The Prison Church of the Good Thief

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The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Within the forbiddingly high walls of the NY State Prison in Dannemora, New York stands a remarkable structure: The Church of St. Dismas (the Good Thief).

The prison is now known as “Clinton Correctional Facility” but to the inmates across the state of New York it is known as “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system – “New York’s Siberia” – because it is cold in the northeast corner of New York. The inmates of Attica think of Dannemora the way people on the outside the system think of Attica – the most dreaded place in the New York prison system.

The Church of St. Dismas was built by the prisoners between the years of 1939 and 1941 as a witness to God’s presence within the walls of prison. It bears witness to the thief whom the crucified Jesus, also condemned by the State as a criminal, pardoned and promised Paradise.

On the Wednesday evenings between 1974 and 1977 I drove across the Adirondacks from our home in Canton, New York to Dennemora where a group of churches, college students, and university faculty put on programs and visited with prisoners. The times with the inmates confirmed what I had read in Kai Erickson’s incisive book, Wayward Puritans: a Study in the Sociology of Deviance , in which he argued that society creates and maintains deviance as a means to identifying itself as the opposite of “the other”.

I often found among the prisoners in the Hell Hole the voice of “the good thief” next to Jesus on his cross and gave thanks for a greater encompassing mercy.

The two-hour treks across the mountains to and from Dannemora became times of clarified perception about the folly of the presumption of righteousness among the free and the essential oneness between the prison “yard” and the yards we mowed back home in Canton where the walls were invisible.

Later I learned the Taize Community (France) chanted prayer of “the penitent thief’ set to music: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”.

April 16, 2012

On and off my rocker

My Rocking Chair

My Amish Rocker

“WHY, in a world filled with yelling and screaming, would you ‘PREACH’? Are you off your rocker?”

I can’t help it. I’m a preacher. I have to preach. But it’s the time in the rocking chair that matters most, times when I sit in Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker preparing for Sunday that I love the most. Jacob made the rocker just for me in his Amish shop in Millersburg, Ohio on a farm that spoke volumes about peace and love.

I approach the pulpit in fear and trembling, knowing that it is sacred space where people expect to hear a different kind of word, its sacredness only as real as the humanity that walks into it. The requirements of preaching result in a daily discipline: a fresh cup of strong coffee with the Scriptures in one hand the newspaper in the other.

We live in a crazy world where religion is a source of great sorrow as well as a source of joy. Religion divides and religion unites. It opens us up to the Other, or it walls us off. It broadens us or narrows us.  It increases our circulation or it constricts our arteries.

Not long ago American Christians seemed to take for granted that Christianity and our country were simply flip sides of the same coin (a curious blending of the Judeo-Christian idea of an “elect” people and the national misappropriation of Jesus’ “city set upon a hill”  as a light to the other nations). That bogus idea is dead, but the news is still reaching our ears, like the news of the town crier in Frederich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter…Whither is God,” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I.   All of us are murderers…. God is dead.  God remains dead. And we have killed him….

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), Section 126.

That god is already dead, but the message is still reaching our ears. The death of this god “clears the decks for the God of the Bible,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from a prison cell July 18, 1944 before his execution by the Third Reich:

Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them….  As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘Worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

I’m no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But his words and life frame the way I look at the world. To whatever extent the sermons and commentaries that appear here reflect Bonhoeffer’s spirit, I am grateful to him and to others who have shaped my ministry: Ted Campbell, Paul Louis Lehmann, Lewis Briner, William Sloan Coffin, Jack Stotts, William Stringfellow, James Cone, Sebastian Moore, and a host of others. When my attempts fail to keep faith with their examples, they reflect my shortcomings and foibles. If and when any of them manages to speak a Word through my human frailty, it is because I have stood on their shoulders on the watchtower, grasped again by the Spirit of the Living God.

“I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what G-d will say to me, and what G-d will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me, ‘Write the vision; make it plain…so those who run may read it. For still the vision awaits its time….'” (Habakkuk 2:1-3a)

Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker is my watchtower. A cup of coffee, Habakkuk, and the morning newspaper. Thank you, Jacob, for the place to be on your rocker when I’m about to go off mine!