Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Introducing Piper Kerman "Orange is the New Black" 2015

Note:  One of the great privileges of being part of the Casa Misericordia Domestic Violence Shelter board is to hear gifted authors speak at a fund raising event. I've had the privilege of introducing a couple of them.  
This is from April 9, 2015

Orange is the New Black
Before we start – Let me take care of a couple of housekeeping items:
Cell phones - If yours goes off during Piper's talk you get to donate another $50           to Casa Misericordia.

Books - Piper has graciously agreed to sign books and take pictures. If you don't 
already have a copy we may still have a few more for sale at the table.

Last May, Priya Vaswani called me.  “Father, could you please read "Orange is the New Black". We want to invite the author, but Sister Rosemary wants your opinion.” 
I confess I had heard the book title, and had seen an email from Netflix with the same title but that was all I knew. But I am obedient so I got the book that afternoon, started reading it that night, and finished it the next day.  It is wonderfully written and a gripping story. But I couldn’t put it down because it rang a personal note.

In 1980 when my wife Anne and I were first married and on our honeymoon, one of our stops during our traveling through Colorado was to see one of my relatives who had been unable to attend our wedding.  We drove to a place that isn’t usually on the tourist stops, to the state Penitentiary in Canyon City, Colorado.  My relative spent almost a year in the state penitentiary and it was a sobering experience for him and for my family.

So much of the book resonated with me personally that I called Priya back and then called Sister Rosemary and said, “Yes, absolutely let’s see if she can come, I don’t care if anyone else is interested, I am!”

Most of you know that I'm a pastor, and if not the collar might give you that clue. Let me tell you about my boss.
I work for a guy who is someday going to ask me if I ever went to visit him when he was in prison. (If you don’t know what I am talking about  search on Google  for Matthew 25:36)
I am going to ask an audience question here, but please know that if you are uncomfortable, you do not have to answer. But if you are not too discomforted and are willing I would like you to raise your hand and keep it up if you have ever visited someone in a jail or prison? Thank you.

Piper Kerman’s story hooked me at the very start.  Her gradual entry into the world of illegal heroin couriers and cash transport followed by a scare which brought her to her senses and led to a normal life and career, suddenly upended years later is painful.
I’m not going to name any names but my own, but self included,  here in this room there are many of us whose youthful mistakes and bad decisions could have come back to haunt us years after we had left those mistakes behind.

Piper’s description of her almost 6 year lead up to her trial and prison sentence followed by the journal of her 15 months spent mostly in Danbury is sometimes painful and always engaging.

While reading I appreciated Piper’s honesty about her own crime and the damage it caused to her, to unknown others and to her family. She was willing to accept the culpability and punishment for her wrong. But in doing so, her experience gave her a platform to speak out and not hide the reality that much of our judicial and prison system is terribly unjust.

Orange is the New Black opens our eyes to how much of our prison system is based on attitudes and practices that are almost medieval, and to how damaging it can be to both prisoners and prison staff.

Piper’s stories of some other women in Danbury with her is moving. The women’s resilience and care for one another even while keeping certain emotional boundaries in place, moved me to tear up at times.  And on other pages I got furious at some of the gross injustices inflicted on the author and others.

Her own willingness to forgive and let go of hurt and resentments and her struggle to keep her own humanity in an inhuman place is was the gift I treasured most.
I have been encouraged by Piper’s ongoing advocacy for all prisoners, both women and men, and her truth telling about the need to incarcerate far less people, and to find less draconian means to deal with non violent crimes and her call to change mandatory sentencing guidelines and to find better means of dealing with drug addiction and seek restorative justice and community solutions rather than more incarceration.

This is a gift of advocacy that we can all share. Her website gives you a chance to be part of several organizations working to change the systems that need changing. I encourage you to visit her website, buy the book, buy a Free Piper T-Shirt, and to support reform.

That said, please join me in welcoming Piper Kerman.

Born again - A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent 2014

cc-14-yA-Lent 2
Spiritual Birth
“Born Again: Every Saint has a past – Every Sinner has a future, Hallelujah!”

