An Alabama Judge is giving people convicted of non-violent misdemeanors a choice: Go to church for a year or go to jail.
The program is simple, offenders can pay a fine and do jail time, or they can pick one of 56 churches that are participating and attending each Sunday while checking in with the pastor and their parole officer. After a year, their case is dismissed.
See the story here
This story of jail versus church makes me think. As a pastor, every Sunday I see people attend church. They arrive at the same time, right on schedule. They wear their Sunday morning uniforms. People file in an orderly fashion and sit in their “assigned” seat. (Ever visit a church and sit in someone’s “spot”? I have. Get ready for a beat down. There’s a caste system here buddy… better learn it.) Sometimes someone tries to do something different that challenges the caste system and they get punished. They get shanked with the evil eye or a sneer, or get ostracized for messing up the system. There’s the church, and then there’s the “family” within the church that you are either born into or pass some test allowing you to join it. Once you’re in, your family. You’re on the inside now.
Of course I’m exaggerating. But there’s some truth to this isn’t there? Think about the youth of the church. In my experience when many kids who grow up in the church no longer have to attend, they simply stop going. There’s a common saying, “When kids graduate high school, they graduate God.” There’s an opportunity for them to “break out.” And for many couples that attend, when one can’t make it, the other doesn’t come either. Why go when you don’t have to?
The truth is we all do jail time, whether we are imprisoned by our own sin or allow ourselves to be taken hostage by God’s love. We are all serving a sentence. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10).
Jesus has come that you might have life. He is offering you a sentence of life. To be set free of the chains of sin. Chains that bind us to all of our inadequacies, all of our failures and all of our faults. And he has offered you life. A life of being hostage to his love. To be set free from the things of this world, and to serve a life sentence in a world without limits.
I hope those offenders choose the alternative to jail. But even more so, I hope that after attending church for a year, they choose to accept the life sentence that Jesus has to offer.
So what do you think? Is this a good idea?
Unless you just woke up from a coma, you’ve heard the story of the three Americans who were arrested while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border. Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were detained and accused of espionage. Shourd was released about a year after the arrest. Bauer and Fattal were later convicted of spying and illegal entry and sentenced to 8 years in prison.
This past Wednesday, after a bail payment of $500,000 each, Bauer and Fattal were finally released. They arrived back in the USA to be greeted by their friends, family, and of course, the media.
Each spoke of their experiences. Bauer addressed the concept of forgiving his captors. He said, “You may ask us, now that you are free, can you forgive the Iranian government for what it has done to you? Our answer is this: How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience? It is the Iranian people who bear the brunt of this government's cruelty and disregard for human rights. There are people in Iran who are imprisoned for years, simply for attending a protest, for writing a pro-democracy blog, or for, worse, being an unpopular faith. Journalists remain behind bars and innocent people have been executed.” Bauer as quoted on cbs.com
What he says about the government of Iran is probably true. But I want to address what he says about forgiveness.
If Josh, Shane and Sarah want to find forgiveness in their experience, they don’t need to look to Iran, they need to look to themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coming to Iran’s defense, far from it. Nor am I blaming the three Americans for what another country did to them. What I am saying is that forgiveness is often more about us and not about those who wrong us.
By forgiving someone we are setting ourselves free from the wrong they have committed against us. On the other hand, if we do not forgive someone for bringing harm to us (whatever form that may be) we allow ourselves to be held captive by that wrongdoing.
Forgiving someone does not mean that the transgressor is released from justice. Justice needs to be served otherwise our world will be out of balance. For example, a person who commits a crime against another may be forgiven by their victim, but they will still need to pay the penalty for their crime.
Fatta, Bauer and Shourd can forgive Iran for what has been done to them without relieving that country of its responsibility for its actions. If they don’t find forgiveness, they will continue to be captives of another jail cell. One that houses regrets and hatred. One that binds our lives from being free from our captors.
Iran needs to be held accountable for the grievances it has committed. There are plenty of more prisoners that need to be released. Call me mad, but the last two prisoners they released, along with Shourd, need to forgive their captors, knowing that justice can still be served, and they can be set free from a prison they run the risk of placing themselves in.
