The Parable of Tellson County Prison

A few months ago the challenge went out for The Eternal Footmen to re-write a parable. It may have taken me three months but I finally wrote my response. See below:

originally posted at The Eternal Footmen: here

The last cell of the east wing of Tellson County Prison was home to Paul Matheson. He was convicted and charged on three counts of child molestation, serving thirty years. No probation. No bail.

At night, the prison was as dimly lit as the souls of its residents, and the sound of Warden Bill Murphy chewing his tobacco played in stereo for the inmates, as he roamed the halls.

This prison had a reputation: offenders either came to die or be reborn. The Warden was feared, and rightly so, as he was known for his harsh, reforming ways. He trained the other officers never to look the prisoners in the eye; never call them by name; and never touch them unless by the end of an officer’s baton. To Bill Murphy and his unit, inmates were wild animals in need of breaking.

As one can imagine, the arrival of the prison twenty years earlier created a dramatic and seemingly unforgettable commotion among the neighboring towns. Some folks sold their homes and moved. Others remained but fearfully so, for the proximity of the prison was ominous. However, all fears disappeared into the shadow of Bill Murphy’s growing legacy as a persuasive arbiter of justice, a faithful churchgoer, and respected leader in the community.

Days fell from the calendar, and calendars from the wall, until July 14th of Paul Matheson’s thirtieth year in prison finally arrived. This was his scheduled release date – the day he would be “free.” But thirty years is a long time, and freedom seemed to be but a foreign concept to him.

Upon his release, he began scouring the newspapers looking for work, spending several months on the hunt before being hired as a hand for one of the local farmers. He kept mostly to himself but when he did speak it was about the transformation that happened during his time in prison – the story of his rebirth.

With soft eyes and a gentle smile, he would tell of how the grace found in Scriptures changed his heart one friendless night; and he eagerly celebrated the changing agent of grace that went where the severe rule of the Warden could not go, and change things the law could not change.

For the next eight years he enjoyed the labor, satisfied knowing he was helping the community; and he gladly told his story to any that would listen, until he passed away into obscurity one cool, summer night.

As the scandal of Paul Matheson grew dim in the collective memory of Tellson County, the Warden continued to publically capitalize on the depravity of his inmates for the sake of his antithetically clean reputation. Unfortunately, he was successful until the day he died, never aware of the shortcomings and criminal intentions of his own heart.

One man died. One man was reborn.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”            

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

The Eternal Footmen: the only death that leads to life

I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid. -T. S. Eliot

Recently two friends and I started a side project – a sort of consortium of writers, thinkers, pastors, and most importantly, friends who are writing in a spiritually exhausted epoch. Mason KingCody Kimmel, and I have begun to present topics before each other and take turns writing on them, rotating topics and mediums of literature to address these issues.

The rules are simple:

  1. Choose a topic.
  2. Post a response.
  3. That’s it.

Cody wrote a little description about the blog, explaining that (our) “desire is to call men to the only death that leads to life. We are the bloody fists knocking at the door, the rusty scythe tapping on the window, the imbecilic watchmen heralding in a storm everyone should see coming. We are the idiots telling tales of sound and fury, all with the hope that somebody somewhere will wake up from their slumber, wake up from this post-everything world, and step into the rest of the true Eternal Footman, Jesus Christ.”

We are also lovers of the word, hoping to become true writers telling the one true tale. Thus, this.

Join in on the discussion at The Eternal Footmen.

Do we recognize our identity or define it?

Sometimes we identify things by what they are not. And this is helpful…to a point. The “C” note of an instrument is certainly not a “D” or an “E” or so on…but it is something – it is a “C.” The identity of “C” may even have various iterations – it can be played on a deep and booming upright bass or it can call from a piercing trumpet blast, and many timbres in between. So, while its identity may be dressed up in many, varying ways, and its identity may be better understood when couched in contrast to the separate notes around it, the note must have its own, distinct identity.

The God of the Bible is not a tree. He is not the universe. I am not the God of the Bible. While this may help us understand who and what God is not, these contrasts do not do justice in describing who he actually is. I will echo A.W. Tozer in saying that, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”, and what we believe about this identity will shape what we believe about all other identities.

Because I am a skeptic at heart, and have overly-analytical tendencies, identity has been a struggle for me as of late…here’s why. I know that God is immutable, yet all else is ever-changing. So, while my faith is anchored in the One who does not change, my struggle comes in knowing how to appropriate my faith in different, changing contexts. If the things that seem routine and dependable are actually different every day – including sunrises! – how can we confidently claim an identity that wont change tomorrow?

God is sovereign and through his providence he has “wired” everyone a certain way, be it chemically, genetically, through nurture and experiences, or whatever. That being said, do we choose our identity or does it choose us? In other words, do we recognize our identity or do we define it?

I would humbly argue both. Our decisions shape our circumstances and our circumstances shape who we are, but God ordains all of it (Prov. 16:9). While I wouldn’t subscribe to the “you-can-do-anything-you-put-your-mind-to” wisdom of Dr. Emmett Brown, I do think we have much to say about who we become…God just has more say. And according to Scripture, my identity is a missionary (Matt. 28:18-20), so this should have much to say about how I make my decisions. So, going back to my struggle with identity, I have a hard time determining how to live out this missionary identity in everyday contexts.

With absolutely no authority, I’ll take a guess at how to answer this problem. These are six suggestions for how to discover how to appropriate your identity:

  1. Pray – pray that God would give you wisdom and joy as you pursue your passions and make decisions.
  2. Live in Community – share your life with others and it will bring more out of them and they will bring more out of you (see C.S. Lewis quote on friendship).
  3. Seek your spiritual gifts – Matt Carter offered some wisdom a while back on how to seek spiritual gifts, saying to, “serve broadly and serve often”.
  4. Be patient – in a world that is always changing, we shouldn’t expect a formulaic life, producing results when we want them
  5. Be in the Word – going back to Tozer’s quote, what we think about God is of utmost importance, and what we know from his revelation will determine how we think about him and how we think about all things
  6. Obey – live a life of obedience, regardless of the context, and God will guide you.

Ultimately, identity is not just about the individual, it is also about a) the One who assigns the identity and b) our relation to those around us. A “C” note may still be a “C” if there were no other notes, but God designed it so that not only is there this distinct “C”, but there are many other distinct notes to interact with. While our identity may be discovered and created in unique ways, it is never done in isolation.