Praying for Prisoners with Jesus

Photo via Gwoeii /

Silhouette of a prisoner behind a barbed wire fence. Photo via Gwoeii /

Jesus not only knew how to pray; he knew what it was like to be arrested. When he had finished his table prayer, Jesus and his disciples went out across the Kidron valley to a garden. Judas knew about that garden because he and the other disciples often met there with Jesus. This time, Judas didn’t come to pray, but brought a detachment of soldiers and religious police. They arrested Jesus, bound him and took him away to be tried.

Jesus escaped prison only because he was executed by the state the next day. This crucified, risen, and wounded Jesus has returned to the heart of God. He continues to pray for us. Why wouldn’t Jesus be praying also for those who are in prison? Why wouldn’t we?

The Soulful Bells of Summer

THE SEASON AFTER PENTECOST is a challenge. Some churches call it “ordinary time.” This is where most of our life is lived, spiritually speaking. The fact that other churches call it “the season after Pentecost” reminds us that a miraculous tongue of fire is needed for any sermon to work—and the Holy Spirit has a tongue of fire for us. Pentecost propels us through ordinary time. The Holy Spirit can take as sorry a lot of losers as the ones Jesus chose as disciples and turn them into apostles, martyrs, world-changers. God has always done more with less-promising material.

A retreat at a monastery gave me a glimpse of what ordinary time means. By the time 8 a.m. Mass rolls around, we’ve already been in church three times that day. Mass is beautiful, we leave buoyantly, the Trappist monks are nearly chatty. Then the bell rings. It’s time for Terce, another hour of prayer. That bell sets me to sighing—weren’t we just in church? Terce is like the Sunday after Easter or Christmas—a letdown. Same building, half full of people, and with a quarter of the energy. And it is precisely then that it’s important to worship God. The church’s worship of God carries on when we’ve all gotten bored or tired. Such worship is good for souls. Preachers’ souls included.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[ June 7 ]

Out of the Depths
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15; Psalms 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL famously said that the biblical prophets show God’s pain. Here in 1 Samuel, God grants the people’s wish for a king because “they have rejected me from being king over them” from “the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day” (8:7-8).

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A Journey Toward Radical Welcome

Photo via Vibe Images /

Photo via Vibe Images /

I had the sense, as a child, that God’s goodness and mercy would only follow me all of the days of my life if I was “good” and Christian. And I had the sense that good and Christian was a narrow way.

This meant two things. First, only “good” people, loving and kind people, people who had not erred or strayed or made mistakes or broken the law or never “back-slid” were the sheep worthy of grace and mercy. Second, only Christian people were in the fold. Not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs — no, the steadfastly loving God had only space for those of us who accepted Jesus and our Lord and Savior AND who had lived sinless lives.

My child-like sense of “good” shifted when I was a teen serving as an elder in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Being up close and personal with my pastor, the late Rev. Oliver Brown, III and the adults around the table were first- hand lessons of the wide-open space of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

These good people — ordained people — were flawed and funny. They fussed and fought. They forgave each other, as God forgave them. My idea of good stretched and breathed and exhaled judgment and inhaled, experientially, that only God is good, that God in Jesus Christ shows this goodness in a particular way, and that all of God’s people are flawed and loved.

As a young adult before seminary, living life in the world, working, loving, breaking up, making up, having growing pains about identity and purpose and vocation, my spiritual muscles strengthened around the concept of the good shepherd who would love me enough to come and get me if I wandered.

Jesus is the ideal shepherd, the model shepherd, the best kind of shepherd; the one who makes the promises of God available to all of God’s people by laying down his life for the sheep.

I had not yet made the leap but most certainly have now to John 10:16.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

This loving Shepherd has a huge and diverse flock. 

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ: Overcoming the Place of Shame

Shame. Image via Aleksandar Mijatovic/

Shame. Image via Aleksandar Mijatovic/

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had a similar experience — they both occupied the place of shame. 

In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture. In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.

The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”

But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”

And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.”

Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:

"The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors…that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created."

A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over and against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!

'What's Up with All the Eggs?' and Other Classic Easter Questions

Photo via Olga Pink / Shutterstock / RNS

Decorated Easter eggs. Photo via Olga Pink / Shutterstock / RNS

This is Holy Week, the most sacred time of year for Christians. It is the time they mark the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, and a week that culminates in Easter Sunday, the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. So what do colored eggs have to do with anything? Let us Egg-‘Splain …

Q: Is Holy Week really a whole week? I only know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

A: Holy Week is the entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Not a whole lot happens on Monday and Tuesday, but some Christians mark the crucifixion on Wednesday, and some celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples. It is sometimes celebrated with a foot-washing ceremony, a tradition beloved by Pope Francis, and a “Pascha” or “Paschal” meal, derived from the Jewish Passover Jesus would have known. Then comes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Fun fact: Not all American Christians greet each other with “Happy Easter.” To many evangelicals, the day is “Resurrection Sunday,” in part because they believe the word “Easter” has pagan roots.

Q: What is so “good” about Good Friday, the day Jesus was horribly tortured to death?


