Letters from Prison

Many years ago, I was involved in prison ministry at my local county jail for about five years. It began when a teenager in my church shot a friend in the chest while they were playing “Russian Roulette” with a loaded gun. The friend died. I began to visit the teenager several times a week, often having more access to him than his mother did. Once the guards realized that I was coming on a regular basis, they asked me if I would visit other inmates as well. Thus began a long and challenging time in my ministry. To be perfectly honest, I loved and hated every minute of it.

The inmates all wanted to write to me between visits. Letters from prison are a holy and sacred thing. Even in my closest relationships with these men, they never expressed themselves as openly in person as they did in their writings. Thoughts, hopes, fears, and utter defeat poured out with every pencil stroke, written on torn notebook pages. I saved many of these letters over the years to remind myself that when you are obedient to go where God sends you, the Holy Spirit will be made manifest there, in spite of your inadequacies.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he describes the mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God. Then he responses to all of the wonderful things God has done and is doing. Even though he is writing this from prison, his sense of awe and optimism spills out through his words. It makes us wonder if we would respond the same way. Think of a time when you were in a particularly bad situation. Did you fall on your knees in reverence and humility, praising God for everything he has done? Did you offer a song of praise in the midst of deep trouble? Too often we focus on our immediate problem and neglect to lift our eyes heavenward, as Paul does here:

Ephesians 3 (The Message)

14-19 My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

When all of your inner strength is tapped out, you can tap into God’s undeniable, indescribable, and inexhaustible power. We are invited to invite Christ in, and he will live in us as soon as we do. The Message rightly states that we will be able to take in the “extravagant dimensions” of Christ’s love, where we will explore the breadth, length, depth, and height of what it means to be the people of God.

As I stand on the beach and look out toward the bottomless sea, having no concept of its size, I can get a small glimpse of what Paul is saying. He says that you really can’t understand this….all you can do is just experience it. What a comfort it is to know that God is so much bigger than any burden that we bear!

20-21 God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.

The mystery of the incarnate God-in-Christ becomes the mystery of the incarnate Holy Spirit-in-us. That God is willing to gently guide us in our thinking and our behavior is a miracle in and of itself. God-with-us becomes God-in-us….never pushing, but always leading.

This revelation is overwhelming. What can we say in response to such a gift?

This is when the church rises to its feet to sing the Doxology. All we can do is open our hands in amazement and offer harmonies of praise. In like manner, Paul concludes this chapter with a doxology of his own:

Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!

May we bring glory to God in everything we do. Oh, yes!

Glory to God by Michelle Robertson

Unsearchable Riches

I became fascinated with Mel Fisher’s discovery of the Atocha a few decades ago after reading about it in a National Geographic magazine. The Atocha was a 400-year-old Spanish Galleon that sunk somewhere in the waters outside of Key West. Fisher spend the majority of his life looking for it. Along the way he and his team experienced much hardship, poverty, illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and fights with the Florida state government and the US government over keeper‘s rights. Worst of all, he suffered the deaths of his son, daughter-in-law, and a diver when one of their search boats sank in the middle of the night.

When the treasure was finally discovered, it contained almost 1,000 silver ingots weighing 32 tons, 114,000 silver coins, huge masses of coins still fused in the shape of treasure chests, silver and gold artifacts, gold bars, discs, coins, and chains, and 3,000 emeralds weighing up to 77 carats. A few years ago I visited the museum in Key West that houses a good portion of the treasure, and it is overwhelming.

The world would look at such a haul and think that Fisher had hit the mother lode of riches. How do you define riches?

Paul speaks of the unsearchable riches of Christ in the third chapter of Ephesians. Let’s explore what he defines as “riches.”

Ephesians 3 (English Standard Version)

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 

Paul clearly identifies the unsearchable riches of Christ as the plan for the salvation of not just the Hebrew nation, but of all nations. This was a radical teaching for the Jews of the time. Their anticipation of a Messiah who would come to conquer the warring nations around them did not match the gentle shepherd from Nazareth. Paul’s task was to convince not only the Jews, but the Gentiles, who had no expectation of being included in the redemption plan that was offered to them.

It was indeed a mystery hidden for ages in God from the very beginning, and it was up to the church to explain it to everyone:

10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

Mel Fisher’s riches cost him everything. The good news for us today is that the unsearchable riches that are offered in Christ cost nothing. The price has already been paid. When we search for him we will find him, and the manifold wisdom of God is made known in the process.

I believe the church itself is one of those riches. If you don’t have a church home, I pray you will find one. The church is the vehicle God uses to make his riches known. If you’ve been burned by a church, find another one. The online options are endless.

Paul invites us to come before God with boldness and confidence. Christ is the access. The church is the door. It’s time to discover his riches. Today’s the day!

From the Mel Fischer Museum in Key West