Newsflash:  We are Sinners

Recently, we received an anonymous message on our website that called to question my qualifications to represent the diocese in this ministry because, well, I’m a sinner.

Drat.  The jig is up.

That’s right, my fellow man, I have sinned.  Many times in my life.  Lots and lots and lots of little times.  A couple of doozies.  It is likely I will sin sometime today.  I’m a sinner that way.

On top of the audacity of my own personal sin, I walk every day inside prisons loaded down with more sinners.  Blatant, unpolished, consistent sinners.  They know they’re sinners.  I know they’re sinners.  And now, thanks to our anonymous writer, you know they’re sinners.

Sheesh. I hope God doesn’t figure out that we’re sinners.  He might……He might love us anyway.

It’s a dialogue that we in the ministry of incarceration around the world have and welcome often.  In the interest of being salt and light, we meet in many venues with fellow Christians who have constructed a veneer hierarchy of God’s favor that usually puts themselves somewhere at the top (“Well, I’ve never done THOSE things.”)—and anyone incarcerated or whom they don’t personally care for at the bottom.  It’s a faulty argument to suggest that God has a “less than” category and that when He sent His only Son to bear the sins of the entire universe He excluded the men and women whose sins personally rattle our own broken cages, but some of us are still willing to attempt the argument.  “I go to Mass every Sunday,” the perfect people say.  “I donate to charity with full-page ads and I dress up in my martyr gear to announce and perpetuate the harms against me.  I am better than those….those sinners!”

Scripture is clear in a hundred different ways:  Jesus was sent to address our brokenness—because we are broken.  All of us.  Luke 5:31-32 reminds us, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”  The dress down that Jesus gave the Pharisees and the Sadducees over and over about their haughtiness and righteousness and interest in condemning others for breaking the Law was not arbitrary (visit Matthew 23 for a refresher); His mandate to love and forgive others was not a passing suggestion.  As unsexy as it seems, we will be judged on how we address our OWN sin (capitalization and italics added for the haughty) and how we treat those who the world deems “unlovable.”  Housewarming gifts do not a front-row seat in Heaven make.

If God’s mandate weren’t enough, there’s this:  the Pharisees were an unhappy and crabby lot, with all their finger-pointing and lot casting.  They puffed up and kicked cats and pounded their chests with their own importance and pointed out to anyone who would listen how good they were.  How right they were.  How so not like those other people they were.  Fast-forward 2,000 years and so, too, are the Pharisees of our day crabby.  Being judgmental and better than others is exhausting and thankless work.   But their crabbiness sends a bullhorn-loud message to the world:  “I AM BROKEN!  I AM IN PAIN!  I DO NOT LOVE MYSELF!”  Some people with those feelings break and enter other people’s homes and steal things.  Some people with those feelings shoot heroin into their veins to numb the pain.  Some people with those feelings tear down others so they don’t have to stand in front of their own full-length mirror and witness their own mistakes in living color.  It’s not a mystery that hurt people hurt people.

When we encounter that truth in incarceration ministry, we provide the following salve:  Been there, too, my friend.  Been broken.  Made terrible choices.  Hurt people.  Then we lock arms with Jesus and talk about the ways we can dust off, start anew.  In 1 John 9-10 we are assured, “If we confess our sins, (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his Word has no place in our lives.”

That, friends.  That’s the lynchpin.

Look, there are certainly good reasons for anonymity.  But it’s a slippery slope. I worked for a national newspaper for over a decade and the rules surrounding anonymous sources were hotly and consistently debated by editors and writers of great integrity and pedigree.  They worked hard to strike the delicate balance to scoop and win subscribers/advertisers/awards—and also to protect the integrity of the publication and set a market standard for honest reporting that was beyond reproach.  To that end, they instituted anonymous sourcing guidelines that were more stringent than the competition from the beginning.  Some of the rationale:  anonymous usually means cowardice.  And cowardice tends to bring along its first cousins:  maliciousness, pettiness and boorishness.  They are unsightly visitors to any gathering, as we know.

Our “concerned friend of the ministry” rest assured:  we’re not silly enough to think we are perfect people.  In fact, we’re pretty darn stoked that we’ve messed up enough times and with enough severity to be able to empathize and deliver compassion from a deep, dark place that has since been washed clean by our Savior’s unabiding love.  Our God is a forgiving God.  Unfortunately, His people are slow to show on the topic.  The good news is, He’s a patient God as well.

My anonymous writer, we’ll add you to our prayer list.  We welcome a dialogue, should you come from the shadows.  We’ll pray for you anyway, should you decide to stay hidden.  Personally, I pick joy.  It’s a package you receive when you ascribe to a life of forgiveness and accountability and contrition.  Proverbs 17:22 reminds us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  Joy–God’s amazing joy–remains even when people throw rocks and cast lots.  And, there’s plenty to go around.

What a bummer for the Pharisees.