Are You a Red Letter Christian?

It was a serendipitous moment. On Saturday, October 26, I had the privilege of offering a greeting to the 167th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa. Whereas United Methodist bishops come and go, Bishop Alan Scarfe was elected as the Episcopal Bishop of Iowa in 2002 and has been a wonderful episcopal leader.

I am deeply grateful for the common historical roots between the Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church. The Methodist movement in America sprang up from the Anglican Church in England in the 1700’s, and our founder, John Wesley, never left the Church of England, even as he gave birth to a new church in America.

Since 2002, The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church have been engaged bilateral dialogue, seeking to discern God’s will regarding how our churches might embody a new kind of public witness to the unity of Christ’s body. Seeking full communion as the goal, the document, A Gift to the World, has been submitted for potential action at the United Methodist General Conference in May of 2020, with the Episcopal Church scheduled to take action on the proposal at its General Convention in 2021.

I arrived early to the Episcopal Convention and was both surprised and delighted to meet Shane Claiborne, who was the primary speaker. Shane and I connected right away because he has United Methodist roots, lives in Philadelphia (my home territory), and is the founder of The Simple Way. The Simple Way is a small organization and intentional living community that supports the building of neighborhoods of positive change and hope in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. Claiborne has now spent 22 years of his life living in community.

Shane is a prolific writer and speaks around the world about simple living, discipleship, community, and social justice. He recalls the time he spent with Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, one of the poorest cities in the world, and the wisdom she shared.

  • “Let every person I come in contact receive the forgiveness of Jesus.”
  • “Taking a cold shower makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others.”
  • “We are not called to do great things but small things with great love.”

Claiborne told us about the feet of Mother Teresa, how they became deformed because there were just enough donated shoes at the Missionaries of Charity in Kokata for everyone to get a pair…and not many extras. So Mother Teresa went through all the donated shoes and took the worst pair for herself. Over the years, wearing ill-fitting shoes all the time deformed her feet. Then Claiborne said to convention-goers, “Calcuttas are everywhere. God gave you eyes to see your own Calcutta.”

Claiborne is also a disrupter. He is not afraid to confront us with our own prejudices, failings, and reluctance to be “all in” with the teachings of Jesus. These statements of Claiborne were both challenging and convicting.

  • “Our Christianity has become less and less fascinating because of how unchristian, judgmental, and hypocritical much of Christianity seems to feel.”
  • “What do young people think of the church? You will know them by their love. This is what young people are hoping for.”
  • “We are called to be the Good Samaritans, but after pulling so many people out of the ditches, we need to rethink the road to Jericho.”
  • “We are way too adjusted to racism. We are called to resist.”
  • “I met Jesus and he messed me up. It’s time to disrupt with holy agitation in a holy, humble, and non-violent way. (Shane has been arrested 20 times.) We will not tolerate the things that squash any person.”

But there’s another way in which Shane continues to challenge our, at times, lukewarm Christianity. Claiborne and Tony Campolo, both well-known Christian activists and speakers, co-founded Red Letter Christians as a non-denominational movement to “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Years ago, when I first heard Tony Campolo refer to red letter Christians, I was confused. What was he talking about? Finally, I got it. Many Bibles today quote in red the words of Jesus that are commonly accepted as authentic. These red-letter Bibles were meant to be a handy way of discerning the heart of Jesus’ ministry through his very words. In some Bibles, Old Testament passages that Jesus directly quoted or referred to are also printed in red. Staying true to the foundation of combining Jesus and justice, Red Letter Christians mobilize individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.

In his presentation, Claiborne noted how interesting it is that many of us underline passages in the Bible that particularly speak to us. Kind of like printing them in red to get our attention. The problem is our human tendency to latch on to the things Jesus said that we like and ignore the rest. These are usually the words that are the hardest to hear or that mess with the safety of our faith, like the first shall be last; go to the end of the line; sell what you have and give it to the poor; love your enemies; and turn the other cheek.