It was a long road trip. Jimmy had left Pittsburgh, at 8 the night before. He and his girlfriend, Caitlin were headed to Norfolk. His brother Eric was returning on the USS Roosevelt after almost 8 months in and around the Persian Gulf.  Eric was getting married just a few days after his arrival and Jimmy was going to be the best man.

Jimmy was also headed to do a little business. He’d been buying methamphetamine from a manufacturer he’d met in a bar a few years back when he’d seen Eric off the first time he’d deployed on the carrier. Once a month Bob cooked a batch and Jimmy would run it up back roads thru West Virginia. Even though Jimmy had good connections with some of the dealers in West Virginia, Bob’s stuff was basically pharmaceutical grade, and Jimmy could get a premium for it with discriminating customers in Pittsburgh.

That was how he’d met Caitlin. She had a really good job with Alcoa, but she also liked to party. A deal with one of his customers had led to their meeting. A few weeks later they met again, and now they were living together. She knew he was a “bad boy” but that was part of the attraction.

But now Jimmy was panicking. He was going to meet Bob at 4 that morning, and pick up his load. But when he got near Bob’s place on the godforsaken plot of farmland he had near the Great Dismal Swamp, there was nobody there. The ramshackle house where they’d met was dark, and when he texted there was no answer.

So, Jimmy had headed back for the highway, but he was almost certain that someone was tailing him. Or was he just being paranoid? He didn’t know. What he did know is that Caitlin had her stash of meth and marijuana in her stuff in the trunk of his car.

He turned off on a little farm road that paralleled U.S. 64 and watched the headlights behind him keep heading toward the highway.  Breathing a sigh of relief he nodded at Caitlin. But a few moments later there was another set of headlights behind him.

He passed a little Baptist Church with a lighted sign.  It read: Harmony Baptist Church, Pastor Marvin Davis, Sermon for Sunday, “Born Again: Every Saint has a past – Every Sinner has a future, Hallelujah!”

As the headlights began to close in on him he began to pray...

She was about to graduate from college. Kylie had been the child her parents never had to worry about. Yes, she made mistakes, but she was very sensible and self-disciplined. She’d never fallen for the drinking and hooking up crowd in college. She didn’t just want sex and partying, she wanted a lasting relationship, marriage and hopefully kids. She was excited about graduating, but felt like there was still something missing. She just wasn’t sure what it was or how to find it.  Her friend Sara kept inviting her to visit her church. Maybe this Sunday she’d go. She had gone to church with her family, but Sundays at college were for sleeping in. But maybe Sara was right about the whole knowing God thing. She’d call her tonight.

I titled today’s sermon Spiritual Birth.  Not particularly original, but to the point. New Birth, Born Again, Regeneration, New Creation. It is one of the most central ideas in the New Testament: a belief that we are spiritually dead inside until God literally regenerates us.

It is said that Christians don’t believe in re-incarnation. And certainly in the Hindu form we do not. But we do believe that we can literally be made new, re-incarnated, re-created at a fundamental spiritual level.

There is an irony here. Spiritual deadness is not related to behavior. Good and bad, all human beings are spiritually dead unless this regeneration takes place. 

“Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.”

Nicodemus was a really morally good person. The pharisees were the straight arrows of their day. They followed the ten commandments, were faithful to their wives, gave money to charity, and upheld order and decency.

But after hearing about Jesus, or perhaps hearing Jesus, Nicodemus began to wonder if there might be more.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says there is something more and it is called grace, God’s entry into our life that we get when we put our faith in God.  This spiritual re-birth can only happen when we let go put our trust in God.  Paul says this faith ingredient is the most important part of what Abraham does.

Putting faith in Jesus is Jesus own idea. He claims that that our trust, belief, faith, or any other type of confidence is to be placed in him.  In this short passage from John’s gospel  he twice says believe in him and have eternal life.

“so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

To believe in Jesus means to decide to believe in him. Now, faith is always risky.  I believed my cousin John when he told me we would get rich selling apples that we picked in his backyard.  I think we made 20 cents. After that I didn’t have quite as much faith in John’s business advice. 

What are some of the risks of putting faith in Jesus?  Maybe Jesus himself was a phony. Or maybe Jesus was sincere, but self-deluded and his followers are also self-deluded. Nice people but naive and foolish.

