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Hebrews 7:25 (ESV)
25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
That was the response I received from a corrections officer as I was being escorted across the compound on my way to attend the weekly prisoner gathering early in 2012.
This arose as the officer took me across the grass instead of walking on the sidewalk and I had commented that I had been coming in for 15 years and that the prior week had been the first time I had been allowed to walk on the grass (which is against prison policy) and now this was the second time in two weeks I had been escorted in that manner. The officer then asked me, “How long did you say you’ve been doing this?” I said, “Fifteen years,” which elicited the response above.
The officer then asked me if I knew what “these guys” (prisoners) are like and I said I understood what was meant. I tried (in the 15 seconds we had left) to explain what I do and why I do it and the response was just, “All I know is that when I’m old and don’t remember much, I’m going to remember some of the things I’ve seen here because they’ll never get out of my mind.”
Not having been a corrections officer of member of prison staff, I cannot pretend to know what she has seen in her time at that prison – which she said was almost the same as my fifteen years (at that time) of volunteer service.
Yes, many corrections staff see us as “Bible-thumpers” and “do-gooders.” That’s OK. If they are as yet unregenerate, one could expect nothing less and I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner. It’s just a fact. They – if unregenerate – cannot understand why we do what we do there. Yes, one cannot deny that some prisoners feel that same way as we hear the mocking comments from prisoners who may be walking on the same sidewalks we walk or from prisoners well across the prison yard.
Several years ago I had occasion to have a conversation with an officer who had been one of those who checked us in every week. That officer happened to mention that some of the prisoners who attended our study mocked us (volunteers) after we left. Whether it was said truthfully or just to get a rise out of me, I don’t know, but my response was, “I don’t care. As long as they’ll let me, I’m coming in here.” The officer then responded, “You know, that’s exactly the attitude you should have.”
Then I told the officer, “I know some of your colleagues aren’t too wild about us coming in here, either.” “Yeah,” she said, “you’re right about that. There are some who wish you guys would just go away.” The officer was a little taken aback when I said, “Well, I don’t come in here to make the staff happy. I come in here because I have a message to bring and I’m coming as long as they let me whether the staff likes it or not.” Her response? I was then the one surprised.
“That’s exactly the attitude you should have.”
Unbelieving staff members cannot understand why someone would do what we do. The comment in the title – “Do you think you really save anybody here?” – is a common one, whether spoken or not. That’s OK. We go there to proclaim a message. We’re not the ones who bring dead people to life. We’re the ones who proclaim a message which Almighty God uses to bring those dead people to life. We understand we are inconvenience to them – officers have to walk up to half a mile in escorting us in and out and when it’s below zero and the wind is howling, that’s a long walk – for both of us.
We indeed don’t save anybody in there – but we proclaim the message of the One who can – and does – save, and He saves to the uttermost.
Based upon reader requests, we have compiled our “Ten Years Ago” Series – a series written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of our son, Jon – into digest format, with all posts in one PDF file, which can be downloaded here. Perhaps the series will help someone in some small way who is going through some form of grief – please feel free to distribute the file as you see fit.
The series is actually incomplete. There are still thoughts on grief I have yet to place in a coherent form and there is still much to be said about the exhaustive sovereignty of the living God – much. That will follow at a later date.
We still miss Jon. Terribly.
Ten Years Ago, Part 14: A Wiccan High Priest, Your Son’s Death, A Forgiveness Service, Providence And A Surprise The Next Day
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. (1 Samuel 15:23, KJV)
During one of the Keryx ministry weekends at Chippewa Correctional Facility, leadership had assigned me the Saturday night forgiveness service, a service I had done many times prior. While preparing for this service the day before the weekend began, which was a Wednesday, I inserted a brief discourse about rebellion and how we are commanded to forgive – and if we as believers fail to forgive, we are rebelling against God and thus sinning. For the first time, I also planned to use the above Scripture reference – little did I know how God’s providence would once again blow our socks off.
