Crying in prison is not common, and in some circumstances not safe. One of the places where it is usually safe is within the jurisdiction of the chaplain’s authority. Yet, even in those environments, there is an unspoken pressure to suppress emotions that might communicate weakness. So, when tears show up, it always catches me off-guard and reminds me of the ability of the Holy Spirit to reach men’s hearts.
This past month we participated in the first ever Brothers in Blue event at El Dorado, Kansas. The security level is higher, and many of the men are doing longer times compared to the other facilities we visit. Immediately upon our arrival, I could sense a heavier and more oppressive atmosphere. The higher the security of a facility, the greater the ratio of violent offenders.
Although the men who were participating in our event were there voluntarily and for the most part thankful and eager to participate, several have no hope of ever being released. They are lifers. Much of what I share at these events is geared toward encouraging the men regarding how God wants to engage them in His purpose for their lives. I talk about how important it is to utilize their time while incarcerated to help prepare them for when they get out into the real world. God has a plan for them now and a plan for them after their release. I had no intention of changing my message this time, but I did stray some by emphasizing, “Even if you are doing a life sentence, God still has a plan and purpose for you. Prison is where you live and where you will have the opportunity to minister to hundreds of others who pass through these gates. Your past decisions may have brought you to the consequence of life in prison, but nothing can diminish God’s ability to use you for His Kingdom wherever you are. Prison is just a location.”
After I finished speaking and began returning to my seat, I was pulled aside by one of the inmates. He was crying and begged me to listen to him right then.
“Gary, you have no idea how much you helped those of us who are here for life. We know our crimes were terrible, but we also know God has forgiven us. Some of us turned our lives over to the Lord many years ago, but there is this looming sense of hopelessness. What you shared today... that God has a plan for us... even if we are lifers... healed my heart. Thank you for including us. Thank you for not discounting us. Thank you for treating me as your brother in Christ.”
There are two parts to this story: a good part, and a not-so-good part. The good part is that God chose to communicate His love for this man through my little talk. The not-so-good part is that I secretly struggle with judgment toward those who have committed certain crimes. I may say the right words, but my heart is not always in the right place.
I know from Scripture I am wrong to have these judgments. Whatever a person’s past has been is none of my business. It is between them and the Lord. When I do slip up and make these judgments, the way I have dealt with them in the past is to fake it. I mentally sweep my feelings under the rug and pretend everything is fine. This is obviously better than making these judgments known, but with God, there are no secrets, and He offers no wiggle room when it comes to our hearts. A few days ago, He confronted me on this.
As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, I have never heard God speak audibly, but He does “think” to me rather loudly at times. The following is something I sensed Him speak to me regarding this subject.
“Gary, you do not get to choose who you minister to. There is no person unworthy of your love and ministry. This includes rapists, murderers, and sex offenders. Let the people who have a problem with this deal with it with me. Do not shut anyone out.”
I knew this was the Lord, and I knew He was not going to let me skirt this issue any longer. Though a little embarrassed by my hardness of heart, I was relieved. No longer would I evaluate other people’s lives based upon their criminal record. I would learn to serve and love freely.
This does not mean I or anyone else should blindly trust someone who has proven themselves to be not trustworthy. That would be foolish and possibly dangerous. But love and trust are two different things, and I was using the lack of the latter as an excuse to skip doing the former, which is not an option with God.
It is very important to keep our hearts pure. Jesus put hate in the same category as murder. He put thinking about adultery in the same category as committing adultery. That raises the bar pretty high for all of us if we ever think we are just a little bit better than someone else.