I Am Not A Blessing!: Witnessing and Oversimplified Stories

Too often in the church we dull the horror of people’s stories by our need to appropriate these stories as necessary content for witnessing and blessing toward others. In doing so, we effectively skip to the end of the story without having to experience any of the real horror and truth with these people in the moment(s) of their suffering.

I believe the same can be said about the Gospel narrative, as well. More so than not, Christians attempt to boil the Gospel down to one act: Jesus’ death on the cross. This is apparent in the majority of famous hymns, such as the “Old Rugged Cross” (hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are equally as guilty, just in their contraction of the Gospel into the singular focus of heaven), and countless sermons directed to the cross of Jesus and its salvific operation for the “damned.”

A fancy name for what happens in these instances is called “metanarrative,” which simply means a grand narrative that simplifies and focuses smaller narrative into one main point or idea, roughly speaking. For example, if you asked me what the Harry Potter books were about, I would say that the metanarrative is that a young boy grows up through several hardships and magical encounters with the infamous Voldemort. In this definition, I have funneled the meaning of the narrative into one big, simplified idea. But, as you Harry Potter lovers will duly point out, there is much more going on in the books than that. This why, and I have personal experience with this, people will often tell you that the best way to sum up Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, is to read it!

We see this very thing at work in the churches popular notion of witnessing. Churches go out and approach people with a three-sentence catch phrase of the Christian Drama, which often goes something like this: “Excuse me, can I share the Gospel with you? Are you a sinner? If so, (you know you are) Jesus died on a cross for you so you would not have to. Accept Jesus, believe he was raised from the dead, confess your sins, and you will be saved.” (This sentence comes from my personal experience from various churches, and, as paraphrased as it might be, it is a very real and common trend in the church.) The difficulty of this witnessing paragraph is the beginning sentence, that is, the notion that anyone could sum up the Gospel in five minutes on an isle of Walmart, or, more commonly, in one week at a African village. On a side note, I want to argue that this is the reason our churches are dying and that we are not making concrete relationship anymore in the church. Namely, people are looking for something deeper than a sermon trying to save people every Sunday, or a hymn about going to heaven. But that is another post for another day.

Oh, and this is what “witnessing” meant for the early church. Martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.

For the purpose of what I have said above about people’s personal stories and the way the Gospels are often read, I want to reject metanarratives and suggest a more intimate encounter with people’s stories and a more involved notion of reading the Bible. By denying metanarratives, we resists conflating the Gospel story into one moment, however definitive it maybe. There is so much to experience and lament and cry and laugh about in the Gospels, apart from Jesus’ death. The Gospel is not simply the sum of its parts, or paradigmatic of its climax; rather, the Gospel is meant to be read with painstaking attendance to the minor details. Admittedly, one could argue that these minor details are unintelligible without the cross; I am not denying that. But the same can be said of the reverse – the cross is most definitely unintelligible without attention to the details leading up to Calvary in their own respect.

Likewise, listening and interacting with people’s personal stories, especially Christian people, should be experienced along the way with the person; every horror, every happiness should be dealt with on their own accord and not as a means to an end, especially if that end is witnessing to others. So, like the Harry Potter books, the only way to actually know a person’s story is to experience it with them in the moment, to actually read their story with patience and loyalty, and without simplifying it into a sentence or two.

My Time in Prison

On Monday, I attended orientation for a class that I am taking this semester at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC, and it spurred a need to express some emotions/thoughts on my experience there and my past experience with the prison system. I rarely write on my personal experience here on my blog. The last time, I believe, was when my father passed away and I expressed some of my emotions on a theological register (you can find that article here. Interestingly enough, that article is the most read article I have ever posted). However, this time I don’t want to talk about his death, or at least the death he experienced in August of 2011. Instead I want to talk about the experiences of my childhood visiting my dad in prison and the connections with my experience at Central Prison on Monday.