At that prison, 24 prisoners are permitted to attend the weekend. Every prisoner in the prison is eligible to attend, as long as he is not under sanctions restricting his movement within the prison. Prisoners need not be Christian to attend and thus we have prisoners from many belief (and non-belief) systems appear. This was made manifest when early on in the weekend we discovered that three of the 24 were Wiccans. They were all relatively young men, most likely in their 20’s and one was clearly more of a leader than the others. We also found out (from these men themselves) that the one prisoner was the local High Priest. What exactly is entailed in Wicca can be rather vague, but Wicca.com will give some answers. Suffice it to say for our purposes here this it is a form of witchcraft.
Saturday night rolled around and it was time for the forgiveness service – and these three men were still Wiccans and everyone knew it. As mentioned in earlier posts, this service at this prison is conducted in a rather small classroom. Quarters become rather tight when 60-70 volunteers and prisoners are wedged in there. When you stand in front of the prisoners conducting the service, you literally have to watch yourself to keep from stepping on the toes of the men in the front row.
Once all were assembled and it came my time to speak, I stood in front of them and who is in the middle of the front row – the one guy with whom I have to be most careful to not step on his feet? The Wiccan High Priest. He was a very pleasant, congenial young man who paid close attention as I spoke on forgiveness after Jon’s death. There came the time when I cited 1 Samuel 15:23 and stated that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” I can’t tell you if I made an effort to look down at the High Priest as I said it. What I can tell you is what happened afterward.
After the service, those prisoners attending the weekend returned to their housing units for the night. We volunteers and our prisoner helpers adjourned to a classroom for a brief meeting. At the meeting, someone raised their hand and said they had heard that the High Priest was “upset by what was said during the service.” Much concern was then expressed by some that what had been said offended the High Priest and that we should be careful not to offend when speaking. This went on for a few minutes and I remember sitting in the corner, listening, thinking to myself that we have bigger things to worry about than offending a Wiccan by merely quoting Scripture. Then one volunteer raised his hand and I still remember it as clear as day. What did he say? He said he didn’t know why everyone was upset because “I believe ___________ (High priest) needed to hear that. He needed to hear Jeff say that.” Praise God for a man who was willing to stand up for the Word of the Lord.
Concern had already been expressed that perhaps the High Priest was so offended that he may not return in the morning. In our closing prayer, someone did indeed pray that he would return – did he?
Yes, he did.
The next morning as we were waiting to begin the day with another service, a tap came upon my shoulder. I turn around. It’s the High Priest. What does he say? “Can I talk to you for a minute?” “Sure,” I responded, and out in the hallway we went.
At this point a book becomes relevant – what is known as the “Book of Shadows.” This is the book a Wiccan uses which contains his/her spells, rituals, etc. The High Priest had mentioned his Book of Shadows to volunteers in more than one conversation over the course of the weekend to this point.
We go to the hallway. I said, “Yes, sir.”
He responds, “I hear that you heard that I was upset about what you said last night in the chapel.”
“Yeah, I heard that.”
“Well, I want you to know something and I wanted to tell you first.”
“What you said last night didn’t bother me. Actually, when I went back to the unit last night I threw my Book of Shadows and all my Wiccan literature in the garbage can.”
We talked briefly and then were called in for the service to begin.
Subsequent to the weekend, this young man attended all the Christian services and even was a prisoner helper on the weekend six months later. Where is he today – physically and spiritually? I don’t know.
Herein lies the power of the Word of God. Augustine was converted by reading Romans 13:13 – a passage that cut directly to his conscience as it related to his licentious lifestyle:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
Philip explained Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 and the eunuch was converted. Great is the power of the Word of God.
There is another issue to address here: confronting people with the Word of God in evangelism as it directly relates to their own sin. Popular opinion within the Christian community today seems to say that we cannot directly address the sin(s) of a pagan because “it’ll turn them off” or “they won’t listen to us if we do that.” The Apostles knew no such strategy. In Acts 2″22-23, Peter directly addresses the sin of the Jews who desired the crucifixion of Christ when he said,
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
Peter says “you crucified and killed” “this Jesus.” In another example in Acts, Paul directly addresses the sin of Felix in chapter 24.
