A Theological Reading of “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts”: Coke bottles

Toward the end of Neil White’s gripping memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts”, he records another encounter with Ella.

With his release looming, White was lamenting to Ella his lack of transformation. He writes, “I had decided I needed to change, but I was still the same man who walked through the gates a year earlier.” Rather than experiencing the deep-level reform he had anticipated, White felt largely unchanged and looked to Ella for words of wisdom.

“Hard on yourself,” she said, after I told her my apprehension.

I shook my head. “Everybody says I need to become a new person before I get out.”

“You is what you is.” Ella took a deep breath and looked across the inmate courtyard. “You know ’bout them drink bottles?” she asked.

“No.”

Ella proceeded to tell White a story. Years earlier, the Coca-Cola distributor from Baton Rouge would send only chipped and cracked Coke bottles to Carville. The reason? So he wouldn’t have to accept the return bottles. The distributor feared the public backlash if customers discovered their glass Coke bottles had once touched the lips of leprosy patients.

Thus, Carville accumulated a massive collection of cracked and chipped Coke bottles.

“More drink bottles than you ever seen,” she said. The crates of bottles filled closets and storerooms. But the patients discovered new uses for the nonreturnable bottles. They used them as flower vases with beautiful arrangements. They became sugar dispensers in the cafeteria. For impromptu bowling games on the lawn, the bottles were used as pins. They were turned upside down and stuffed into the dirt to line flower beds and walks on the Carville grounds.

“CoCola bottle still a CoCola bottle,” Ella said. “Just found ’em a new purpose.”

The church is this collection of cracked and chipped bottles, repurposed for the sake of the Kingdom.

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Fixer Upper: The Hope of Creation

We’re suckers for home renovation shows.

600x600bb-85A dozen years ago, it was Trading Spaces. (Remember that show? It kinda put TLC on the map.) Then it was the Extreme Home Makeover craze. About five years ago, Sunny and I fell in love with House Hunters. Now there’s House Hunters International, Flip or Flop, Property Brothers…trust me, there’s a lot of them. Most recently, we’ve started watching Fixer Upper. Since today was a snow day no-school day, we all sat down to watch the latest episode. It was amazing to see Chip and Joanna completely gut this old farm house in Waco and turn it into a showpiece property. With a little imagination and a lot of manpower (not to mention cash), this decades-old dilapidated home was transfigured into a brand new, opulent living space complete with hardwood floors, granite countertops and (of course) stainless steel appliances. I have to say, it was quite an impressive renovation.

Have you ever wondered why we’re so infatuated with these kinds of shows? The premise never changes: find a property and — in ways both great and small — restore it, renew it, renovate it. Why are these programs so popular?

I believe it’s because renewal is the hope of creation.


I’m currently reeling from some painful news that’s sent me into something of an emotional tailspin. It’s brought up a lot of old memories for me, a lot of sorrow, and opened some fresh wounds that will take considerable time to heal. Honestly, dealing with grief has been a constant in my life for many years…and it just gets old. And it’s easy to feel as if I’m starting this new year with a heavy burden on my shoulders.

I’ve decided to read Ecclesiastes as I begin a new year in the Scriptures. And tonight I came across these words from Kohelet, also known as “The Teacher”:

Everything is wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, the ear not filled up with hearing. What has been is what will be, what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there something of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It existed already in the ages before us. (Eccl. 1:8-10, CJB)

As odd as it sounds, I found these words to be comforting, even life-giving. While some might think of this as a “downer” text, I’m thankful to have found these words tonight. I feel as if I’ve found a companion; I’ve found a biblical witness to give voice to what I’m feeling right now. Everything is wearisome to me right now. All of this feels too familiar, like the fifth verse to a song that won’t end. A new year, but the “same old, same old.”

In Kohelet, the Teacher, I have a compatriot for the days when renewal seems remote and distant. For this, I’m giving thanks tonight.

But the hope for renewal remains ever-present, buoyed by the scope of God’s most inclusive promise in the Bible’s closing scene:

I am making all things new. (Rev. 21:5)

From His glorious throne, God answers Kohelet’s question. “Is there anything new?” the Teacher asks. According to the Sovereign King, yes.

All things are made new. 

According to the One seated on the throne, all things are renovated, all things are transfigured, all things are renewed by the power of His spoken word. In John’s vision, the loud voice emanates from the throne, declaring the end of tears, death, mourning, and pain. We rejoice as the old order passes away, replaced by new heavens and a new earth.

The story of God ends in glory. 

That’s why we love those renovation shows. They point to the glorious end when all things are renewed and restored, made right once more by our Sovereign God.

