On a balmy fall evening in 2014, I gathered with members of a local ministry group at an area jail entrance. This was my first opportunity to be a part of jail ministry. I brought my guitar and some song sheets to share. I was given the titles of some praise music the female inmates loved to sing when this group met together twice monthly. When the jailer came to take us to the meeting room she said that there were thirteen women but because of an incident earlier in the day, all the women were in lockdown. We were told that we wouldn’t be able to meet as a group with them but that we could go to each cell and speak through the “bin or chuck hole” as it is called through which the food is served and other articles are passed to the prisoner. We all agreed that we should go in even if it wasn’t going to be an optimal situation for meeting together. Just showing up is very important to anyone who might be waiting to see you. After walking through corridors and large steel doors that are only unlocked remotely, we arrived in a large room with tables and stools with one wall along the side that appeared like a very large mirror which helped greatly in maximizing the feeling of openness. The women in the cells on the other side were sitting on the floor beside their doors peering out at us through the rectangular holes.
It wasn’t long until I started recognizing familiar faces. There were three women I had worked with in my advocacy work and seeing them again was a happy moment for me but mixed with concern and sadness to see them there. At first, they were ashamed and self-conscious but quickly got over that when we started reminiscing and then began to share in worship. The music echoed joyously up into the tall ceiling and then bounced off the walls as “Amazing Grace” was sung. This room built to punish and control a criminal element became no less a cathedral then the great halls built for worship. Nothing stops the Spirit of Christ from moving among His children wherever they are even behind bars. We each sat in a chair or knelt in front of the doors listening to those who wanted to talk or just pray and be there for them. Out of respect, we do not ask them why they are there but if they self-disclose we see it as our ministry to listen and encourage. I was not surprised to find a common connection among the stories with poverty, victims of domestic violence and behavior and poor choices as a result of growing up with drug-addicted parents. Every story I heard was connected to one or all those elements.
I gave each woman a copy of “Divine Fire” as found in this volume. Toward the end of our two hours, I went back to tell them goodbye, and found one woman was especially excited. Her face was lit up and far different from the morose woman who had just told her story about violence in her marriage and the gradual destruction of her family – her children being raised with extended family. She had just read “Divine Fire” and was excited about the way that the Angola Prison had sent the 147 prisoner pastors who had graduated from their Bible college program to minimum security prisons around the country to minister to young inmates returning to society. This was the very point that had also been exciting to me when I researched “Divine Fire”. Something hopeful had been restored within her. We talked about how Christ was with her and would always be with her regardless of the outcome of her charges. We left there that night having been blessed as much as being a blessing for these women. Writing this story of that experience will be one of the most important chapters in Sweetwater Journey.
During the last week of Christ’s life, I believe that because it was His last week, He performed acts, told parables and spoke words of warning that would rate as some of the most important acts of His three years of ministry and be part of a very important message to each one of us. In preparation for Holy Week services in 2013, I found images to fit 20 of the different events that took place during that week. To name a few, I chose a palm for the Triumphal Entry, a whip for the Clearing of the Temple, a mite coin for the Widow’s Mite, Roman coins for Render to Caesar, a rooster for Peter’s Denial and a crown of thorns with blood for the Trial and Persecution. All of these images were printed out on sheets of white card stock. Everything was in grayscale except for the crown of thorns. It was very powerful as each person, including the children, brought forward an image and read the accompanying Scripture reference.
They placed each one on a large table in chronological order of their occurrence during that very important week. For some events I had more than one image, so the table was full and the sheets overlapping – the stone jar filled with perfumed oil next to one of the ten virgins’ lamps, the grey rooster slightly edging over the crown of thorns tipped in red blood – all of the pictures together, silent, yet thunderous in convicting the heart. As we all stood around the table, the gravity of what was before us and the message that each image carried, struck a common chord of the realization of the price that Christ paid for loving us. In the images were also the warnings about our destructive human nature – the *cat o ‘nine tails, the nails and at last the cross meant to punish and even destroy what we don’t understand or don’t want to see what we ourselves have created. The images speak the message clearly that we make selfish choices for a way of life that could not only lead to our spiritual death but the spiritual death of others we are responsible for but who we are yet to meet. He sends His message to us through these visual images, intended to bring about our spiritual transformation.
During that last week, as Jesus Christ moved among the religious leaders of His day, the scribes and Pharisees, He observed their haughty nature in setting themselves apart from the common person.
They wore robes that provided them an appearance of grandeur and importance.
*The cat o ‘nine tails is a whip with knots and sometimes pieces of metal at the ends of nine cords of cat-hide meant to tear the flesh deeply.
Their prayer shawls with long fringe would sweep the floor as they walked through the parting crowd created by someone who went before them announcing their passing.
Those who they converted to the life of the temple worship would have the concept that this is how to serve God – to glorify yourself above others creating a form of godliness that has no power or real depth and certainly no humility.
Matthew 23 lays out a picture of extreme condemnation and warning to anyone who lives their spiritual life in that mindset – exploiting the less fortunate for gain and self-glory, withholding benevolence when the Holy Spirit has laid it upon our hearts to provide it, and judging others, believing that we have been successful through our own efforts while others have failed through their lack of effort.