Felix had enticed Druscilla away from her first husband and Druscilla appeared to have not divorced her first husband so they were living in sexual sin. In Paul’s discourse, what does he say? The Scripture says Paul reasoned about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment (v. 25).” The word behind “self-control” has special connotations addressing controlling one’s sexual desires. Thayer says the word (“egkrateia”) has the meaning of “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, esp. his sensual appetites.” Paul directly addressed sexual sin with a man – and a woman – who were committing sexual sin. Paul was cutting straight to their consciences and we see that at least Felix was affected – Felix became “alarmed” (“trembled,” KJV).
Praise God for the power in His Word.
Ten Years Ago, Part 13: A Prisoner’s 40-Year Long Battle With Unforgiveness Comes To A Head – LOUDLY
It is interesting the requests that are made after the story of forgiveness after Jon’s death is presented – the issues that prisoners wish to talk to me about – somehow, they must feel I can relate and conversely, they say they can identify with me in some manner. One such incident follows.
A Christian prisoner who had been attending our weekly bible study at what was the Straits Correctional Facility signed up for the Keryx weekend. He was a very mild-mannered man – quiet, peaceful-appearing. As we know from Alice In Wonderland, though, things are not always as they appear. Such was the case with this man.
It is surprising what issues people are hiding. People may appear very content, at peace, with no issues that are percolating, over either the short-term or over a period of many years. Our church culture, to some degree, can be so that a person can have the sense that to express these issues to anyone would be a matter of shame. We don’t do a very good job of enabling and encouraging people to deal openly with topics such as arise here, and going further, allowing people to obey James 5:16.
The Saturday session arrived and nothing seemed different with my friend. After I made my presentation which included the story of Jon’s death and forgiveness, my friend requested some time and we were granted some time and place to talk. The Keryx weekends at that prison are conducted in the prison gymnasium, with tarps stretched across the gym at various places to serve as ‘walls” of sorts, dividing the gym into “rooms.” In the center is the room used as a chapel and around the edge of the room are some metal bleachers. We sat on one of the metal bleachers.
The conversation was very generic and he didn’t appear to have any real issues, until he became very quiet. He started to squirm – literally. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead and this was all within 30 seconds. I said nothing. The bleacher started to rock a little as he squirmed. Then all of a sudden, “POW!!” He punched the metal bleacher with everything he had and it made this very loud noise – VERY loud – a noise that rang through the gym. The chaplain popped his head around the corner of the trap and said, “Everything OK?” I said “Yes,” as the man got up and started to pace around the room. I walked over to him and he just wanted to be alone. I asked the chaplain if we could go into another room where we would be behind a closed door and he said he would take care of it, which we did after a few minutes.
This man was in his late 40’s. The issue? he had been hiding it for 40 years. When he was about eight years old he and his friend of the same age were invited to a bible camp by a man. They got permission, signed up and went. They became friends with this man who took great interest in their lives. Too much interest. The interest quickly turned sexual. The man molested my friend and his friend for two years. At bible camp. At Christian gatherings. The shame and fear turned to anger as my friend grew up. The anger bubbled for 40 years and finally came out in the furious punching of the bleacher.
By the time the day ended, after our service focusing on forgiveness, my friend had forgiven the man. The next day, when he returned, I asked him how he had slept. He had told me the day before he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in 40 years. He said, “I slept straight through the whole night. It was great.” Praise God.
The power unforgiveness holds over a person is incredible, even for the Christian. Praise God for the grace given to this man, even after 40 years of torment. Praise God.