There is one way to find out if Jesus really can give us a spiritual rebirth. To pray and put our faith in him.

All faith involves certain risk.  Here is my challenge to you. If you have committed your life to Christ, keep moving forward. But if you have never consciously put trust in Him consider doing so. 

I remember the first time someone asked me if I had been “Born again.”  I had no clue what they meant.  It was a girl in high school  “Paul, have you been born again?” she asked.  Since I didn’t know what she meant I sort of muttered “I don’t know.” “Well, do you believe in Jesus?” She asked.  “Of course.” I replied. I believed Jesus existed. I didn’t have any faith in him, but I was sure he was a real historical character.  I had lots of church experience but not much God experience.

You may be like me. Your parents took you to church and you got baptized. Perhaps you were baptized as a baby or a young person, perhaps you did first communion or confirmation. But you just did those things because someone else thought you should or you were going along with the crowd, or doing what your parents wanted. 

I know I tried to fill my spiritual dead place with drugs and excitement. And both worked for a while, but they also began to have very negative consequences.

Finally, I gave in admitted that my life was going nowhere fast.  When someone told me God could help I was ready to give it a try.

And so, I prayed and began to turn my life and decisions over to God, not knowing exactly how that would work, and not even sure it would work.

Looking back I realize several things that helped me follow Christ.

First, and most important was the decision to trust God.  We don’t always think about it, but making a decision is the starting point of any change. 

The people who helped me were very clear. “Deciding to follow Jesus”, they said, “means decide to stop following other things For you it definitely means stop following drugs.” 

Fortunately they also guided me to people who knew something about recovery, not just giving my life to Christ.

If you need time to think about it, to weigh your options, want some help just thinking about all this God stuff, get in touch with me.  I’d be happy to listen, and then if you want, give you some resources to think it through.

Or perhaps you’ve lost that sense of spiritual connection and intimacy with God, and you've asked God to deepen your love for him and to give you a deeper knowledge of his love for you, but there still seems to be something missing and you aren't sure what to do. Again, feel free to call, text, email, or meet, let's connect.

Let us pray.

“Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.

Spiritual War - A Lenten Sermon 2014

The First Sunday In Lent, 2014
Christ Church, Laredo, Texas 

"Spiritual War" - This is part of our series for this Lent. The others will be:
Spiritual Birth
Spiritual Harvest
Spiritual Eyes
Spiritual Life

Here are the main "Take aways":
1) There is a spiritual war.
(and there is no such thing as neutrality, you must pick a side.)

2) Pick the winning side.
(It will still be hard, but you won’t be sabotaged by your commanding officer, which will happen to you on the other side.)

3) When you are tired, or wounded, ask for help and ask for rest and recreation.

Why does Jesus love Centurions, Officers in the Roman army? I think it's because they have the same kind of mission.  Their job is to claim and hold territory for their ruler. Jesus mission is to reclaim and hold territory for the supreme ruler, God.

You and I are in a spiritual war. We do not always recognize it. This is in some ways because we are blind from birth. What do I mean by that?

Some of you know I've been blessed to work with Tina Trevino and others helping blind young men and women learn how to play tennis. It struck me the other day but in many ways all of us have blindness. My blindness is spiritual. I suspect that Jesus can see the spiritual world in a slightly different way than we can. Angels and demons are not generally visible to us.

The blind tennis players can hear the tennis ball because it has a rattle inside so they can actually know where the ball is. But they have to use different senses to know where the ball is in that there is a ball. In much the same way you and I do not generally have the ability to see spiritual entities. We have to use other senses. What do I mean by this?

I suspect that all of us have some spiritual sense. I think it is generally intuitive. However many of us as children see things that are not right and grasp that they are not right. I think over time this sense gets sharpened or doled. The danger when it is told is that we disbelieve that there is any spiritual reality. My favorite author home you all mobile now is see. S. Lewis says that demons are happy when human beings make either of two mistakes. One is to believe the demons are around at every turn. Two is to disbelieve in their existence entirely. Lewis says the devil is happy with either outcome.

Or for you Harry Potter fans, some of us are muggles and don't believe in magic, and some of us are magicians who are tempted to see the dark lord around every corner.