In Matthew 23, we find these words of Christ spoken at that time:
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. (a place of authority in the Jewish temple culture). All therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, they will make you observe and do; for they are ministers of the law, and they make themselves your judges. But do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.
For they bind heavy burdens and lay on men’s shoulders, and they are grievous to be borne but they will not move them with one of their fingers. And all their works they do to be seen of men.
They make broad their *phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi, (which is master). . .
But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased of him; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted of him. But woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater punishment.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made ye make him twofold more the child of hell than he was before, like unto yourselves.”
*A phylactery was a leather box they wore on their forehead or arm that carried vellum sheets on which the law was written; meant to be an outward sign of piousness.
Two verses stand out in this reference. The first one is:
“For they bind heavy burdens and lay on men’s shoulders, and they are grievous to be borne but they will not move them with one of their fingers. And all their works they do to be seen of men.”
When we fail to share the grievous burdens that some members of our community carry because they have little resources when we have the capability to ease that burden with one of our fingers, (performing some simple act of benevolence) we are no different than the Pharisees Jesus described here in this reference. If more of our civic groups or church communities would focus on how to best empower one family without creating dependency, the exponential effect could be felt for generations to come.
The second verse is:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte (convert); and when he is made ye make him twofold more the child of hell than he was before, like unto yourselves.”
We must be thoughtful in bringing people to the message of salvation that they are not left without a support network of humble, loving people who can provide ongoing nurturing for as long as necessary. Going from a “wretch like me” to a co-creator with Christ Jesus and a son or daughter of God takes patient and loving support. It would be better to help the few that God has put in life daily and be true to our promises of commitment while they are in their initial struggles until they are able to stand on their own. Jesus Christ is the first and last resort for all of us. He must not be given or shared lightly. He cannot be received if the person is not at that point to receive Him. Pressure and fear will not prepare the proper soil for planting such precious seed, only love and demonstration through our own lives as we put on Christ will do.
The parable Christ told of the sower in the books of Matthew and Mark should make it very clear to us that the soil or condition of the heart in which the seed or the gospel message is planted is very important. If the heart is hard and unyielding, the seed will not take root and grow; or stony where the soil is shallow, it might grow but will shrivel and die at the first challenge; or if there are bad influences still in their lives, the spindly plant will choke out and die. These are conditions that exist in the hearts of those we meet. It is our responsibility to nurture this person gradually enriching the soil of the heart to receive such a precious, life-saving message. If we are meeting them for a brief encounter, it is also our responsibility to discern whether God has prepared this heart for the gospel or just for a kind act. Then when the conditioning is done, this person will remember that kind act from a person who represented Jesus Christ and be more likely to respond when the gospel seed is planted whether it comes from us or not.
There are other ways our community makes “twofold more the child of hell than that person was before” and that is by failing to provide well-meaning intervention at an earlier stage for a person who is on the road to prison or worse; intervention Christ calls us as Christians to perform.
Try to become more informed about the support systems in your community that provide services to those who fall through the cracks and end up in trouble. Our social support networks sometimes referred to as the System, are presently overloaded with cases and cannot provide the amount of resources it would take to really give a family a shot at a better future. These networks also have a high turnover of staff due in part to the frustration of trying to help people who live where there’s not enough measurable community support or benevolence given to incubate a family in crisis until they are healthy and able to take off on their own. The System can only do so much, the rest is up to us.
I have been blessed to be a part of an organization that allows me to work with families indefinitely, but I am only one person.
I have heard the saying: “How can I love God whom I cannot see if I don’t love my brothers and sisters who I can see.”
Upon visiting with this woman in prison, it was disturbing to know that there must have been an ideal time for an intervention where steps could have been taken to keep her from arriving at this point. I’m not sure if this reference fits this woman who made a bad decision as she had a gentle spirit but it certainly fits many others who go on to prison doing hard time and become twofold more the child of hell than they were before.
I thank God every day for the parents who raised me; for the gentle, easy time I spent growing up on a Nebraska farm and the gifts and talents with which I was born. My days were filled with wonder as I played with my brothers running down corn rows and eating watermelon in the melon patch, never realizing the work that God had planned for my life nearly 40 years later. No one can ever imagine themselves on their knees in front of a bin hole in a lockdown section of a jail, unaware of everything around you talking to someone on the other side who by all accounts was a prisoner but free and together we were sharing the risen Christ who frees us all regardless where our life takes us. The sweet water we shared that night, two people from two different worlds, all came from one never ending Source, “whoever drinks of the water . . .shall never thirst; but the water . . . will become in (them) a well of water springing up to eternal life.” Taken from John 4:14.
And now that final test for salvation:
Matthew 25: NIV
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Image our jails and prisons with spider webs and dust collecting in empty cells. . .
The 20 events that were selected for the images were:
Christ’s Triumphal Entry
Clearing of the Temple
The Fig Tree
Parable of the Vineyard
Parable of the Marriage Supper
The Widow’s Mite
Roman Coin – Render to Caesar
Jesus Wept Over Jerusalem
Parable of the Talents
Final Qualifications for Salvation
The Perfumed Oil Anointing
The Lord’s Supper
Garden of Gethsemane
The Trial and Persecution
Ascension to Heaven