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

Secret Keeping

What is the best secret you have ever kept? Was it yours, or someone else’s? Secrets are generally kept for two purposes…either to protect someone or something, or to orchestrate a surprise.

Romans 16 comes along as a surprise this week. We’ve been tickling our toes in the Advent waters of Isaiah, Luke, and the Psalms, but today we are suddenly thrust into the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans was written well after the birth and death of Jesus, so you will not find any Christmas carols here.

But what you’ll discover is probably the most significant part of Jesus’ birth narrative, which is often overlooked in our lackluster worship experiences and traditional, same-as-last-year Christmas Eve messages.

That thing is mystery.

We have lost our sense of mystery. Not just about Jesus, but about everything. Nothing surprises us anymore. Movies are so formulaic, we can predict the outcome in the first five minutes. (Only two minutes for a Hallmark movie.) Television is worse. Politics, national affairs, the economy, even the pandemic all follow patterns and processes that are predictable to a degree. Think I’m wrong? Study the Spanish Flu of 1918. What we are dealing with today was predicted.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

The secret that Paul refers to in this last paragraph is a mystery that shook up the world. It was held in secret by the prophets for a time, and then revealed in due course in order to surprise the world.

Romans 16 (Common English Bible)

25 May the glory be to God who can strengthen you with my good news and the message that I preach about Jesus Christ. He can strengthen you with the announcement of the secret that was kept quiet for a long time. 

It was always assumed that the Gentiles would never have any part in what the Jews held as their own. A messiah was promised to come and redeem Israel. But there was a secret component to that…he would also redeem the rest of the world. Surprise!

26 Now that secret is revealed through what the prophets wrote. It is made known to the Gentiles in order to lead to their faithful obedience based on the command of the eternal God. 

The mystery of Jesus is that he came to lead his people, not in war against their oppressors so that he could establish his own kingdom, but into peace.

The surprise of Jesus is that he is God incarnate, God-made-flesh. He was born of a woman, walked among us, and was crucified for the sins of humanity.

The secret of his crucifixion is that it had been planned all along in order to save us.

The mystery of his resurrection caught the world totally off guard.

And here’s the not-so-secret of it all: if you accept Christ as your savior and put your whole trust in his grace, you, too, will share in the resurrection.

It’s time to let the secret out. Jesus was born in a manger so that he could die on a cross for the forgiveness of sins. May we all shed light on his glorious, absolute truth.

27 May the glory be to God, who alone is wise! May the glory be to him through Jesus Christ forever! Amen.

Snowberries by Mary Anne Mong Cramer