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

Again

March in the Outer Banks is a confused and confusing month. Half winter, half spring, spits of windy days followed by spats of rainy days…it simply can’t make up its mind what season to be. Yet the beauty that surrounds me every waking day, regardless of the weather, is breathtaking. Even on the worst day, this place sings of God’s handiwork.

This beautiful song reinforces that notion that God’s creation has a language of its own. Heaven doesn’t need words. The sky can communicate without them. The days and nights proclaim God’s handiwork by their very existence. We are surrounded by evidence of God’s grace and glory.

In the presence of such majesty, words are unnecessary.

Psalm 19 (Common English Bible)

Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
    the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.
One day gushes the news to the next,
    and one night informs another what needs to be known.
Of course, there’s no speech, no words—
        their voices can’t be heard—
    but their sound extends throughout the world;
        their words reach the ends of the earth.

When was the last time you stood outside and just reveled in God’s handiwork? With no other thought, petition, need, or want crowding your mind…just the experience of creation informing your soul of God’s presence?

God has made a tent in heaven for the sun.
The sun is like a groom
    coming out of his honeymoon suite;
    like a warrior, it thrills at running its course.
It rises in one end of the sky;
    its circuit is complete at the other.
        Nothing escapes its heat.

The sun rises every day, bringing light, heat, and the promise of new things. You can count on that, just as you can count on God’s presence in your situation. So no matter what you are going through right now, know this: God is with you. God is here. God redeems.

If you forgot that, just go outside and look up.

Again by Michelle Robertson

Pouring Out Speech

This has been a week for “pouring out speech.” The presidential debate and ensuing commentary have not lacked for words. If we thought things could not get worse on social media, news commentary, and our overall feeling of woe, we were wrong. A lot of speech was indeed poured out, but not much knowledge was revealed. We just left feeling battered and bruised.

This phrase actually appears in a psalm of David. Where would we be without David? The Old Testament would be lacking in so much learning had there been no King David. From his many acts of sin, which teach us about repentance, to his incredible way of shaping and forming word-pictures in the Psalms, we owe David a debt of gratitude for his life and his work.

Today’s Psalm is a favorite of mine. I can hear the music from an old choir anthem I sang decades ago in the first verse. The last verse is a common prayer used by pastors before they preach. You may have heard this in church and not realized that it is from Psalm 19:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

I think this is a challenge for us as well, but first let’s dive into the beauty of the beginning of the Psalm. Pay attention to the way David figuratively gives voice to the different aspects of creation…the sky proclaims, the day pours out speech, and the heavens declare:

Psalm 19 (English Standard Version)

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them,
    and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

We see an image of God’s entire creation singing his praises in David’s words. It is chill-bump worthy. Then David pays homage to the safety and comfort of the law. As one who broke it many times he should know!

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever;
the rules[d] of the Lord are true,
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward
.

At the end of the Psalm is the challenge I would like to put before you today. It’s not just preachers who need to pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to God…it’s all of us. It applies to what we say to our spouses, how we discipline our children, what we post on social media, the words we wear on our t-shirts and yard signs, and how we behave in Presidential debates. We, too have been given a voice to either declare the glory of the heavens and be a proclamation to God’s handiwork or be an embarrassment to him. So here is your challenge: THINK before you speak or post.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Heaven Declares God’s Glory by Karen Warlitner