Ten Years Ago, Part 12: A Jewish Prisoner Who Can’t Believe You Forgave The Person Responsible For Your Son’s Death
During the Keryx ministry three-day weekends, at two points the issue of forgiveness is addressed. One is during a lengthy talk mid-morning on Saturday and then later that day at a service which focuses exclusively on the issue of forgiveness. This account involves related incidents from two of those weekends, one in 2000 and the other from 2003.
In April of 2000, I encountered a prisoner who was rather unique. He is serving a life sentence and he is Jewish. He attended the Keryx weekend at Chippewa Correctional and for some reason took a liking to me. For the subsequent couple years he was at that facility, he sat with my wife and I regularly at Keryx gatherings.
On Friday and Saturday during the weekend, we eat our afternoon meal in the prison cafeteria, although no one calls it a “cafeteria.” It’s either “the kitchen” or “the chow hall.” This meal is the regular meal prepared for the prisoners – we eat what the prisoners eat at this meal.
On our walk across the yard to the kitchen, I was walking with this Jewish prisoner. About 50 yards away, a line of prisoners was walking toward a housing unit. All of a sudden, my friend yells, “______________!!” to one of the prisoners in that line 50 yards away. The prisoner turns, raises his hand to acknowledge the call, but does not respond verbally. My friend turns to me and says, “That man I just yelled at? He’s the angriest man I know (and my friend had been in prison for 15 years at that point). He really needs to attend this weekend.” Keep in mind my friend is Jewish and the Keryx weekend is intentionally evangelistic and explicitly Christian, proclaiming a message of salvation in Christ alone and his friend to whom he has yelled is Jewish as well, as my friend tells me.
A few years pass. I have pretty much forgotten the encounter in the yard. It’s now the Fall of 2003. The prisoners show up for the weekend and among them is…guess who? The “angriest man I know.” To be sure, he was still angry. He spent Thursday night and all day Friday at a distance from the other men at his table. He sat there most of the time leaning back with his arms folded, scowling.
Saturday morning rolls around and I present the talk that includes the topic of forgiveness and I talk about Jon’s death and having forgiven Jon’s best friend. About 15 minutes after I finish, there’s time for a break and I am just standing in the hall, leaning against the wall. All of sudden there’s someone one in front of me – who is it? It’s “the angriest man I know.” Before I can say anything, he says, “I need to talk to you.” I say, “OK,” and tell him I’ll get us somewhere private. He says, “I don’t need that. I want to talk to you here. NOW.” I explain that if we do it there, now, he won’t have the setting of privacy and our communication will not be privileged. He says he doesn’t care and wants to talk NOW. I said, “OK” and moved down the hall a few yards to get out of the main traffic.
What does he want to talk about? “How could you forgive the guy who did that to your son?” I told him it was only by the grace of God and that I was commanded to do so by the God who grants grace. Why does he want to know? He wants to know because of the source of his anger. That source? A man who had sexually assaulted his young son and who was now incarcerated for that crime. I asked him, “You’re Jewish, right?” Hes aid he was. I asked him if he had talked to his rabbi about this. he said he had and in fact had talked to two rabbis about it. I asked him what they said. He said one rabbi told him he was to forgive and the other had said he didn’t have to forgive. I asked, “Which one is right?” “I don’t know.” “Let me ask you this: do you really want to forgive the guy who did that to your son?” “I don’t know.” “Can you sleep at night?” “No.” Well, I can. That’s what happens when you forgive.” “I can’t.” “Yes, you can, but you won’t. You’ve decided it’s more important for you to hate that guy than to do what you know is right and forgive him and let God deal with him.” “I just can’t.”
We eventually sat down and talked for about an hour. What pained him much as well was the fact that this hatred for this other man (expressed by the fact he told me had fellow Jewish prisoners within the system giving that man “messages” [prison ‘messages’ being some form of violence] reminding him that the father of his victim was still out there, waiting his turn to exact vengeance) had caused him to lose his faith. He loved his Jewishness and he had lost fellowship and intimacy in worship because of the hatred he held for this other man. What I told him was that I could only express the Christian view on the matter and that if he desired to remain a Jew he’d have to find a Jewish solution to his problem.
