The Uneasy Empty Chair

For 25 years, there’s been an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, my friend said (I’ll call her Carol). Perhaps not literally. No one expected Carol’s nephew to show up, so perhaps there wasn’t actually a place set, knowing it would stay empty, at the big dining table where the family would gather. But Peter’s absence diminished those feasts. The chair he should have occupied was empty. No one would lovingly prepare that odd corn relish that, for years, Peter had said was his favorite. He was definitely missed.

For the first few of those years, there was some story. He had to be somewhere else. He was working. Finally in year three or four, Carol’s brother pulled her aside and haltingly told what had been unsaid. Peter didn’t have to work. Peter wasn’t joining a friend’s family for Thanksgiving. The news was more complicated.

Peter was in prison.

It’s hard enough when a chair sits empty for reasons that we can own. This Thanksgiving will, for many families, mark the first holiday without mom, or grandpa, or our niece or grandson. Those times are exquisitely painful, and every family will eventually face them. This particular Thanksgiving marks an especially stark holiday for families whose untimely, violent losses we have mourned publicly, too many to name here, ranging from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June to the early-morning November streets of Des Moines, and from routine traffic stops ending in death in too many months, in too many cities, to shocking numbers of shooting deaths this year in Chicago. We come to this holiday with a sense that far too many families have been rended.

It takes nothing away from our rightful concern for those families to remember also the ones whose absences are shrouded in stigma.

For two, three years, Peter’s family didn’t feel like they could speak their truth. Our son is in prison.  Our boy—the one you delighted in, with us—is in prison. His parents bore unsupported the pain of that breach, exacerbated by the uneasy muttering of excuses and lies, to cover what they felt was unspeakable.

Carol was saddened as much by their inability to say these words sooner as she was by the news of Peter’s fate. That they had felt they must carry this pain alone, that they had not trusted her enough to utter those words:  What does this say about our relationship? Why wasn’t I a safe person to hold this news with them?

Stepping back, one can see that this isn’t about Carol, or Peter’s parents, or their relationship, hardly at all. Our unease with some subjects seems to dictate silence. It happens around incarceration, as it did for Peter’s family. It’s not unusual for a woman I meet in prison to say, “My family doesn’t know I’m here.” A similar silence can happen when a family member is lost for a time to addiction, or is going through recovery, or is sadly impervious to anything resembling “recovery.”

We are similarly mute about mental illness. Our culture still calls that category of medical need “scary,” linking it to fear and danger and actions seemingly out of control, so that we might rather deny that it’s affecting us at all. Silence and blame pervade situations where mental illness affects us and our families. “It’s all in her head,” a friend of mine was told by her public school (!) counselor, referring to my friend’s daughter who has long dealt with depression, anxiety and similar challenges. “They just think I need to try harder,” said a woman I’ll call Teresa, describing her family’s response to her mental illness. I have personally walked alongside Teresa through a long stay in prison that has included a psychotic break, delusional thinking and voices that urge her toward self-harm. She is already trying very hard.

I’m saddened by the chairs uneasily empty for reasons that we can’t (won’t?) even really face. It’s not just an experience these families are having. It’s also happening in our churches.

Do we realize that we are coming to the thanksgiving table whenever we gather for Holy Communion? The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” Our communal prayer at the table begins with thanksgiving. The uneasily empty chairs at our families’ Thanksgiving tables are paralleled when we come to communion. Those families’ absences are ours.

It troubles me that the church has not more fully embraced the place it (we!) could and should occupy.  This work belongs to us, to remember and seek out our own brothers and sisters who are missing for reasons that seem unable to be spoken. We can have a pivotal role in the dismantling of stigma, to pave the way to greater truth with greater support and less judgment. Can we hear without flinching? Can we embrace beyond fear? Where can we share our stories in ways that change the public conversation around every one of these “hidden” absences? Let’s practice!

As we more fully embody the incarnational relationships to which we are called, we will help one another to name our needs, and then to claim and receive the support that will help us and our families walk together through the challenges that befall us.

We’ll make that walk together and eventually sit down together, still family, reunited at the table. Like Carol’s family will this week, with Peter, who will join the feast as a free man for the first time in two and a half decades. That favorite corn relish surely is already marinating. Thanks be to God.


Yes, but will we welcome them

Many of us have hailed the news, over past months, that President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of federal prisoners, most of them incarcerated with draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. President Obama has granted clemency at a rate far in excess of other recent presidents. This reflects, it seems, a growing bipartisan recognition that mandatory minimum sentences have not served us well.