This is the hope of creation.

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A Theological Reading of “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts”: Church

insanctuary3I just finished Neil White’s fantastic memoir In the Sanctuary of Outcasts. White spent 12 months — spring 1993 to spring 1994 — incarcerated at the minimum-security Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana. What made this incarceration unique was the “convergence of cultures” at Carville as federal inmates and prison guards shared the Federal Medical Center campus with 130 leprosy patients at the nation’s last leprosarium. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is White’s firsthand account of his transformative experience among society’s outsiders.

Convicted of bank fraud and check kiting, White recounts being immediately thrust into community with thieves and killers, far removed from his world of starched shirts and five-star dining. Moreover, White’s imprisonment entailed a year of separation from his young family. Although his marriage was an unfortunate casualty of his detention, White candidly writes about his intentional efforts to maintain his relationship with his children. For this reason alone, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is at once heartbreaking and stirring.

Faith emerges as a central theme in White’s “convergence of cultures.” In addition to the mingling of miscreants and Hansen’s disease patients (as White notes, the term “leper” carries a pejorative connotation and should not be used), Carville’s community also included an ancient order of nuns who ministered to the patients. One of the book’s central figures is Father Reynolds, the Catholic priest who oversees weekly mass and Bible studies for this hodgepodge congregation. Father Reynolds’ graciousness was integral as White comes to grips with his own pride and self-advancement.

Days after completing In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, it is White’s articulation of church that stands out most to me. Prior to his conviction, White’s church attendance was simply ornamental, one more feature of the upstanding image he desperately sought to maintain. Sure, he attended church, White admits, but only because doing so was good for business. But at Carville, seated among his fellow inmates and the disfigured, blind, and broken members of the leprosarium, White was free to take off the mask, to drop his pretensions, and to accept the reality of his humanity. Only in a place where everyone’s brokenness was on full display was White free to truly be himself — before others and before God.

One of the most meaningful relationships White formed was with an 80-year-old Hansen’s patient named Ella, a resident at Carville for nearly 70 years. Prior to his release, Ella implored White to find a church home and to continue along his newfound spiritual journey. White has this to say about the import of that conversation:

But at some point after I settled in Oxford, I would take Ella’s advice and find a church. Not just any church. A place like the church at Carville. Where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image or money.

I didn’t know if a church like this existed, but if it did I would go. And I would pray. Not the kind of prayers I used to say for miracles or money or advancement. I would ask for something more simple. I would pray for recollection — pray that I would never forget. (p. 303)

White’s desire for this kind of community — a community free of pretense, a place where brokenness is universally acknowledged and help is both asked for and freely given — especially resonates with me. I believe that most of us desire the same kind of community. We’re all looking for a place to belong. I frequently talk to people who tell me they’re longing for a place like the community White describes: a place to be known, a place to remember, a place to ask forgiveness.

And like White, many of these people question whether such a place — such a church — actually exists.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts fires my imagination toward the kind of community God creates: the kind of community where strangers become family, where wolf lives with lamb, where criminals and pariahs take their seats alongside the pious and the faithful.

What if the church truly became a place of sanctuary for the outcasts?

 

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Best Songs of 2016

A rejoinder to my best albums post, here are my 25 favorite songs released this year. Happy New Year to you!

  1. “Burn the Witch” by Radiohead. 
  2. “In Bloom” by Sturgill Simpson. 
  3. “What Dreams May Come” by Michael McDermott. 
  4. “No Hard Feelings” by The Avett Brothers. 
  5. “Daydreaming” by Radiohead. 
  6. “There Will Be Time” by Mumford & Sons.
  7. “Stone” by Lee Dewyze. 
  8. “Shadow in the Window” by Michael McDermott. 
  9. “I’m Moving On” by Dylan LeBlanc.
  10. “Ain’t No Man” by The Avett Brothers.
  11. “Spirit” by Amos Lee. 
  12. “Forever Country” by Various Artists. 
  13. “All Around You” by Sturgill Simpson. 
  14. “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin.
  15. “True Love Waits” by Radiohead. 
  16. “Smile” by Durand Jones & The Indications.
  17. “You Are My Sunshine” by Morgane Stapleton (with Chris Stapleton). 
  18. “Muchacho” by Kings of Leon.
  19. “Part Two – In My Own Way” by Ray Lamontagne. 
  20. “Me and My Girl” by Vince Gill. 
  21. “When Things Fall Apart” by Augustines. 
  22. “I Cried” by Brandy Clark. 
  23. “Shine” by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals. 
  24. “Follow” by Whitney.
  25. “Yellow Eyes” by Rayland Baxter. 
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Top Ten Pearl Jam Songs

