After learning about and discussing Saint Thérèseand The Little Wayduring a class I took at Fuller Theological Seminary, and after being slightly frustrated that I could not come up with a more simple definition and an easy to follow implementation guide, I decided to bring it to the attention of a few of my closest and wisest friends. I proceeded to order several copies of Story of a Souland some copies of a few books that were written about Saint Thérèse by Father Gary Caster and John Nelson, and drop them off to some of my best friends in prison, David Young, Darrin Elliot, and Fredrick Watson (I will share more of their backstory as we progress). Not only did I want to seek their wise counsel, but I also believed if anyone could make sense of it, they could. Not only are the hampered in their ability to serve God in the common ways most think of, they also lead a life similar to Saint Thérèse. They live in close quarters with the same, recurring people and their daily routines are mundane and the definition of routine. Even Saint Thérèse referred to her room as her “cell,” (ironically my imamate friends refer to their cells as their “room”). I thought they would be the perfect people to discuss Saint Thérèseand The Little Way.
At first this may seem strange. What do three convicted felons, with a history of some pretty heinous crimes have to do with a young, frail nun who lived and died during the late 1800’s. Why would I, when I have access to many pastors in professional ministry and professors who teach at the doctorate level, seek the advice of two people convicted of murder and one of armed robbery?
These questions are real and criticisms of my choices are understandable. Every time I use my friends in any sort of project, seek their advice, or sing their praises, I typically feel moved to issue a disclaimer of sorts. As much as I am apt to celebrate and write about criminals who have displayed significant life change, I need to remember that there are still victims out there who are still healing. I need to remember that, although the criminal’s character and life may have greatly improved, the victim’s may still be crushed. They may still be dealing with the travesty that men like these have inflicted on them, or the victims may be dealing with no issues at all, as they are no longer with us. I understand this. I understand the rawness that exists. I understood the pain the gentleman was feeling when he shoved our table away from us, spilling coffee as he stormed away, angry that I was giving a voice to those who hurt him so badly. I understand that we are all at different places with God, and He longs to comfort those as well.
But I also have seen first hand the impact these people have made in the lives of both those in prison and in the lives of people outside of prison. God has a recorded history of using prostitutes, cheats, and criminals to change lives. If one takes a quick scroll through the Scriptures, they’d be tempted to think God prefers to use people like this. In his final interview before his death, C.S. Lewis said, “Balaam’s ass, you remember, preached a very effective sermon in the midst of his ‘hee-haws.’Although pain and hurtful experiences may still be raw, for whatever reasons, God chooses to use criminals and he chooses to use victims. He chooses to use the Marginalized and the Broken… and longs to heal them all.
Christ himself, although he committed no crime, died the death of a criminal, and he was hated and jeered at while he was doing so. He implored us to love others and seek reconciliation with those who we would call our enemies. He knew what it was like to be celebrated and worshiped. He knew what it was like to be spat upon, and cast to the margins. He used all kinds of people for his purposes too, not only using the prostitute, the criminal, and the despised, but the victims, the respected, and the well-to-do. Both extremes have something to offer us.
Father Gregory Boyle wrote:
Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek). He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when he nudges us to love our enemies. Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing. He knows it’s just the harder thing. But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That’s why you do it.
As hard as it might be to do and accept, Christ chooses to use, and instructs us to do the same, the victimizer as well as the victim. It may not be seeking the advice and friendship of inmates, but with any would be enemy, or societal enemy, or just someone we do not tend to mesh with. If we can get to this point, this is evidence of some serious radical reconstruction of our hearts. If we can get to the point where we are actively allowing and accepting the worst society has to offer, enter our lives, contribute to our stories, and better our souls, we know God has been actively rearranging and flipping upside down everything our world tells us is normal. When we allow the enemy to become our friend, we can take comfort knowing that there is a large “Under Construction” sign on our hearts. It really is a positive in our spiritual adventure.
Saint Thérèse herself has something to say about this:
If a piece of canvas painted on by an artist could think and speak, it certainly would not complain about being constantly touched and re-touched by the brush, and would not envy the lot of that instrument, for it would realize it was not to the brush but to the artist using it that it owed the beauty with which it was clothes. The brush, too, would not be able to boat of the masterpiece produced with it, as it knows that artists are not at a loss; they play with difficulties, and are pleased to choose at times weak and defective instruments.
Saint Thérèse would suggest that we are all God’s masterpiece, and he will spend the rest of our existence in this life touching us up. We will never be a finished product as long as we are still sinful people, surrounded by other sinful people. We will not be a finished product, set behind a piece of glass until God has called us home to his Great Museum. Until then, we will all need a great deal of touch up and restoration, and the painting should never care about the kind of brush the artist used to make it into a masterpiece. Some are made into masterpieces through a close friend or a dear pastor. For whatever reason, God has seen fit to use a bunch of guys in prison as a paint brush towards me, and despite their pasts, this future masterpiece has no room to complain about the different brushes and methods the Artist uses to touch me up.
Pastor Darrin Elliot is one of those brushes. He has been a longtime friend to me at this point. The reason I refer to him as pastor is because he is currently the Senior Pastor of their inmate led church. He is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Since giving his life to Christ in the year 2000, Pastor Elliot has been one of the most knowledgeable leaders I have had the pleasure of being friends with. I knew he would have plenty to contribute, both from a pastoral perspective and an inmate’s. Fredrick Watson too is a wealth of knowledge as well, and has an incredible personality to go with it. His heart is one of meekness and quietness, but also of deep and profound feeling and thought. He is serving a life sentence, and lives the definition of servant leadership in their inmate led church. David Young is serving a sixty-three-year sentence, and besides being one of my best friends, is a great leader at correctional center. Hundreds of inmates look up to him, seek his advice, and desire his friendship. He has an alluring spirit about him, and cares for others more than anyone I have ever met. All three of these gentlemen are spiritual giants in my mind, and will be more celebrated in the Life to come than I could ever dream. I will simply be honored to be one celebrating them.
Christine Pohl wrote in a book called Making Room, that it has been traditionally the smaller, more marginalize people and the smaller, more marginalized churches that excel in welcoming the Broken and the Undesirable in our culture. She wrote, “The periods in church history when hospitality has been most vibrantly practiced have been times when the hosts were themselves marginal to the society at large.”She goes on to write that,
Poor people provide hospitality more readily than those with more resources… Poor people often know what it is like to need food, shelter, and help from someone else… Many have a lighter hold on property and possessions. Some of their lives are less dominated by an unyielding routine and so they are able and willing to accommodate more interruptions…
These three gentlemen, and all the leaders within their church are perfected examples of Pohl’s description. I cannot think of a more poor and a more marginalized group of people in our society than prisoners. We literally push them to the margins, and there we keep them locked up (justly so for the most part). So the positive news is, my three friends were in the best possible place in life to discuses The Little Way, and in the most effective place in the world to carry it out.
I dropped off all the materials, and had a series of meetings approved for four consecutive weeks to discuss The Little Way. All three participants were happy to read the books and give me their feedback. I was also approved to bring in four different lunches from the outside, which they were equally excited to participate in… perhaps a bit more about the lunches.
Over our four weeks of discussions, while laughing, reading to each other, taking notes, eating Buffalo Wild Wings and Jimmy John’s in an upstairs, unventilated room that one has to duck to get into, we broke The Little Way down into three different parts that we will discuss now:
- How God Approaches Us
- How We Approach God
- How We Approach Others
These three topics will be posted over the next few days…