Continuing the thoughts from the night we spent in prison….
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ ” Matthew 25:37-40
Contrary to popular greeting card sentiment and lyrical familiarity, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year for a lot of people. While rooted in the magnificence and mystery and beauty of the birth of a Savior, the season is a cruel taunt for those
who’ve recently lost loved ones, for those who’ll weather it alone following the death of a marriage, for those who’ve lost jobs and consequentially their security and pride and the ability to provide…
…and also for the seemingly forgotten–men and women serving time in prison.
Even as I write that, I realize inmates serving time most likely earned their ticket in by breaking the law and possibly hurting others in the process. As a believer, I also recognize my focus should be on God and not my circumstances, no matter how dire.
You still have to wade through the sludge of circumstance, though, and in spite of “focus”, the consequences of poor decisions linger, sometimes for years and sometimes for life, affecting not just the offender, but everyone with whom the offender comes into contact.
When an inmate goes to prison, he doesn’t go alone; he takes with him his entire family.
Let that sink in a moment, re-read it if that thought didn’t jar you the first time.
Every person in jail is a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a brother or a sister, a grandparent or a grandchild, a friend. For every person incarcerated, there are countless others who are so directly affected by that action, they’re imprisoned, too. They may not be living behind bars, their civil liberties may be intact, but at any given moment they are judged and condemned and ashamed… isolated and lonely and tired and weary.
That weighed heavy on my heart and mind during our visit. I was there with my beautiful family–three generations–who on the surface look like we have it all. A Godly patriarch and matriarch, children and grandchildren who joyfully serve others, siblings who appear to enjoy one another. My husband is one of four sons, all are in stable, happy marriages, there are nine children between them. The inmates know all about us as told through the voice of a proud father and doting grandfather.
I’d like to think this was a good night for these guys. Not because to believe that makes me feel better, but because for a few hours, the monotony and confinement disappeared for them. The atmosphere was light, celebratory, happy. Smiles and good cheer adorned the otherwise modest room.
Additional impressions that still resonate:
God is creative in the means He draws men to Himself
My in-laws are close to some of these men, and more than one of them has confirmed that while they’re sorry for the things they did to earn their prison sentences, while they regret the residual harm and hurt they caused in the process, they believe God allowed the circumstances and bad choices in order to bring about their salvation. Several of these men have been denied parole; they cling to the hope that God still wants them there, to learn more from my father-in-law (and other teachers/ leaders) and to strengthen their faith without former temptations.
Above all, this was a night to celebrate God’s incarnation, the birth of Christ. Every man there was a professing believer, and it is in that belief their countenances reflected freedom. Their bodies are in prison, they’re serving sentences for crimes they committed, but they’ve received a forgiveness that has breathed new life into their hearts, and as a result changed their future. No, their future and their present…now and eternally.
There are two “yards” at this facility–an upper and lower yard. Each group has their own choir, each was allowed to perform one song. These guys didn’t just “perform” though, it transcended a man-centered production and truly glorified God. Their music was an offering to their brothers; yet more than that, it was a gift back to their Savior, it was all they had to give (Think “Little Drummer Boy” and you’ll understand what I mean).
The Bible study leaders shared Scripture and additional encouragement, but it was in music that I saw men liberated in heart and soul and body. And for the record, those guys rocked the house! I was about to go Pentecostal myself!!
Big boys do cry
It’s impossible to convey the worshipful atmosphere during the mini-concert, but I had a glimpse of what God desires of those who worship Him; there was absolutely no pretense. With eyes closed, and for some, hands raised, there was adoration of a King. This place…this PRISON…was inhabited by the presence of God. I love how Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message—
“That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are
simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is
sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of
their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” ~ John 4:24
This was not the kind of emotional worship service where people are manipulated into a spiritual frenzy, their was no coercion of emotion. God was magnified in word and song, and men (and women) simply responded.
As I looked around the room, my heart broke for these people. Some were young enough to be my own sons; others were old enough to be my grandfather. All of them missed their mamas and their babies and their wives, their ache was palpable. For more than a few, crocodile tears spilled down their cheeks.
I would get to go home that night and celebrate Christmas with our extended family the following day and in the days to come. They would return to monotony and routine. Tears streamed down my own face as I tried to hold them back, wiping each eye as it could no longer be contained.
And the first gift I received this Christmas? One of the inmates must’ve noticed me silently weeping, and he brought me a stack of rough, prison-grade napkins (none of those Puffs Plus with Aloe…) and I about lost it! It was one of the sweetest gestures ever extended to me…I didn’t know his name, but I do remember his face, and I imagine he has no idea of the impact of that simple act of kindness.
While my father-in law-daily lives out the words of Christ found in Matthew 25:34-40, I’m thankful our family had opportunity to join him, if only for a few hours.
Blessed to be a blessing…I’m not sure who received it in greater measure.