Glimpses of Grace
dstoesz@telusplanet.net Donald Stoesz
Key Ingredients of Faith

 A Hopeful Theology of Love and Discipleship

                         Table of Contents

 Introduction

 Remorse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

 Conversion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  16

 Absolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26

 Imago Dei . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

 Restoration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   39

 Beatific Vision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  41

 Surrender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45

 Love . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   . . . . . . . . 52

 Eros and Agape . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60

 Discipleship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . 66

 Honesty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74

 Punishment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  77

 Worship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

 Conclusion

                               Introduction

  My work as a prison chaplain has motivated me to think about key ingredients of faith that are needed to flourish in prison. Prison has a way of focusing the mind. What are the themes of faith that stand out? What are the words and actions that bring hope and comfort?

Remorse, conversion, absolution -- creation, restoration, beatific vision -- surrender, love, discipleship -- honesty, punishment, and worship represent twelve words and four processes of faith that come to mind.

Remorse represents the first stage in a long process of transformation. Most of the men that I work with regret deeply what they have done. They had no idea that they were capable of so much harm. They are broken men, looking for any signs of redemption that they can find.

Conversion represents a second stage of salvation. One has to leave one’s past behind in order to become a new person. The men in prison understand this fact very well. They do not need to be told that something has to change if life is going to “turn out right.”

Absolution represents an objective fact of forgiveness that undergirds the subjective act of confession. Victory over sin needs to be proclaimed in order for a new person to emerge. Chaplains participate in this process by proclaiming assurance of salvation. The Book of Hebrews commands believers to approach the throne of grace so that they may “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, 10:22).

Affirmation of the fact that inmates have been created in the image of God grounds a positive way forward in which believers can claim that which is good about themselves. Too many inmates look outside of themselves for affirmation and belonging. Too many inmates loathe themselves because of what they have done. God has created them in a unique way. Integration of self is required in order for their faithful selves to emerge and shine.

Restoration to original righteousness is necessary because of what has been lost and left behind in the conversion experience. Inmates flounder because they do not know how to replace the past lives that they have lived. Affirmation of their imago Dei represents a way of experiencing a second naiveté in which innocence, trust, belonging, love, affection, commitment, and honesty are once again possible.

A beatific vision represents a deeply religious experience that complements and undergirds conversion. Conversion represents release from sin as a result of forgiveness. A beatific vision is a positive encounter with God that can be called divine intimacy. Men have been so hardened in prison that a breakthrough religious experience is one way they can understand that there is something deeply lovely about life. God is the source of all light and love and intimacy and belonging. Being enveloped in the arms of Jesus returns one to the womb of one’s existence that is called restoration to a new creation (John 3:4).

Surrender is integral to this process of faith, belonging, restoration, and vision. It is only as inmates let go of control that they are surrounded by the love and faith of God. Letting go through an act of confession along with the granting of forgiveness provide the wherewithal for the process of conversion to take place. Affirming oneself as representing an image of God places one within Divine Being. Inmates have placed their lives in the hands of an Almighty Presence.

This palpable reality of cosmic acceptance is a sign for both chaplain and inmate that life will be alright. Both people can move forward because they are being accompanied by Someone greater than themselves. They are standing in the presence of the Divine that affirms their sense of belonging in their longing for acceptance and love. The community of faith envelopes them in the arms of a Faithful One that points the way forward.

Love and discipleship are two actions that follow from this interconnected journey of conversion and absolution, creation and restoration, faith and surrender. Knowing that a person is loved gives them the wherewithal to love others. Disciplining one’s mind and body brings relief from the impulsive emotions and irrational thoughts that rage in one’s life. Resting in the calm that represents the Divine brings relief to others as well as oneself. One no longer has to prove oneself, to pay for one’s salvation, or to punish oneself needlessly for what one has done. The punishment has already been rendered. Inmates are living with the aftermath of what that judgment means. Chaplains accompany inmates along their faith journey, cognizant of how much confession and forgiveness, guilt and shame, and surrender and control play in their conversion experience. The ability to love and to disciple oneself goes a long way in incorporating empathy, commitment, and routine into one’s spiritual journey.

The ability to be honest and understanding the hidden costs of punishment represent two consequences of love and discipleship. The ability to become honest represents a counterproductive reflex that needs to be invoked in order for offenders to move on with their lives. Inmates are so used to making things up as they go along that they do not know what to do when someone asks them for a straight answer. It takes awhile for inmates to trust someone enough to give them an honest reply.

Inmates are cognisant of the cost of sacrifice that is involved in being labelled an offender. Stigma and recuperations are a very real part of their world, years after they have paid for their sins in terms of a prison term.