Our Fool’s Errand

Happy April Fool's Day, nito /

Happy April Fool's Day, nito /

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

I can think of many times when I’ve felt foolish. Like forgetting someone’s name, or worse, calling them by the wrong name. Or when I read The Life of Pi and thought it was based on a true story because of the voice of the journalist.

The times when being foolish has really hurt, though, were when I placed trust in people only to be let down.

Jesus Is All Over the Small Screen, and That’s No Accident

Photo via NBC Universal / RNS

Diogo Morgado in Son of God. Photo via Casey Crafford/LightWorkers Media LLC/Hearst Productions/Telemundo/ NBC Universal / RNS

Need proof that biblical entertainment is Hollywood’s holiest trend? Then look no further than Morocco, where three TV projects — National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues and CNN’s Finding Jesus — were filmed on neighboring sets last year.

“You got this kind of Life of Brian-esque world you’re living in, where on all of our days off, there’s 36 disciples sitting around the pool and three Jesuses at the bar,” said actor Stephen Moyer, who ditched the fangs from True Blood to play Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the Ridley Scott-produced Killing Jesus.

Based on Fox News host Bil O’Reilly’s follow-up to the books he co-wrote with Martin Dugard, Killing Lincoln and Killing KennedyKilling Jesus tracks the last days of the Christian Messiah. Played by Muslim actor Haaz Sleiman, he is portrayed less as a miracle worker and more as a political threat, and the script heightens the sexual tension between Jesus and follower Mary Magdalene (Klara Issova).

“It plays with the idea that Jesus’ teachings are more important than the doing of miracles, that the idea behind what he’s saying is the point and it doesn’t need to have out-of-body, magical elements happening,” Moyer said.

Easter and a Love Supreme

DURING THE EASTER SEASON, the first reading in our lectionary becomes, strangely, a New Testament reading. Most of the year, we immerse ourselves in the scripture we share with the Jews, but after the resurrection we traipse through the book of Acts. The claim being made is that the history of God’s chosen people continues in the history of the church. God is still working signs and wonders. And these include the sharing of goods in common, the fact that there are no needy people among us, bringing awe and distress among our neighbors, and a dawning kingdom brought slightly closer. Just like in our churches and communities today, right?

These Easter texts are also deeply sensual and material. God’s reign is imagined as a banquet with rich wines and marrow-filled meats. Love between sisters and brothers is like oil running down the head, over the face. The resurrection texts themselves insist on this point more emphatically than any other: Jesus is raised in his body. This is the beginning of God’s resurrecting power breaking out all over the creation God loves. What could ever be impossible after a resurrection? Our limited imaginations of the possible (Can we make budget? Can we get a few more votes on this bill? Can we improve lives in this neighborhood?) are shown for the bankruptcy in which they are mired. A new order is here. We pray, God, make our imaginations match the sensuousness, the materiality, the grandeur of what you have already accomplished and, more daringly still, what you promise yet to do.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[April 5]

Food Porn or Heavenly Banquet?
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

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Tell Me A Story

PREACHERS, politicians, and other public speakers know that a story is often the best way to get a point across to their listeners. In his itinerant ministry, Jesus was no exception. Some of his most important teaching was contained in stories—parables. Yet often we do not take them seriously enough to seek what he was really saying. Two thousand years of Christian theology has also obscured his original intent, often by considering them to be allegories rather than stories.

In that process, anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices have too often come to dominate the interpretation of the parables. Any villain is seen as representing Judaism, while the hero or victim represents the church—and, of course, in this framing God is on the side of the church. This often-unconscious bias affects how we read and understand the story and obscures Jesus’ message.

Professor Amy-Jill Levine, in Short Stories by Jesus, aims to correct that. As a Jewish New Testament scholar teaching at a Christian divinity school, she is uniquely situated to place Jesus and his teaching in their historical and cultural context. Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews. If we do not understand that starting point, we cannot understand Jesus or his stories. In an introduction not to be skipped, she points out that the parables often echo themes that appear elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings: economics, relationships, and, most important, prioritizing life in expectation of the coming kingdom of God. To make his point, he uses common, everyday examples of real-life characters and situations his audience would recognize.

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Did Jesus Really Never Say Anything About Homosexuality?

A gay couple holding hands. Image courtesy EpicStockMedia/

A gay couple holding hands. Image courtesy EpicStockMedia/

In the realm of biblical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, I’ve always found one — “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality” — to be particularly weak.

After all, Jesus also never said anything about rape, molestation, bestiality, torture, cyber-bullying, insurance fraud or elaborate pagan rituals involving self-mutilation and child sacrifice. That does not, by default, earn any of those things the Lord’s unconditional seal of approval.

What’s more, I’m not sure if the argument’s underlying premise is even true. Because, in the Gospels, Christ may indeed have failed to specifically broach the topic currently preoccupying the American Evangelical church, but he did address the subject, in a manner of speaking, in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.

In those two brief, but pivotal, passages of scripture, Jesus captures the essence of the Christian ethic, mission, calling and faith in an incredibly simple and beautiful way. And he did so, interestingly, not as a standalone teaching, but in answer to a question from his critics.

It starts when a group of Pharisees, taking the tag from the Sadducees — who had been silenced in the previous back-and-forth — descend on Jesus, with the goal of ripping open a can of good, old-fashioned pwnage, first-century style.