I am INDEBTED to SO many of you!! THANK YOU to all who prayed for me the last few weeks while I was finishing my book. And THANK YOU for praying for me this week as I went into a huge maximum security prison in California.. Here's what happened for me and for them.
I had never been in a jail or prison. Never. Yes, I’ve felt profoundly trapped: in houses, on islands, in schools. Wherever there is crowding, anger and violence and you can’t get away. I’ve been in those places. Sometimes for a long time. And being there, you think you know what prison is. But you don’t. That prison is a metaphor. Metaphors have more room and softer beds and there are often ways to escape, at least for a little while.
Not here. Everything is caged. No open sky anywhere. Just metal fencing and razor wire coiled atop every wall, every fence. When an inmate moves from one space to another, her hands are bound behind her, her head hung low. The deputy with her warns me to step far away from where she will pass. Step away. An inmate is passing. Does she have leprosy? She may as well have. What kind of dignity can you hold onto when you are bound and all must turn away from you?
The first day, I visited the women. I did not go alone. The chaplain and his wife, also a chaplain, brought me there. Some of the women had read my forgiveness book. They sat down, looked at me, this stranger . They looked at me with open faces. I did not expect this. Some were beautiful. A few were middle-aged, but most were young. One looked just like a friend back home. One laid her head on the table until it was time for questions. Two cried while I spoke. I did not expect any of this. How can I say this? I loved them. I shared my story with them for an hour, asking questions along the way. I had handouts. They read them intently, about how much God loved them, that nothing can separate them from the love of God, neither handcuffs, nor chain fence, nor razor wire nor anything else in all creation . . ..
Sometime in the second hour, whatever walls remained came down. We were women sharing our lives and our hearts. I was giving them all I could of the Lord, of His peace, His beauty, His forgiveness. I spoke honestly of my own struggles. I have not seen such raw hunger and need for a long time. The Holy Spirit was there with us, bringing all of us to tears. When my time was up, the door slammed and locked behind us in a chorus of voices shouting“Thank you! Thank you for coming! God bless you! “ The chaplains and I walked out, floating, crying, bleeding, swept along by a river of Holy Spirit.
The next day, I went back, this time to speak to the men. I was anxious. God had shown me his presence with the women and I knew so many were praying (thank you!!!), but I am just flesh and blood. We sat together, crowded, at a very long table. The men were mostly young, of all races. They did not look at me with open faces. I smiled at them. They did not smile back. They were there by choice, but some did not listen. Two would not stop laughing and had to be moved. Two others talked over me, until I said “Excuse me. Are you done?” I could not see all of their faces. In the middle of any sentence, one of them would get up to use the open urinal just behind our table, the toilet flushing loudly each time.
In our second hour together I scratched the exercise I was going to do with them. We did Q+A instead, and the walls came down. We talked. I shared as honestly as I could. "Are you with me,?" I would ask periodically. They would nod their heads, say "yes, yes!" They asked questions. I told them how much God loved them. That the strongest power in the world was forgiveness. That they could be courageous and bring healing into the world instead of hurt. That it IS possible to love those who do not or cannot love us. That they CAN stop the cycle of abuse and destruction. That God can look upon them as “holy and blameless,” no matter what they have done. All this is possible because of what Christ has done for them. They listened. Some intently. Some did not take their eyes off me for one second.
My second hour was up. I stood to leave. The men all called after me, thanking me again and again for coming. I left that locked, caged room exhausted, shaking. Did anyone hear me? Was it worth it?
The chaplain wrote me today, 3 days after my visits. How are they, these men and women? I have been thinking about them constantly. Were they listening? I asked him.
He wrote back: "The men were full of gratitude and thanksgiving. They had only thought of asking forgiveness for their own crimes. They had never thought of their need to forgive those who had harmed them. It was a whole new thought for them. It really opened their hearts."
The women, he wrote were "overflowing with gratitude. They said they loved me. (Oh and I loved them!) So many of their questions about forgiveness were answered."
As he closed his note, he wrote: "You have been used of the Lord to touch all these lives that were redeemed by our Lord; and so many more through them as they forgive, ask forgiveness and take a new direction in their lives. Sometimes people forget that Jesus died for all of us whether the consequences of sin result in jail time or not. You are living proof of the love He has for us."
Listen, dear friends. What a tiny thing I have done! And I hope I am not done. I hope to come back again and again. But do you hear these wise chaplain's words? I send them out to you:
WE are living proof of the love God has for all of us.
Do you hear that?? In this world where we are plowed over with bad news, hard news, in the midst of a vile election season, with overcrowded prisons and wars raging, we wonder: Where is the love of God? We charge Him with absence and neglect. But God's love is HERE! It's on YOU. It's in YOU. And if we want the world to see God's love, that He is REAL and alive and with us, then we must go out and BE "living proof of the Love He has for all of us. "
I know there is someone around you, someone you know who is dying to hear that she is deeply loved by her Maker, that no matter what she has done, she can stand before God “holy and blameless.” Maybe there’s a jail in your town? Go there. Start a ministry there. (Our church is in its second year of ministering to those in jail.) Go somewhere with the gospel you haven’t been. Love someone you haven’t loved before. Yes, be scared, because the moving of the Holy Spirit is terrifying. You cry, you melt, you shake, you bleed for others and you will not want to stop. Such is the force of love.
Go out this week. Set some captives free. Be the living proof of God's love.
Will you go?