Great news, we might say.

But will we welcome them?

In other news, we are beginning to see the release of juvenile offenders whose mandatory life sentences were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. About 2,300 persons were affected by this ruling, but each case has to make its way through the courts, with (usually) re-sentencing, possible appeals, and action by the state’s parole board. Finally this year these releases are beginning to occur around the country.

And how will we respond when they show up on our doorstep? in our churches?

In neither situation are prison doors being thrown open without regard to severity, criminality and behavior while behind bars. President Obama’s actions appear to be based on review of individual files.  Juvenile offenders are subject one by one to new sentencing hearings and parole board scrutiny, making foolish the inflammatory warnings from some quarters about the crime sprees we must now expect. 

Still, both fullsizerender-17of these situations—federal commutations and the release of juvenile “lifers”–are raising complicated questions about how these individuals will manage their return to society. Many of these persons have spent decades in prison under the weight of a sentence that said they would die there. Those incarcerated at a very young age missed out on life stages and experiences that have formed the rest of us. It is a daunting prospect, as some accounts have reminded us, to step into a world that has moved on.

It will be tempting for us to do that, to keep moving on, past this moment in history, through this season of—as many of us believe—increased justice in our system of incarceration and release therefrom. We might pause long enough to wish these men and women well. We surely hope they will make good on this second chance that has been offered to them.

But will we welcome them?

The opportunity might arise when they come to the business where we work, and apply for a job there. Will they be asked to mark “the box”—the one that admits they’ve been convicted of a criminal offense? If they do, will their chance of being hired vanish? Our opening might come when we hear about that kid who plays on the same team with ours, who turns out to be the daughter—or, more likely, the grandchild, or niece—of that guy over there, sitting by himself, looking a little uncomfortable and left out of the easy comradeship of us soccer parents.

The welcome I’m most interested in is the one that comes—or doesn’t—in our churches, and among us church folk. If one of these ex-prisoners wends her way into the church where we sit with our family, comfortably joining in Amazing Grace and Christ for the World We Sing, and passing the peace of Christ to our neighbors, will we move over and make room, smiling warmly and extending our hand in greeting? Will that warmth endure ten minutes or ten months later, after we hear her story and realize that she was one of those lifers, or had a long drug sentence commuted? Will we know how to act when we figure that out?

We may find that it’s easier to celebrate the theory of commutation, and mercy, and justice, than it is to live out the relationships that we have the opportunity to form when justice brings her beneficiaries to sit next to us.

It’s worth wondering, though, what Jesus would do. I think he’d welcome these men and women. They are who he’d spend his time with. Or at least not shrink from.

If this feels daunting, there may be some rough consolation in the possibility that these people have already figured out that the church is not going to be a place for them. I found not a single reference to the church in the Washington Post’s lengthy profile of 46 persons released in 2015 after President Obama commuted their sentences, nor in a recent report about some juvenile lifers released earlier this summer. There are a few references to God, and to faith. But not one story (in this admittedly narrow sample) lifts up the church, and relationships with folks there who are guided by their faith commitments, as providing meaningful and valuable support for this path on which their feet have been set. I suppose it’s possible the writers were purposely avoiding mentioning religion. But still. Ouch.

It’s not that we’re called to welcome people as if they had no criminal history. There may be lingering consequences and there are definitely good boundaries that will need to be set into place as we welcome a person from prison into our churches, our soccer bleachers, and our communities. But let them be reasonable, healthy boundaries that aid thoughtful engagement with other human beings whom we will, in fact, be blessed to know. We will be served well to think ahead of time about these possibilities, so that in the moment we can focus on how, not whether, we will welcome these sisters and brothers.

So, let’s practice our answer to the question of welcome with which we began. “Yes, and won’t you sit here next to me? I can’t wait to know you.” It’s a start.


Photo courtesy of Diane Bottorf, 2003

“Show Us the Church Is for Real”


On a hot July morning, we trudged across a blank courtyard and up unadorned cement steps to a stark upstairs room. Some thirty of us outsiders found seats in clumps, waiting, until eighteen men in blue streamed into the room, our hosts, residents there at the men’s state prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. They circulated among us as we stood to greet them, with handshakes and some (initially) tentative hugs. So began three days of truth-telling and vision-casting, wreathed by razor wire.

What was the truth that we heard again and again, from these incarcerated men? The church has failed us.