I’ve been following Pearl Jam for the past 25 years. I was a freshman in high school when they burst onto the rock / grunge / alternative scene in 1991. In honor of their recent induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, here are my Top Ten Favorite Pearl Jam Songs:

  1. “Black” from Ten. This has always been my favorite PJ song. Dark, brooding, evocative, emotional…it checks all the boxes. Most meaningful line: “And now my bitter hands / cradle broken glass / of what was everything.”
  2. “Better Man” from Vitalogy. Never released as a single, “Better Man” is one of the band’s most popular songs. As with most of their most emotionally resonant songs, this one comes from Vedder’s relationships — in particular, his stepfather. Most meaningful line: “She dreams in color / she dreams in red / can’t find a better man.”
  3. “Release” from PJ20 soundtrack. Vedder’s ode to his deceased father is cathartic for me. Most meaningful line: “I am myself / Like you somehow.”
  4. “Nothingman” from VitalogyThere are probably many ways to interpret this song, but as this album was the soundtrack to my senior year of high school, I can’t help but think of it in light of my mother’s death. Most meaningful line: “Once divided / nothing left to subtract.” Do you know that feeling?
  5. “Just Breathe” from BackspacerWith age, PJ’s perspective has shifted to more hopeful reflections. The best of these cuts is 2009’s “Just Breathe.” Most meaningful line: “Yeah, I’m a lucky man / To count on both hands the ones I love.” I know that feeling, too.
  6. “Dissident” from Vs. The guitar work here is still some of the band’s finest. Most meaningful line: “When she couldn’t hold, she folded / A dissident is here.”
  7. “Come Back” from Pearl Jam. Another entry from the band’s second decade. Gossard’s outro is just awesome. Most meaningful line: “And sometimes you’re there / And you’re talking back to me / Come the morning I could swear you’re next to me.”
  8. “Daughter” from Vs. Most meaningful line: “She holds the hand that holds her down / she will rise above.”
  9. “Yellow Ledbetter.” How did this song not make the final cut for Ten? And how good were those recording sessions? The lyrics to this one are somewhat oblique, but that’s due to the likely subject material (the loss of a loved one in an overseas conflict). Most meaningful line: “I don’t, I don’t know whether I was the boxer or the bag”
  10. “Nothing As It Seems” from Binaural. This one may not be as well known as some of the “hits” on this list, but it’s a fantastic song, demonstrating the band’s staying power. Most meaningful line: “Occupations overthrown / A whisper through a megaphone.”
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Best Albums of 2016

I love all kinds of music. This year we made the decision to begin a Spotify Premium family subscription, so I have access to even more music than ever before. As always, there are a couple of albums that especially resonated with me. Here’s a list of my favorite albums released this year.

