Some people like to keep journals. Not me. I like to collect little souvenirs. I have bits and pieces—memorabilia that help me call to mind particular events and stories. Ebenezers is what the Old Testament calls them – “stones of help.” My New Testament wife calls them clutter. One of my mementoes is a Father’s Day card from my daughter. She wasn’t very old at the time. Written in her scrawling, sliding-downhill baby hand was the greeting inside: “Happy Father’s Day Daddy! I hope you have a good time in prison!”
…I should probably explain. When Hannah was little I accepted a challenge at our church in Texas to take part in a series of prison ministry outreach missions. Over a long weekend, a group of us would be dropped at some remote facility and there would be a mind-boggling muscle show by some men-of-steel troupe and preaching and faith-stories from all sorts of characters. The plan, of course, was to create an opportunity to introduce these prisoners to the Son of God.
To me, it made perfect sense. The men behind bars were convicted felons, but that doesn’t have to disqualify them from heaven. God loves the world, so He sent His Son to give them eternal life – to make peace between the guilty and their Creator – for any and all who believe in Him. What didn’t make sense to me was the reaction of some of my friends: “Why bother with them?” “Those men are behind bars because they did something wrong. They don’t deserve the Gospel, they don’t deserve the attention!” They missed the obvious. We all do what’s wrong; none of us deserve the Gospel; none of us deserves God’s attention.
Before each expedition we were always emphatically reminded not to ask any of the inmates what they were in for. You just don’t do that. But sometimes over coffee or lunch, or whispered through their door grille in lock-down, they told us anyway; perhaps just to gauge the reaction; perhaps just for shock value. Some of the men wept with us, desperate to be told they were clean before God. Others just sneered, and some were only glad for someone new to talk to. I heard some dreadful stories on those trips, but I never heard anything that God couldn’t forgive in Christ.
So when I received a tentative invitation, in a letter earlier this year, from an inmate in one of the prisons on the Isle of Sheppey, I didn’t hesitate in trying to arrange a visit through the chaplain’s office. The prison chaplain, Ken George, was very gracious, and I had the privilege of preaching at chapel for eighty or so of Her Majesty’s guests. Many of them listen to our programmes, and are truly hungry for spiritual truth.
Some of my earlier impressions from Texas came back to me on the way in, as the heavy door slammed shut behind me. I recalled the razor wire fences and the smell of disinfectant in the corridors of the Robertson unit in Abilene. The red brick perimeter walls of Huntsville, and the old, chipped, drab paint on all the bars and gates of the Lew Sterrett Jail in Dallas. Back then it was still common to call high-security prisons penitentiaries. The term isn’t so popular now, but I like the idea of it. A place for the penitent to reflect on their crime. A place for repentance, perhaps. A chance for change, I hope.
I spoke to the men who came to chapel that day about living transformed lives. Lives that are wise and sacred and dignified, even in that place. Because God wants us all to grow up into the fullness of His design for us, no matter where we are. It happens one decision at a time. “Will I serve God with my next step, or will I serve myself?” Each decision leads us away from His side or back towards it. And at His side is where we all need to be.
Some of those men will have a long time to reflect, others will be on the streets quite soon. My prayer is that they all – the lifers and the petty criminals; the tax dodgers and the house burglars – my prayer is that they will have a heart for God; a heart changed by His grace, won by His mercy, bought by His Son. And my prayer is just the same for you, wherever you are today.
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