A man I’ll call Bing described the city neighborhood he had known. “There was a big church on the corner. People would come there and look over at me like I was the scum of the earth.” Not one of them ever had anything to say. They’d just go quickly and silently on inside that church building. Next to the church was a parsonage, but the pastor didn’t live there. “He rented it out to a guy who sold drugs. He knew that’s what was going on there. He didn’t care.”

Another man whom I’ll call Ray had been, before his incarceration, a long-time member of a church. Looking back, he doesn’t remember ever hearing Matthew 25 and the idea of serving the least of these. Church was “just a dog and pony show,” Ray said. “Grease the palm; pay the tithe.” When he got locked up, “not one member of the church came to see about me.” No one has made contact in the seven years he’s been in prison.

Ray told his truth, face downcast. Then he looked around and issued the call that reverberated within those aging concrete walls, and around our heads and hearts: “Show me and the guys here that the church is for real.”

He raised a crucial question. Is the church for real?

Hearing these men’s stories made me think about the church I have known and loved. I grew up in my grandparents’ church, in the town their grandparents had helped to settle. I never doubted the watchful eye and positive regard of that loving community. It’s no wonder church has always been family to me. It’s no wonder I could so freely enter into the life of other churches in different times and places across my years, without a shred of fear that I would be unwelcome.

It isn’t this way for the women I meet at the Iowa prison where I serve as pastor. Some of them have found supportive community through their churches. Most have not. When I surveyed dozens of them about serious life circumstances like homelessness, rape, addiction, mental illness, and deaths in the family, they reported experiencing these challenges with striking frequency. It is rare, though, for them to have confided in any church leader or church friend about those circumstances. “It was made very clear to me that I made the choice to use,” said M. “There wasn’t a place for me in the church.” Women who confide in a pastor or faith leader about the abuse they’re experiencing at home likely meet a brick wall of disbelief, inaction or platitudes about submission. A young woman looking forward to joining in the recovery program at her grandmother’s church heard these words from Grandma: “You can come; I hope you will. But you mustn’t mention your addiction, or talk about being locked up.”

I meet a lot of women in Mitchellville who are asking, in one way or another, “Is the church real?”

That bunch of us in Chillicothe, Ohio last summer:  we were a bunch of church people. We had been invited by the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church to join in this gathering. We came from a half-dozen states and with a wide range of experiences in prison ministries. It was hard to hear that the church, so dear to so many of us, had so failed these men who became, over the course of three days together, our “brothers in blue.”

At one point we were invited to sit in silence and entertain a vision to which God was leading us in these conversations. When we gathered to share, I described seeing a vital stream of people, talking and laughing, working and sharing, moving in and out of a church whose doors and walls were thrown wide open. A colleague from Iowa shared the vision that had come to him:  he had walked up to the women’s prison in Mitchellville, empty now and overgrown, no longer needed. He heard a child ask what this place was, and the answer came, “This used to be a place where we locked people up.”

My favorite vision, though, surfaced later in our time together. And it’s not for the faint of heart. But I share it here because it says something of the earnestness of the men we met in Chillicothe, and of their sincere hope for the church, and for their own potential. Read on, if you dare:

One of the men was speaking of the need for mentoring men like him, within the church. Another, whom I’ll call Clint, picked up this theme and described the “payoff” that the church would receive. “Remember Bing,” he said, “how he’d stand on the street across from that big church on the corner?  You might want to say something to him, but you don’t know what to say. One of us who’s been mentored? We’d know what to say. And we’d bring those people in.” Clint went on: “Once you’ve got a strong foundation in your church, with some sex offenders and some drug addicts and some murderers, then we can begin to have those real conversations in your churches. You give us some space, and once we get on our feet, we can give back.”

I can imagine that some of you, reading this, are startled—horrified, even—by this vision. Sex offenders and drug addicts and murderers? In my church? It’s a vision that highlights the need for good boundaries and excellent communication and careful community-building. But it’s a vision that also demands our prayerful attention. What couldn’t the church do, thrown open in that way? I’m pretty certain Jesus would be in that place, with those people, having those real conversations. Will we?

I want to be part of a church that real.


