Behind the Scenes: The Inspiration for Lessons for Life Ministries
We all get ideas. Some good, some not so good. Some are self-inspired, and some are inspired by God. I believe the God-inspired ones won’t let go of us. We might try to pretend we didn’t hear, come up with various reasons why it wasn’t really from Him, or even become lazy about following through, but God is patient and has His own ways of getting us on board.
A long time ago, a God-inspired idea came to me as I was lying on my bunk in the London Ohio Correctional Institute. The prison was extremely overcrowded, and my dorm alone housed almost two hundred men. Outside the hours between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., it was constant noise and chaos. As I looked around the room, I could confidently say that most of these men had no purpose, direction, or plan. Although few were considered dangerous, they all had made choices that had brought them here. Approximately ninety-five percent of them would be released at some point, and unfortunately, over seventy percent would do something to get sent back within a couple of years.
At the time, I was thirty-six years old. I had never been incarcerated, and my preconceived understanding was that prison was a place for rehabilitation. However, I soon found out this was naïve. Prison had nothing to do with rehabilitation and everything to do with warehousing. I thought about who was to blame for things being this way. My first thought was that it was a broken prison system, yet the longer I lived in this environment the more I began to see that the problem was too big for any system or government to fix. As I spoke with a variety of inmates and heard their stories, I shifted the blame from the system to culture. I began to believe the problem could be traced to fatherless homes, bad role models, corrupt friends, poverty, and poor education. In a lot of cases, one or more of these factors is prominent.
But then something occurred to me: Why am I in prison? I had a great family, good role models, honorable friends, had not experienced poverty, and I was reasonably educated. I had no excuse.
Prison for me was the consequence of selfishness, pride, rebellion, and foolish decisions, and getting to know my fellow inmates a little better, I soon recognized it was pretty much the same thing for them as well. The biggest difference between me and those who would continue on a path of recidivism was that I recognized I needed to change, and I knew where to get the help to make it a reality: God. Somewhere in the midst of realizing this, I got an idea: What if every inmate knew what I did? They still might make the wrong choice, but at least they would understand that there is a choice.
That was 1991. And I didn’t think much about this idea after I was released, as I became busy with my own challenges of restoration and transformation—following through on being obedient to what God wanted me to do. It took time, but in just a little over ten years, most of the relationships between myself and those I had hurt had been healed, the massive debt I had incurred was behind me, and I was working as an associate pastor in a thriving church. The decision to follow God in all things paid off. He had been faithful, and now I was enjoying the ride.
Over the course of the next two years, however, the Lord began to stir in me the idea he’d given to me in prison way back when. At first, I brushed these stirrings aside, thinking, I like things the way they are. But then opportunities began popping up everywhere: counseling appointments with former inmates, visitation requests by family members for their sons in jail, other prison ministry volunteers seeking my advice, and being asked to share my testimony with small groups. At the time, I convinced myself it was just part of being a pastor and nothing more, but as these situations kept presenting themselves with increasing frequency, and as God kept stirring my heart and soul in the direction of prison ministry, it wasn’t long before I knew the next step.
In 2006, I officially left the church where I had been serving and began on this new venture. And since then, month by month and year by year, the Lord has been leading Susan and me on this journey. Though we are pleased with how it has unfolded and progressed, in many ways we feel like we are still just getting started. In fact, I think I am just now beginning to understand what the Lord meant when I first had that thought: What if every inmate knew what I did? Back in prison, all I had was the idea, the theory. Now, over twenty-five years later, I have the experience to back it up.
Whether I’m listening to an inmate, a family member of an inmate, a volunteer, or other ministry leaders, I can usually guess their questions before they ask, and I typically know the answers. This is no great feat, as knowing the answers isn’t where the challenge lies, it is in living them out. Even now, I still face plenty of challenges of my own—just like everyone else—and I am still learning how to stay steady and faithful to God in all things. It is a lifelong process.
As I have been reflecting over the past few days about how all this started with that simple idea so long ago, I wanted to share with you this story and give you a word of encouragement: Do not quickly dismiss the possibility of a God-inspired idea. I believe He passes them out a lot more often to a lot more people than we think. It might be something brand new, or it might be something very old. It might be simply staying the course of what you are already doing. But I believe that if we keep our hearts open to the voice of God with the attitude of Isaiah when he responded to the Lord’s calling with “Here am I, send me,” I believe God will send us. The assignment might be nothing more than a prayer or a card or a phone call or a visit next door. But the thing to remember is there is no such thing as an unimportant assignment from God, and that regardless of what it might be, we are to concern ourselves with only one thing: obedience.