Light Out of Darkness


Randall Tremba
 October 14, 2012
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Mark 10:17-31
Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him and said, "You lack just one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Whatever else this gospel lesson may mean, it means at least this much: now and then, we get an opportunity to choose a different path, to relinquish what may be killing us in order to embrace what will bring us real joy and abundant life. Some refuse. Others accept.

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Thursday morning Jade, Paula and I drove Jonah to the Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia where he will serve a 15-month sentence for possessing and distributing marijuana. It was a day we had dreaded for months.

Thursday was a sunny day. Which made it a day so very, very different from a certain Wednesday seven months ago when we drove Jonah home from the regional jail. That was a dark and gloomy day. A cold drizzle fell all day long.

The contrasting weather of those two days—seven months apart—punctuates an on-going story of amazing grace. Life is hard, sometimes very, very hard. But something else is true. Grace abounds. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it.

You know and I know, we don’t always get what we want. But sometimes we get what we need. It could be something hard and bitter, something we need to force us to go deep into ourselves to find strength, beauty, and compassion we didn’t know we had in us or that others held for us.

When the night is cold and the valley long, you need a friend to lean on. You have been such a friend to Jonah and us. We couldn’t have made it without you. In the darkest times we never once felt forsaken by family, friends or this community of faith.

Just a few hours after his arrest Jonah’s girlfriend’s father called me. I recognized his name on the caller ID. I’d never met him. But I could guess what was coming. I was prepared for a blistering rebuke. But what I got was this: “Brother, I just want you to know, we’re all in this together.”

That’s compassion. It’s sunshine on a cloudy day.

I will never forget Wednesday, Feb. 29. For Paula and me it felt like the end of our world. The sun and moon fell from the sky. The earth collapsed beneath our feet. We could hardly breathe.

At the time we didn’t see, nor could we know that it was the beginning of a new and beautiful world. We didn’t know that the mothering Spirit would call forth light out of darkness and give our sinking souls a place to stand, to stand and witness the unfolding of a new creation.

At the time we felt doom and gloom, shame and guilt. We were afraid. The future was foreboding.

Parents have many nightmares. We live in constant dread of what might befall our children. It takes us a while to learn that we can’t live our children’s lives for them. We give them roots. But we also give them wings. We can’t prevent them from falling down the stairs. We can only hope to be there when they hit the bottom.

On Feb. 29th the phone rang in the early morning. We went to the jail. We brought Jonah home.

He told us everything that had happened, about the arrest and all that led up to it. And then out of the blue he said, “I don’t need the laws of men to justify me.”

My heart sank.

I don’t need the laws of men to justify me. Really? That was the defiance I had expected and feared. That attitude would not serve him well in the days ahead. But, as it turns out, it was NOT the attitude he had at all.

I told him I agreed with him. You don’t need the laws of men to justify yourself. I agreed, I said, but only on a theological level because that remark wouldn’t be a smart thing to say in court. For the first time that day he laughed and said he knew better than that.

That remark was, as I came to see over the next seven months, an acclamation of his self-worth. Regardless of what others might say of him, no matter the outcome he would not allow the law or prison to define him or his worth.

And he has taken that attitude with him into prison.

He has said more than once that the day of his arrest was the happiest day of his life. The arresting officers did him a favor. He was glad and grateful to be free of a life style that had gotten a fearsome grip on him. He would happily go to prison, he said, because no prison can be as bad as the “prison” he’d been in.

He blamed no one but himself. Not then. Not ever. Quite simply, he had fallen for the lure of easy money. He knew it. And regretted it.

Money, as it turns out, is addictive and makes many a person do harm to themselves and others. That certain rich young man in the gospel lesson today, chose to stay on a destructive path rather than take the path that leads to liberation and life. Such moments of choice regarding life and lifestyles come to each of us time and time again. Such moments of choice are moments of grace.

Jonah was sentenced in federal court on Sept. 10. Considering the weight of the crime and the sentencing options before her, the judge was lenient and gave Jonah some real breaks. She acted wisely and mercifully. Even though his recovery and rehabilitation had been flawless and unwavering over seven months, she believed a little time in prison would strengthen and secure his progress.

Jonah is now in a safe and secure place where he has a chance and the resources to become even more physically, mentally and spiritually fit. Of the various prison facilities, Morgantown was his “first pick.” You might say, he gets—at tax-payers’ expense—a monastic experience for a whole year in the mountains of West Virginia with free classes, meals, laundry, health and dental care plus a library, TV rooms, pool tables, a softball field and a gymnasium!

Except for the “being in prison” part, what's not to like?

When Jonah Skyped his brother Nate—who lives in Albuquerque and is father of 4 year old twin girls—and told him the conditions and provisions of his internment, Nate exclaimed, REALLY?! Tell the judge I’ll switch places with you!

In one way of looking at it, really, what’s not to like?

Still, part of me is angry.

Over the past seven months I have learned much about crime and incarceration in our nation. If you’ve read what I’ve read you can’t help but be angry—not at anyone in particular but at a system that keeps locking up relatively benign souls for breaking a certain law that many law enforcement officials themselves wish would go away.

Our nation incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation except China. And more than half are there for non-violent, victimless crimes. A year in prison costs about as much as a year at an Ivy League school. There’s got to be a better way. But then, I’m guessing, the current system is making certain people rich. And money is addictive.

Wednesday night our family gathered for a farewell dinner. We mourned a little, of course. We will miss Jonah and all the warmth and laughter his new life has brought to our home. We’ll miss his childlike delight in being back in church, of teaching in the Sunday Studio, of hanging out in the Fellowship Hall and getting hugs and pats on the back.

We’ll miss his childlike delight in working the early shift at HBP, a printing plant in Hagerstown—something he never ever thought he’d enjoy so much. Last Monday his boss brought Jonah a card signed by all 15 of his co-workers, including smart remarks like “there’s no bird like a jail bird.” Jonah loved that card!

Our farewell dinner was also a celebration of a life transformed in the light of love. It was a meal of thanksgiving for Jonah, yes, but also for you and so many others who stepped up to give him hugs and pats on the backs—to help raise him up when so many forces could have pulled him down. He toasted many of you by name.

As happy and as grateful as I am, I want you to know something else. My happiness and gratitude for Jonah will never ever be unrestrained or unqualified for I know many parents not so lucky as us, whose children will not come home again, whose children have not hit bottom, and whose children have yet to step upon the road to recovery. For them my heart will always ache.

At one time or another we all have been broken and crushed and left for dead. Some of us more than once. It’s true: we don’t know about tomorrow. But something else is true: we know the One who holds tomorrow.

It may be dark, rainy and cold. But you can count on this: the sun will rise again. Light will arise out of darkness.

Wherever you are, wherever you may be, whatever mess you’ve gotten into, I pray you will always hear and believe this song to you from the heart of God: You are mine. You are loved with an unending love.

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Congregational hymn: “You Are Mine” by David Haas