Claiborne wrote an article in Esquire magazine in 2009 in which he said, “In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay ‘out there’ but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, ‘Nothing good could come.’ It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.”

At the end of his presentation, Claiborne described his calling as a Red Letter Christian, “What would I do differently? I would take more risks. I did not tiptoe through life so I could arrive safely.”

Red Letter Christians. They do not tiptoe through life. Rather, they are committed to loving Jesus and loving justice. They live simply. They live faithfully. They live expectantly. And they are committed to doing what Jesus said, like caring for the immigrant, reaching out to the hopeless, and offering a hot bowl of soup. Are you a red letter Christian?

You did so much

The privilege of officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals has always been one of my greatest joys. Perhaps the most satisfying part ministry for me has been helping parishioners prepare to enter the last phase of their life. The conversations that I have had with people who are transitioning to assisted living or a nursing home, or who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, have been rich as well as poignant.

Offering pastoral care is most challenging when meeting with dear saints of the church who lament their limitations and express regret that they can no longer be active anymore. At times, they will say, “Looking back on my life, I wish I had done more. I could have visited others in need. I could have taught Sunday school. I could have been more faithful in financial stewardship. I wish had been more supportive of my pastors.”

When that happens, all I can do is wipe away my own tears and say, “You did so much. Do you know that the legacy of your life shines bright as the stars in the sky? Now it’s time to be at peace and allow others to take up the mantle.” My prayer has always been that those who feel as if they can no longer contribute can recognize that their prayers and their legacy are more than enough.

Oskar Schindler – By Unknown – Yad Vashem, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39536435

As All Saints Day approaches, I remember the movie that has impacted my life perhaps more than any other. Schindler’s List, which came out in 1993, was a film adaption by director Steven Spielberg of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel Schindler’s Ark. The movie tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist in World War 2, who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews from the concentration camps by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories in occupied Poland. “Schindler’s List,” which was one of many lists retyped numerous times during the war, contained the names of the 1,200 Jewish workers in his factory.

When the tide of the war changed in 1944 and the Germans began closing the easternmost concentration camps and moving them westward, Schindler persuaded German authorities to allow him to move his factories to Brünnlitz in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Schindler spent much of his fortune successfully bribing officials until the war ended, thereby preventing the murder of his workers.

There is a scene in Schindler’s List that has always reduced me to tears. Although the veracity of every aspect of the movie is often disputed and Steven Spielberg may have taken creative license, Oskar Schindler gathers his factory workers on May 7, 1945, to listen as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Germany had surrendered and that the war in Germany was over.

Bruunlitz – Photo taken by Miaow Miaow in August 2004 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=111333

Afterward, as Schindler gets into a car to leave the factory, a spokesperson hands Schindler a piece of paper and says, “We’ve written a letter, trying to explain things, in case you are captured. Every worker has signed it.” Then he gives Schindler a ring made from the gold tooth of a factory worker and says, “The words on the ring are in Hebrew. There is a saying from the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This prompts Schindler to break down crying and lamenting.

“I could have got more out. I could have got more.”

“There are 1,100 people who are alive because of you.”

“If I made more money. I threw away so much money. You have no idea. I didn’t do enough.”

“You did so much.”

“This car. Why did I keep this car? I could have saved ten more people right there. This pin. Two people. This is gold. It would have given me more two people, and I didn’t. I could have gotten one more person, but I didn’t.”

You can watch the video clip of this poignant scene by clicking here. As Schindler sobs, the Jews whom he saved surround him and hug him. In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, “I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice.”

Holocaust survivor Rena Finder, who is also one of the 1,200 people on Schindler’s List. Photo by Julian Cardillo.

Rena Finder, now 90 years old, was one of the youngest persons on Schindler’s List, and she and her mother worked at the Brünnlitz factory. At a speaking engagement at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in New Jersey in May, Finder said that when she and her parents were forcibly removed from their home in Krakow, Poland, Rena never saw or heard from her father again. Rena still remembers her neighbors looking out of their windows as they left. She knocked on the doors of her friends’ homes to say good-bye, but no one answered. Rena then said, “You cannot stand by and do nothing.”

