I read the NEW YORK TIMES every day. But I can't remember the last time I found profound theological wisdom in its columns - that is until recently.
Lauren Winner, an insightful new voice among Christian writers, graced the New York Times op-ed pages with a straight-talking explanation of Harvard's recent studies showing that abstinence pledges have proven ineffectual among teenagers. According to Winner, we shouldn't be surprised.
Now before getting defensive, listen to her well-grounded theological explanation: "Pledgers promise to control intense bodily desires simply by exercising their wills. But Christian ethics recognizes that the broken, twisted will can do nothing without rehabilitation by God's grace."
This is no less than the apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 7. Winner further proposes, "Perhaps the centrality of grace is recognized best not in a pledge but in a prayer that names chastity as a gift and beseeches God for the grace to receive it." She also rightly draws our attention to the brash individualism of such pledges. Quoting Methodist bishop William Willimon, she writes, "Decisions are fine. But decisions that are not reinforced and reformed by the community tend to be short-lived."
To that I say, "Amen!" Winner re-affirms something that the Church has known but all too often forgotten: true transformation requires God's enabling grace. And because of the way God created us to reflect the inherent relational nature of the Trinity, transformation happens best within the context of community. I applaud Winner's nudging reminder that the community of believers must be indeed just that, a community, supporting and enabling that counter-cultural commitment to God's ways.
Unwittingly, Winner's argument also point to the lessons we've discovered in working in some of the most difficult trenches of transformation - the prisons. Simply more education or a pledge before the parole board won't help prisoners stay out of prison. True change of will requires God's enabling grace and power.
And for that change to seep down deep, prisoners need a community of support. They need volunteers who will open up the Word of God and show them how to live, mentors who will come alongside and share their lives, and most of all, they need the open arms of a church community to embrace them and support them when they return.
And this is perhaps what grieves me most about the recent decision from a judge in Iowa, ruling against the faith-based prison program, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. Shutting down programs like IFI will only succeed in hurting the community, by standing in the way of the only transformation that really works.
The IFI program works because it does exactly what Winner and I've talked about. It provides a way for grace-filled transformation to occur in the context of community. In so doing, it is a witness to the Church of what it has too often forgotten, and a witness to the community of the only true power to change.
From BreakPoint®, July 5, 2006, Copyright 2006, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. BreakPoint® and Prison Fellowship Ministries® are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.