January 29, 2008

Guest Commentary: Looks can be deceiving

The square box arrived by mail, filled with those annoying Styrofoam peanuts that go everywhere when you pull out the item. The return address was from an unfamiliar place called Northpoint Training Center. Carefully packed in the center of the box was an odd, small rendering of three crosses on a hillside. From the center cross ran a stream of bright red.I searched amidst the peanuts. No note.So what to do with a kitschy, desk-size rendering of Calvary from an unknown source? Who would want it? My thoughts turned ornery. I’ll put it on a colleague’s desk as a gag gift, a kind of religious white elephant! Over the next several days, the crucifix scene made its way around the office. Like a bad penny, eventually it returned to me, appearing one day in my box of Diet Cokes.That very day a letter came in the mail explaining the package from the previous week. The letter was from a church member serving time in prison. The cross scene, he explained, was a gift he commissioned from a new cellmate who had fashioned the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion from prison soap colored with cigarette ashes and red dye extracted from bubble gum.Then he explained its significance. The artist was a former Aryan Brotherhood leader, a mean dude who “hurt people bad” when they didn’t repay their loans on time. His previous artistic interests focused on skulls, demons, spider webs and snakes. He once did a self-portrait with some fellow Aryans that he captioned “Hate Brotherhood.”Late last summer he was put in “the hole” for 180 days for having weapons and drugs and a plan to take over the prison. Bored in his isolation, he picked up a Bible and, ironically, on Halloween night he had a radical change of heart that so profoundly affected his behavior that the guards eventually recommended him for early release from the hole.Since then, the letter said, the changed man has faced severe repercussions from his former friends. On the other hand, his radical change, not to mention the fact that he still had a reputation as a mean dude, had managed to double chapel attendance overnight.The letter went on, “I remember your words from the Easter Sunday CD: ‘Love is stronger than hate; life is stronger than death.’ I’m seeing it lived out in front of me.”I put down the letter and picked up the abused, well-traveled piece of prison art with a humbled, repentant heart. Once a gag gift, in an instant it had been transformed miraculously into a profound witness to the power to change through a new/old story.It occurs to me that the way I now look at the once-maligned art with renewed interest is the same way this man now looks at himself — as something precious, meaningful, rich with story and sacrifice and subtleties of a spirit whose movements are vast and creative.The cross art now has a place of honor among my possessions as a reminder that everything, and everyone, looks priceless when framed by the right story. Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church at Grinstead and Cherokee roads. Contact him at www.hbclouisville.org