pollsmoor Prison after his release from Robben Island? What if each prisoner had a fruit tree to care for? Some are now receiving dogs to rebuild their capacity for care and relationship. What about a horse? In short, what about an environment that helps them return to what is human—tending the earth and living in relationship, not only with animals, but eventually, once again, with people? In short, how can we turn from creating inhumane environments of retribution to humanizing environments of restoration? When will we turn from the calculus of retribution to the conversation of restored humanity?

As my friend listens encouragingly to people whose loss of liberty now threatens to debase their humanity, I wonder how we all might imagine anew a world that seeks to heal rather than punish, renew rather than consume, hope rather than fear. Maybe there’s a Kairos ministry near you or something like it. Maybe you might take an hour to lend them an ear, a prayer, a sign of hope, a donation. Maybe you might be one of those extraordinary listeners. Let me know what you think. I’m listening.

Posted in Personal Events, Restorative Justice | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Faure Requiem with Poetry

On October 14 our choir at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina, presented six movements of the beloved Requiem by Gabriel Fauré as the heart of a service of worship. Scott Taylor, our Director of Music and the Worship Arts, asked me to compose poetry to introduce each movement in order to ground this classic text and music in the lived experience of worshippers. I included one piece that I wrote some eight years ago as well as a recent unreleased poem with those written for this occasion. I also composed a prayer at the conclusion.  The Scripture, Hebrews 11:8-16, begins at 18:30, the Introduction to the Requiem begins at 20:30 and the poems and Requiem begin at 26:30.

You can view the service by clicking HERE.

Here are my poems as well as the text for the Requiem, which is available in many recordings.

Prologue I: (Introitus — Kyrie)

Our ship so safe, secure, a world lashed down,

Now shudders in the storm,

Washed with waves, roiling in the foam.

The clouds that shroud the beacon’s light,

The rain that pounds upon the rocks

Now soak us to the bone.

We steer by signals felt, not seen,

Strain to shores unknown.

Awed by the Life beyond our life

We row.

We pray.

Hear us.

Hear me.

Help us pray and row

            to the last beating of our hearts,

Be heard and known by the Creator of the sea,

Be seen and rescued by the God of light.


Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine

et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion

et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.

Exaudi orationem mean, ad te omnis caro veniet.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

(Rest eternal give them, Lord,

and let light always shine on them.

We sing you hymns, God in Zion, and turn our hearts to you in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer, to you all flesh will come.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.)

Prologue II: (Sanctus)

A single thread

            in the cloth bag

            holding our treasures


Our glistening marbles,

            photographs of younger smiles,

            address books,

            journals of our inward thoughts,

            slip through

            the widening tear.

We fall

            with them,


            if loving hands will catch us.


Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.

(Holy Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.)

Prologue III: (Pie Jesu)

At the end as at the beginning

            we come to you as little children,


            wobbling like bewildered toddlers

            across a vast and alien land.

O, give us your hand,

            give us something for our tongues to taste,

            our mouths to chew,

                        to speak,

                        to sing,

                        to laugh.

Though our eyes may weep,

            let us see through the Stygian waters of loss

            to the rainbow on your mountain heights.


Pie Jesu, Domine. Dona eis requiem.

Dona eis requiem sempiternam requiem.

(Merciful Jesus, Lord, give them rest.

Give them rest, eternal rest.)


Prologue IV: (Agnus Dei)

So many sacrifices brought us to this place.

            Our way lies not through gleaming streets of happiness

            but through stony roads in fearful darkness and distress.

Can not the blood of sacrifices past transfuse our veins

            and bring new life from death?

Cannot the light the martyrs saw

            illuminate our stumbling way?

All the gaudy trumpets of this world

            are but a clamorous cacophony

            before the great tranquility

            of the sabbath yet to come.

At the end we find a meadowland of peace

            beyond the chasm of our death.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

done eis requiem.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,

Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,

quia pies es.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine,

et lux perpetua luceat eis.

(Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world, give them rest.

Let light shine upon them, Lord,

with your saints for eternity,

for you are merciful.

Give them eternal rest, Lord,

and may perpetual light shine upon them.)


Prologue V: (Libera Me)

The power of creation is the power of destruction.

The light that guides us on our way can blind us,

            its heat can blast the atom’s nucleus,

            incinerate us into dust,

            leaving only light itself,

            the heart of God.

Is there then no place that truly

            we can call our home?

God’s longing for our liberation

            sears us all,

            burns away our falsehoods,

            shatters our illusions,

            re-creates the image of God’s wisdom

            in our souls,

Leads us to a home beyond our fearful wanderings.


Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda

quando coeli movendi sunt et terra

dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.

Tremens factus sum ego et timeo

dum discussio venerit atque ventura ira.

Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae,

dies illa, dies magna et amara valde.

(Liberate me, Lord, from death eternal on that terrible day

when the heavens and earth shall be shaken,

when you come to judge the world with fire.

I tremble with fear

before the coming angry trial,

That day, that day of anger, of calamity and misery, that day, that day of great and exceeding bitterness.)

Prologue VI: (In Paradisum)

It is enough to know

            There’s More.

A universe of galaxies resplendent with creative power—

            There’s More.

A rainbow reconciling every ecstasy of color—

            There’s More.

A meal that satisfies the need of every living being—

            There’s More.

A work that binds up shattered limbs and lives—

            There’s More.

A mind that numbers every star and grain of sand—

            There’s More.

A tree whose limbs are birds, whose roots are fingers of divinity—

            There’s More.

A love that pours its hope through steep ravines of grief—

            There’s More.

A life completed in the mercy of our finitude—

            Yes, There’s More.

“There’s more,” the subtle body spoke,

            and then became the More.


In Paradisum deducant Angeli

in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres

et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.

Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat

et cum Lazaro quondam paupere

aeternum habeas requiem.

(May Angels draw you into Paradise.

May the martyrs receive you when you come

and lead you into the holy city of Jerusalem.

May the chorus of Angels receive you

and with Lazarus, once a beggar, may you have eternal rest.)



Posted in Arts, Poetry and Songs, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 1 Comment