For many years, Finder has spoken in schools around the country about the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and works with the organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Finder knew that Schindler was a complicated man and had his flaws, but she also recognized that he did much good. Finder said, “He had the courage, you see? He cared about human beings. He had the courage to do the unthinkable.”

Oskar Schindler died in 1974 after his Jewish workers returned his generosity of spirit by helping him through some difficult times. After all these years, Rena Finder still has deep gratitude for Schindler, saying, “He was sent by God to take care of us.”

As Christians, we celebrate All Saints Day in order to remember and celebrate not only our loved ones – the saints who have gone before us – but to renew our commitment to be “living saints” who do what we can as long as we can to model and share God’s love with those around us.

I wonder. How might our world be a more compassionate and just place if we simply encouraged one another with acts of kindness? How might our beloved United Methodist Church be a more grace-filled and transformative presence in our world if we saw Jesus in every person that we met and inspired them to claim their God-given worth? How might our communities be more welcoming and embracing if, rather than disparaging those who need our assistance, we would welcome the gifts that all human beings can offer, knowing that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.

Finder said that in the US and around the world, “There is a lot of hate again against Jews and also against the Muslims and others,” and that the worst thing we can do is “sit by and do nothing.” She went on, “They have to stand up against injustice, against hate, and just treat everyone with respect and forget about the color of their skin and their religion.”

“You did so much.” For all the saints, thanks be to God.

Foolish Church 

It’s a pretty foolish idea. A church inside a state prison? When I arrived in Iowa in 2016, that was one of many things that felt amazing, and wonderful, and challenging.

It seemed no less foolish when I had the opportunity to visit worship there in Mitchellville on a cold winter’s night in early 2017. I immediately noticed how dark it was. Yes, there were a few spotlights, but most of the buildings were dark, and the sky was black. It was also very quiet.

You see, in Iowa, we have a United Methodist church inside the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW), the only women’s prison in our state. Ministry began there in 2006 with Rev. Arnette Pint as the first pastor. By February of 2007, the church had chosen its name, Women at the Well, and it was consecrated as a duly constituted congregation of The United Methodist Church. Since 2011 the church has been led by full-time pastor and former attorney Rev. Lee Roorda Schott, along with, more recently, Rev. Paul Witmer. Worship is on Thursday evenings at 7:00 p.m. in the Sacred Place, which is the chapel on the prison grounds.

Part of the foolishness of a church in a prison is how much is out of our control. I certainly felt that, waiting in the entry area, that first time I visited Women at the Well. I had been part of creating a county jail ministry in Michigan, and I understood the importance of being present with those who are incarcerated. This was a prison, however, and my senses were on high alert. I knew I had no control of what would happen.

When someone decided it was time, we passed through two sets of heavy doors and heard them clang shut behind us. I walked with the other visitors and regular worship volunteers through the bitter cold, up a long hill to the Sacred Place, right in the midst of women who live at the prison. I noticed how thin the women’s coats were, but I had to let it go.

Once we arrived inside the Sacred Place, the wisdom of this foolish undertaking became evident. The Holy Spirit was preparing the way. The singing was lusty and joyful, the women were deeply engaged, grace overflowed, and I kept forgetting that we were in prison. It was hard to observe the rule that we weren’t supposed to touch the women. That’s not easy when you’re a hugger. Of course, I wanted to embrace these women because something special was happening. The communion elements, transformed into the body and blood of Christ, were also transforming me as I served them.

What seemed at first like some kind of foolishness has become a vital ministry supported by dozens of United Methodist – and non-UM! – churches in Iowa. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Over the course of a dozen years, hundreds of guests have had the same experience I had, of entering into this most unlikely of places and being deeply blessed there. Women at the Well’s ministries have expanded to include a statewide network of reentry support for women leaving prison in addition to various ministries inside the prison. They include an inside council (leadership group), grief group, civil conversations, Christmas open houses, and even a Vacation Bible School for the grown-up residents!