We have been watching Russia and the United States deal with each other in a way that was very similar to what many of us grew up with in the 1950's and 60's all the way up until the 1980's when the Berlin wall came down.

One of the hallmarks of the Cold War was the difficulty in knowing what was really going on.  Each side had strategies that had wheels within wheels, and often a conflict in one place was a feint, set up to distract the other, so that some other goal could be pursued. In the same way spiritual warfare is often a battle that is confusing.

What can we learn from today's texts?

First we can take the story with Jesus and the devil literally. The Bible makes no apology for the existence of a spiritual entity angelic in nature in rebellion against God. This being is warped and seeks to do evil with the gifts talents and powers that he she or it has.

Two, we learn from Genesis that our ancestors chose the wrong side, and set up a bad situation for us.

Three, St. Paul says that we were subject to death, and later to death and “the law”. This topic of death and the law is deserving of it’s own sermon and I’m not going to tackle it today.

Remember the takeaways we started with:
1) There is a spiritual war.
(and there is no such thing as neutrality, you must pick a side.)

2) Pick the winning side.
(It will still be hard, but you won’t be sabotaged by your commanding officer, which will happen to you on the other side.)

3) When you are tired, or wounded, ask for help and ask for rest and recreation.

If we focus on the Gospel we see that Jesus is deliberately led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to engage in a battle in this Spiritual War.  He is led out to fast, and near the end the devil arrives to tempt him.  Three things we must know.

One, fasting does make you hungry.
Second, fasting strengthens us spiritually.
Third, our primary spiritual weapons and armor are the Word of God, the Bible.

 So while Jesus is weaker physically, and certainly hungry, the first temptation, the one to create and eat bread he resists.

He is strong spiritually because of the fasting and prayer.

And he resists the Devil by his use of the scripture, even when the Devil tries to use the same method against him.

Jesus wins the first round of this Spiritual war. 

If we look ahead in Matthew’s Gospel, when he returns from this victory, he preaches the Kingdom of God.

What we may not think about is that Jesus is preaching that Kingdom as opposed to another Kingdom. He is not preaching the Kingdom of Israel, or Rome, but God’s Kingdom, over and above the others.

And if we jump even farther forward, Jesus faces one more great battle with Satan, which ends with his betrayal and death. It certainly looks like the score in that battle is Satan 1, Jesus 0.

But, surprise, on Easter, a great reversal takes place. What looks like defeat proves to be the final victory.

Remember the takeaways we started with:
1) There is a spiritual war.
(and there is no such thing as neutrality, you must pick a side.)

2) Pick the winning side.
(It will still be hard, but you won’t be sabotaged by your commanding officer, which will happen to you on the other side.)

3) When you are tired, or wounded, ask for help and ask for rest and recreation.

Let’s look at number 2. Pick the winning side.

In God’s Kingdom, even if you have been on the wrong side, you are invited to join the winning side. You’re forgiven for all your actions against God’s kingdom and given all the rights and privileges that belong to anyone on God’s side.

Even more amazingly, God will let you do this over, and over, and over.

Imagine if the Army let people who went AWOL, (for the acronym challenged that means Absent With Out Leave), return with no punishment.

God does that each time we return to him after sinning against him. Even our worst betrayals have been forgiven, and if we come back and admit our fault and ask for that forgiveness we get a brand new start.

Not only that.  Imagine if at the conclusion of the Superbowl the winning team handed the trophy and Superbowl rings to the losing side.

God not only forgives us over and over, but provides ways for us to grow stronger and keep going. We are given spiritual gifts if we will be open to them. We are given answers to prayer more often than we know. We are protected from harm far more than we know. And above all, we are deeply loved and cherished by God.

Lent is a time when you will probably experience three things.
Remember the takeaways we started with:
1) There is a spiritual war.
(and there is no such thing as neutrality, you must pick a side.)

2) Pick the winning side.
(It will still be hard, but you won’t be sabotaged by your commanding officer, which will happen to you on the other side.)

3) When you are tired, or wounded, ask for help and ask for rest and recreation.


1 For a person before sleep
May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with you in your going out and in your coming in.
By day and by night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places may it protect and defend you.
From the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver you.  Amen.

From the Church of England Website (