Ever get worked up over something? I mean so worked up that you can’t even address it? So worked up that you can’t even think straight? How many times in the past year would you say you were really worked up over something? Let me ask you this… Out of all those times this past year, can you remember exactly what it was you were worked up about? Not many? It’s like I always say,” It’s not like the bear has the Cheerios.”
That’s right, “It’s not like a bear has the Cheerios.” I’ve been saying that for almost two days now.
Two days ago, my wife and I were packing up the Highlander after spending a few nights in the Smoky Mountains. I was upstairs brushing my teeth and my wife came running into the cabin shouting, “A bear has our food!” I thought a bear had walked into the kitchen and I was trying to figure out a way to get outside. We both panicked. I tried getting out by running in a circle in the bathroom before going out the door, then I did another panicky circle in the bedroom, then ran out the first door I saw into an enclosed patio. This wasn’t going so well. I was pretty worked up. After all, my only knowledge about how to deal with angry bears is from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Apparently, if you play dead, they’ll come up and sniff you and then make a face and walk away.
My wife then said, “He’s not in the cabin, he’s in the car!”
Not Actual Bear. This is an Actor
Now I’ve heard about bears smashing in cars just to get a candy bar and recently a friend, who I told this story to, informed me he once watched a bear peel a door off a ¾ ton truck because he saw a bag of chips inside. (Probably Sun Chips. Those things are awesome!) So now I’m no longer concerned about my safety, I’m worried about driving home in a car that is completely torn to shreds on the inside and whether or not my insurance covers bear attacks. Not to mention that horrible bear smell that doesn’t come out no matter how much FeBreeze you use.
As soon as my wife said he’s in the car, she said, “He’s walking off with our Cheerios.”
I have nothing against Cheerios. But I couldn’t be more relieved to know that the bear was walking away with them. And if you are wondering, these were not Honey Nut Cheerios, those apparently just attract bees. These were multi grain Cheerios, which seem to attract black bears. I think bears are beautiful creatures, especially when they’re walking away from you, Cheerios or not.
Ever since that fateful day, two days ago, whenever I get worked up over something (remember I am the Mad pastor) I think, “It’s not like a bear has the Cheerios.”
Do you have something that is gnawing at you? If it’s a black bear, it’s probably pretty serious. If it’s something else, ask yourself, “Is this worth running around in circles over?” Jesus warns us about getting overly worried. He said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food [aka Cheerios], and the body more important than clothes?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25, 34)
When life seems overwhelming, take stock of what you have, think about what Jesus says, and maybe even say to yourself, “It’s not like a bear has the Cheerios.”
My city is doing some road construction. In the process, they’ve shut down a busy on ramp to a major street. Their way of redirecting traffic is a bit unusual. They’ve placed a sign on the road about a mile before the detour. That is not so out of the ordinary. What is unique is the message:
Ramp to N 2nd St Closed
Go another way.
Is that second sentence so necessary? It’s not really helpful. It’s pretty much implied in the first sentence anyway isn’t it?
Have you ever come across a “road closed” sign with no direction on how to get around? The advice to “Go another way” isn’t helpful. When the bridge is out, you know you need to go another way. But what way?
Are you on one side of town and need to get the other? Are you living your life on one side of a chasm but need to cross over? What do you do when you’re traveling down the road of life and the bridge is out? You find another way. But how?
Can government show you another way? (I think their road sign gives us the answer.) Can a good job show us the way? It helps but then again, why are so many people with money unhappy? Can drugs show us the way? I think many of us have learned that they can show us a good time but lead to a dead end. The world offers lots of “ways.” But where do they lead?
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
He didn’t say I am “a way.” He said I am “the way.”
Will you be at your destination when you find Jesus? – No. Will all your problems be solved when you discover Jesus? – No. Will life become happy and blissful when you find Jesus? – No.
Ok Mad Pastor, what are you saying?
Jesus is the way. He is the way to truth. He is the way to life.
Jesus is not the detour. He is the way.
If you find Jesus, you will find the direction you need to go in order to get to the destination he has in store for you.
Or if you like, you can just follow one sign’s advice and “Go another way.”