1. As far as “theology of the cross” illustrations go, this one is unforgettable. A pastoral care initiative in a prison’s hospice wing, led entirely by fellow inmates, most of whom are convicted murderers serving a life sentence. Suleika Jaouad tells the story in this week’s New York Times Magazine, about the Pastoral Care Service Workers, a cohort of about two dozen inmates who have been trained and tested to provide end-of-life care for the sick and dying in the California Medical Center:

A job in the hospice is not easy to come by. To qualify, Lyman and the others first have to pass a series of interviews and disciplinary checks and agree to random drug tests. They do 70 hours of preliminary training in the psychological and spiritual dynamics of end-of-life care, bedside etiquette and the bereavement process. But the real education comes with the patients. Keith Knauf, a Presbyterian chaplain who oversees the program, believes that caring for the dying teaches compassion and changes these men in profound ways. Of some 250 workers who have been released from prison since the program began, he says, none has returned for a felony and only three have returned for minor parole offenses. Knauf’s estimates put the program’s recidivism rate at 1.2 percent. Nationally, around 25 percent of federal inmates return to prison within eight years.

While the recidivism rates are shocking enough, what is most shocking is the willingness to commit the job of caring to those who have a history of hurting. In our day-to-day philosophy of morals, this is a profoundly upsetting idea: care ought to be provided by professionals/specialists, by special individuals with a gift or a knack for dealing with the difficulties of medical illness and death, not those who have track records confirming the opposite. Reminisicent of the “pattern problem” Invisibilia discussed a couple months back.

On top of this, the notion that death and dying—a reality we all spend most of our lives avoiding—could be, in some small way, a point of entry for long-lost modicum of dignity and tenderness (for both parties), is a beautiful picture of what the cross offers each of us who live facing our own deaths, both figurative and literal.

…The workers make a point not to find out what the patients have done. They worry that knowing too much could affect the quality of care. When a patient’s past sins cross over into the realm of the horrific, it can be hard to keep creeping judgments and questions at bay. How do you reconcile the dissonance between the serial killer and the elderly patient, bedridden, incontinent and lost in the fog of dementia? The workers are also in prison for crimes, but that doesn’t make them immune to judgment. “Death can be an equalizer,” Lyman said. The past falls aside. Time is grounded in the shifting demands of the body as it begins its decay.

Saephanh is the hospice’s self-appointed barber, and on a sunny, cloudless day, he promised to give Ralph Martinez, a patient with cirrhosis of the liver, a haircut. Martinez sat in a rust-red barber chair outside in the dog run. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, letting the noon sun graze his sallow skin. Saephanh got to work with the clippers, sending snippets of black hair skittering onto the pavement beneath their feet (the dog run has since been turned into a garden). According to Saephanh, in most other prisons, a Latino would never get a haircut from an Asian barber, or vice versa. Invisible boundaries carve up the cellblocks, and consorting with the “wrong kind,” especially for gang members like Martinez, who belonged to Nuestra Familia, can get you “got.” But within the walls of the hospice, these unspoken rules don’t seem to matter as much. Black men give meal trays to white men with swastika tattoos on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods and everyone here — regardless of creed, race or politics — gets his hair cut by Saephanh.

What a beautiful picture of church! And here, too:

…Each of the workers has his own style of caregiving, but if there is one trait that stands out about Murillo, it is the tenderness with which he handles the patients. When Jimmy Figueroa needed a shower, Murillo stood in the stall with him to make sure he didn’t fall, fidgeted with the water temperature until it was just right and gently helped towel him off. A few days later, when Ralph Martinez’s health took a sudden turn for the worse and he began sobbing on his bed, it was Murillo who sat down next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. “I’m just returning something I didn’t get as a kid,” Murillo told me, rocking back and forth in his chair, punching his hands together. “All I wanted was kindness and to be held as a boy. Now I get to do that for somebody else. There’s also the regret of not being able to do that for my victims, for the people in my community who I hurt.”

2. An interesting bit of theology from Wesley Hill this week, on megachurch pastor Andy Stanley and the allure of the Marcionite heresy. Marcionism, if you’re like me and didn’t take Christian Heresies 302, is the belief that “the Old Testament is not authoritative in matters of Christian doctrine and morals.” Under Marcion’s heresy, the New Testament teaching of Paul and the good news of Jesus negates the need for the Jewish Law. While Stanley’s sermons are, for Hill, a way of evangelizing to those unattracted to the violence and judgment of the Old Testament, Hill argues that this heresy is usually extended to say that the one “great commandment” of Jesus, is the ethic of Christian love and morality. This is problematic, because “love one another” is often prime fodder for self-justification and all kinds of very un-Christ-like loving.

