Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Spiritual Handcuffs

A church I once served here in Atlanta invited the Voices of Hope choir from the Metro State Prison for women to sing during worship. Their final song just commanded movement and clapping—and I smiled to see we obliged in a minimalist sort of way while remaining seated in our pews. It was the kind of song some other congregations would stand for and throw their whole bodies into it. I felt a little self-conscious being the lone one who stood among the pew-sitting dancers. 

We had planned a brunch in their honor after service, and though their accompanying guards required them to sit together, I was able to talk with them a little by visiting their tables. I was stunned to discover that this outing was a first for one woman incarcerated in her youth decades before. Another told of her astonishment when she first saw a self-opening door. 

When the women left, tears came to my eyes as I watched them march out the sanctuary’s front doors single file and now handcuffed. We exchanged smiles and farewells but of course no handshakes as, one by one, they passed by to the prison bus outside. Some of them had a sweater or something draped over their hands so the handcuffs were not so noticeable. 

I think of the handcuffs on many religious people who are bound by beliefs that limit not only their experience of themselves, of the world, and of God, but also prevent their embrace of so many people they think don’t belong in church or consider unworthy of rights and privileges.  I believe there is a direct relationship between opening our minds spiritually and opening our hearts to others. 

I’ve also seen handcuffs on those who long ago left the church, before their spiritual formation was complete. Their spiritual growth was stunted, many holding prejudices taught them as children in tension with the easy youthful judgment of hypocrisy. An example I’ve witnessed repeatedly are those outside the church who nonetheless say one can’t be progressive and Christian, while dismissing the church for being so conservative! 

I’ve just come from a retreat I co-lead annually for gay and bisexual Christian men at Kirkridge, a retreat center with many progressive Christian programs. One-third of the men were new to this retreat; two-thirds were returning after one to twenty retreats. All of us use the opportunity to discover new aps for old beliefs, as well as expanding our spiritual horizons to such new thinking as queer theology. We bond also as a church away from church, a home away from home. So important has this become that many who have passed on have had their ashes interred or sprinkled in the memorial garden. 

In his book Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech calls a retreat “an essential feature of serious Christian living,” adding, “A retreat is a time of awakening, of new vision and new zest. Hugh Maycock once described the retreat conductor’s role as being to ‘astonish the soul.’ Another major part of a retreat is to allow an individual to relax and expand at leisure, to give some creative space in which to grow.” 

I would suggest a metaphor for the retreat experience is the story of Lazarus raised from a confining tomb, with fellow retreatants rolling the stone from its exit and removing the paralyzing death cloths (spiritual handcuffs) so he may newly engage Jesus, family, neighbors, and God. To Lazarus, Jesus said, “Come out!” And to his neighbors he said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

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