By the time our discussion ended, he was smiling. He did something interesting later in the day.
On another break there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s the Jewish prisoner. He says, “I want you to come with me.” I respond, “Where?” Volunteers can’t just go anywhere – we are limited on where we can and with whom we can go. He points down to the end of the hallway where a prisoner is standing and says, I need to talk to _________ and I want you to come with me.” “OK.” We go down to the end of the hall and I have no idea what’s coming.
He walks up to the other prisoner and tells him that he knows he’s given him a “hard time” (which can mean anything, including violence) but that he knows he’s been wrong in doing so and he asks the prisoner if he will forgive him. The prisoner (a Christian) is just dumbfounded from the look on his face, but he says, “Well, sure. Apology accepted and I forgive you.”
The Jewish prisoner and I walk back down the hall. He says, “That felt good.” I said, “You ready to forgive ____________ yet?” He smiles. “No, not yet.”
Sunday arrives. It’s mid-morning. He wants to talk again. The topic? He says he’s regaining his Jewish faith. I said what was happening was the Spirit of God was enlightening him and what was happening to him was the Christian message working in him. He says he doesn’t want to leave Judaism. I told him becoming a Christian isn’t leaving Judaism, it’s embracing the fulfillment of everything Judaism has been waiting for in the person of Christ. He says he doesn’t want any of that – he just wants to be a good Jew. “Are you ready to forgive ______________?” Another smile. “No, not yet.”
Our last service begins and at its end there is a time where the prisoners form a line and we have one last chance to say goodbye before we leave. This is the last time we will see many of these prisoners. I get to the point in the line where my Jewish friend is and we greet each other and he embraces me and as I start moving on to the next man I stop and ask him, “You ready to forgive that guy?” This big grin curls up the corners of his mouth. “No. Not yet.”
Shortly thereafter that prisoner was transferred to a higher security prison, most likely because he had encountered some trouble with th staff or another prisoner, which may well have been another manifestation of his anger at the man who assaulted his son.
If only that prisoner knew true forgiveness. If only he knew the One who not only forgives us upon faith in His Son, but also empowers those who have bowed the knee to Him so that we can – and must – forgive others. Where is this man now? I have no idea, but think of him often. I pray he has since seen the Light.
2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (ESV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
In Part 3, I had mentioned a visit to Kinross Correctional Facility the day after Jon died. Our next visit occurred one week after Jon’s funeral on June 8, 2002. One more time, little did we know.
On the second Saturday of each month, the Keryx ministry has a gathering of volunteers and prisoners. On this day, approximately 20 fellow volunteers accompanied Sheryl and me into the prison, where we met the prisoners in their auditorium. At that time, we had been volunteering for almost six years. We knew pretty much all of the 60-80 prisoners who were there – some, naturally, we knew more than others. Many of those attending were amongst the men who were present in what was written about in Part 3.
Why did we go? Perhaps the real question is, Why would we not go? This is what we did on the second Saturday each month. These men were our friends and brothers. There is another factor here. Many of these men had caused the very type of pain we were dealing with – they had killed people, resulting in funerals, grief and all else that accompanies such. Were all these men amongst the men who had truly repented – who had addressed the pain and torment they had caused their victims and the families of their victims – or even the pain they had caused themselves? One would be naive to think that all the prisoners had done so – just as those of us who live on this side of “the fence” have not done so as we should, either. At the end of the day, though – what difference does it make whether any of those men have done what they should? It is our responsibility to be obedient to what our King tells us to do, regardless of the level of others’ obedience/disobedience. He will sort it all out one Day, correct?
So, we went.
The prisoners who led the gathering broke format at one point. They called Sheryl and me up on the stage. They said they had a gift for us. A gift, again, that had to be cleared with prison administration because to give us anything to be taken outside the prison is a violation of Michigan Department of Corrections policy. A gift, that even if one desired to be rebellious and attempt to “smuggle” out, would be hard to keep concealed.