…Jesus and Paul both agree that the heart of the law is love and that the whole law can be summed up in the twofold command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves—but it misleads by what it leaves out. In a fallen world, talk about love can mask a kind of relativism. This is why the catechetical tradition of the Christian churches has been united in its use of the Ten Commandments: precisely because it has recognized that we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.

We might also say that Marcionism is limited in the same way that Luther believed the accusation of Antinomianism was: the Law can’t be confined to the Old Testament or the New. It’s written on the heart. Prime example: “Parent” As A Verb: Haunted By Pre-Mom Versions of Yourself.

3. Royal wedding and commencement weekend as this is, we thought it’d be good to point you to some good ones already up this year. David Brooks tells all the Butler grads that they will end up in a ditch one day, eventually. That “the ditch” is a good thing, as it is the death of the ego ideal.

And then Chance the Rapper at Dillard. He talks about greatness and performance, and the man who gave him the vision of greatness he carries with him today. No, not Jesus. Michael Jackson. And then Beyonce.

And this…

And The Ringer’s got a good primer for TV specials on the royal hullabaloo. And Caroline Kitchener’s got the pulse on the myth of the “fairy tale” wedding.

4. Speaking of weddings, and Caroline Kitchener, this article on barn weddings (and the identities they signal) is right on target, if not a little (a lot) close to the bone. Having been married in a barn almost five years ago, and thereafter attended over a dozen rustic chic receptions, the trope feels like the norm nowadays. Interestingly, in what used to be a variation from the standard expensive wedding, the barn wedding was a new way to tell the world you wanted something more real, less pressurized. It was a detour from the Law of the Formal Wedding. Now, Kitchener remarks, chill is the new Law, and no less expensive.

Many, she said, live in urban areas and have a fantasy about a life that is “calmer and less complicated”: a life removed from the big city, where couples and their guests can be one with the animals (or—if none are available—at least the spaces they could theoretically inhabit). A barn wedding typifies a simpler life, Helbush said, “because Pinterest told us so.”

5. CT highlighted the new Babylon Bee book, How to Be a Perfect Christian, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. For years now, the Bee has exemplified the kind of self-ridicule and freedom from self-seriousness that comes from grace. It is certainly the same starting point that prompted the Humor Issue. CT says it well:

Based on Bee posts and Adam Ford’s comic strip at Adam4D.com, I’d peg him as a political conservative and a neo-Reformed type. You know, those dudes who have adopted the three postmodern solassola beerasola beardasola balda. If that’s the case, he offers a wicked nugget for his own: “For those of you who consider yourselves truly righteous, you might want to choose a Presbyterian or Reformed church. Of course, never, ever say you chose a Reformed church. Always say that God, in His sovereignty, predestined you from eternity past to attend said church, for His glory alone.”

Equal-opportunity satire. How refreshing.

And speaking of said satire, from the horse’s mouth: Pastor Sneaks Second Sermon Into Closing Prayer

6. Adding one to the loneliness files, this one from the New York Times discusses yet again social media’s wide-but-shallow effect on friendship quality due to an increase in friendship quantity. The article discusses “Dunbar’s number,” the average of 150 or so friends and family that would attend your wedding or funeral. There are smaller groupings within that number of friends, 50 or so individuals you would call your buddies, 15 or so that you would call your good friends, and 1 to 5 you would deem your confidants. Social media does not diminish or increase this number, but it decreases the number of friendships that naturally decay over time.

“Our data shows that if you don’t meet people at the requisite frequencies, you’ll drop down through the layers until eventually you drop out of the 150 and become ‘somebody you once knew.’ What we think is happening is that, if you don’t meet sometime face to face, social media is slowing down the rate of decay.”

What this does, then, is perennially refresh the anxiety of who a true friend is. Because so many friends stay in the pool of friends, you aren’t quite sure who is and who isn’t really there.

7. Thomas Wolfe died on Monday. The white-suited New Journalist New Yorker had many admiring eulogies in the papers this week, but perhaps most suitably (ha!) for Mockingbird is this one about Wolfe’s (and editor Clay Felker’s) never-tired theme: status anxiety.

Felker and Wolfe believed that what New York City is all about, what every New Yorker is obsessed with, is status, and status, or status anxiety, is the theme of most of Wolfe’s writing. Wolfe’s own famous sartorial look, the three-piece white suit, was really a disguise. He called it “neo-pretentious,” but who was he pretending to be? No one wears three-piece white suits in New York City. The suit made him socially unplaceable. It was an escape from the problem of status. Felker and Wolfe also understood that the people who like to read magazine stories about status are the people who are insecure about their status. Flush economic times produce people like this, people who worry that their money is not buying them standing, and those times in New York—the nineteen-sixties and the nineteen-eighties—were the best times for Felker and Wolfe’s kind of journalism.


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