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Letters from prison | Worship


February 18, 2015

I cringed a little bit when I discovered the envelope in my mail in-box in the office. It was from the State Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash.

I had heard from inmates in prison before. I had visited those convicted of serious crimes. I had spent time counseling and praying with prisoners. I confess that those experiences often left me with a sense of anxiety and futility. Ministry can be tough among people in such places.

The letter was from a member of the congregation. I’ll call him “Bob,” though that is not his real name.

Even as I opened it, I found myself thinking back to all the ways that Bob had been a very difficult man to love. He was a brother in Christ, but it was so challenging to welcome him into our fellowship.

He wrestled with mental illness, a dreadful childhood, addiction, a record of violence and frequent homelessness. Bob’s life was hard.

I also found myself remembering the day he was baptized here. Several of the guys from the men’s ministry group had surrounded Bob with care, support and some honest boundary setting. They showed him love and they also showed him limits.

That day in church, as he came forward to the baptismal font, I asked for sponsors to come forward to stand with him. There was a brief moment of awkward silence. Some of the guys looked at each other. Suddenly one, two, four—as many as six men rose to their feet, stepped forward and put their hands on Bob’s shoulders as we offered prayers. It was a powerful moment.

That beautiful day was five years ago. Since then, Bob’s life deteriorated. His emotional balance evaporated. His anger, anti-social behavior and temptation to crime overwhelmed him. Bob was dangerous to others and had to leave the church.

Now, after months of not hearing anything from him, I stood there with his letter from jail in my hands. I opened and read it with some trepidation.

It’s an amazing letter. Bob wrote about his new life in prison. He shared that first, the county jail and now, the state prison were places of renewal and a second chance at life. He wrote about counseling, medication, baseball and Bible studies.

At first, I could hardly believe these words were from the man I’d known. No bazaar hallucinations, no rants. He was instead, hopeful, happy, graceful and even witty. “Aha! This was how Bob was supposed to be,” I thought.

Bob credits the people he’s met in the prison system for his new outlook and sense of wholeness. He wrote a poem that reads really more like a prayer; “My life turned on a dime, so I started a life of crime, now I’m doing time…”

It goes on, “Living on the streets is such a fight, O God who can save me from my plight?” He ends, “Thank you Jesus Christ who delivered me from myself and my strife; to live and love and walk in life.”

For all the awful stories I’ve heard about prison and convicts, about bad cops and a broken system of justice, Bob’s story gives me hope. Maybe jail can be a place of healing and redemption. Perhaps prison, in some circumstances, is the best thing that could happen to a person.

God bless prison chaplains, doctors, guards, and therapists. God bless case workers, parole officers, attorneys, police officers and judges.

God bless all those who not only serve the cause of justice and security, but who also keep their humanity, hope and compassion for all those who are hard to love.


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