I spent the Saturday night before Christmas in prison, surrounded by thieves, murderers, sexual offenders, drug dealers and white-collar criminals.
There was no mistaking where we were, razor wire-topped fencing was a conspicuous reminder that the way out would be painful. I suppose the way in renders its own kind of pain.
For 16 years, my father-in-law has been involved in prison ministry at this mid-level facility, visiting inmates, leading a Bible study…sharing the warmth of friendship in a cold and lonely place. He’s a friend to men who’ve been there most of their lives, and he’s a friend to boys not much older than his grandsons.
Earning the right to be trusted, he’s been allowed to bring his family into the prison to serve the inmates dinner on several occasions. My husband and I have joined him in the past; this year, my children (15, 13 and 10) came along.
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It is a sobering experience to enter this world. Long after I leave, ghosts cling to me, haunt me, but not in the way you might expect. I have no fear for myself when I go. It is a sacred time when I’m certain I’m on hallowed ground, when the presence of God invades time and space, visible on the faces of men whose bodies are imprisoned but whose hearts have been set free.
Following every prison visit, I’m reminded of the scene in “The Shawshank Redemption“, when Red spoke at his parole hearing:
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here,
or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a
young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to
him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things
are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s
left. I got to live with that.”
The movie’s tagline rings true, too:
Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.
Of course, for a believer, hope is rooted in the person of Christ; and it can’t be missed that His last act of grace before His death on the cross was of forgiving a criminal who had earned his death sentence.
In spite of circumstance, regardless of the consequences flowing from a river of bad decisions, these men have found true freedom. They’ve received gifts that will last them not just a lifetime, but forever ~ peace that passes understanding, abounding grace, every spiritual blessing, incomprehensible love; and for those who’ve been in prison, perhaps they understand better than anyone else the value…the beauty…the incalculable riches of redemption and forgiveness.
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