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

Imprisonment

Let me tell you about my friend Lisa. Lisa is the co-author of a book on grief that we wrote together several years ago. (Mourning Break) She is actively engaged in prison ministry. Her dedication to the women in the Georgia state prison system is incredibly admirable. She visits them, writes emails to them, prays with them, prays FOR them, and has helped one write a book on devotionals from prison. With all the ways that she is a true Barnabas who supports and encourages others, she is first and foremost obedient to what Christ has called ALL of us to do.

In this passage in Matthew, Jesus explains how we all will be evaluated at the end of our days. The king in the story has separated the people into two groups: those who are righteous, who are positioned on the right, and those who ignored his call, whom he placed on his left.

Matthew 25 (Common English Bible)

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

This clearly is the standard by which the world will be judged. Those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and gave the cool cup of water to the thirsty will inherit the kingdom. Taking care of the sick and visiting people in prison also enable believers to receive all the good things the father has to bestow upon his people.

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

I think about my friend and her prison ministry when I read this passage. Jesus explains that when we do loving and caring things for others, we are doing them for Christ himself. Can there be a higher goal in life than to do acts of beauty and kindness for Jesus?

You may not have a way to visit someone in prison like Lisa does, but you probably know someone who is imprisoned by their situation, their defeat, their hopelessness, their poverty, or their choices. Can you make a difference? Can you reach out in non-judgmental love and offer a plate of love, a cup of justice, a coat of warm acceptance, or a handshake of welcome? (OK, maybe a wave from six feet away…)

Take this scripture to heart. In a world that is imprisoned in despair, be a Lisa. And when you do, you’ll be serving Christ himself.

You Welcomed Me by Mark Poblete