  1. Radiohead, A Moon Samoonshapedpool.0.0haped Pool. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool opens with a song that’s been floating around since the Hail to the Thief days entitled “Burn the Witch.” Lest you mistake the song for 15-year-old leftovers, know this: “Burn the Witch” is easily the most prescient song of 2016. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” Thom Yorke sings over a bed of frenetic strings played to maximum eeriness under the direction of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead’s ode to paranoia, xenophobia, and fearmongering perfectly encapsulates the tenor of this topsy-turvy year. And that’s just for starters. The rest of the album follows suit, playing off these existential themes. A darkness creeps into your life, leaving you nowhere to hide on “Decks Dark.” Broken hearts make it rain (and rain, and rain…) on “Identikit.” On the piano-driven “Daydreaming”, Yorke warns that “dreamers / they never learn” before the song closes with words “half my life” sung / spoken backward — seemingly an allusion to Yorke’s recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend. But these dark themes are contrasted by the music, some of the most gorgeous and sonically arresting arrangements in the band’s lengthy canon. Depressing music has never sounded so beautiful. The album closes with another live favorite, “True Love Waits”, appearing for the first time as a studio cut. The arrangement here is sparse — a piano and bass are the only accompaniment for Yorke’s forlorn falsetto. “I’ll drown my beliefs / to have your babies / I’ll dress like your niece / and wash your swollen feet / Just don’t leave.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a more raw love song recorded this year. From start to finish, there’s not a false note or line in the whole album. A Moon Shaped Pool ranks right up there with Radiohead’s classic albums. Download this: “True Love Waits”, “Burn the Witch”, “Glass Eyes”, “Decks Dark”, and “Daydreaming.”
  2. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This was the year I really fell in love with the music of Sturgill Simpson. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Sturgill’s ode to parenthood, a loose concept album written to his young son. Simpson builds on his trademark “real country” cred — the guy channels 1978 Merle & Waylon — with an expanded pallet, including horns and a string section. The result is an album filled with tenderly poignant moments, such as “Breakers Roar” (“Open up your heart and you’ll find love all around“) and “Oh Sarah” (“I can’t get past the pain of what I want to say to you / I’m too old now to learn how to let you in“). The album’s highlight is Simpson’s reimagining of the Nirvana classic “In Bloom,” visaged here as a string / pedal steel heavy Americana ballad. He tweaks the lyrics slightly in the refrain: “But he don’t know what it means / to love someone.” The addition is significant and it adds new flourishes of both depth and nuance to a song firmly entrenched in the consciousness of many listeners (like me). In an album filled with special moments, Sturgill’s cover is the pinnacle, perhaps the song of the year in my opinion. Download this: “In Bloom”, “Sea Stories”, “Breakers Roar”, “All Around You”, and “Keep It Between the Lines.”
  3. Whitney, Light Upon the Lake. Whitney is my new favorite indie band. Formed by members of the defunct Smith Westerns, Whitney specializes in the kind of atmospheric, dreamy guitar-and-piano-and-falsetto sound popularized by Fleet Foxes a decade ago. But this kind of earnest folk rock is one of my favorite genres these days. Pitchfork refers to Light Upon the Lake as “a great warm weather rock’n’roll record.” That’s a great description of this album. The instrumentation is typically crisp, whereas the vocals are softer, fuzzier, warmer. But that’s not a bad thing. The perfect mix of positive vibes and melancholy, Light Upon the Lake is precisely the kind of record I needed for 2016. There’s just enough self-reflection here to leave me wanting a lot more. Download this: “No Woman”, “Golden Days”, “Follow”, and “No Matter Where We Go.”
  4. Michael McDermott, Willow Springs. McDermott has long been one of my favorite artists. It’s really a travesty that he’s not a household name. His self-titled album from the late 90s still stands as one of my 10 favorite albums ever. Willow Springs continues to build on his canon of fantastic songs. McDermott’s trademark is his ability to make you feel. I broke down the first time I heard “Shadow in the Window”, written in the aftermath of the death of McDermott’s father. The final refrain of the song — a stream of countless “I love you”s — is both heart wrenching and moving. Download this: “Soldiers of the Same War”, “Shadow in the Window”, “What Dreams May Come”, and “Let A Little Light In.”
  5. Amos Lee, Spirit. I’d never been a huge fan of Amos Lee until this record. But I LOVE his sound on Spirit. Equal parts 70s soul throwback and contemporary R&B, Lee is fully in his element here. Download this: “Spirit”, “Running Out of Time”, and “With You.”
  6. Lee Dewyze, Oil and Water. Yes, that Lee Dewyze. Like most people, I lost track of Dewyze when his American Idol run came to an end, with the exception of that one song of his that was featured on The Walking Dead a few years ago. But I came across this release back in January, a time of year when there just aren’t very many good albums being released. It became an instant earworm for me, portending Dewyze’s potential as an alt-rock, singer-songwriter once more. Download this: “Stone”, “Oil and Water”, and “Same For You.”
  7. Augustines, This Is Your Life. I fell in love with Augustines a few years back when they released their self-titled sophomore album. Sadly, this release is the Brooklyn-based band’s swan song. While This Is Your Life lacks the overall grandeur of Augustines, it’s a great way to draw the curtain on the band’s short-lived run. I’m gonna miss these guys. Download this: “Hold Me Loneliness”, “Running in Place” and “Days Roll By.”
  8. Kings of Leon, WALLS. The Kings have never sounded finer. This is what “staying in your lane” sounds like. Kings of Leon know exactly who they are and they don’t mess with the formula. I didn’t expect to love this album as much as I do. Download this: “Muchacho” and “WALLS.”
  9. John Paul White, Beulah. If I were the President, my first executive order would be to reunite The Civil Wars. But until that happens, we can take solace in the fact that John Paul White will be putting out starkly beautiful music like this record. One NPR reviewer noted that White’s clear articulation made every Civil Wars record seem like a conversation. That same intimacy transfers to this solo record. Download this: “The Martyr.”
  10. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. I first encountered Margo Price on the Nashville episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. A quick search on Spotify led me to her debut album, an “authentic” country album in the vein of Loretta Lynn. It’s good to see Nashville returning to her roots. Download this: “Hands of Time.”

Honorable mention: Just missing the cut were new releases from Wilco, Bon Iver, The Head and the Heart, and the Lumineers.

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A (Bookworm’s) Merry Christmas

Santa was VERY good to this bookworm. Now I have to decide which one to read first! 

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