The pictures attached will not do the gift justice. Not in its physical beauty nor in the comfort it has provided in the ten years since.
What is this? (Click on the picture for a larger version) It is a manifestation of the Scripture passage shown at the top of this post. These prisoners – again, many of whom have caused the very pain we were experiencing – shared their own pain and loss. They made this “card holder” – a large one, to be sure (shown here, with an ESV Study Bible at the right edge to give perspective on the size) – with artwork on the front, using the rudimentary art supplies prisoners are allowed to use. This has seen a lot of miles since, being carried in and out of prisons in all kinds of weather, which is why there are rain/snow spots having smeared the artwork. Then, inside was….overwhelming.
A huge sympathy card. With what as content? The tri-part benediction of Numbers 6:24-26 on the outside. Inside? Prisoners sharing their memories of their own loved ones who had died. One can forget that prisoners are people, too. They mourn just like everyone else. Many of these men had been unable to attend the funeral of their loved one due to their incarceration. Many had never been to the grave of their loved one due to their incarceration.
The two images of Christ are the covers for funeral announcements for one prisoner’s mother and brother, who had died within the six months prior to Jon’s death. There is a photo of the son of a prisoner who died at age 31, along with the son’s wife and the prisoner’s grandson. The right side has a photo of a prisoner’s mother who died in the year 2000. There’s a note about a prisoner’s dad – “To The Greatest Dad In The World.” There’s one about a prisoner’s mother – “The Beloved Mother of Nine Children.” There’s a date of birth and a date of death for a prisoner’s brother who died at age 17. There are many notes of encouragement written specifically to us as well.
Many of the men who signed that card are still in prison, ten years later. Many of the men who signed that card are still incarcerated at Kinross Correctional Facility and I see them when I go there to speak on the second Sunday each month. Many of these men have been a great encouragement to me over the years. Some of these men have fallen and fallen hard (spiritually) in the last ten years and it breaks your heart to see it happen.
These men gave of themselves in our time of mourning. They put 2 Cor. 1:3-4 into action in real life. One of the intentions of this series of posts is that perhaps, in some small way, what is written may help in comforting someone else out there. Someone who may be grieving the loss of a loved one – or loved ones. Someone who may be struggling with the realities of life and consequences of the Fall with which we must all deal on a daily basis. I also write to attempt to show that grief is biblical – even for the New Testament believer. Far too often, the fact that the child of God may be grieving or having what RC Sproul calls “the dark night of the soul” is not met with compassion and an open ear, but a chastening to “get rid of that demon” or “rebuke that spirit of misery.”
The believer will still encounter “life” – and death. He will mourn and cry and weep and tear his clothes, so to speak. It’s OK to do that. Many people who are experts on grief have never been through an experience which causes the grief they seek to stem with their “wisdom.” Experience is a hard teacher, but a good teacher.
Thank you, men of Kinross Correctional Facility. You did well.
Tomorrow: One of my first prisoner counseling sessions after Jon’s death.
In all my years in serving as a volunteer, I have only had one opportunity to enter a women’s prison and that was a few years ago for the Keryx weekend at Robert Scott Correctional. This was the last weekend held at this prison, due to the fact it was being closed within the next few months and all the prisoners were being sent to another facility.
Being there for three days, what struck me most was this – and I know it will sound chauvinistic, so forgive me if you need to – was the women with whom we had no direct contact. To get from Point A to Point B, we had to walk by the Visitor’s Room. There was just something very, very sad about seeing children having to go to prison to see their mother – or even worse, their grandmother. We encountered women whose children were babies when they came to prison and those babies are now having babies of their own and those babies have to go to prison to visit Grandma. What a terrible price there is to be paid for sin – not only for the sinner him or herself, but for those who are affected by the consequences of sin.
My wife and I were quite touched by our experience and reminded again just how kind, generous, gracious and merciful the one, true, living God is toward His people.
(I am in the second row, third from the right)