First, let me say that this is not an easy subject for me to talk about. Granted, I have shared my story with several people, but that is not to say that it has become any easier to tell. Honestly, it is increasingly difficult to sit in front of people and deliver a story that is both fascinating and, at the same time, grotesque and heartbreaking. Although I don’t want to go into too much detail on the crazy happenings of my childhood, I will say that at one point in 2001-2002, a certain devious fellow hired a hitman to dispose of my immediate family, myself included. Luckily, this hitman was an undercover cop, and the rest is history. I hope this gives you a small insight into the insanity that occurred in the most formative years of my life. Again, as unbelievable as it may be, these are easy memories to forget. However, my visit to Central Prison disturbed the delicate sackcloth that I have laid over these memories and the monsters of my childhood yet again stood on the other side of the thin closet door ready to whisper.

As I sat in the bland waiting room and waited to be escorted inside the prison, my thoughts were as frantic as my nervous foot tapping on the very ground on which I thought I would never step foot again. I remember traveling a few times a month to see my dad and sitting in a similar room with a similar feeling in my stomach. Of course I played it off like I was fine to my friends who waited with me, the same way as I did to my mother and family on those visits to see my father, even though I was terrified on both occasions. It’s funny the things I remember about those visits. I can recall the smell of my dad’s clothing and the different colors the inmates wore. I still taste the disgusting food we would eat out of the vending machines while we played checkers and made small talk about the same, mundane things. I remembered the awkward joy mixed with embarrassment that my dad displayed when he walked into the visitation room after being undergoing a thorough cavity search, and the despair and defeated demeanor he would put off when faced with leaving and going back for another cavity search before returning to his living quarters. I remember the same mundane details about outside life during that time, like cooking and feeding my grandfather and administering his insulin shots at the age of 11 because my dad sure couldn’t do it from prison and mama was working 3 jobs just to get by, or friends at school who said they couldn’t hang out with my anymore because my dad was in prison and I was a bad influence. I didn’t care about the serious details like that I was sitting in a room full of people who committed serious crimes or that I was statistically likely to be a delinquent myself and to never amount to anything due to the circumstances. Instead the circumstances eluded me and I experienced the reality of death and confinement in an adolescent mode of radical momentariness. I think if I would have realized the gravity of the situation at hand, I would have collapsed under the pressure. If only I could have been that innocently naïve Monday at Central Prison. (As a side note, some of my family also doubted I would ever become anything other than what my situation said I would be. I remember, while I was being a young, troubled boy, several people close to me said that I was possessed by demons and that I was going to end up in alternative school. Likewise, the middle school didn’t allow me in the class “with all the smart people,” as the students called it. Instead, I was placed with the “everybody else” group, a group that I have come to cherish and will forever be a part of. With a little anger, a lot of grace, and an extreme amount of angry renditions of Eminem songs, I made it out of boundaries others set for me. Sentimentality aside, though, I will be honest: those assholes were dead wrong.)

Nevertheless, there I was in Central Prison, again with that faint taste of vending machine food in my mouth and, for the first time, experiencing a shared feeling of despair with the ghost of my father – I inhabited the place he so adamantly wanted to escape, but never could, even after his freedom and his coming suicide. Although there were some nauseating memories triggered that brought both shock and familiarity, a very new reality dawned upon me as I sat as an adult with the vocabulary to process and articulate my experience with the others in my group after our training: there were fifteen-hundred Spencer Barfields inside Central Prison. Point Break, as they say.

For most of the professors and students at the training, I assume this was an odd and scary trip, but nonetheless one that had as much potential as the fear it in turn evoked.  For me however, the trip was just as jarring, but familiar. That is what probably scares me the most. It almost felt like I was encountering a piece of myself that I left behind long ago; a scared little boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and no one there to help him carry it. For a long time, I thought I had overcome that weight with my own willpower and determination to be something other than what insanity infested my early life. But as I sat in that prison I realized I had only buried that weight under significant anger and intensity, and that the weight had always been there waiting to be dealt with constructively. I now stood face to face with someone I had almost forgotten about. I think it may be time to deal with that little boy from years past; I think he deserves more than a burial by hyped-up motivation and a false sense of security held up by worthless accomplishment.

As I walked out with the group, I couldn’t help but think of the day my father was allowed to walk out the doors after his sentence was complete. I walked stride for stride with that memory and I am not sure I know when, where, or how to stop now. We will see where it takes me.