Worship represents a last theme that impacts one’s experience of the Divine. I have divided the style of worship offered by a variety of denominations into a trajectory that moves from low-church evangelicalism to high-church liturgy. Understanding the ways in which God moves us through worship helps us to ground our Being.

Method of Analysis

Stories, experiences, theologies, and illustrations represent the foil by which each theme is addressed. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series illustrates the necessity of remorse in regard to fictional antagonist Tom Riddle’s deadly actions and intentions. One needs to step back from the trajectory of harm onto which one has placed oneself in order return to the land of the living. Riddle’s lack of regret leads to his inevitable destruction. Harry and his friends understand the pain that is involved in admitting one has started down the wrong path. Harry retreats from gaining power that comes with grasping the Deathly Hallows. Hermoine and Ron bolster Harry’s resolve in finding the horcruxes that lead to Tom’s undoing. Harry sacrifices himself in order to gain the whole world.

The story of my own conversion sets the stage for understanding the processes of transformation. My work with Pentecostalism and use of the Lutheran liturgy forced me to reflect on how conversion is effective within a prison setting. The role of the Holy Spirit and a set liturgy mark the bookends by which God’s presence becomes real.

God’s absolution of forgiveness through the words of a minister marks a theology of redemption by which inmates are assured of their salvation. Chapters four and ten of the book of Hebrews explicitly state that we are to approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we know that we are saved and have become part of the kingdom of God. This religious ritual of absolution points to the forgiveness and salvation that God has guaranteed every believer.

The Catholic Catechism represents the foil through which the next three themes are enunciated. The Catechism makes a distinction between original sin and concupiscence to underline the fact the human beings have been created in the image of God. The catechism outlines the freedom and virtue that believers have to do the right thing. It shows how passions, conscience, and emotions play a part of our behaviour.

Restoration to original righteousness occurs when inmates have claimed God’s redemption of their lives for themselves. They are able to act like little children again, with all of the innocence, love, trust, honesty, and openness that comes with preadolescence. A second naiveté is needed so that inmates can be restored to their original natural goodness.

A beatific vision follows naturally from and reinforces a state of euphoria that offenders initially experienced during their conversion experience. An intimate experience of God is needed to make salvation efficacious.  The light and love of God shines a pathway forward that inmates can follow. Experience of conversion dovetails into euphoria of divine existentialism which, in turn, sustains the reality of faith with a prison context.

Surrender to God represents a dialectical relationship in which the will of God and the will of the offender act in tandem. God is not there to trump the will of human beings. Human beings have been created with free will and so are empowered by God to fulfill their destiny. The story of Jesus being raised from the dead and “rising on his own” is used to show this dynamic at work. Jesus as the Son of God was able to rise from the dead. God, in turn, had to raise the Son of man from the dead because Jesus was truly dead.

The capacity to love represents the surest way to ascertain where an inmate is on their journey. Capacity to love another person indicates the ability to have empathy, care, affection, and commitment to another person. The self-absorption of inwardly turned lives become capable of reaching their hands out to others.

Eros and agape are two aspects of love that show how getting love and giving away love are related. These two aspects of charity are particularly important in relation to relationship commitments. One can only get love if one is willing to give it away, as Harville Hendrix has made clear in his book, Getting the Love You Want.

Discipleship represents the end goal of this faith journey. The capacity to live routine lives of richness and contentment represent the surest way of staying safe, emotionally, mentally, socially, and religiously. Francis’ vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity are used as foils to understand what inmates go through in prison. Offenders are deprived of money, intimate relationships, and freedom while incarcerated. External authority plays a huge part in their lives. Spirituality arrives at the other end of this rainbow of enforced care.

Honesty, punishment, and worship represent three final themes that impact the lives of offenders. The story of Jean Valjean is used to show how honesty costs a lot. Jean was re-incarcerated when he came forth to clear another inmate. Jean was banned to the basement when he admitted to Marius that he was an ex-convict. The cost of honesty makes inmates shy about revealing too many details about their lives.

The hidden costs of punishment is a penultimate theme that inmates have to cope with. The story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 is used to show how the younger son had nothing to show for his life after he had squandered his inheritance. He was at the mercy of his older brother and father in terms of work, identity, self-worth, and destiny. Inmates face a similar future upon release. They are still living with the consequences of their criminal actions, long after they have finished their sentence. Many people do not know that they served time in prison. Ex-inmates find it judicious not to reveal too much. They are often faced with repercussions when citizens find out what they did.  Inmates live a new life that they have created to make up for the one that they lost when they came to jail.

Worship has been included because of the profound experience of the Divine that takes place in the chapel on Sunday evenings. This is the only group event for Christian believers that enables them to participate in the heart of faith: singing, Scripture readings, prayers, meditation, and communion. Understanding the different ways that Christians approach the throne of grace enables believers to situate themselves along a trajectory of worship and belief patterns.

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