If you’re intrigued by this conversation and would like to join in, check out the conference we’re hosting for this purpose in Ankeny, Iowa on October 16-17, 2015. It’s called Right Next Door:  Beyond the Walls of Church and Neighbor. That experience in Chillicothe helped give birth to this conference. You can learn more and register at 

Holding On

On a recent Sunday I had the pleasure of holding a baby, for a good long time. She had been baptized that morning, surrounded by the well wishes and affirmations of dozens of new sisters and brothers. During the fellowship time, I saw an opportunity and seized it, and her, and held on against all comers for a good (and I mean good) half hour.

It’s a pleasure I have always been happy to claim, as pastor. I inherited this particular joy from my mother. I used to call her, after a Sunday morning in which a new parishioner had made his or her debut, and I’d say, “I got to hold a baby this morning.” She often had as well, as a senior member of her own congregation, so we would compare notes on those babies. “Four weeks old,” she’d say. “Mine was just ten days,” I’d answer–winning!–with deep satisfaction.

The pastoral prerogative of baby-holding is forfeit upon becoming pastor of Women at the Well. We don’t have babies inside the prison in Mitchellville. Our women who are pregnant give birth in Iowa City and relinquish their babies before returning. I never see them, except in the photos that I am given the frequent privilege of viewing. Out in your churches on Sunday mornings, I’m a relative stranger to most of the young families, so I only get close enough to glimpse babies in their carriers, or in a family member’s arms.

Which made that recent Sunday all the more sweet.

As the time approached for the second service, I reluctantly returned my charge to her grandmother. As I moved about the church, I realized that some of her delicious baby smell was still with me, lingering on my clothes, on my skin, in my nostrils. It was lovely, sacramental, that new life remaining with me even as I went on with my responsibilities of the morning.

As the morning drew to a close, I found myself in another embrace–less fragrant but equally holy. This time it was with a homeless young man dealing with addiction and chronic illness. We had chatted for awhile, and talked and prayed about recovery groups, reconciliation and the power of God. I hugged him as we took leave of one another,and the sweet baby smell from earlier intermingled with scents that were more raw.

Which is just like, well, life–isn’t it? Certainly it’s like the life I experience in prison–with the interweaving of sacred and profane, clean and musty, washed and broken. The sweetness of new life butts up against the coarse reality of efforts that fall short, of addictions that maintain their hold, of relationships not easily restored. Can we hold those parts together? hold tight to both? That’s our call, I think, and our prerogative. We are invited and allowed to hold both, with love and mercy, with all their odors.

Won’t you breathe deep with me of this aroma, and keep the faith with these sisters and brothers, wherever we find them behind or beyond bars, and in whatever way we’re able to hold on to one another?

In the Event of a Mistake

IMG_1917A bell choir on a recent Sunday was running through its music before worship. I heard the director calling out measure numbers, a common help to keep the ringers together. She commented to me a few minutes later that they had a new member, a man who was a bit uneasy about this debut. She encouraged him by telling me, in his hearing, “I tell him, if he makes a mistake, just keep going!”

It’s good advice for all of us who dare to offer music in worship. If we make a mistake, we keep going. Beyond worship music, it’s good advice for living. I have this conversation often with my sisters in prison. “Do the next right thing.”

There’s another side to this, though. It works only—or at least most effectively—when the rest of us respond graciously to that person, glad to overlook and encourage through the mistakes. We do that pretty freely when it’s that clean-shaven bell ringer who has stepped up to an unaccustomed role. We smile and say “Thanks, Pastor,” even when her sermon is less than perfect. We’re patient—to a point—with that harried waiter who has been assigned too many tables.

But there’s a line. There are people to whom we don’t extend grace. Something about them puts us on our guard. They’ve fallen short of our expectations. We’ve extended too many chances already, and this is the last straw. We’re tired of hearing it. We want them to be better.

I sit often with women who find themselves on the far side of that line. “I’ve burned all my bridges,” one said, having forfeited the care of her family by her repeated descent into addiction. I don’t fault that family; of course they must set boundaries that protect their own well-being.

I do wonder, though, how the church can stand in that gap—for women like I meet in prison and for a myriad of others that we’re inclined to dismiss. When no one else will stand on the sidelines cheering while that sister tries again, let’s! We get to be the ones encouraging her uncertain, unsteady steps. We can’t ignore good boundaries any more than her family can, but we surround her as a whole community, and one not already worn out by past defeats. And we come with radical trust in the God who infinitely loves this precious child, and has plans for her welfare, for a future with hope (Jeremiah 29.11).

Or else we have to look in the mirror and admit that we’ll tolerate the wrong notes only until they spoil the song we had hoped to sit back and enjoy.