In 2017, the leaders of Women at the Well adopted this vision statement: to lead the church in love that breaks down walls. They have done this, notably, through helping churches outside the prison think about how they can better welcome people they might have overlooked. That includes people who deal with mental illness (like 70% of the prison population), or addiction (like 80% of the prison population), or sexual assault or domestic violence (like a staggering 90% of the prison population).[i] They’re asking us to do outside the prison what they’ve learned to do inside. How foolish is that?

Women at the Well took that far-reaching vision so seriously that they have rearranged staffing and provided volunteer support so that Pastor Lee could write two books (so far!) on this subject, both published this year. The first, Foolish Church: Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, offers a vision and leadership lessons for how the church outside the prison can learn from what she has discovered inside. The second, The Fools’ Manual, is a study and practice guide (#FoolishChurch) that will help us live out this foolish, countercultural vision. Both books (available on Amazon, Cokesbury and other booksellers) describe a church that:

  • doesn’t need us to hide our scars.
  • is more about relationships than programs.
  • believes and protects.
  • builds boundaries, not walls.
  • brings its messes into the light.
  • has something critically important to offer.

It’s a great and timely vision. I agree with Pastor Lee that “God must long for us as churches to make room for people whose experiences and scars equip them to meet the needs of the overlooked and hidden communities that surround our churches.”[ii] In the foolish places of our world, we dare to do ministry in the name of Jesus, believing that all people are loved by our Creator and have gifts to offer our world. If we take all this seriously, we’ll have to welcome people better. We’ll have to be less judgmental and more open. Our churches will become messier, and some will call us fools. But it’s a foolishness Jesus would recognize. In fact, he calls us to it.

Even as Women at the Well has stepped boldly into these questions of leading the church outside the prison, its role inside the prison has been curtailed over the past year. Leadership and policy changes at the prison have limited the number of programs and volunteers allowed inside the prison, and guests no longer (for now) get to join in worship with the women who live there. Part of the foolishness we signed on for, when Women at the Well began, was to serve within an institution where we aren’t in control.

I have been marveling at how the Holy Spirit continues to lead the way forward for Women at the Well. Even inside the prison, vital worship continues twice a week, with the longstanding weekly worship service on Thursday evening in the Sacred Place, and a small, informal service that takes place in the minimum-custody live-out unit on Tuesday evenings. There’s still a Bible-centered prayer group that meets on Tuesday. The volunteers will tell you they’re just there so the doors can open, for it’s the women who lead this prayerful, supportive community. And Pastor Lee and Pastor Paul have developed a reentry workshop that is drawing 40-50 women each Wednesday afternoon. This lively gathering explores Biblical perspectives and spiritual practices that will support these women on that journey, even as the sharing of stories, experiences, and encouragement strengthens them for what lies ahead.

And with less room to do ministry inside the prison, Women at the Well is intentionally mobilizing for ministry outside. They’re building a relationship with the Fresh Start Women’s Center in Des Moines, a residential work release facility, where they’ll soon be offering twice-monthly reentry and/or spiritual programming that can be replicated through volunteers across Iowa in other work release centers and halfway houses. They’re also partnering with the Iowa Conference Board of Church & Society to facilitate jail ministry across the state. What began as a “church inside the prison,” which drew you and me there for support and assistance, is becoming a more diffuse, shared, and local expression of our love for persons who are incarcerated, jailed, confined, or in need of support. The foolishness continues, and we’re going to be invited to do our part!

Thanks be to God for this foolish church that is messy, raw, and is helping us make room for all.

P.S. Pastor Lee communicates weekly about #FoolishChurch on her blog and on the @Foolish Church Facebook page. In addition, there will be a  Foolish Church Conference in Ames, Iowa, November 15-17.  

[i] Foolish Church; Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, Lee Roorda Schott, Eugen, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2019, p. xvi.

[ii] Ibid, p. 91.